Plant or Prescription?

We know that plants can be used as medicine, but did you know many modern day pharmaceuticals developed and sold today were originally extracted from or inspired by plants?

As written in a 2012 article published in an Australian journal, Metabolites:

“According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80% of people still rely on plant-based traditional medicines for primary health care and 80% of 122 plant derived drugs were related to their original ethnopharmacological purpose. The knowledge associated with traditional medicine (complementary or alternative herbal products) has promoted further investigations of medicinal plants as potential medicines and has led to the isolation of many natural products that have become well known pharmaceuticals”. 

Hemp-based products have a bad reputation, but in reality, the use of plants and herbs as medicine outdates the modern practice of medicines and the sale of pharmaceutical products. 

Here are some plant-inspired pharmaceuticals that you may not know about, and others that you may recognize!

Acetylsalicylic Acid


Aspirin, also known as acetylsalicylic acid, is a widely used pain reliever and fever reducer whose pharmaceutical production and use dates back to the mid to late 1800s.

In fact, its common name, aspirin, was originally coined by it’s biggest producer, and includes a portion of the plant’s scientific name, Spiraea ulmaria. 

Aspirin's modern use is often credited to to Englishman Edward Stone, who ran experiments on dried willow bark extract in the late 1700s.  Historically, the extract’s recorded use dates back to 400 BC, where it was a commonly used fever reducer. 

Willow bark (also known as white willow bark) extract is a safe, natural alternative to lab synthesized aspirin. Products are usually found in the form of tinctures, teas, or capsules.
Other natural sources of this extract include birch tree bark and meadowsweet plants (pictured). 

As with all herbal supplements, check with a physician or pharmacist before adding supplements to your routine. 


(Prescription Pain Medications)

Well known for their addictive properties and high potential for abuse, many modern day prescription pain medications are forms of Opium (Lachryma papaveris), an extract derived from poppy flowers (Papaver somniferum, Pictured).

The opium poppy has a long history of use of both recreational and medicinal use, dating back to the early Greek empire. Its “modern” use, however, dates back to the early 1800s where morphine (isolated from the plant source by French pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner) was used as a pain reliever during the American Civil War.  During this time, morphine was also used as a treatment for opium addiction. It’s addictive properties were quickly discovered, and the long history of “war” against its use began.
After the discovery of the morphine, the synthesis of the more commonly known modern-day derivatives (heroin for pain, codeine for cough) began in the mid to late 1800s, and the list of products produced and uses that have come and gone over the years is lengthy. As of today there are well over 30 derivatives readily available (prescription and illegal forms of the drug) in spite of their well known potential to cause both physical and psychological dependence. 

Here in the United States, we remain the largest consumers of prescription opioids in the world.  

There are many safe and healthy alternatives to traditional narcotic pain relievers. More information coming soon. 


(Digitek, Lanoxin)

First discovered in the early 1700s , digoxin remains an constant in the treatment of serious heart conditions(heart failure, irregular heartbeat). 

Historically (prior to its modern discovery by Sydney Smith and use in the 1930s ), extracts from the foxglove plant have been used for similar conditions, with "dropsy" (an old term used to describe the fatigue and fluid retention associated with heart failure) being the most common use.

Digitalin is found in all plants in this family (such as Digitalis purpurea, pictured), but was originally extracted from Digitalis lanata (this is where the brand name comes from).

One of the major issues concerning the use of digoxin is its high potential for causing adverse effects ranging from nausea and vomiting to visual disturbances and cardiac arrest. 

This has caused the prescription version of this medication to begin to fall out of favor as safer medications enter the market. 

Oral use of the plant product is not recommended (all parts of the plant are poisonous, even in small amounts), though in many places around the world, plant extracts are used for the treatment of a variety of conditions, including topical preparations for wounds, for removing excess fluid, and even for the treatment of asthma. 


Epidolex, Marinol, Cesamet

The hemp (cannabis) plant ,Cannabis indica has a long and colorful history of use as a drug for both recreational and medicinal use. Flowers as old as 10,000 years old have been found, and mention of the plant dates back to about 5000 years ago in China, were it was listed in a medical guide as being an effective treatment for over 100 medical conditions. 

In more modern history, medical use was previously permitted in the early 19th century, and cannabis was listed in the USP (United States Pharmacopeia, a guide for pharmaceutical standards published annually) until 1942. 

Its removal was as a part of a treaty intended to prohibit international trade, production, and supply of the cannabis plant. 

Much of the modern-day research on the plant takes place in Israel. In fact, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabidol (known as THC) was discovered as the primary active substance in cannabis by organic chemist Raphael Mechoulam at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

Here in the United States, there are no prescription medications containing natural forms of THC. However, the compound has been the inspiration for the synthetic drugs Marinol and Cesamet, both used almost exclusively in cancer patients. 

More recently, a pure cannabidiol derivative, Epidiolex, gained prescription drug status for use in children with severe seizure disorders.  

While legal use of THC is fairly limited in the United States, there is growing support for the medical use of marijuana under the supervison of a licensed doctor. CBD is also growing in popularity, and is available for any adult aged person to use (age varies by state). 

Both compounds havea a long list of conditions they help to alleviate, and many of them have solid research to back up the claims that are made on its efficacy. 


Transderm Scop, Scopace

Been on a cruise lately? Did you use prescription sea sickness patches? Scopolamine (known internationally as hyoscine) , the active ingredient in motion sickness patches, was originally isolated in 1880 by German scientist Albert Ladenburg.

Scopolamine can be found in a variety of plants known as the nightshade family of plants. These extracts, isolated from many plants in this family, are some of the strongest extracts of their type known to man. Natural sources include Jimson Weed(pictured) , Hyoscyamus, Scopolia Plants. 

These plants are naturally poisonous and should not be eaten from the wild. 


Isopto Carpine

Pilocarpine is a medication used in the form of eyedrops for the treatment of glaucoma, and can also be taken by mouth as a treatment for certain auto-immune conditions that lead to dry eyes and dry mouth. It was first isolated in 1874.

To this day, the only known source of this extract is the South American plant known as Maranham Jaborani (Pylocarpus microphyllus, pictured).  Native to Brazil, Jaborani  (also known as Brazillian Teakwood)  wood is popular for in-home wood flooring, and jaborani leaf extract is also a popular remedy used internationally for its anti-inflammatory properties. 

The extract is also popular in beauty products sold for treatment of hair loss, dry scalp, and to promote hair growth.

All commercial production of pilocarpine containing prescription products are still dependent on using the extract directly from Jaborani leaves. 


Although the name may not sound familiar, more than likely, you’ve come across this medication. Used by eye doctors to dilate pupils during an exam, this use is similar to its historical use. 

Dating as far back as ancient Egyptian civilization, atropine (extract of Egyptian Henbane, a relative of the scopolamine containing plants, or as juice from Atropa Belladonna, pictured) was used to dilate womens’ pupils (this is also how the species got its name!), as this was believed to make a woman more alluring.

 Over the years, it has also been used as a recreational drug, and as an herbal treatment for gout, pain, and insomnia. It’s modern use can be attributed to a German pharmacist, Heinrich Mein, who was the first to reduce extracts from Atropa Belladona, into a pure form that could be made into pharmaceutical products. 

Today, it is used primarily in pre operative and hospice care settings to reduce the amount of secretions produced by the lungs and in the mouth. 

The pure plant form is extremely toxic (one of the most toxic plants in this hemisphere), and can be fatal in extremely small doses.