Medicines Made From Plants   Recently updated !


Many drugs are derived from plants.
Many drugs and medicines are derived from plants.

Medicines made from plants have been used throughout human history. Today, over 100 drugs and medicines trace their “roots” to chemical compounds found in plants. Here is a table of plants, the compound used as a drug, and the medical use of the drug. While it is not a comprehensive list of all of the plants, names of chemicals, or uses for those chemicals, it’s a helpful starting point for further research.

The table lists each plant’s common name and scientific name. Common names are imprecise, so it’s best to use the scientific name when looking for additional information concerning a plant.

List of Medicines From Plants

Drug/ChemicalActionPlant Source
AcetyldigoxinCardiotonicDigitalis lanata (Grecian foxglove, woolly foxglove)
AdonisideCardiotonicAdonis vernalis (pheasant’s eye, red chamomile)
AescinAntiinflammatoryAesculus hippocastanum (horse chestnut)
AesculetinAntidysenteryFrazinus rhychophylla
AgrimopholAnthelminticAgrimonia supatoria
AjmalicineTreatment for circulatory disordersRauvolfia sepentina
AllantoinVulnerarySeveral plants
Allyl isothiocyanateRubefacientBrassica nigra (black mustard)
AnabesineSkeletal muscle relaxantAnabasis sphylla
AndrographolideTreatment for baccillary dysenteryAndrographis paniculata
AnisodamineAnticholinergicAnisodus tanguticus
AnisodineAnticholinergicAnisodus tanguticus
ArecolineAnthelminticAreca catechu (betel nut palm)
AsiaticosideVulneraryCentella asiatica (gotu cola)
AtropineAnticholinergicAtropa belladonna (deadly nightshade)
Benzyl benzoateScabicideSeveral plants
BerberineTreatment for bacillary dysenteryBerberis vulgaris (common barberry)
BergeninAntitussiveArdisia japonica (marlberry)
Betulinic acidAnticancerousBetula alba (common birch)
BorneolAntipyretic, analgesic, antiinflammatorySeveral plants
BromelainAntiinflammatory, proteolyticAnanas comosus (pineapple)
CaffeineCNS stimulantCamellia sinensis (tea, also coffee, cocoa and other plants)
CamphorRubefacientCinnamomum camphora (camphor tree)
CamptothecinAnticancerousCamptotheca acuminata
(+)-CatechinHemostaticPotentilla fragarioides
ChymopapainProteolytic, mucolyticCarica papaya (papaya)
CissampelineSkeletal muscle relaxantCissampelos pareira (velvet leaf)
CocaineLocal anaestheticErythroxylum coca (coca plant)
CodeineAnalgesic, antitussivePapaver somniferum (poppy)
Colchiceine amideAntitumor agentColchicum autumnale (autumn crocus)
ColchicineAntitumor, antigoutColchicum autumnale (autumn crocus)
ConvallatoxinCardiotonicConvallaria majalis (lily-of-the-valley)
CurcuminCholereticCurcuma longa (turmeric)
CynarinCholereticCynara scolymus (artichoke)
DanthronLaxativeCassia species
DemecolcineAntitumor agentColchicum autumnale (autumn crocus)
DeserpidineAntihypertensive, tranquilizerRauvolfia canescens
DeslanosideCardiotonicDigitalis lanata (Grecian foxglove, woolly foxglove)
L-DopaAnti-parkinsonismMucuna species (nescafe, cowage, velvetbean)
DigitalinCardiotonicDigitalis purpurea (purple foxglove)
DigitoxinCardiotonicDigitalis purpurea (purple foxglove)
DigoxinCardiotonicDigitalis purpurea (purple or common foxglove)
EmetineAmoebicide, emeticCephaelis ipecacuanha
EphedrineSympathomimetic, antihistamineEphedra sinica (ephedra, ma huang)
EtoposideAntitumor agentPodophyllum peltatum (mayapple)
GalanthamineCholinesterase inhibitorLycoris squamigera (magic lily, resurrection lily, naked lady)
GitalinCardiotonicDigitalis purpurea (purple or common foxglove)
GlaucarubinAmoebicideSimarouba glauca (paradise tree)
GlaucineAntitussiveGlaucium flavum (yellow hornpoppy, horned poppy, sea poppy)
GlasiovineAntidepressantOctea glaziovii
GlycyrrhizinSweetener, treatment for Addison’s diseaseGlycyrrhiza glabra (licorice)
GossypolMale contraceptiveGossypium species (cotton)
HemsleyadinTreatment for bacillary dysenteryHemsleya amabilis
HesperidinTreatment for capillary fragilityCitrus species (e.g., oranges)
HydrastineHemostatic, astringentHydrastis canadensis (goldenseal)
HyoscyamineAnticholinergicHyoscyamus niger (black henbane, stinking nightshade, henpin)
IrinotecanAnticancer, antitumor agentCamptotheca acuminata
Kaibic acudAscaricideDigenea simplex (wireweed)
KawainTranquilizerPiper methysticum (kava kava)
KheltinBronchodilatorAmmi visaga
Lanatosides A, B, CCardiotonicDigitalis lanata (Grecian foxglove, woolly foxglove)
LapacholAnticancer, antitumorTabebuia species (trumpet tree)
a-LobelineSmoking deterrant, respiratory stimulantLobelia inflata (Indian tobacco)
MentholRubefacientMentha species (mint)
Methyl salicylateRubefacientGaultheria procumbens (wintergreen)
MonocrotalineTopical antitumor agentCrotalaria sessiliflora
MorphineAnalgesicPapaver somniferum (poppy)
NeoandrographolideTreatment of dysenteryAndrographis paniculata
NicotineInsecticideNicotiana tabacum (tobacco)
Nordihydroguaiaretic acidAntioxidantLarrea divaricata (creosote bush)
NoscapineAntitussivePapaver somniferum (poppy)
OuabainCardiotonicStrophanthus gratus (ouabain tree)
PachycarpineOxytocicSophora pschycarpa
PalmatineAntipyretic, detoxicantCoptis japonica (Chinese goldenthread, goldthread, Huang-Lia)
PapainProteolytic, mucolyticCarica papaya (papaya)
PapavarineSmooth muscle relaxantPapaver somniferum (opium poppy, common poppy)
PhyllodulcinSweetenerHydrangea macrophylla (bigleaf hydrangea, French hydrangea)
PhysostigmineCholinesterase inhibitorPhysostigma venenosum (Calabar bean)
PicrotoxinAnalepticAnamirta cocculus (fish berry)
PilocarpineParasympathomimeticPilocarpus jaborandi (jaborandi, Indian hemp)
PinitolExpectorantSeveral plants (e.g., bougainvillea)
PodophyllotoxinAntitumor, anticancer agentPodophyllum peltatum (mayapple)
Protoveratrines A, BAntihypertensivesVeratrum album (white false hellebore)
PseudoephredrineSympathomimeticEphedra sinica (ephedra, ma huang)
nor-pseudoephedrineSympathomimeticEphedra sinica (ephedra, ma huang)
QuinidineAntiarrhythmicCinchona ledgeriana (quinine tree)
QuinineAntimalarial, antipyreticCinchona ledgeriana (quinine tree)
Qulsqualic acidAnthelminticQuisqualis indica (Rangoon creeper, drunken sailor)
RescinnamineAntihypertensive, tranquilizerRauvolfia serpentina
ReserpineAntihypertensive, tranquilizerRauvolfia serpentina
RhomitoxinAntihypertensive, tranquilizerRhododendron molle (rhododendron)
RorifoneAntitussiveRorippa indica
RotenonePiscicide, InsecticideLonchocarpus nicou
RotundineAnalagesic, sedative, traquilizerStephania sinica
RutinTreatment for capillary fragilityCitrus species (e.g., orange, grapefruit)
SalicinAnalgesicSalix alba (white willow)
SanguinarineDental plaque inhibitorSanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot)
SantoninAscaricideArtemisia maritma (wormwood)
Scillarin ACardiotonicUrginea maritima (squill)
ScopolamineSedativeDatura species (e.g., Jimsonweed)
Sennosides A, BLaxativeCassia species (cinnamon)
SilymarinAntihepatotoxicSilybum marianum (milk thistle)
SparteineOxytocicCytisus scoparius (scotch broom)
SteviosideSweetenerStevia rebaudiana (stevia)
StrychnineCNS stimulantStrychnos nux-vomica (poison nut tree)
TaxolAntitumor agentTaxus brevifolia (Pacific yew)
TeniposideAntitumor agentPodophyllum peltatum (mayapple or mandrake)
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)Antiemetic, decreases occular tensionCannabis sativa (marijuana)
TetrahydropalmatineAnalgesic, sedative, tranquilizerCorydalis ambigua
TetrandrineAntihypertensiveStephania tetrandra
TheobromineDiuretic, vasodilatorTheobroma cacao (cocoa)
TheophyllineDiuretic, bronchodilatorTheobroma cacao and others (cocoa, tea)
ThymolTopical antifungalThymus vulgaris (thyme)
TopotecanAntitumor, anticancer agentCamptotheca acuminata
TrichosanthinAbortifacientTrichosanthes kirilowii (snake gourd)
TubocurarineSkeletal muscle relaxantChondodendron tomentosum (curare vine)
ValapotriatesSedativeValeriana officinalis (valerian)
VasicineCerebral stimulantVinca minor (periwinkle)
VinblastineAntitumor, Antileukemic agentCatharanthus roseus (Madagascar periwinkle)
VincristineAntitumor, Antileukemic agentCatharanthus roseus (Madagascar periwinkle)
YohimbineAphrodisiacPausinystalia yohimbe (yohimbe)
YuanhuacineAbortifacientDaphne genkwa (lilac)
YuanhuadineAbortifacientDaphne genkwa (lilac)

Chemical Compounds in Medicinal Plants

Medicinal plants and those used as a source for purified drugs contain certain classes of chemical compounds. The plant uses these pharmacological phytochemicals mainly to deter herbivores, parasites, and insect pests and to keep other plants from getting too close. Basically, these compounds tend to be natural herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides, so they are usually toxic to humans at high levels. Major classes of phytochemicals are:

  • Alkaloids – Alkaloids are bitter-tasting and often toxic. These organic compounds contain basic nitrogen atoms, although a few compounds are neutral and even weakly acidic. Medicines made from alkaloids include caffeine, cocaine, atropine, scopalamine, hyoscyamine, quinine, vincristine, ephedrine, morphine, berberine, and vincamine. These drugs are used as stimulants, psychotropics, and depressants, both medically and recreationally.
  • Glycosides – A glycoside is a molecule that contains a sugar bound to another functional group by a glycosidic bond. Medicinal plants containing glycosides include foxglove, lily of the valley, senna, cascara, aloe, and rhubarb. They are used medically as laxatives, diuretics, and heart tonics.
  • Polyphenols – Polyphenols are molecules that contain multiple phenolic rings. Plants use polyphenols to defend themselves again predators and diseases. Examples of plants containing polyphenols include kudzu, angelica, grapes, pine, and pomegranate. Medically, they are used as astringents and to treat gynecological disorders. Polyphenols occur in many dietary supplements.
  • Terpenes – Terpenes and turpenoids are chemically related to the hydrocarbon isoprene. These volatile organic compounds are the source of a plant’s fragrance and essential oils. Plants use them to attract pollinators and repel herbivores. Examples of plants that contain terpenes include conifers, rose, thyme, and lavender. Terpenes find medical use as antiseptics and antiparasitics.

How Plants and Drugs Differ

Even though a medicinal plant might contain an active compound identical to that of a purified drug, the two don’t always produce the same effects. This is because plants also contain numerous other compounds. Also, the route of drug administration matters. Eating a plant or applying it to skin is very different from injecting a drug directly into the bloodstream, for example. While drugs may be purified from plants, more often they are synthesized from petrochemicals.

History of Plants Used as Medicines

People have used plants to make medicines since prehistoric times. Early plants used for medicines include herbs and spices, which were used to reduce food spoilage and parasites, not just as flavoring. The 60,000-year-old Neaderthal burial “Shanidar IV” included pollen from plant species that are used as herbal remedies. Ötzi the Iceman had a mushroom, likely used as a whipworm remedy, that was counted among his personal effects when his body was recovered after 5,000 years frozen in the ice. The ancient Sumerians lists myrrh, opium, and hundreds of other plants on clay tablets. The Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, dated to around 1550 BC, listed over 850 medicinal plants, including juniper, aloe, and cannabis.

References

  • Ahn, K. (2017). “The worldwide trend of using botanical drugs and strategies for developing global drugs.” BMB Reports. 50 (3): 111–116. doi:10.5483/BMBRep.2017.50.3.221
  • Lichterman, B. L. (2004). “Aspirin: The Story of a Wonder Drug.” British Medical Journal. 329 (7479): 1408. doi:10.1136/bmj.329.7479.1408
  • Sumner, Judith (2000). The Natural History of Medicinal Plants. Timber Press. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-88192-483-1.
  • Taylor, Leslie (2000). Plant-Based Drugs and Medicines. Square One Publishers. Garden City Park, N.Y.

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