A Tribute to Six Medicinal Plants

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In 1992, the U.S. Postal Service issued a sheet of commemorative stamps portraying fifty wild flowers of the United States. The fifty plants on these stamps were chosen more for their aesthetic variety and geographical distribution–one from each state in the Union–than for their usefulness. I couldn’t help thinking how easy it would be to come up with the same number of attractive, widely distributed plants whose medicinal, folkloric, and economic interest would equal or exceed those of the Postal Service’s selections.

This article is a tribute to six possibilities–native medicinal flowering plants that easily could have been honored along with (or instead of) those that were merely pretty: bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), horse­­­­­­mint (Mo­narda punctata), even­­­­­ing primrose (Oenothera biennis), ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), golden­­seal (Hydrastis canadensis), and mayapple (Podophyllum pel­­tatum). These six plants can be found through­­­­out the eastern United States and Canada and in use from toothpaste to cancer drugs. Their flowers–some shy, some showy–are only one of their distinguishing features. All these plants were in use and esteemed long before the first European settlers arrived.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

This hardy perennial is found in cool, moist deciduous woods throughout eastern North America. In early spring, pristine, many-petaled flowers rise above deeply lobed leaves that open fully after the flowers fade. In the leaf veins, you can discern the orange sap that flows through the entire plant but is concentrated in its roots. Bloodroot was listed as a botanical drug in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia until 1926.

In the early 1980s, a television ad showed two toothsome beauties touting toothpaste and mouthwash containing sanguinarine, an alkaloid found in bloodroot that was thought to prevent plaque formation. This was not the first time that the plant, also known as puccoon, has been associated with female pulchritude. Popular literature reports that the Indian maidens selected to cohabit with Captain John Smith had stained their bodies with bloodroot: “At night where his lodging is appointed they set a woman fresh painted red with pucoon [sic] and oil, to be his bedfellow.” Whether this was intended to entice or frighten him is not known. The men among some Native American tribes stained their faces with bloodroot to frighten their enemies; less sanguine males applied the stain to their palms before shaking hands with a maiden as a magic ­inducement to attract her to him. Bloodroot was even used to stain the porcupine quills used to adorn the clothing of Indian women, before the advent of the cheaper beads and trinkets from Europe.

In Medicinal Plants of Native America, Daniel E. Moerman details medicinal uses to which Native Americans put bloodroot. The Cherokee snuffed the powdered root for nasal polyps, the Delaware ate pieces of root daily for general debility, and the Fox applied juice from chewed roots to burns. The Potawatomi and Ojibwa squeezed the juice onto maple sugar to suck for sore throat. Following what Europeans called the “doctrine of signatures”, or using a plant to treat the part of the body it most resembled, many tribes used the roots for blood and bleeding disorders, some even believing that it made the blood redder.

Contemporary research confirms the utility of at least some of these uses. Sanguinarine has been cited as being potentially effective against bacteria, human pathogenic fungi, parasitic protozoans, viruses, and more. And although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ruled against the claim that it prevents dental plaque, it is still an active ingredient in at least one popular toothpaste and mouthwash.

I was told recently that wildcrafters in this country earn some $6 million a year harvesting and selling bloodroot. This could signal danger for this lovely wild flower. Fortunately, though, sanguinarine can also be found in more than twenty other genera, including poppies (Papaver) and bleeding-heart (Dicentra).

Horsemint (Monarda punctata)

Horsemint (sometimes called horse­­balm) is a robust, thyme-scented biennial or short-lived perennial related to bee balm (Monarda didyma) that is found in dry soils in the eastern and central United States. Stems growing as tall as 4 feet bear lance-shaped leaves and tiered whorls of yellowish flowers dotted with purple.

Horsemint grows in sandy places here in Maryland; for years I’ve added it to my mixed mint teas, and more recently to late fall soups and pizzas. Native Americans also made tea of it or used it as a snuff, as a remedy for cough, constipation, cramps, enteritis, fever, headache, and stomachache. The Fox placed leaves of horsemint near the nostrils of persons near death to rally them. The Ojibwa merely rubbed it into the skin, which seems an odd way to take an internal medicine until you consider our modern nicotine dermal patches.

There’s another slightly less tenuous connection between nicotine and horsemint. People with Alzheimer’s disease seem to suffer both from a lack of acetylcholine (a compound believed to function in the transmission of nerve impulses) and from oxidative disturbances in the brain. Nicotine has been shown to help prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, as have members of the mint family high in ­carvacrol–including horsemint. In fact, horsemint contains 1.25 percent carvacrol, more than any other plant that I’ve researched.

Is it possible that the horsemint growing in my backyard could be an effective medicine against Alzheimer’s? Though it contains half a dozen different antioxidants and more acetylcholine-sparing compounds than the FDA-approved drug for this condition, we may never know whether it could be useful in Alzheimer’s. Meanwhile, it’s tasty in teas and soups, and its historical uses still make it a worthy stamp.

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)

Evening primrose grows wild in eastern North America and can be cultivated in other parts of the country. Several related species are grown as ­ornamentals. This many-branched biennial prefers sandy soil and a sunny location, often turning up in the disturbed soil along roadways. Its showy, four-petaled yellow flowers, with drooping sepals and X-shaped stigmas, open in early evening and persist until midmorning of the following day.

Evening primrose has been approved in Great Britain for use against symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and for atopic eczema, but in this country the FDA has confiscated the oil because of medicinal claims made for it. The oil contains gamma-linolenic acid, a substance normally produced by the body, which is the basis for its use against the aforementioned conditions. And among all the foods in my research files, evening primrose seeds are among the richest in tryptophan, a substance, found to some degree in all plants, that is reported to promote healthy sleep patterns. The FDA has banned tryptophan as a food supplement because claims for it have not been proven to its satisfaction, so I get mine from Mother Nature.

Evening primrose seeds ripen in August and persist on the plants through December where I live. I bend the plant down over a newspaper on a windless day, then shake the seeds out of their capsules. I grind them in a mortar and pestle and add them to whole-grain breads, soups, or gravy, or sprinkle the gritty seeds unground on glazed rolls. They can be stored dry for years. In spring and fall, the first-year (unflowered) plant has a rosette of oversized, willowlike leaves that hug the ground. Dig up a rosette and you will find a pungent root shaped like an icicle radish and with the same bite. The French add these to spring salads; I eat them raw or cooked.

Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

The single thin stem of ginseng grows from a slow-growing, fleshy root in hardwood forests from eastern Canada through the southeastern United States. Rarely exceeding 11/2 feet in height, the stem is topped by a canopy of large divided leaves with toothed margins. A cluster of small cream-colored flowers is followed by bright red berries.

Asiatic ginseng species have had an exalted medicinal reputation in the Far East for centuries; the discovery of a species in the New World led to a lively export trade beginning early in the eighteenth century. Today, the United States exports close to $90 million worth of ginseng annually, still mostly to the Orient, where great faith is placed in the American species as a tonic against a host of conditions ranging from sexual ennui to old age.

Ginseng has been the object of a great many studies within the scientific community, by herbalists, and by commercial interests, with few conclusions or points of agreement. Still, I grow American ginseng in my own garden, along with Oriental and Siberian species, just in case the Chinese are right in believing that ginseng can make an old man young again.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

Goldenseal is sometimes called “poor man’s ginseng”: there is some resemblance between the plants and their traditional uses, and goldenseal is in some places more abundant and easy to cultivate. This small perennial with deeply lobed leaves atop a hairy, forked stem produces small, solitary whitish flowers in late spring, but its gnarled rhizome with bright yellow flesh is the part of most interest to herbalists today.

The Cherokee used the juice of goldenseal to dye their skin, and also as a topical treatment for rashes, eye infections, and mouth sores. Other tribes also used goldenseal as a remedy against jaundice, perhaps another ­instance of belief in the doctrine of signatures–yellow herbs for a disease that yellows the skin. Contemporary research has shown that berberine, a component of goldenseal, does indeed stimulate the secretion of bile.

Some modern herbalists claim that this modest plant is beneficial in the treatment of a lengthy list of other ills ranging from morning sickness to liver complaints. Nearly a century ago, King’s American Dispensatory heaped praise on the whole herb (as opposed to its isolated alkaloids), citing its use against acne, diphtheria, boils, cancer, alcoholism, eczema, hemorrhoids, night sweats, and postnasal drip, to name but a few.

Herbal teas containing goldenseal have been promoted as helping to detoxify drug addicts and helping them kick their habit, and a false rumor that goldenseal can foil detection of drugs in the urine has contributed not only to raising the price of the herb, but also to causing its near extinction from overcollection in some of its old wild haunts. The perceived relationship to illicit drugs probably stimulates more goldenseal sales today than its classic uses as an antiseptic and blood purifier.

Mayapple  (Podophyllum peltatum)

Mayapple is a harbinger of spring in eastern hardwood forests, where its waxy white blossom hides under a canopy of two large, round, deeply lobed leaves. The flower is followed by a fleshy, inch-long fruit–the “apple”

–which is the only edible part of the plant (the rest, including the root, is poisonous to varying degrees).

Mayapple has a long tradition of varied uses among American Indian tribes. It was widely used as a laxative; in addition, the Cherokee are said to have used it for deafness, rheumatism, sores, and ulcers; the Delaware as a love charm and spring tonic; the Fox for rheumatism; and the Iroquois for boils. It’s long been bandied about (by me, among others) that the Penobscot Indians of Maine used mayapple as a remedy against cancer, but since the mayapple doesn’t grow in the part of Maine occupied by the Penobscot, this claim is probably spurious.

The Menominee had a custom of sprinkling a decoction of the whole mayapple plant on their potato plants to kill potato beetles. With mayapple abundant on my property and a potato patch that’s been heavily infested with potato beetles, I pulled up several plants and tossed them among the rows as mulch. A day or two later, I realized that I really should do some in vitro work as well, but when I went to collect some potato beetles for more scientific experimentation, there were none in my potato patch. Was it the mayapple, was it the year, or was it just fate? I took my story to Martin Jacobson, who works with natural product pesticides at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Although the first extracts showed an “antifeedant effect” on potato beetles, the ensuing extraction, fractionation, and purification yielded progressively less effect. Later memos concluded that “the data do not show repellent activity,” but I cling to the idea that whole mayapple plants may have some pesticide potential.

Mayapple has been the subject of many recent drug studies. For the past decade or so, it has been the source of etoposide, an FDA-approved drug for treating testicular and small-cell lung cancer. And podophyllin, a resin from the root, has for decades been used to treat venereal warts.

Every commemorative stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service over the years–from Amelia Earhart to the Sherman tank to Elvis Presley–has had a story behind it. Perhaps someday we’ll find the stories behind the magical and medicinal plants of our Native American predecessors–and maybe even the poke salad that Elvis sang about–likewise honored.

Further reading

Duke, J. A. Handbook of Northeastern Indian Medicinal Plants. Lincoln, Massachusetts: Quarterman Publications, 1986.
—— 1992 Handbook of Phytochemical Constituents of GRAS Herbs and Other Economic Plants. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 1992.
Moerman, D. E. Medicinal Plants of Native America. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Department of Anthropology, 1986.

James A. Duke, Ph.D., has garnered enough expertise as Chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Germ­plasm Resources Laboratory to explain his broad knowledge of plants and excuse his occasional irreverence.

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