Plants have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Today over 50% of prescription drugs are derived from chemicals first identified in plants.
Garlic is effective in lowering blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, as well as containing antibacterial and antifungal compounds.
Foxgloves contain a substance called digitoxin, which was traditionally used to treat an irregular heartbeat. Modern drugs based on this substance are used to treat cardiac problems.
Yew tree bark is used in anti-cancer drugs, having been used in Chinese medicine for 5000 years to fight cancer, heart disease and dementia.
Cynarin is a plant chemical found in the common artichoke.
Cynarin is used to treat liver problems and high blood pressure.
Codeine is one of the strongest and most commonly used painkillers in the world. It is extracted from the opium poppy.
Codeine is converted by an enzyme in the liver to morphine, which is the active analgesic, producing powerful pain relief.
Some modern drugs contain actual plant material, but most are now formed from chemically copied or synthesised extracts.
This makes it possible to produce vast quantities of medication, and to increase the potency of the compounds.
A good example of this is the plant chemical quinine, which was discovered in rainforest tree species such as Cinchona ledgeriana over 100 years ago.
The quinine chemical was extracted from the bark and processed into pills to treat malaria, a blood-borne disease carried by mosquitoes.
There are approximately 350–500 million cases of malaria each year.
350–500 million cases malaria per year
With such high demand for the drug, scientists quickly developed a technique to synthesise quinine plant extract into a chemical drug, and allow mass production.
Plants not only form the basis of the global food chain, but their medicinal properties have saved countless lives.