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Medicinal Plants: What Makes Them Different From Other Plants

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For millennium, humankind used plants for their healing abilities, having no rational explanation for their effectiveness. Today, however, the fields of organic chemistry and pharmacology have qualitatively determined which chemical factors of a given pl

For all intents and purposes, there really is no difference between plants we commonly use for their curative properties, and those we don’t.

In that the biological processes that define plants apply to all members of the plant kingdom, any plant may serve a medicinal purpose--perhaps one we herbologists simply have yet to discover or learn to harness.

Fundamentally, the use of plants that can provide therapeutic benefits all comes down to the chemical make-up of a given plant as to whether it will serve a common curative function, rare curative function, or constitute that list of plants that as yet have no known curative function.  But the latter list is shortening every day.

For millennium, humankind used plants for their healing abilities, having no rational explanation for their effectiveness. Today, however, the fields of organic chemistry and pharmacology have qualitatively determined which chemical factors of a given plant are responsible for which therapeutic effect.  These distinctions regard the “active principles” or chemical “constituents” of a given plant.  And these constituents are categorized as alkaloids, glycosides, essential oils, tannins, bitter principles, sugars, fatty oils, and organic acids.

Secondary Metabolites”


Morphine alkaloid isolated from Poppy

Alkaloids rank among the most effective and therapeutic constituents of all plants, as well as the most dangerous.  By definition, alkaloids are a group of naturally occurring chemical compounds which mostly contain basic nitrogen atoms.

Traditionally used only as topical applications due to their ability to poison when taken internally, plants in this category include Greater Celandine, Jimsonweed, and White Hellebore.  Numbering in the thousands, alkaloids are now recognized as having remarkable therapeutic effects regarding analgesic, anti-timorous and anti-bacterial properties, but should only be utilized and administered by experienced herbalists.



One glycoside structure

Science defines glycosides as a molecule in which a sugar is bound to a non-carbohydrate moiety, usually a small organic molecule. Glycosides play numerous important roles in living organisms.

Comparatively complex organic substances, glycosides are powerful constituents regarding heart disease and a number of other conditions.  Like alkaloids, however, they can be poisonous to humans and should not be administered except by experienced herbalists.

Plants in this category include Foxglove, Alder Buckthorn, Pot Marigold, and Milk Thistle--all of which have a variety of curative properties including anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and laxative action, and are proven remarkably effective against a wide variety of disease from affecting muscles tissue of the heart to easing general muscle pain; improving liver and gall bladder conditions to clearing the lungs of mucus.


Essential oils are generally aromatic, quite unstable organic compounds of a recognizable “oil-like” character.

Extracted from Wild Thyme, for example, they have proven effectiveness against respiratory infections, while the oils of Yarrow, Sweet-Flag, and Fennel plants are commonly used to treat infections of the digestive tract.

Among the other plants commonly utilized for their curative oils are Juniper, Parsley, Rosemary, Peppermint, Dill, Anise, and Caraway.  When prepared properly (or purchased in prepared form), many are safe to self-administer providing it is done methodically.


Tannic Acid solution

Scientifically, Tannins are astringent, bitter plant polyphenolic compounds that either binds and precipitates or shrinks proteins and various other organic compounds including amino acids and alkaloids.

Generally utilized for their effectiveness in hastening the healing of wounds and inflamed mucous membranes, internally, tannins extracted from herbs such as Oak Bark, Agrimony, and Garden Sage are used to treat varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and burns.  Internally, they are effective against diarrhea and nausea.


Medicinal Bitters

Bitters varied chemical composition has been used for centuries to treat stomach disorders and indigestion.

There are numerous brands of bitters that were formerly marketed as patented medicines but are now considered to be aperitifs, rather than medicines such as Vermouth.  Centaury, Wormwood, and Blessed Thistle are among those plants used in the preparation of bitters for these therapeutic properties.

“Primary Metabolites”


One sugar, Sucrose

Sugars are an essential part of many medicinal preparations. Generally used as a term for a class of edible crystalline carbohydrates, mainly sucrose, lactose, and fructose, other sugars are used in industrial food preparation known by more specific names—glucose, fructose or fruit sugar, and high fructose corn syrup.

Learning how to extract and utilize sugars from plants is an elementary ability all herbologists must acquire.

Extracted from plants such as Coltsfoot, Mallow, Ribwort, and Mullein, sugars have a wide range of healing abilities from treating diabetes to inflammation of the upper respiratory passages; providing general nourishment to treating intestinal ailments.


Olive, one of many Fatty Oils

Vegetable fats and oils are lipid materials derived from plantsPlants store energy in their fatty oils.

When isolated, fatty oils are used in ointments, a wide variety of medicines (both natural and processed), cosmetics, and are recognized primarily for their ability to effectively treat diseases of the digestive tract. 

Physically, oils are liquid at room temperature and fats are solid.


One Organic Acid structure

An organic acid is an organic compound with acidic properties. Close to sugars in biogenetic composition, organic acids are found in all plants.

Among those organic acids most familiar are malic acid, citric acid, and tartaric acid.

As “primary metabolites,” their benefits are naturally utilized in many herbal preparations.




Natural Guide to Medicinal Herbs and Plants, Frantisek Stary

images via wikipedia.org

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