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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:
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.
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