Plants and Us

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Plants & Medicine

Since prehistoric times, plants and their extracts have been used for their healing properties. Some were successful. Ancient Egyptians, for example, chewed willow bark to relieve fever and headaches. Thousands of years later, scientists discovered that the bark contains salicylic acid, the active ingredient used to make aspirin. Some were not so successful. Medieval doctors believed that baldness could be cured by rubbing an onion on the scalp.

Even today we are still using compounds derived from plants. Atropine, used to treat certain heart conditions and to relax the muscles of the eye, was originally obtained from the deadly nightshade plant. Foxgloves contain a substance called digitoxin, which was used to treat an irregular heartbeat, and drugs based on this substance are still currently in use.

And plants are still contributing to medicine. A prickly succulent used by the Kalahari bushmen to stave off hunger may, in future, become a treatment for obesity, and a compound derived from daffodil bulbs may provide a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

Not all plants have a beneficial effect on health. Tree and grass pollen cause allergies, but worst of all, tobacco smoking has become the greatest cause of death and disability worldwide, responsible for five million deaths per year.

See the top 10 plants that we think have made the biggest difference to this category.