Close-up of Cranberries

The Appalachian Apothecary Shop:

In the book Plants for Man (1972) there is a table listing 125 plants still gathered from the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains for sale as medicinals. I began to wonder just how many of these 125 had been tested pharmaceutically to isolate the active ingredient, if there was one. The Lawrence Review of Natural Products is a good source for such information. Within a few hours I had a surprising list of plants that currently grow or are planted in the Carolinas that have active pharmacological agents that need to be tested further. Here are a few of the more interesting ones:

  • Alfalfa, Medicago sativa ; has compound that may lower cholesterol
  • Aletris, Aletris furinosa ; contains steroids that may regulate female problems
  • Angelica, Angelica sp.; member of the carrot family; has compounds that effect cardiac and smooth muscle metabolism; contains volatile compounds that control the growth of fungi; skin application of extract can reduce photosensitivity
  • Apple, Malus sp.; contains pectin which regulates bowel consistency
  • Aspidium, Dryopteris sp. (a fern); contains potent worm medication with high toxicity
  • Barberry, Berberis vulgaris ; contains Berberine which is effective against bacterial induced diarrhea
  • Barley, Hordeum vulgare ; bran reduces cholesterol levels
  • Bergamot, Monarda didyma ; produces genetic mutations in cells
  • Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis ; used in toothpaste to fight plaque; has anticancer properties particularly against human nose and ear cancers
  • Blue Cohosh, Caulophyllum thalictroides ; contains nicotine-like stimulant that increases blood presses but id 40X more effective than nicotine
  • Blue Cohosh, Cimicifuga racemosa ; steroid-like hormones that control menopause symptoms
  • Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum ; potential as diuretic and laxative
  • Burdock, Arctium lappa ; contains compounds that suppress cell mutations and have anit-tumor potential
  • Calamus, Acorus calamus ; mutagenic compounds (asarone); oils produce strong sedative and antispasmodic tranquilizers
  • Carolina jasmine, Gelsemium sempervirens; very toxic but with some anti-cancer properties
  • Chicory, Chicorium intybus ; possible heart regulator
  • Clematis, Clematis virginiana ; possible anti-inflammatory agents and compound that effect the central nervous system
  • Cotton, Gossypium sp.; extracts from cottonseed oil, Gossypol, maybe an effective oral male contraceptive
  • Cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon ; conflicting studies on how the juice lowers acidity of urine, but, juice reduces odor and urine breakdown when given to incontinent patients
  • Evening primrose oil, Oenothera biennis ; source of essential fatty acids with clinical use
  • Ginseng, Panax quinquefolium ; stimulant and anti-stress properties
  • Goldseal, Hydrastis canadensis ; weak antiseptic
  • Hawthorne, Crataegus sp.; causes hypertension and arrhythmias
  • Juniper berries, Juniperus communis ; diuretics
  • Horehound, Marrubium vulgare ; expectorant, increases bile secretion
  • Horse chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum ; toxic, reduces swelling and increases blood return to the heart
  • Horsetail, Equisetum arvense ; marginally effective diuretic
  • Kudzu, Pueraria lobata; contains potentially effective enzymes for inhibiting alcohol consumption - Anti-alcoholism drug?
  • Lovage, Levistricum officinale ; carminative (helps expel gas from digestive track) and mild diuretic
  • Mallow, Althea sp.; helps skin irritations and sore throats
  • Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum ; anticancer drugs, prevents cell division, also effective against venereal warts
  • Mistletoe, Phoradendron sp.; prevents growth of new tissue
  • Monkshood, Aconitum sp.; anti tumor properties/toxic
  • Oats, Avena sativa; reduces blood cholesterol
  • Passion flower, Passiflora sp.; numerous useful alkaloids which produce spasms of smooth muscle; neutralizes neurodepressive effects of methamphetamine; produces sedative effect; kills molds, yeast and bacteria
  • Peppers, Capsicum frutescens; capsaicin compound effect neural transmutations
  • Plantain, Plantago major; seeds used in bulk laxative; shows some efficacy for a hemorrhoid treatment
  • Pumpkin, Cucurbita pepo; cucurbitin compound is effective worm killing agent
  • Saw palmetto, Serenoa repens; Estrogen-like compounds reputed to act as sexual stimulants and aphrodisiacs; berry extracts effective in management of benign enlargement of prostate
  • Scotch broom, Cytisus scoparius ; aids in regulation of heart beat
  • Scullcap, Scutellaria laterifolia ; anti-inflammatory compounds
  • Slippery elm, Ulmlus rubra ; mucilaginous compound used in throat lozenges
  • St. Johns Wort, Hypericum perforatum ; Investigated as treatment for AIDS, compounds have anti-viral activity (hypericin); high tannin content makes good astringent for wound healing
  • Trillium, Trillium erectum ; controls bleeding, antifungal properties
  • Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens ; Extract causes mutations and used in some insecticides
  • Witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana ; high in tannins; topical astringent
  • Yellow dock, Rumex crispus ; laxative effect
  • Yucca, Yucca sp.: possible source of drugs for hypertension and arthritis

There are several reasons for the list being much shorter than you might expect. First of all chemists purify the extract to generate a single compound for further testing. The plant contains many compounds that may work as a cure when in combination but not separately. Secondly, concentrations of compounds vary from leaf to root, from plant to plant and from spring to fall. If the plant was not collected at the right time of year or if only the leaf extracts were examined, compounds may have been overlooked. Thirdly, the active ingredients maybe unstable and break down with storage or laboratory treatment. Finally, our apothecary shop has probably been overlooked by many who have concentrated on more exotic places in the world. But, even with all these drawbacks or maybe because of them, the above list is even more impressive.

An Appalachian spring ephemeral is an ideal place to look for antibiotic or antimicrobial compounds. These herbs sprout in spring, flower, produce fruit and die-back before the heat and deep shade of summer falls on the forest floor. The majority of the year, trilliums, lilies, and bloodroot lie dormant as bulbs, tubers and corms. All of these structures have a built in food reserve which is available not only for next year's sprouts, but for all the fungi, bacteria and animals of the forest as well. It would be to the plants advantage to place an antibiotic or repulsive substance within this stored food to reduce perturbation. Perhaps this is the reasons for the strong smell of onions and for garlic's pungency. It may be to our own good to do more than just smell the flowers.

Useful References:

  • The Lawrence Review of Natural Products published by Facts and Comparisons, 111 West Port Plaza, Suite 400 St. Louis, Missouri 63146-3098.
  • Schery, Robert W., 1972. Plants for Man. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J. p294-295.