A potted guide to medicines

About half of all drugs owe their origins to plants
12 September 2017

Interview with 

Richard Gant, Institute of Continuing Education


From aspirin through to antimalarials, as many as half of the drugs in a modern-day doctor’s bag owe their origins to plants. To find out how, Georgia Mills took a turn around the gardens at Madingley Hall, with the head gardener Richard Gant, for a potted guide to drugs...

Richard - We call this the medicinal border which we’ve divided up in a contemporary way into different sections. So we’ve got culinary with various culinary plants that the chefs use, and then we’ve herbal medicine here in front of where we’re standing, and then we go into dye plants, and finally, we then move into aromatherapy/perfumery plants.

Georgia - I can see a lot of bright colours over there in the dye section. But looking here at the herbal medicines section, so these are all plants which have some contribution to human medicine in the past or currently. Could you give me some examples?

Richard - If we start with this Chinese or Southern Wormwood. I’ll give you a chance to smell… So what do you reckon that smells like?

Georgia - Oh, it’s quite potent. It’s a bit like lemon sherbet or something.

Richard - It’s quite repellent like, isn’t it? This is Artemisia annua; it’s from China. The Chinese have used it for centuries for treating fevers and high temperatures.

Georgia - And it’s still useful today. A compound from the unassuming green plant is an important ally in our fight against malaria…

Richard - It’s not really particularly pretty.

Georgia - It doesn’t smell great.

Richard - And it doesn’t smell great. But, by gum, does it have a use.

Georgia - There are lots of quite exotic looking plants here that I don’t recognise, but I recognise that one. That’s the tomato, so what does the tomato cure?

Richard - We’ve got the tomato here because increasingly it’s being recognised that tomato contains the active ingredient lycopene. And cooked tomato, where the lycopene is released, they’re finding it’s a particularly good, strong antioxidant, particularly for the treatment of prostate cancer and so forth.

Georgia - Right. How long have plants been used in medicine?

Richard - Every since really man came on this Earth, plants have been used for medicinal purposes. Obviously, a science has developed; increasingly we’ve been able to understand it more. I think there was an awful lot of trial and error, and I would imagine there were some poor people who probably succumbed through the trial and error.

But Cambridge has a very strong record because William Turner, who published the first herbal, was a fellow of Pembroke around about the time Madingley Hall was built, so we’re talking about the mid sixteenth century. Then a little bit later Culpepper the famous apothecary was at Cambridge. His father was the Queen’s man, although his son eloped before he graduated. But, of course, he went on to have a practice in East London.

Georgia - So from ye olde apothecaries to today’s chemist, we have plants and their diverse chemistries to thank for so many of our modern medicines…

Richard - We just don’t know what’s out there and one of the things is, as deforestation takes place, we don’t know what we’re losing. It might be the ultimate cure to the biggest disease that man has ever known.


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