Five Important Plants in Pharmaceuticals (in no particular order):
1. Papaver somniferum, the Opium Poppy: Gives us opiates such as morphine, thebaine, codeine, and heroin. All opiates are powerful analgesics and most derivatives of the poppy also have a strong sedative effect. The smooth muscle in the body is also relaxed by these substances.
2. Digitalis purpurea, Purple Foxglove: Gives us digoxin, one of the most important cardiac glycocides that exist. Causes the heart to beat more slowly and effectively at the correct dosages.
3. Filipendula ulmaria, Meadowsweet: Gives us salicin, and salicylic acid. While salicylic acid in the form of white willow bark powder had been used for centuries as an analgesic, the salacin of meadowsweet caused much less gastric upset, and was mixed with acetyl chloride to create aspirin - the antipyretic, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory that is still the most common pain relief medication in the majority of the world.
4. Atropa belladonna, Deadly Nightshade: Gives us atropine, a powerful smooth-muscle antispasmodic and pupil dilator. In fact, the name itself (belladonna) comes from the fact that women used to use the plant to increase their pupil size at several points in history, as was considered attractive. Atropine was also used as an anesthetic during surgery in the Middle Ages.
5. Physostigma venenosum, the Calabar Bean: A very toxic plant with a rich history of poisonings and trial-by-fire incidents, the calabar bean also provides us with physostigmine. Physostigmine is a powerful cholinergic agent, and can be used to counteract poisonings by anticholinergics (such as deadly nightshade, mandrake, henbane, and datura plants). Conversely, those plants provide the anticholinergic agent used to treat calabar bean poisoning.
Every single one of these plants is easily fatal in the incorrect dosages, but by discovering the ethnobotanic history of plants (traditional cures), and isolating the active ingredients in plants identified, effective and relatively safe medications can be produced. Over 85% of our modern medications have been derived from plant compounds to some degree, and ethnobotanists have played a huge role in that.
: Atropa belladonna, Deadly Nightshad
e - Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz.
Dr. Otto Willhelm Thome, 1885.