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Chapter 1. Medicinal Plants and Drugs
Dr. Imre Németh
This course is realized as a part of the TÁMOP-4.1.2.A/1-11/1-2011-0038 project.
Mankind has been using herbs and their healing power for thousands of years. Herbs played an important part in everyday life for a long time. Methods of their collection, storage and use have developed overtime, just as experiences of their application. In the 20th century, however, the sudden development of chemistry and the pharmaceutical industry created the impression that man-made substances are the solution for everything. This idea proved to be false; we still need medicinal plants. The pharmaceutical industry itself uses them extensively and many of them are essential home remedies. It is important to treat symptoms of any ailments in time and these plants can be of great use to us. Besides, they are often as effective as so-called modern substances but usually they have no side effects.
In order to be able to survive in the world, we need information. Even herbs can cause damage, so we need to know at least which of their applications are harmless, risky or having possible side effects. Our knowledge may not allow us to collect all the herbs we need and prepare the right infusions ourselves, but we can still be aware of the possibilities of what to get and where, and of how to treat simple ailments. If we don’t know something exists, we cannot possibly try it either.
With our present textbook, Medicinal Herbs and Drugs, we would like to provide future herb growers and storers with the sufficient rudiments of their profession. The information hereby contained, however, may help anyone who wants to find one’s way in the world of medicinal herbs or deepen one’s knowledge about them. After reading this manual, one’s attitude to nature and plants will most probably change. And more importantly, one will be able to apply dozens of simple and safe methods based on this textbook in everyday life.
We will give a concise historical overview of the use, collection and processing of herbs and the making of herbal teas. We will also outline factors influencing the production of active ingredients as well as their possible side effects. Readers will find an English-Latin index of the most important plants, plant parts and drugs in the Appendix.
Key to our subject is the description and identification of plants. The present textbook contains relatively short descriptions of herbs and lists only their most important contrastive features. 118 plants have been included in the list of the most important medicinal herbs. But this number is in effect higher because closely related species with similar effects have also been described. Furthermore, we have also given possible uses of medicinal herbs and added further information about them if available. The identification of plants is made easier by photographs (all taken by the author). In the case of each plant, we indicated the drug to be collected, its Latin name, its ideal collection time, special processes and common mistakes.
2. Part I. General information
2.1. 1. The History of Herbal Medicine
Motto: “There is nothing in the most advanced contemporary medicine whose embryocannot be found in the medicine of the past.” (Maximilien E. P. Littré)
Two thirds of the world’s population still use herbs as a first choice to treat diseases. But besides the realm of medicine, several mass-consumed eatables and stimulants also have beneficial side-effects. For example, coffee and tea are both stimulants and refreshers, but they are also a rich source of fluorine, while ginger, a popular beverage in England, alleviates indigestion. At the beginning of its career, Coca-cola was a beverage for headache. It was invented in the 1880s by a pharmacist in Atlanta, who used his knowledge of the cola nut in its manufacture.
In different parts of the world herbs have been used to treat the same problems. Similarities in herbal medicine are evident despite the fact that American Indian culture was isolated from European, Egyptian, Chinese and Indian influences until the 15th century. Hop and mint species for instance have long been used by every people to treat gastric pain, angelica (Angelica) and liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) were both curative drugs of respiratory diseases, blackberry and raspberry were used against diarrhoea, and bat-willow (Salix alba) was a remedy for inflammation and a natural pain-killer. The name , “aspirin” comes from the old Latin name of meadow sweet, Spirea (today: Filipendula). The medicine was at first extracted from bat-willow and meadow sweet. Both plants contain several active ingredients.
It is believed that in the beginning, the collection of herbs was based on individual experience and observations of cases of animal poisoning. For example, it was well-known that game wrapped in wild mint, basil or sage leaves did not go bad. During the centuries there had been many a nameless herbalists. For the most part they were so-called “wise-women” who were called by different names in different times and places, e. g., midwife, witch, medicine woman, sorceress, etc. Even today ninety percent of natural health practitioners are women. It was also a wise-woman who suggested to British physicians to use fox-glove (Digitalis) for stagnating cardiac failure. Many think that the aversion of official male doctors was an important factor in medieval witch hunts because female practitioners, being more qualified and efficient, were detrimental to their reputation and income. Attitudes have not changed much since, only the methods are different. It is not uncommon that if a discovery happens outside the official circles, the first reaction of the medical profession is stern rejection, sometimes even the denial of tests.
China. Legend has it that around 3400 BCE a mythological emperor called Shennong recognized the curative effect of plants. He carried out his experiments on himself and this became his fate: he died of poisoning. He is held to be the author of the first textbook on the subject, Pen Ts’ao Ching (Great Herbal). The book describes 237 recipes based on several dozens of herbs. From the time of the Shang dinasty (around 1500 BCE), archaeologists unearthed more than a hundred thousand so-called oracle bones with inscriptions of botanic data. The Chinese knew diabetes as early as the 7th century and gave vaccination against smallpox already in the 10th century.
In 1590 Li Shizhen published a monumental book (printing was already invented 800 years before Gutenberg) entitled Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu). The book describes 1,094 herbs and 11,000 different prescriptions.
Chinese medicine still considers that disease is caused by the disruption of harmony between the individual and the environment. Its central idea is that nature consists of five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water) and every change can be explained by their action. The theory of energy, or life force, is also applied in interpreting the world. Eastern and Western methods have been harmonized since 1949. Nixon’s visit to China was a break-through. The public image of acupuncture has since greatly improved, which still in the 1970s was held to be quackery by the official medicine in Hungary for instance.
India. The basic principles of Indian herbal medicine are similar to those of the Chinese. It says, too, that health depends on the balance between the individual and the environment, and it also recognizes five material elements (earth, water, fire, air, ether). Life force is held to be important as well. Its vision is holistic, i.e., it pays great attention to environmental factors, diet, working conditions, exercise, but also to emotional, spiritual and mental harmony.
In the first medical school founded by Punarvasu Atreya around 1200 BCE, a student named Jivaka had been learning already for seven years when he asked his master until how long he had to study. As an assignment, he was told to collect plats without any benefits. After several days he returned very frustrated because he hadn’t found any. His master told him that he could now graduate because he knew everything a doctor needed to know.
The essence of Ayurvedic (ayur = life, veda = knowledge) knowledge is described in the four books of wisdom, the Vedas. The Rig Veda is the oldest, dating back 4500 years. It contains descriptions of eye operations and amputations, besides descriptions of 67 herbs, for example Rauwolfia serpentina (snakeroot), which is used to treat high blood pressure, mental disorders including schizophrenia and epilepsy, and it has tranquillising and relaxing effects. It is native to South and East Asia and has a bitter taste. The science of plants was closely linked to divine teachings. The highest patron of healing was Buddha himself. This knowledge was transferred to the Arabs in the 6th century CE, who brought some of its elements to Europe. Today the majority (70 percent) of people in India and Pakistan still uses Ayurvedic methods and herbal therapies recommended therein.
Under the reign of the Mogul dynasty (16-19th century), Ayurveda was partly overshadowed, but village people kept it alive. After India’s secession from the British Commonwealth doctors have rediscovered it and the trend continues ever since.
Egypt. In 1874, a German Egyptologist found a papyrus roll in the Valley of Tombs near Luxor dating from 1500 BCE. The so-called Ebers papyrus is 21 meters long and contains medical descriptions. It lists more than 500 herbs and describes 876 kinds of treatment. The third of current medicinal plants already figures in this document which summarized a thousand years of herbal medicine. Among Egyptians, garlic and onion were the two most popular medicinal plants. Probably that is why the Greek historian Herodotus called the Nilotic people ill-smelling. In the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (14th century BCE) they found six cloves of garlic. Around 500 BCE, Egyptian herbalists were considered to be the best; court physicians were often Egyptians and it was to Egypt that would-be doctors went to study. Egyptian medicine greatly influenced European medicine.
Europe. In the fifth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Empedocles spoke about four Classical elements (earth, water, air, fire) and associated four bodily fluids to them (black bile, blood, yellow bile, mucus). According to Hippocrates (460-370 BCE), health depends on the right proportion and balance of these bodily fluids. Therefore diseases are of natural origin and in order to cure them, one has to restore their balance and activate curing forces of the diseased organism. Treatment was always personalised and he observed individual responses to it. He used about three hundred kinds of medicine, among others several common herbs (scented mayweed, blue-bottle, cinnamon, rosemary, garlic, etc.). In the 3rd century BCE, Theophrastus already gave descriptions of 455 herbs. His herbarium was probably the first in Europe in which the preparation and use of medicines were described.
Hippocratic cures were widely applied in the Roman Empire but they were mixed with religion and magic. The Romans achieved good results in preventive medicine too, by purifying their water and building a sewage system.
Dioscorides, who was born in about 40 AD, wrote one of the most extensive herbals of all time. His five-volume book, best known by its Latin title De Materia Medica, gives detailed descriptions of 600 plants with illustrations. Galen, whose authority surpassed even that of Dioscorides, urged the necessity of controlling drugs and he composed complex herbal preparations using multiple ingredients. While his herbal mixtures (based on the so-called Galenic formulation) proved undoubtedly useful, some of his preparations contained up to a hundred ingredients and were used as cure-all panacea. These expensive wonder drugs were very popular among credulous patients and rather hampered the advancement of medicinal practice.
After the fall of the Roman Empire the Classical medicinal tradition was mostly kept alive by the Islamic world. While the Arabs and the Persians substantially enlarged the list of drugs, they did not surpass Galenic principles. The encyclopaedic work entitled Canon Medicinae (The Canon of Medicine) of eleventh-century polymath, Ibn Sīnā, better known as Avicenna, remained a standard medical text for centuries.
In the middle ages, the Church played an important role in this field, Benedictines being the most assiduous herbalists. They copied old books, thus preserving the compiled knowledge of bygone ages. Charlemagne ordained that each monastery should have a garden of medicinal herbs. The abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was also a Benedictine herbalist. Her book Causae et Curae is a compilation of the knowledge of her age. In England, a Saxon aristocrat called Bald wrote a book in 950 by the command of King Alfred, called the Leech Book of Bald, in which he treats 500 herbs and incorporates Celtic and Druidic wisdom.
Mediaeval witch-hunts may have been the result of professional jealousy of men. Those who were affected by some disease often could only rely on folk medicine, rites and magic, and the wise women experienced in medicinal herbs were often more efficient than “professional” male doctors. The science of medicinal and poisonous herbs was sadly promoted by political and power conflicts that often resorted to the use of poisons and the well-paid help of professional poisoners.
But new ideas made their way into mediaeval Europe and one of their most important representative was Aureolus Philippus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), who called himself Paracelsus, or “one whose knowledge surpassed that of the ancient physician called Celsus”. He held that disease was not caused by the disruption of the balance of bodily fluids but by external factors. He assumed that plants contained medicinal substances.
In England, Nicholas Culpeper published his Complete Herbal in 1653. It certainly has a historical interest, but the author’s view that every plant cures everything is rather disputable.
The German Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) was the father of homeopathy. He developed his theory as a result of his study of poisonous substances. It is obviously gaining popularity nowadays and provides a completely alternative form of treatment.
America. It seems that Native Americans were rather healthy and resistant to most diseases. Their remedies were fast and effective, but official medicine had neglected them for a long time. George Washington’s death in 1799 might have been caused by regular Western medicinal practice, namely the combined effects of bloodletting (two litres of his blood were drained), laxatives and mercury treatment.
Around 1800, Samuel Thompson, who studied from wise women and Native American healers, saved his daughter’s life – who was declared incurable – by administering her medicinal herbs and hot baths. He perfected these treatments and started to call himself a “doctor”. He successfully practiced for decades, treating millions of people. After his death his method became less popular but his followers carried on his work. The Eclectic Medical Institute, which flourished in the second half of the 19th century, combined the herbalism of European, Asian, Native American and African American traditions. Nowadays, the root extract of Chinese cucumber and St. John’s wort are studied by its followers as possible AIDS remedies.
2.2. 2. The History of Hungarian Herbal Medicine
Manuscripts from mediaeval monasteries and abbeys testify to the fact that friars were collecting and growing herbs and spices. Beside the monastery fruitery and vegetable garden, there was always a herbal garden, and surviving manuscripts often contained recipes of herbal infusions and medicinal liqueurs. This was completely usual since most religious orders considered healing one of their main duties.
According to the verbals of mediaeval inquisition trials, healers and herb-doctors were often reported by doctors of the time. It is clear from the documents that their healing activities were extremely efficacious; they usually did not take any money, often used herbal decoctions, and wrote books or carved the names of herbs and medicines on rods. Most of them were acquitted, based on the testimonies. They often had pupils who wanted to acquire their knowledge, knew a great variety of herbs and were liberal with their medicines.
The first Hungarian herbal was published in 1578 in Kolozsvár in the printing press of Gáspár Heltai. It is entitled, Herbal with the name, nature and use of trees and herbs. Translated and Arranged from Various Books of Doctors into Hungarian by Péter Melius of Horh.In the introduction, the author wrote: “The All-knowing God… ornamented the earth not only with brute beasts, tame and wild, but with an admirably endless variety of trees and herbs, not only as nourishment to the body of man but also as a delight to his eyes and as medicine in time of his illness.”
FerencPáriz of Pápa published his work in 1690, entitled “Pax corporis, or Treatise On the Cause, Nest and Cure of different Ailments of the Human Body.” This book was such a great success that it saw several editions during a century and was a popular read. According to the introduction, the author had village people in mind as his audience, which means that village people could read and were in the habit of buying books. He writes the following: “I did not intend to capture the minds of knowledgeable doctors; it is not for them I wrote my book. But I wrote it for goodmen and goodwives with servants and for the unhelpful and the poor, who do not always have a good doctor at hand.”Ferenc Páriz of Pápa was a herbalist and a phytotherapist. He recommended various herbal treatments, many of which were adapted from so-called “peasant medicine”. He writes, “In this book, the diseased can read about their ailment according to their need. From this vast array of medicines, they can surely get one, if not all, and if they can’t get it at their house, they can get it at someone else’s, and if they can’t get it from one person, then they can collect it from several people. Therefore I am not giving recipes for pharmacists but I am giving a list of home remedies for the sake of the poor.”
The book of SámuelDiószegi, published in 1813 and entitled “A Medical Herbal, as Part of the Hungarian Herbal Practice. Published in the City of Debrecen for the use of Herbalists and Non-Herbalists”, was a milestone. Diószegi outlines an interesting view in his introduction that can be of interest even today: “There is no other cure for the ailing body than its own life-force, healing Nature itself. Those who have it in them in full power should trust only this Doctor in case of minor diseases. So as not to hamper its work, they should restrain themselves from excessive drinking and eating and they will certainly be cured. Medicines do not heal, they only stimulate the Life-force and further its work of removing the cause of disease. When the Life-force is completely exhausted, all medicine is useless.” Thus medicines can and have to be made more effective by a healthy mind.
The First Hungarian Pharmacopoeia was published in 1871, and in 1895, the work of authors Issekutz, Jakabházy and Nyíredi, entitled Pharmacopaedia, appeared. The first experimental herbal garden was established in 1904 at Kolozsvár, and since the scientific basis for the production of essential oils was created by Béla Páter (1860-1938) at Kolozsvár, the two data might be linked.
The book of parish-priest and naturalist JánosZelenyák was published in 1908, entitled “The Effects and Uses of Herbs”. The introduction is worth noting: “Men of a neurotic, fast and breathless age seek fast remedies, while neglecting the plant that smilingly offers its cup and healing power to him. The kind, health-giving and efficacious medicinal herbs have been relegated to the realm of home remedies (that is, in the villages) in our age, and they would slowly fall into oblivion if their rehabilitation were not claimed by human nature itself.”
Hungarian herbal medicine recovered from the trauma of the first world war fairly quickly, and in the following years an Experiment Station of Medicinal Herbs and a botanical garden were established. In 1928, the Second International Conference on Medicinal Plants was held in Budapest.
Priests and monks planted herbs in the monastery gardens from the earliest times and used them for many purposes. Nowadays, many of the herbal mixtures available in pharmacies were originally composed by the “herb-priest” of Halimba, Miklós Szalai, under the trade name “Halimbárium”. The author of the present textbook experienced himself the cure of a family member after they wrote to Halimba and received a herbal mixture indicated for bile-stone and bilious inflammation. The herbal treatment was efficacious, the bile-stone disappeared without a trace. This incident took place several decades ago and the problem has not returned, so the cure was not just temporary but long-term.
2.3. 3. The definition of medicinal plants.
This category includes all plants any or all parts of which are used for therapeutical purposes due to the active ingredients contained in them. They can be wild plants or cultivated ones. Since cultivated plants have numerous beneficial effects too, in a larger sense, any plant can be a medicinal herb, including arable plants, vegetables, fruits, and spices. Presumably many of them had been originally used as medicinal herbs in preserving food or treating gastric disorders, and became spices because of their beneficial effects, pleasant smell and taste. Addictive substances such as caffeine also have curative effects therefore their consumption in therapeutical doses falls into a different category.
The categorization of plants – into arable plants, ornamentals, poisonous plants, weeds, etc. – is always subjective; there is always a human element in it and reflects a certain attitude, economic interests, a purpose or a goal, etc. A plant can belong to several categories, depending on which of its characteristics is emphasized.
The above quoted ancient story from the history of Indian therapeutics, in which the studies of Jivaka ended when he could not find a single plant with no beneficial effects after several days of searching, is very relevant and expressive. But our job, besides broadening the selection, is to direct attention to easily obtainable and more effective herbs.
In the history of herbal medicine, there have been extreme views too. For example, it was held that every plant is effective against every disease, which is apparently a wild exaggeration. But it is certainly important to use those plants as medicinal herbs which according to our knowledge and experience have the strongest effects coupled with the least (or no) side effects. We also have to consider that similar to pharmaceuticals, medicinal herbs do not affect everyone in the same way. Depending on the individual’s reaction, various herbs can be indicated as the best remedy. It is more than possible that future science will confirm Jivaka’s findings.
2.4. 4. The definition and nomenclature of drugs
The drug is that part of the plant, usually preserved by drying, which contains the active ingredient. It is to be noted that most herbs can be used fresh; drying only ensures that we can make a herbal infusion of a given plant any time of the year. There are a few instances when the fresh product has adverse effects. Such is the case for example with black alder, the bark of which contains a substance called rhamnustoxin, an emetic, which breaks up only after a year of storage or following heat-treatment. Ricinus seed is also poisonous but the oil is free of poisonous substances after cold pressing, and heat-treatment is also effective.
Herbs are used as raw materials in therapeutics, and this plant material is called drug. In order to avoid misunderstanding, it is better to use the expression “phytogenic drug”, or crude drug, (The word “drug” may be connected to the Germanic verb “droge”, to dry.)
A herbal drug can be:
That part of the medicinal plant which contains the most active ingredient(s), and which is preserved by drying. It may be washed, cut and peeled but not otherwise treated.
The essential oil (aetheroleum), resin (resina), balm, fatty acid (oleum), alcoholic extract or tincture (tinctura), etc., produced from the plant material.
A substance produced from the plant material by transformation, e.g., tar (pix, as in juniper tar, Pix juniperi), active carbon (carbo, as in linden-tree carbon, Carbo tiliae).
The Latin name of the drug consists of two parts. The first name is the genitive of the plant’s Latin name (e. g., Frangulae, Sambuci, Trifolii), the second is the scientific name of the plant’s part, which is in the subjective case (e. g., Sambuci flos – elder flower, Frangulaecortex – black alder bark).
In some cases, when obviously more than one plant species can be taken into account, the full Latin name is given in the drug’s name. E. g., Allii sativi bulbus, i. e., the clove of Allium sativum, or garlic, or Digitalis lanatae folium, or the leaf of woolly foxglove, since we use the leaf of another herb of the same family, red foxglove, Digitalis purpura.
There are cases when the drug’s name is derived from the second part of the herb’s Latin name. E. g., drugs extracted from jimsonweed – Datura stramonium are called Stramonii semen and Stramonii folium. The drug of shepherd’s purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris is known as Bursae pastoris herba, or the essential oil of basil – Ocimum basilicum – is called Aetheroleum basilici.
Quite a few drugs are known under their traditional name that does not reflect modern taxonomic categories. Thus the flower of forking larkspur, orConsolida regalis, is known as Calcatrippae flos, or in the case of rose species, the name of dried rosehip does not come from Rosa sp., but is traditionally Cynosbati pseudofructus cum seminibus. The root drug of liquorice (Gycyrrhiza glabra) is known under the name Liquiritiae rhizoma et radix.
In a few cases the name of the drug may have preserved the older Latin name of the plant, indicating changes in designation or categorization. Such an example is the drug name of the fruit of milk thistle (Silybum marianum), Cardui mariani fructus, or the name of the root drug of baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata), Saponariae albae radix.
In some cases the drug has two names. It is often because the name of the plant has changed, like for example, in the case of acacia flower, Robiniae flos, or Acaciae flos. In other cases, like for example with bean, the empty pod has several appropriate Latin names, resulting in three names for the drug: Phaseoli legumen, Phaseoli pericarpium, Phaseoli fructus sine semine.
The first part of names of products made from plant material is the Latin name of the product itself, e. g., Oleum, Aetheroleum, and the second part is the genitive of the plant’s Latin name. E. g., rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) oil is called Aetheroleum rosmarini, peppermint (Mentha piperita) oil is called Aetheroleum menthae piperitae, and flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum) oil is called Oleum lini. The dried opium derived from poppy is called Pulvis opii, and maize starch is called Amylum maydis.