Plants have supplied us with remedies for as long as humans have walked the earth. The knowledge of herbs and flowers and their medicinal properties, once the preserve of wise old women, has in later centuries been taken up by doctors and scientists.
Many of the most common and important drugs used in Western medicine come from medicinal plants and millions of people around the world rely on them as their primary remedies and sources of income. At least 70,000 plants are believed to be medicinal, and many are still undiscovered. Ethnobotanists search tirelessly for new cures worldwide.
Botanic gardens have been involved in the collection and study of medicinal plants for more than 500 years. Nowadays they also play an invaluable role in teaching often nature-illiterate city dwellers how to tell plants apart and opening the door to the fascinating history and modern application of medicinal plants.
One such botanic garden is Chelsea Physic Garden, well hidden behind a wall in well-off western London. It is the city's oldest surviving botanic garden, as well as a living and growing museum. The first medicinal plants were brought here when the garden was founded in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries of London. The study and collection of medicinal plants has continued ever since. In 1983 they opened their gates to the public and now the charity offers tours of their pharmaceutical beds and the Garden of World Medicine.
"We never tell people to use a plant to treat an ailment. We only say it has been or is being used to do so," said garden curator, Rosie Atkins.
Using medicinal plants requires knowledge, what is beneficial in small amounts may be dangerous and even deadly if you ingest too much. Interest in herbal medicine is growing and medical plants are clearly important for the future.
"Look at avian flu. Star anise was used to create Tamiflu," said Atkins, referring to the widely used influenza vaccine.
So, next time you have an Aspirin, remember you’ve got Meadowsweet (Spiraea Ulmaria) to thank for getting rid of your headache.
Some medicinal garden plants
Used to treat an upset stomach and sunburn
Has relaxing and antiseptic properties
Is used as cold relief and stimulates the immune system
Has anti-inflammatory properties, rich in Vitamin A and C
Used in cold and flu remedies
Is thought to enhance mood, concentration and memory
Has calming properties
Used in treatments of indigestion
Is antiseptic and is used for digestive and respiratory problems as well as to promote menstruation