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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Origins of Medicinal Plants

Eclipta alba medicinal plant
The history of the use of medicinal plants for alleviating diseases had its origin in the activities of the most primitive man of the remote past. Illness, physical discomfort, injuries, wounds and fear of death had forced early man to use any natural substance that he could lay his hands on, without any resistance, for relieving the pains and sufferings caused by these abnormal conditions and for preserving his health against disease and death. Plants growing in his environment were such a group of natural substances to which the early man turned his attention for these purposes. In fact, in his long struggle to achieve mastery over the powerful forces of nature, man has always turned to plants for help, and that no just for medicine but for food, shelter, clothing and weapons as well. 

Selection of the medicinal plants by early man, without any prior knowledge about them, was largely based on intuition, guesswork or trial and error. Curiosity and search for food had contributed considerably to his knowledge about the plants and their virtues. Superficial resemblance between a specific plant part and the affected organ or some symptoms of the ailment had also guided the animals’ instinctive discrimination between toxic and palatable plants might also have helped primitive man in choosing those plants which were beneficial from nutritive and medicinal standpoints. Furthermore, the healing powers of some plants were undoubtedly discovered by accident. Thus, by a combination of these processes there are gradually developed a considerable knowledge of medicinal plants which was transmitted from one generation to another at first orally and later in written form as papyri, baked clay tablets, parchments, manuscripts, herbals and finally printed herbals, pharmacopoeias and other works. 

As far as records go, it appears that Babylonians (about 300 years BC) were aware of a large number of medicinal plants and their properties. Some of the plants they used are still in use in almost the same manner and for the same purpose. As evident from the Papyrus Ebers (written in about 1500 BC), the ancient Egyptians possessed a good knowledge of the medicinal properties of hundreds of plants. Many of the present day important plant drugs like henbane (Hyoscyamus spp.), mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), opium (latex of Papaver somniferum fruit), pomegranate (Punica granatum), castor oil (oil of Ricinus communis seeds) aloe (juice of Aloe spp.), onion (Allium cepa) and many others were in common use in Egypt about 4500 years ago. 

The earliest mention of the medicinal use of plants in the Indian subcontinent is found in the Rig Veda (4500 – 1600 BC), which noted that the Indo-Aryans used the Soma plant (Amanita muscaria, a narcotic and hallucinogenic mushroom) as a medicinal agent. The Vedas made many references to healing plants including sarpagondha (rauvolfia serpentine), while a comprehensive Indian Herbal, the Charaka Samhita, cites more than 500 medicinal plants. 

The earliest known Chinese pharmacopoeia, the Pen Tsao, appeared around 1122 BC attributed to the legendary emperor Shen Nung, this authoritative work described the use of Chaulmoogra oil (from the seeds of Hydnocarpus kurzii) to treat leprosy. Among its many other listings are hemp (Cannabis sativa), opium, rhubarb (rhizome of Rheum spp.) and aconite (Aconitum napellus). It also first recorded the uses of Ephedra species. 

The material medica of the great Greek physician Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC) consists of some 300 to 400 medicinal plants which included opium, mint, rosemary, sage and verbena. The far-ranging scientific work of Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), a Greek philosopher, included an effort to catalogue the properties of the various medicinal herbs known at that time. The encyclopaedic work of Dioscorides (1st Century AD) – De Materia Medica – was the forerunner of all modern pharmacopoeias and an authoritative text on botanical medicine. This work featured about 600 medicinal plants. Two of the 37 volumes of books written by Pliny De Elder (23 – 70 AD) were devoted to medical botany and these included a large number of medicinal plants. In the middle ages, the great Greek pharmacist – physician, Galen (131 – 200 AD) used a large number of medicinal plants in preparing his recipes which included, for the first time in history, ingredients of both plant and animal origin. 

The Arabian Muslim physicians, like Al- Razi and Ibne Sine (9th to 12th century AD), brought about a revolution in the history of medicine by bringing new drugs of plant and mineral origin into general use. Enriching the original Greek system of medicine by the introduction of these new materials and knowledge they laid down the foundation stone of modern western medicine. 

The use of medicinal plants in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries was based on the doctrine of Signatures or Similars developed by Paracelsus (1490 – 1541 AD), a Swiss alchemist and physician. The South American countries have provided the world with many useful medicinal plants, grown naturally in their forests and planted in the medicinal plant gardens. Use of medicinal plants like coca (Erythroxylum spp.) and tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) was common in these countries in the 14th and 15th centuries. The medicinal plants used by the Australian aborigines many centuries ago tremendously enriched the stock of medicinal plants of the world. The current list of the medicinal plants growing around the world includes more than a thousand items.

Reference: The Medicinal Plants of Bangladesh by Abdul Ghani. ISBN: 984-512-348-1

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