10 Unique Plants That Influenced Today’s Modern Medicine

8 min read

Forests cover 31% of the Earth’s surface and hold many secrets that are waiting for us to uncover. Over the centuries, humans have ventured into the forest to find plants for medicinal purposes. Fortunately, with today’s technological advancements, the medicinal powers of some unique plants have been harnessed to better fight against diseases. How are these plants unique? Let’s find out!

1. Pacific Yew Tree

The drug, paclitaxel, derived from the bark of this tree is a chemotherapy drug used against several types of cancers. As effective as chemotherapy is, it is notoriously known for its adverse side effects. These effects are due to the yew tree itself! The Pacific Yew tree is poisonous, and eating any parts of the tree raw could be potentially fatal (WHAT)! Remember, everything must be taken in moderation!

2. Madagascar Periwinkle

If you are not sure of how a periwinkle flower looks like, Google it! Periwinkle flowers come in the prettiest shades of pink, purple, blue and more. Not only does it look beautiful, it also has powerful medicinal properties. Vincristine and vinblastine are chemotherapy drugs derived from this plant, which are used to fight more types of cancers compared to paclitaxel from the yew tree. But (of course there is a but!), this plant is famous for its nature in causing systemic toxicity when consumed in high doses. Pretty, powerful and poisonous!

3. Gloriosa Lily a.k.a Flame Lily

Ask anyone around you if they know a person who suffers from gout. The chances of getting “yes” as an answer are high, especially in Singapore. Though gout was known to be a condition that afflicts the older generation, the younger ones are not spared from it either (GASP)! Thankfully, unique plants like the flame lily contain colchicine to relieve horrible pain and manage symptoms from gout attacks. These drugs allow gout patients to lead a normal life. Plants rock the world!

4. Cinchona Tree

The bark of this tree has been a popular source of the drug, quinine which has been an effective anti-malarial treatment for decades. High doses of quinine have been proven to have adverse side effects, so it is only used today in severe malaria cases when the first-line treatment of ACT (artemisinin-based combination therapy) is ineffective. Quinine is found in tonic water, but not to worry Gin & Tonic lovers, the quinine levels are way too low in tonic water to have any side effects!

5. White Willow Tree

For everyone who has fought wars against acne or is still fighting against them, salicylic acid is known to be one of the secret weapons found in skincare products (tested and proven by me!). Salicylic acid is derived from the active ingredient, salicin, which is found in the bark of the white willow tree. Plants to the rescue again! For centuries in China, the bark of this tree was ground and ingested as a pain relief drug. Salicin is converted to salicylic acid during digestion. However, this method of getting salicylic acid has side effects so let’s not go eating any willow trees just yet! Salicylic acid has safely been isolated and used in many skincare products and pain relief drugs today such as aspirin. Take a walk through your pharmacy and discover how many skincare products use salicyclic acid!

6. Opium Poppy

What? Is opium being used in Singapore? The Singaporean in me asked so many questions when I first learned about the use of opium. This historically significant plant, opium poppy, has sparked major debates for its medical applications. Opioid (opium-based) drugs such as morphine, derived from this plant are used to manage pain effectively in hospitals. In Singapore, however, the use of these drugs is very closely monitored due to their highly addictive nature. Opioid drug abuse has become a prevalent problem in many countries today. So much of good and bad from a little poppy flower! Who knew?

7. Coca Plant

Not to be mixed up with the cacao plant that gives us the delicious chocolates, the coca plant is grown to produce cocaine. Topical solutions for cocaine are used in clinical settings as an effective anaesthetic. A derivative of cocaine, lidocaine, is used as an anaesthetic for dental surgeries today. Is anyone reliving their wisdom teeth extraction surgery now? However, like opioid drugs, there is a significant risk of cocaine abuse, causing it to be classified as a controlled substance in Singapore.

8. Chinese Star Anise

Coming from an Indian household, the fragrant sweet and spicy smell of star anise is all too familiar for me. Not only is it used to make delicious curries, shikimic acid extracted from the star anise seed is the base ingredient for anti-viral drugs against influenza viruses. However, these anti-viral drugs are only recommended for high-risk patients due to the high possibility of the viruses developing resistance to the drugs under high doses.

9. Foxgloves 

You probably just had a fleeting image of a fox wearing gloves in your mind if you have never heard of the Foxglove plant. Well, I did! Foxglove is an uncommon creeper plant in Singapore. A substance called digitalin can be extracted from Foxglove to create drugs such as digoxin to treat cardiac conditions (a.k.a heart conditions). However, the use of these drugs is strictly limited to only certain cardiac conditions due to the strong side effects from the natural toxicity of the plant. 

10. Penicillium Chrysogenum 

This last one is especially unique as it used to belong to the plant kingdom during the discovery of its medical use in 1928. However, Penicillium chrysogenum got itself kicked out in 1969 as it did not fulfil the properties of a plant (SAD!). It is a mould and is now reclassified under the fungi kingdom. Alexander Fleming managed to isolate the first class of antibiotics and penicillin from this mould and mass-produced it into a type of conventional medicine from 1940 onwards. Well, I hate moulds in my home, but I guess I would have to like this one for giving us one of the strongest antibiotics!

The forests, knowing and unknowingly, have been providing us with everything we need to survive. Till today, scientists have yet to fully discover everything that these forests hold.   Let’s play our part in protecting and conserving the forests and the precious secrets that we may have yet to unearth! Take a walk in your neighbourhood park and appreciate the wonderful and unique plants around you!

Like these unique plants? Spread the love with these stickers today!

Written by Sharmin Taj
Illustrations by Chua Jia Qi


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