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Discovery Magazine 9/1/2002

Take Two Leaves and Call Me in the Morning

by  Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

How many times have you heard your parents say something like: “Eat your brussel sprouts. They will make you strong and healthy.” Now I don’t know of anyone who has ever died from a lack of brussel sprouts or broccoli, but there are many plants that are very useful to people who are sick or hurt. For instance, what do you normally put on a burn? If you are like many people, you find some aloe to ease the burning pain. Aloe comes from the clear gel inside aloe vera plants, and it is incredibly effective at healing burns and wounds. This is why many people keep a small pot of this plant handy in the kitchen, in case someone gets a little too close to the stove.

Hippocrates, a man who lived around 400 B.C. (that’s about 400 years before Christ was born) recommended chewing willow leaves to relieve fever and for pain in childbirth. Can you imagine chewing on bark or leaves to relieve your pain? We now know that willow trees contain salicylic acid, the common compound in aspirin (used to treat headaches and arthritis). 

Have you ever eaten at a restaurant where they put a little sprig of green stuff on your plate? That’s not a weed—it’s parsley. And while many restaurants put it there as a decoration, the leaves are known to benefit the digestive system as well as cover up strong breath odors caused by things like garlic. So while it makes your stomach feel better, it is also making your breath smell good! Other plants such as the opium poppy flower contain compounds that are found in morphine, an important pain reliever commonly used in hospitals. A flower from Europe known as St. John’s wort is often taken by people who are feeling a little depressed, because this special plant can help make them feel better. Plants are used in medicine in a variety of ways. Some act as germ-killing agents, while others act on specific parts of the body to relieve pain or sickness. As a matter of fact, almost 50% of the drugs sold in pharmacies contain chemicals that come from plants. Many of the other drugs are manmade, but they are modeled after substances found in plants. So maybe your mom was right to tell you to eat your vegetables—after all, they won’t kill you!

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