Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
The Quest for a Healing Harvest by Steven Foster - Summer 2003
For well-to-do women in Greece about 3,500 years ago, birth control may not have been a worry. At exorbitant prices, a street vendor of the ancient world may have offered an herbal root said to prevent pregnancy. Apparently this herbal contraceptive worked.
Known as Silphium to the Romans and as Silphion to the Greeks, the plant grew in the hills around the ancient Greek city-state of Cyrene in North Africa. This principle export of Cyrene was sold throughout the Mediterranean region, commanding a price exceeding its weight in silver. The plant is believed to have been a member of the carrot family, related to giant fennel (Ferula spp.). The problem was that the plant could be found only in Cyrene. Attempts to grow it in Greece and Syria failed. Ultimately harvested to extinction, now the plant survives in only one form - as a crude botanical imprint on rare Cyrenian coins. Today, as demand grows for wild-harvested medicinal plants around the world, one must wonder if a modern-day Silphion awaits a similar fate.
Throughout the world, health professionals and plant conservationists recognize the need to ensure the availability of medicinal plants for future generations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture documents that about one-third of flowering plant species - about 80,000 species - are used as folk medicines worldwide, and the World Health Organization estimates that 21,000 plant species represent herbal medicines in global trade today. Still, as much as 90 percent of medicinal plants are harvested from natural habitats, with fewer than 100 species supplied by significant cultivated source material.
Clearly, plants continue to play a crucial role in modern Western medicine. According to medicinal plant researcher Dr. Norman Farnsworth of the University of Illinois in Chicago, approximately one-quarter of prescription drugs contain at least one plant-derived compound or are based on plant-derived chemical models. Worldwide, at least 119 distinct chemical substances derived from 91 plant species are used in prescription drugs. These include well-known drugs such as derivatives of foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) used in the management of heart problems. Anti-cancer drugs used in chemotherapy include compounds from the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) used to treat Hodgkin's disease and various forms of leukemia. Chemicals derived from the mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) are used in small-cell lung cancer and testicular cancer. Derived from various species of yews (Taxus spp.), paclitaxel (better known by its trade name Taxol) has brought hope to some women with certain forms of breast and ovarian cancers. All of which indicates that plant-derived medicine is not a throwback to the Dark Ages.