Active Plant Ingredients Used for Medicinal Purposes

Image banner: ginseng roots, echinacea flowers, juniper berries, raspberry, shining willow, and Gamble oak acorn.

Why do plants have medicinal properties?

Plants produce many chemicals that are biologically active, not just in themselves, but also in other organisms. Some of these chemicals enhance their own survival. Some plants produce chemicals that act as herbicides to inhibit the growth of competing plants, such as the salicylic acid produced by willows. Other plants produce substances that deter browsing by insects and herbivores.

Below are several examples of active plant ingredients that provide medicinal plant uses for humans.

Juniper berries.
Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus). Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) produces over 130 toxic alkaloid compounds to protect itself from microbes, herbivores and insects. The discovery of its two powerful anti-cancer alkaloids, vincrisine and vinblastine, has been hailed as one of the most important medical finds of the past half century. Vincrisine is used for the treatment of childhood leukemia and Vinblastine for Hodgkin's lymphoma. Madagascar periwinkle has been used as a poster child to remind us of the urgent need to conserve and study the increasingly threatened wild flora of the world.

Juniper berries.
Common elderberry (Sambucus racemosa). Photo by Ted Bodner, Southern Weed Science Society, Bugwood.org.

Alkaloids: This group is comprised of a wide variety of plants that contain nitrogen-bearing molecules that make them very active. Many of these plants have been used to create well-known drugs used for medicinal purposes. One such example, vincristine, which was derived from the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), is used to treat some types of cancer. Another example is atropine, which is found in deadly nightshade.

Bitters: This group is comprised of a variety of plants that are lumped together because of their very bitter taste. This bitterness causes stimulation of the salivary glands and digestive organs. As such, bitters can be used to improve appetite and strengthen the digestive system. Examples of bitters include wormwood and hops.

Cardiac Glycosides: These compounds are found in various medicinal plants (Foxglove, Lily of the Valley) and have strong direct action on the heart. Cardiac glycosides such as digitoxin, digoxin, and convallotoxin support heart strength and rates of contraction when failing. These compounds also have a diuretic effect that stimulates urine production and aids in removal of fluid from tissues and the circulatory system.

Cyanogenic Glycosides: These glycocides are based upon cyanide, a very deadly poison, but in small doses, they can serve as a muscle relaxant. The bark of wild cherry and the leaves of elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) contain cyanogenic glycocides, which can be used to suppress and soothe dry coughs.

Flavonoids: Flavonoids are found widely throughout the plant world and they have a wide range of medicinal uses and actions. They often act as pigments giving a yellow or white color to flowers and fruits. Some flavonoids have anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties. Flavonoids found in many plants like lemon and buckwheat are known to strengthen capillaries and prevent leakage into tissues.

Minerals: Many plants have high levels of minerals because they can draw minerals from the soil and can convert them into a form that is more easily used by the human body. Mineral content is often the key factor in a plant’s effectiveness as a medicine. One example of a plant high in minerals is horsetail. The high silica content in horsetail plants is used for arthritis because it supports the repair of connective tissue.

Salix lucida.
Shining willow (Salix lucida). Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Slippery elm.
Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra). Photo by Steve Baskauf.

Phenols: Phenols are plant compounds that are thought to be produced to protect against infection and herbivory by insects. They are often anti-inflammatory and antiseptic and can have anti-viral properties. Phenols vary in structure and range from salicylic acid (similar to aspirin) to complex sugar-containing phenolic acids. Wintergreen and willow contain salicylates. Members of the mint family often contain phenols.

Polysaccharides: Polysaccharides are found in all plants and comprised of multiple units of sugar molecules linked together. For medicinal purposes, the “sticky” polysaccharides produce mucilage or gums that are commonly found in bark, roots, leaves, and seeds. These sticky polysaccharides are able to soak up large quantities of water and form jelly like masses that can be used to treat dry or irritated tissues such as skin and mucous membranes.

Proanthocyanins: These compounds are pigments, which give fruits and flowers red, purple, or blue hues and are closely related to tannins and flavonoids. These compounds have been documented to be valuable in protection of circulation specifically in the heart, eyes, and feet. Red grapes, blackberries, and hawthorn berries all have high levels of proanthocyanins.

Saponins: This group of active compounds obtains its name from the fact that like soap, they produce lather when placed in water. There are two main forms of saponins: steroidal and triterpenoid. Steroidal saponins are very similar to the chemical structures of many of the human body’s hormones including estrogen and cortisol. Examples plants containing saponins include agave, wild yam, and several members of the lily family. Several native plants are used in a process to produce synthetic hormones for humans.

Gamble Oak.
Gambel Oak (Quercus gambellii). Oak bark is in high tannins. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Rose.
Rose hips are extremely high in
Vitamin C and are very delicious. Photo by Steve Dewey, Utah State University, Bugwood.org.

Tannins: Most plants produce tannins. Tannins serve as a deterrent to herbivory by insects and grazing animals given that that they provide a harsh unpalatable flavor. Tannins are also useful in curing leather because of their tendency to contract and astringe tissues by binding with precipitating proteins. Examples of plants high in tannins include oak bark and black catechu.

Vitamins: Many plants contain high levels of useful vitamins. Many well-known fruits and vegetables have high levels of vitamin C and beta-carotene. Lesser-known vitamin containing plants like watercress, rose hips, and sea buckthorn have high levels of vitamins B, C, and E.

Volatile oils: Volatile oils are extracted from plants and are used to produce essential oils that play a very important role in medicinal botany. These oils are often very complex and can be comprised of 100 or more compounds. These oils have many uses. For example, tea tree oil is a strong antiseptic. Resins and gums are often linked with essential oils, however these are not volatile.

Investigate Medicinal Plants