Plants in history

Plants in history

Plants in history

The gardener is above all a plant enthusiast: a person for whom trees are not simply trees, but have a name, a surname and above all a story.

And it is precisely in the history of plants that we discover how deep the man-nature or rather man-plant relationship is. The history of our species is closely linked to that of the vegetable kingdom and we can affirm that there are plants that have marked the evolutionary path of the human being on earth.


The plants that changed the world

Some for their medicinal properties, others for their religious significance or simply for being an excellent source of food: there are several plants whose discovery has marked our history.


Colchicum autumnale

The autumn colchicum is a bulbous herbaceous plant that blooms in the fall in a beautiful inflorescence that turns from fuchsia to magenta.

It contains an alkaloid called colchicine, a very powerful poison so much so that it is known as "vegetable arsenic". Egyptians and Greeks more than 2000 years ago had discovered colchicum and its properties: this herb used in the right doses was the first effective remedy against gout (a metabolic disease that causes arthritis and severe pain in the joints). still in modern medicine, to fight a disease that affects 1% of the population of the western world.

In recent times, other extraordinary effects of colchicine have been discovered that are applicable to genetic engineering, particularly in the field of chromosome and plant cell manipulation.

In the garden we can grow colchicum together with other bulbous plants, or in a rocky flowerbed. The plant is very rustic. Beware, however, its poison is dangerous even at the simple contact with the hands.


Erithroxilum coca

Coca is a shrub that reaches 3 meters in height

it is native to South America and the first evidence of its use dates back to two thousand years ago.

Coca leaves were consumed by chewing and among its main effects were the abnormal resistance to hunger, thirst and fatigue.

Subsequently, the cocaine alkaloid was the subject of study and research and practically became the first local anesthetic used by modern medicine, a real revolution in the history of surgery.

In its own way, even the drink that bears its name, coca cola, marked a small revolution in the food sector and although it is difficult to believe coca was an ingredient of the original recipe.

In Italy, the cultivation of this plant is illegal.


Claviceps purpurea

It is a parasitic ascomycete of rye. The fungus attacks the plant and produces spurs near the ear; These croissants give the plant a particular aspect, so much so as to give it the name of ergot.

In the Middle Ages and in the following centuries there have been epidemics due to ergot poisoning (this cereal was used to make bread). The study of the fungus made it possible to identify it as responsible for these pathologies and to proceed with methods of control and disinfection on the rye.

Recent researches have identified and cataloged the various substances present in Claviceps p. and some of them are used in medicine to treat post-partum pathologies, and migraines, others have instead highlighted powerful hallucinogenic effects such as lysergic acid, used as the basis of the narcotic substance called LSD


Amni visnaga

Visnaga is a herb also present in the Mediterranean area. The fruits of this plant were already used by the Egyptians to treat respiratory problems. In the last century, other uses of visnaga extracts were discovered, first of all as a remedy for asthma symptoms. Starting from these discoveries, pharmaceutical research has synthesized modern anti-asthma drugs.


Filipendula ulmaria

A herbaceous with red streaked stem, with umbrella inflorescences reminiscent of the Spirea of ​​our gardens. Meadowsweet contains salicin and salicylic acid in 1899 from these bases the famous acetylsalicylic acid was produced, which is none other than the main ingredient of aspirin.


Cinchona spp.

A group of arboreal plants native to the Andes. The name is linked to a 1600s countess from Peru who discovered the healing effects of these plants that saved her from a chronic fever.

In fact, the cinchona plant produces a bark from which a drug is extracted to cure malaria. This disease was a real scourge until the alkaloid quinine was isolated in 1820.


Papaver somniferum

Opium poppy is a plant belonging to the papaveraceae family, native to the Asian alpine areas, it is also widespread in Italy.

From this species of poppy, opium is extracted which is still the most powerful analgesic in circulation.

One of the alkaloids contained in this herb is morphine with powerful pain relieving and narcotic effects.

Opium is infamous for its use as a narcotic substance and for the harmful effects it has on the body. In reality, the pharmaceutical industry makes great use of this plant and there are many crops in the world. It is probably the most important plant in the history of medicine.


Chondrodendron tomentosum

It is a plant that grows in the rainforest from which one of the ingredients of curare is extracted. Curare is a viscous substance prepared by the natives of the Amazon rainforest to poison prey while hunting. The poison causes immediate muscle paralysis even with a superficial wound. In 1900 the researches brought important results.

Today substances derived from Chondrodendron t. constitute a strong anesthetic that has become indispensable in surgical interventions.

The text mentions three plants that popular culture only knows in a negative sense due to their use as narcotic substances. In reality their use as drugs is very important; yet theirs is a bad name.

The line that separates beneficial effects and toxicity in the use of medicinal herbs is very thin: the same substance that can save a person's life in the right doses can cause very strong poisoning with just one more drop.

Always avoid home experiments with any type of medicinal herb and consult with expert herbalists.

Watch the video



Video: A History of Herbal Medicine