Thursday, 7 March 2013

Growing Our Own Drugs

Plants have been used in medicine for all time, with herbalists and apothecaries making way for pharmacists who now dispense drugs that, more often than not, synthetically reproduce plant extracts. 

However, there are still many of our commercial drugs today that are plant-based – the most well known and well used is aspirin, which comes from willow (Salix) bark; morphine, penicillin and the contraceptive pill; yew and other plants and lichens / mosses are being researched or are already being used in cancer treatment, with the Madagascan Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus also known as Vinca Rosea in the US) or Pervenche in French – used in the treatment of childhood leukaemia, diabetes, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and malaria. 

For more than three centuries, extracts of the bark of varieties of Cinchona has been used to treat malaria – it is better known as quinine, which has also been used to treat lupus, arthritis night-time leg cramps and is also used, in minute quantities, as a flavouring in tonic water.  Recently, following discovery in the 1970s of the Chinese Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergency Treatments (written in 340 AD) was found, scientists rediscovered  a common weed, Artemisia annua – sweet wormwood or sweet annie – on which new research is being done for its use in the treatment of malaria.

Today as many of us are returning to more ‘natural’ remedies for many types of health issues – Chinese herbal medicine and Ayurveda in India date back thousands of years – the World Health Organisation estimates that up to 80% of the world’s population relies on plant-based medicine as the key form of healthcare and it actively promotes its use.


So, we are surrounded by a pharmacy, just with the herbs and plants that we use every day, grow in our gardens or that can be found growing wild in the countryside.  It’s hardly surprising that the Mediterannean diet is thought of as one of the healthiest in the world.


Starting with ‘common’ herbs :





(Sweet) Basil (Ocimum basilicum) – used on tomato dishes and in pistou, also known as Saint Joseph’s Wort in some English-speaking countries.  It is a member of the mint family and has many amazing properties –





  • lowering blood pressure
  • antispasmodic – stomach cramps
  • digestion & anti-gas
  • easing tension – relaxation & stress reliever
  • general detoxifier
  • cleansing the blood
  • lowering blood sugar levels
  • lowering stress levels
  • anti-inflammatory
  • antioxidant, antiviral, antimicrobial
  • cholesterol lowering
  • can be used as an ‘adaptogen’
  • asthma & diabetes


Rosemary (Rosmarinus officianalis) known as the ‘herb of remembrance’.  It was believed that placing a sprig of rosemary under your pillow before sleep would repel nightmares and if placed outside the home it would repel witches.  Somehow, the use of rosemary in the garden to repel witches turned into signification that the woman ruled the household in homes and gardens where rosemary grew abundantly.  By the 16th century, men were known to rip up rosemary bushes to show that they, not their wives, ruled the roost !

Used as a scented water in Hungary water, prepared for the Queen of Hungary to “… renovate vitality of paralysed limbs …” and to treat gout.  It contains compounds which relax the muscles of the digestive tract and can increase the effects of essential enzymes in the brain, so helping to improve concentration and memory.  But it also has stimulating properties to uplift you –
  • memory enhancing
  • mood enhancing
  • helps nervous exhaustion, anxiety & mild depression
  • used in shampoos & conditioners for dandruff & thinning hair & alopecia
  • used as a gargle for a breath freshener
  • antioxidant
  • anti-ageing




Sage (Salvia officianalis) considered to be almost a cure-all, like rosemary, it can be used to keep your teeth clean, treating colds, coughs & loosening mucus in the upper respiratory tract, made into a tea or gargle for sore throats, tonsillitis, inflamed gums and mouth ulcers; treatment of athlete’s foot & other skin complaints –



  • memory enhancing
  • diuretic
  • digestive
  • antibiotic
  • anti fungal
  • astringent
  • antispasmodic
  • estrogenic – helps ease hot flushes, night sweats & other symptoms of menopause
  • used in the management of mild Alzheimer’s

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) the essential oil – thymol – is an antiseptic and expectorant, can soothe coughs and bronchitis and is often added to cough syrups and gargles to kill bacteria.  It is a component of commercially produced mouthwashes such as Listerine and is an active ingredient in some alcohol-free hand sanitisers –
  • antiseptic
  • anti fungal
  • can be used to soothe sore muscles & rheumatism
  • anti-ageing



Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is extremely high in protein, iron, potassium, magnesium, folic acid, vitamin A, some Bs & C.  Has been used as a diuretic for water retention & mild kidney & bladder disorders.  Helps with anaemia by improving iron intake and absorption, is a breath sweetener and can be used as an insect repellent –


  • antioxidant
  • anti-inflammatory
  • diuretic & stimulates the kidneys
  • antiseptic affect on the urinary system
  • relieves spasms & wind in the digestive system
  • boosts immune system


Bay (Laurus nobilis) is a relic of the laurel forests that covered much of the Mediterranean basin when the climate was more humid.  It was used in laurel wreaths in ancient Greece to symbolise high status, and was given as a prize in Pythian Games which honoured the god Apollo.  The symbolism carried over to Roman culture, as a symbol of victory.   In the Bible the laurel is often an emblem of prosperity and fame and in Christian tradition, it symbolises the resurrection of Christ.

It is also the source of the words baccalaureate and poet laureate & the expression “resting on one’s laurels”.

Laurel oil is a main ingredient and the distinguishing characteristic of Aleppo soap – savon d’Alep
  • astringent
  • anti-inflammatory
  • used to ease arthritic & rheumatic pain

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