From the beginning of human history, man has considered plants “useful.” Of course, the most obvious use is as a food source, but in all cultures, plants have also figured prominently as medicines. From prehistoric rites to modern medicine, plants have been shown to possess curative properties. Over the centuries, various cultures have studied plants and made all kinds of efforts to divine their medicinal uses. Some experiments have proved disastrous, even fatal. Others seemed miraculous. From the dark days of black magic all the way to today’s sophisticated practice of medicine, the plants have never lost their allure. In fact, today we live in a time of renewed interest in herbal remedies. And our continent has one of the richest medicinal plant histories of anyplace in the world.
Below, you’ll find just a few of the wildflowers that man has used from ancient times forward to aid in his health and provide cures for his illnesses and diseases. It is provided as a source of information and not intended for prescriptive purposes. In fact, many of the same plants used as medicinals are also poisonous if not used properly. (Wildflowers mentioned that pose a serious danger are noted.)
Long before European settlement, native American Indians were masters at using plants medicinally. And today’s modern medicine proves many of their ancient cures. Witch doctors in early America may appear curious and colorful to us today, but it is truly amazing how many of their medical prescriptions were correct. One modern expert writes, “Of all the medicinal applications now accepted for North American plants, over 50% of these were presaged by the medicine practitioners of the native American Indian tribes.”
Meanwhile in Europe, during the Middle Ages, the Herbalists worked to advance the plant studies that had been going on there since the time of the ancient Greeks. During the Middle Ages, with more superstition than science, the herbalists offered their cures, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
The famous Doctrine of Signatures. One of the more bizarre pseudo-sciences that flowered during the early medieval period was medical treatment based on plant structure and appearance. Certain herbalists decided that one could prescribe an herbal cure or treatment based on a relationship between plant parts and body parts. This wild course of the study noted, for example, that parts of the plant Hepatica could be made into a curative concoction for liver ailments. Why? Because the plant has three-lobed leaves that reminded the herbalists of the human liver. Today, Hepatica , the beautiful early spring wildflower we enjoy still carries the name based on its connection to the human liver, yet it’s been shown to have no medicinal value. (Hepatica is the Latin word for “liver”, as is hepatitis.) Most prescriptions based on the Doctrine of Signatures probably only made people sick, since ingesting various non-food plants is usually upsetting. However, others, when poisonous plants were unknowingly used, were fatal.
As medical science progressed and Europeans settled North America, the advancing European medical knowledge of plants was combined with the traditions of Native American medicine. This led to an active exportation of plants from North America, as the settlers learned the new plants’ “secrets” from the Indians.
But this was only the beginning. As modern medicine evolved, plant values were studied and tested, and the results have been amazing.
Today, flowering plants provide almost 25% of the basic ingredients for our modern drugs. This little-known fact makes the study of medicinal plants even more interesting today than ever before. North America has tens of thousands of native plants that have yet to be studied. As Lady Bird Johnson has said, “Surely there are others like digitalis waiting out there.” She was referring to the famous English medicinal wildflower commonly known as Wild Foxglove, but botanically, “Digitalis purpurea.” This is the now-famous plant that is widely used today to treat heart disease. The medicine derived from this plant is usually called, simply “Digitalis”, and has saved untold lives worldwide through its modern applications.
How at least one medicinal plant was “discovered.” The story of the Foxglove is a classic. In 1775, an English physician and botanist named William Withering were asked to treat a patient suffering from dropsy, a broad term that at the time meant “fluid retention.” He had heard of an “old woman in Shropshire” who knew a secret cure which included the foxglove plant. Dr. Withering, after using the secret remedy, which was a concoction of over twenty herbs, found it amazingly successful, but also quickly perceived that only one plant in the mix was working the cure. The whole stew was said to be a diuretic, but Dr. Withering knew that the major cause of dropsy was congestive heart failure. He also knew that foxglove, with its powerful toxic properties in the proper quantity, could strengthen cardiac contraction and enable the heart to pump more efficiently, delivering blood to the rest of the body. Ten years later, Dr. Withering published “10 years of clinical data on patients treated with foxglove.” The rest, as they say, literally, is history–medical history.
From an old woman’s secret cure, through the careful work of an early physician, we have a “wonder drug” direct from a plant that is used today to treat almost every kind of heart disease.
The cure for spider bite becomes environmental monitor. Other stories in herbal and medicinal plants take various paths, as the scientific use of a species is accidentally discovered. Spiderwort, Tradescantia virginiana, a common North American native wildflower with three-petaled purple flowers, was once considered a cure for the bites of spiders, but during modern times has offered scientists other advantages. Botanically, the plant is unusual, being a historic link between the sedges (grass-like wetland plants) and lilies. Moreover, the plant has relatively large chromosomes, making it useful for lab studies in cytology (the structure of cells).
Modern scientific studies of Spiderwort recently rendered an unexpected discovery. Attentive botanists noticed that the plant is extremely sensitive to pollution and radiation which cause its blossoms to change color from blue to pink in a very short period of time! What happens is that the number of cells mutating when in contact with severe pollutants, correlates directly to the level of pollution. So this plant is now used as an inexpensive, but a very accurate device for testing pollution. Where dangerous pollution is expected, spiderworts are planted, and their flower color is closely monitored for changes.
Of course, man cannot exist without plants (since they provide the very oxygen we breathe), so it is no wonder that this interdependence has produced a very long and fascinating history which continues today.
Here are a few examples of various wildflowers and how they’ve been used over the centuries for herbal and medicinal purposes. Plus a few that are stars of the very active boom today in herbal remedies and supplements. […]
Rest of the article at its Source: Medicinal and Herbal Wildflowers – Good Witches Homestead