medicinal plants

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medicinal plants,

plants used as natural medicines. This practice has existed since prehistoric times. There are three ways in which plants have been found useful in medicine. First, they may be used directly as teas or in other extracted forms for their natural chemical constituents. Second, they may be used as agents in the synthesis of drugs. Finally, the organic molecules found in plants may be used as models for synthetic drugs. Historically, the medicinal value of plants was tested by trial and error, as in the Doctrine of SignaturesDoctrine of Signatures,
the concept that the key to humanity's use of various plants was indicated by the form of the plant. The red sap of the bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis
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. Modern approaches to determining the medicinal properties of plants involve collaborative efforts that can include ethnobotanists, anthropologists, pharmaceutical chemists, and physicians. Many modern medicines had their origin in medicinal plants. Examples include aspirin from willow bark (Salix spp.), digitalis from foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), and vinblastine from Madagascar periwinkle (Vinca rosea) for the treatment of childhood leukemialeukemia
, cancerous disorder of the blood-forming tissues (bone marrow, lymphatics, liver, spleen) characterized by excessive production of immature or mature leukocytes (white blood cells; see blood) and consequently a crowding-out of red blood cells and platelets.
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. See also herbal medicineherbal medicine,
use of natural plant substances (botanicals) to treat and prevent illness. The practice has existed since prehistoric times and flourishes today as the primary form of medicine for perhaps as much as 80% of the world's population.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Medicinal Plants


a large group of plants used in medicine or veterinary practice for therapeutic or prophylactic purposes. Literary sources attest to the use of medicinal plants in ancient Assyria, Egypt, India, and China circa 3000 B.C.; in Iran, Greece, and Rome in the early years of the Common Era; and in Arab countries, Middle Asia, Georgia, Armenia, and Europe during the Middle Ages. The use of medicinal plants in ancient Rus’ is indicated, for example, in Selection of the Great Prince Sviatoslav Iaroslavich (1073). In the early 17th century, after the formation of the Aptekarskii Prikaz (pharmaceutical department), the gathering of medicinal herbs was organized in Russia and their cultivation was begun.

The therapeutic properties of medicinal plants are conditioned by the presence in their organs of active substances, such as alkaloids, flavonoids, glycosides, vitamins, tannins, and coumarin compounds, which physiologically affect the bodies of humans and animals or which are biologically active in relation to the causative agents of various diseases. A special group of medicinal plants are antibiotics.

Harvested medicinal plants are usually dried in special crop dryers, in lofts, or in the shade. To obtain essential oils and juices from certain medicinal plants only freshly harvested material can be used. Dried medicinal plants are used in pharmaceutical practice (for the preparation of infusions and decoctions), in galenics production (for the manufacture of tinctures, extracts, and other neogalenicals and galenicals), and in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry (for the most part to obtain pure active substances). The composition and quantity of active substances found in different organs of medicinal plants vary and change in the course of the year as a result of the aging of the plant and habitat conditions. Those parts of the plants in which the largest quantity of these substances accumulates are collected first.

Many medicinal plants are no longer used, owing to the availability of more effective drugs. However, more than 30 percent of all drugs obtained in the USSR are of plant origin; for the most part they are less toxic than synthetic agents and have no side effects. However, treatment with medicinal plants must be conducted under the supervision of a physician. More than 30,000 tons of raw material from approximately 220 species of medicinal plants (the preparations or raw materials of 103 species are described in the tenth edition of the state pharmacopoeia of the USSR) are used annually in the USSR. Of the plants collected, more than 75 percent of the species grow wild, accounting for 50 percent of the total weight. The rest are cultivated on 23 sovkhozes of the Ministry of Medicinal Industry. The opium poppy and peppermint are also cultivated on kolkhozes. A number of medicinal plants are cultivated and gathered in their natural habitats, including marshmallow, henbane, valerian, ginseng, Saint-John’s-wort, plantain, motherwort, and burmarigold. In gathering the raw materials, only part of the plant should be dug up or cut off in order to ensure its self-renewal. Only a few medicinal plants are imported into the USSR (for example, rau-wolfia, Strophanthus, nux vomica). A few dozen species of medicinal plants are exported annually from the USSR, including several thousand tons of licorice roots. Many medicinal plants are used in the food industry (juniper, red pepper, licorice, caraway, and buckbean), in the perfume industry (mint and sage), and in metallurgy (licorice roots and clubmoss spores).

The All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Medicinal Plants, a number of institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and of the Academies of Sciences of the Soviet republics, pharmaceutical institutes (pharmaceutical departments), botanical gardens, and other scientific research and educational institutions are searching for new preparations of plant origin, cultivating medicinal plants and studying their natural properties, and creating a rational regime for their use.

The most important medicinal plants growing in the USSR are grouped according to their primary effect on the human body.

Diseases of the central nervous system. Plants used to treat diseases of the central nervous system include garden heliotrope, ginseng, Rhaponticum carthamoides, the Chinese magnolia vine, motherwort, nux vomica, Eleutherococcus, and the Japanese angelica tree (Aralia mandshurica). A small tree that grows wild, the Japanese angelica tree has roots that yield an infusion containing saponins (aralosides A, B, and C), which is used as a stimulant to treat hypotonia, exhaustion, asthenic syndrome, and other conditions. The roots of the wild shrub Oplopanax elatum (or Echinopanax elatum) yield a saponin-containing infusion, which is a stimulant for nervous conditions and mental disorders. The fruit of the globe thistle Echinops ritro, a wild herb that can be cultivated, contains the alkaloid echinopsine, which is used to treat pareses, paralyses, plexitides, radiculitises, and hypotonia. Maypop (Passiflora incarnata), a cultivated herb (liana), yields an extract that is used as a sedative in neurological and psychiatric practice.

The leaves and green branches of Securinega suffruticosa, a wild or cultivated shrub, contain the alkaloid securinine, which is used to treat motor disturbances, pareses, paralyses, general weakness, and hypotonia. The Chinese parasol tree (Firmiana simplex), which does not grow wild, has leaves containing traces of alkaloids and an essential oil that is a stimulant for fatigue, exhaustion, and asthenic conditions. The wild herb Ungernia victoris yields the alkaloid galanthamine. Delphinium confusum, a wild herb, contains the alkaloid condelphine, which is used as a muscle relaxant during operations and for treating some diseases of the nervous system. Delphinium dictyocarpum yields mellictine, which acts the same as condelphine.

Diseases of the cardiovascular system. Plants used to treat diseases of the cardiovascular system include adonis, hawthorn, Erysimum, sea kale, lily of the valley, oleander, rauwolfia, Sal-sola Richtera, Strophanthus, cudweed, skullcap, Eucommia, and Ephedra equisetina. The fruits or the fresh juice of the cultivated black chokeberry shrub (Aronia melanocarpa), which contain vitamin P, carotene, ascorbic acid, tannins, and flavonoids, are used to treat hypertension. The milk vetch Astragalus dasyanthus, a wild herb presently being cultivated, yields an infusion containing flavonoids, which is used to treat hypertension and spasms of the coronary vessels. Jew’s mallow (Corchorus olitorius), a cultivated herb, has seeds containing the cardiac glycosides corchoroside and olitoriside, which are used to treat circulatory insufficiency, cardiac fibrillation, and other heart conditions. The wild grasses or lianas Dioscorea caucasica and Dioscorea nipponica are cultivated for their rhizomes, from which the preparations diosponin and polysponin are obtained; these preparations, which contain saponins, are used to prevent and treat atherosclerosis. The leaves of the cultivated evergreen magnolia tree (Magnolia grandiflora) contain alkaloids used in the treatment of hypertension.

The cultivated herbs common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) and Grecian foxglove (D. lanata), as well as the wild rusty foxglove (D. ferruginea), have leaves containing glycosides that are used to treat chronic cardiac insufficiency. The leaves of mistletoe (Viscum album), a wild evergreen hemiparasitic sub-shrub, contain organic acids and alkaloid-like substances that are used in the treatment of hypertension, lung hemorrhages, and nosebleeds. The young shoots of the Siberian fir (Abies sibirica), a wild tree, contains an essential oil whose component parts are used for the semisynthesis of camphor. The wormwood Artemisia taurica, a wild herb, contains the lactone tauremisin, a heart drug of the camphor type, which slows the rhythm and intensifies the contractile capacity of the heart. The rhizome of the bugbane Cimicifuga dahurica, a wild herb, is used to treat hypertension. The tea plant Thea sinensis, a cultivated shrub, yields the alkaloid caffein, which stimulates the heart and the nervous system; caffein is obtained from by-products of the tea industry. The preparation thealbin, which is obtained from the tea leaves, is an astringent and disinfectant.

Spasmolytics and analgesics. Plants used as spasmolytics and analgesics include parsnip, thyme, Ammi visnaga, belladonna, henbane, poppy, mint, red pepper, and Anethum. The rhizomes, leaves, and stems of Senecio platyphylloides, a wild herb, contain the alkaloid platyphyllin, which is used to treat gastrointestinal spasms, ulcers, cholecystitides, bronchial asthma, hypertension, and intestinal, hepatic, and renal colics; it also is used to dilate the pupil. The rhizomes of the wild herb Senecia rhombifolius contain the alkaloid sarracin, which is used to treat spasms of organs of the abdominal cavity, ulcer disease, antral gastritides, migraines, cholecystitides, and bronchial asthma. The flavonoids from the seeds of the garden carrot (Daucus sativus), are used in the treatment of atherosclerosis and coronary insufficiency with manifestations of stenocardia. The rhizome of the wild herb Scopolia carniolica is used to obtain the alkaloids atropine and scopolamine.

Respiratory diseases. Plants used in treating diseases of the respiratory organs include marshmallow, ledum, ipecac, milkwort, coltsfoot, juniper, licorice, and Thermopsis. A preparation from the roots of the wild herb elecampane (Inula helenium) is an expectorant for bronchitis and coughing and has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. An extract of the leaves of thyme (Thymus vulgaris), a cultivated dwarf subshrub, is an ingredient of Pertussin—an expectorant for bronchitides and whooping cough. This extract contains essential oils, whose principal component is thymol, which is an antiseptic, disinfectant, analgesic, and anthelminthic. Wild thyme (Thymus serpyllum), a wild herb, yields a decoction that is an expectorant for diseases of the upper respiratory tract and an analgesic for radiculitises and neuritides. Pine buds are an ingredient in cough mixtures and diuretic mixtures.

Diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. Plants used to treat diseases of the gastrointestinal tract include aloe, marshmallow, buckbean, wild marjoram, Rhamnus, snakeweed, centaury, calendula, Sanguisorba, Frangula, sea kale, flax, alder, juniper, dandelion, plantain, sunflower, wormwood, Rheum, senna, polemonium, restharrow, cudweed, bald cypress, and whortleberry. The rhizome of sweet flag (Acorus calamus), a wild herb, yields a powder that is an ingredient in complex preparations (Vicalin and Vikair) used in treating ulcers; the powder is also used to stimulate appetite and improve digestion. Wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea), which is being cultivated, contains the antiulcer vitamin U; juice from the leaves is recommended for treating ulcers of the stomach and duodenum, gastritides, and colitises. The seeds of the cultivated castor-oil plant (Ricinus communis) yield an oil, castor oil, which is a laxative; the oil is also used in obstetrics and externally for treating some skin diseases.

The rhizomes of the wild herb tormentil (Potentilla erecta), which contain tannins, are used to treat enterocolitides, enteritides, and dyspepsia; they are also used as an astringent in rinses and lotions for the treatment of stomatitides, gingivitides, and such skin diseases as eczemas. The tannin obtained from the leaves of the smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria), a wild and cultivated shrub, is used internally to treat poisonings and externally as an anti-inflammatory for burns and as a coating for the larynx and gums.

Diseases of the liver, gallbladder, kidneys, and urinary tract. Plants used in treating diseases of the liver, gallbladder, kidneys, and urinary tract include tansy, barberry, birch, the strawflower Helichrysum arenarium, cowberry, elder, calendula, corn (the stigmas), juniper, bearberry, horsetail, and wild rose. An extract from the roots and rhizomes of the wild herb madder Rubia tinctorum var. iberica is used to treat gallstone and urolithic diseases and gout. The leafy apices of the shoots of Java tea (Orthosiphon stamineus), a cultivated herb, are used for treating nephritides, urolithic disease, cystitides, urethritides, and gout.

Hemostatics and uterine agents. Plants used as hemostatics and uterine agents include barberry, water pepper, Viburnum, stinging nettle, shepherd’s purse, plantain, Claviceps purpurea, and yarrow. An infusion, an extract, and tablets made from the flowers and leaves of Logochilus inebrians, a wild herb under cultivation, are used to treat hemorrhages, including hemophilia and Werlhof’s disease. The sedge Carex brevicollis, a wild herb, contains the alkaloid brevicollin, which is a uterine and ganglion-blocking agent. The wild herb Sophora pachycarpa contains the alkaloid pachycarpin, which is used for inducing labor and for treating endarteritis obliterans, ganglionitis, and muscular dystrophy; the alkaloid is also used in dermatology. The wild herb Sphaerophysa salsula contains the alkaloid spherophysine, which is used to treat inertia uteri, atonia of the uterus, post-labor hemorrhages, and hypertension.

Other gynecological agents. Other plants used in gynecology include the castor-oil plant and sea buckthorn. A mixture of alkaloids from the rhizome (lutenurin) of the wild aquatic plant Nuphar luteum is used in the treatment of trichomonal vaginitides and as a contraceptive. Preparations from cultivated onion bulbs, allilglycer and allilchep, are used to treat trichomonal vaginitides, rhinitides, atonia of the intestine, colitides, atherosclerosis, and the sclerotic form of hypertonia; preparations of garlic are also used to treat these conditions.

Dermatological agents. Plants used in treating dermatological conditions include aloe, Ammi majus, birch (pitch), and common Saint-John’s-wort. The roots of Peucedanum morisonii, a wild herb, contain the furocoumarin peucedanin, which is recommended for treating vitiligo, alopecia areata, and certain malignant neoplasms. A preparation from the fruits of parsnip—beroxan (a mixture of the furocoumarins of bergaptene and xanthotoxin)—is recommended for the treatment of vitiligo and alopecia areata; the furocoumarin pastinacin contained in the fruits is used for coronary insufficiency. A mixture of the furocoumarins (psoralens) contained in the seeds of the wild herb Psoralea drupacea is used in the treatment of vitiligo and alopecia areata.

Avitaminoses. For a discussion of plants used for the treatment and prevention of avitaminoses seeVITAMIN-BEARING PLANTS AND VITAMINS.

Oncology. Plants used in oncological practice include Peucedanum morisonii, calendula, and bald cypress. Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), a cultivated herb, contains the alkaloids vincaleukoblastine (vinblastine) and leurocristine (vincristine), which are used to treat lymphogranulomatosis, reticulosis, and leukosis. The crocus Colchicum speciosum, a wild herb, contains the alkaloid colchamine in its corms, which is used in the form of an ointment to treat skin cancer and in tablet form to treat cancer of the esophagus.

Anthelminthics. Plants used as anthelminthics include thyme, male fern, Artemisia cina, and Cucurbita. The inflorescences of tansy contain an essential oil and flavonoids that are used to treat ascariasis and enterobiasis; a mixture of all the flavonoids (thanacin) is used as a choleretic.

Astringents, antiseptics, and antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agents. Plants used as astringents, antiseptics, and antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agents include elecampane, tormentil, thyme, oak, common Saint-John’s-wort, calendula, wild chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), sage, and eucalyptus. Solanum laciniatum, an herb cultivated in the USSR, contains the glycoalkaloid solasodine, which is used to synthesize progesterone, hydrocortisone, and other steroid hormones that have diverse effects, including anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic action. Another anti-inflammatory agent is glycyram (triterpene glycosides of licorice). Infusions from tripartite burmarigold (Bidens tripartita), a wild and cultivated plant, are used in the form of baths for treating diatheses.

Insecticides and acaricides. Plants used as insecticides and acaricides include Pyrethrum and the false hellebore Veratrum lobelianum. The latter, a wild plant, has alkaloid-containing rhizomes and roots; the “hellebore water” obtained from this plant is used to treat scabies, and in veterinary practice it is used as an emetic. Birch and pine pitch is effective against scabies and insects.

Other medicinal plants. The seeds of the cultivated herb Indian mustard (Brassica juncea) are used for mustard plasters and to obtain essential mustard oil, an alcohol solution of which is used as a topical application to treat rheumatism and other inflammatory diseases. The club moss Huperzia selago (also Lycopodium selago), a wild herb containing alkaloids, is used to treat alcoholism.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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