Pharmacognosy: Healing With Herbs, Part 2

Herbal medicine does not begin and end with folk traditions.  although its roots have en traced back thousands of years and for most of its history herbalism has been closely linked with religion, astrology, and superstition, there is also a purely scientific approach to the world of herbs, known as pharmacognosy.

A pharmacognosist has expert knowledge of the chemical constituents of plants, how to go about identifying new chemicals and even molecules that occur in plants, and how various cultures use plants to their benefit, with particular interest in their medical applications.  Typically, a pharmacognosist is interested in isolating and describing the active ingredients, or bioactive molecules, of plants.   His or her investigations might lead to attempts to synthesize these bioactive molecules, or to experiment with changing them slightly to achieve certain desired affects, such as increased activity, less toxicity, or greater stability.


At the turn of the century almost any medicine one took was made form plants.  Botanical materials made up some 80 percent of all pharmaceuticals in those days.  Most prescriptions were made directly from “crude botanicals”, but chemical and drug companies were already becoming more sophisticated; they had begun to identify the active principles in plants.  Wherever possible these principals were being duplicated in the chemistry lab, then marked as “purer” medicines.

Over the years, some plant drugs have lost their popularity or been abandoned altogether.  They may be costly to process and store; medicinal plants are particularly subject to the quirks of an international economy, and to the growing and gathering conditions in producing countries.  Moreover, depending on the weather and soil, the concentration of a plant’s active ingredients can vary greatly.  So, wherever possible, pharmaceutical manufacturers have replaced these crude medicines with ones made in the laboratory.

Lab made drugs have not entirely replaced their natural predecessors.  For many diseases Mother Nature still holds the best cures.  Today at least 25% of the medicines in our pharmacopoeia still come from plants.

Plant derived products account for more than $5 billion in medicine sales.  Nevertheless, experts estimate that just 4% of the world’s plants have been analyzed for pharmacological activity.  that leaves 96%, or over 1 million species to investigate.


This article is part of a series on herbal medicine by Cathleen V. Carr, MA, JD, PhD, who is an alternative medicine expert specializing in herbs, Vibrational medicine and BioEnergetic Therapies.


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