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Passion for Pharmacognosy… Passion for Nature

Not too long ago (okay, maybe about 20 years), I was sitting in class in my first year of pharmacy school when I first heard the term pharmacognosy. The class was invited to visit the beautiful greenhouse on campus, and it soon became one of my favorite places to visit… and think. Walking around the various botanicals while breathing in the refreshing scents of nature, I was consistently re-energized and recentered. As I was just beginning to recognize certain plants from where many pharmaceutical drugs originate, I couldn’t help but wonder… for all the facts we know about those specific plants, how many are out there in the world that exist without us knowing their true benefit, as well as risks? As I attended a private Christian college, I felt excited to know that God created these substances for us to study and use. A beautiful Eden He created…Bella Eden.

Okay, so what exactly is pharmacognosy? It is the study, or branch of knowledge, concerned with medicinal drugs obtained from plants or other natural sources. Exciting, right?! There is a big world out there with magnificent and stunning blooms, as well as useful roots and other parts of plants. Every day, we learn more and more about them and how they impact human bodies. Science and technology continue to shed new light on specific pathways in which plants can target certain health conditions. Here is a little history lesson… bear with me!

In AD 77, Dioscorides, who was a physician in Nero’s Army and is known as the father of pharmacognosy, wrote De MateriaMedica, which provides information about various medicinal plants. Although the term “pharmacognosy” was first used in 1811 by Johann Adam Schmidt in his handwritten manuscript Lehrbuch der MateriaMedica, the history of phytomedicines dates back to prehistoric ages and ancient Egyptians.

A written manuscript inscribed on a Sumerian clay slab, thought to be approximately 5000 years old, referencing the usage of medicinal plants in drug preparation was discovered in Nagpur, India. It outlined twelve preparations made from 250 varieties of plants including poppy, mandrake, and henbane.

A Chinese book, Pen T’Sao, scripted by Emperor ShenNung circa 2500 BC includes 365 drugs made from dried plant parts, mostly grasses and roots. Many of these are still used today, such as camphor, Rheirhisoma, Podophylum, Theae folium, ginseng, jimson weed, cinnamon bark, great yellow gentian, and ephedra.

Ancient Indian holy scripts, Vedas, detail information about medicinal plant-based treatments with spice plants like pepper, clove, and nutmeg.

The Ebers Papyrus from around 1550 BC has an enormous collection of 800 drug recipes using plant species like aloe, castor oil plant, common centaury, coriander, fig, garlic, juniper, onion, pomegranate, senna, and willow.

The Bible and Talmud mention the use of incense, myrtle, and aromatic plants during traditional rituals.

Homer’s epics from 800 BC like The Iliad and The Odysseys described 63 species of plants from Minoan, Myceaean, and Egyptian Assurian pharmacotherapy named after mythological characters such as Inula helenium L. Asteraceae – Elecampane named after Elena, the center of Trojan War; Artemisia genus plants restoring strength and protecting health were named artemis, a Greek work for “healthy.”

Various plants have been mentioned in ancient epics during 500 BC, Herodotus noted castor oil plant, Orpheus indicated the use of garlic, fragrant hellebore, and Pythagoras mentioned Scillamaritima or sea onion, cabbage, and mustard. Hippocrates script in 459–370 BC included 300 medicinal plants categorized on the basis of their actions—Wormwood and common centaury (Centaurium umbellatum Gilib) used to treat fever; garlic for intestinal parasites; deadly nightshade, henbane, opium, and mandrake used as narcotics; haselwort, fragrant hellebore used as emetics; celery, sea onion, asparagus, parsley, and garlic used as diuretics; pomegranate, oak as astringents; and the list goes on.

De Causis Plantarium—Plant Etiology and De Historia Plantarium—Plant History, with classification of about 500 medicinal plants, written by Theophrast during 371–287 BC, were the base of botanical science. Theophrast is known as “the father of botany '' and mentioned iris rhizome, cinnamon, mint, cardamom, false hellebore, monkshood, pomegranate, and fragrant hellebore as medicinal plants.

Celsus, in his medical writing "De re medica" during 25 BC–AD 50 mentioned about 250 medicinal plants—false hellebore, aloe, flax, henbane, pepper, poppy, cinnamon, cardamom, and star gentian.

As mentioned above, Dioscorides, wrote De MateriaMedica in AD 77, which described over 650 medications made from over 940 plants or plant parts. In addition, he wrote about the methods of preparing these remedies. Common plants he used were deadly nightshade, fragrant hellebore, poppy, false hellebore, jimson weed, buttercup and henbane. Chamaemelon or Camomile, common centaury, coriander, false hellebore, garlic, ivy, marshmallow, nettle, onion, parsley, sage, sea onion, and willow have been the most favorite domestic plants. Chamomile (Matricaria recucita L.), an antiphlogisticis, was used for treating wounds, burns, stings, ulcers, cleaning and rinsing of eyes, mouth, nose, ears, even in children and showed an abortive property, proved by Romans and Arabs. Dioscorides differentiated species of genus Mentha, relieving stomach ache and headache. Sea onion bulbs and parsley were used as diuretics; oak bark as an aid in gynecological problems; white willow as an antipyretic; and Scillae bulbus as a cardiac stimulant, an expectorant and antihydrotic.

Medicinally useful plants continued to spread throughout the world with the help of voyages by Vasco De Gagama. Gardens were set up throughout Europe with domestic as well as imported botanicals.

Paracelsus (1493–1541) believed in collecting raw plants and minerals at an astrologically determined time period and using them in medicinal preparations.

In 18th century, Linnaeus (1707–88), in species Plantarum penned in 1753, described and classified all existing species, using polynomial system with first word as genus and rest of the phrase explaining the plant properties, later altering the system in binominal one, in which genus was named with initial letter capital and species name with small letter.

In the early 19th century, knowledge and use of medicinal plants were on the rise. Beginning of scientific pharmacy was marked with discovery, extraction, and isolation of alkaloids from Poppy in 1806, Ipecacuanha and Strychnos in 1817, Quinine in 1820, Pomegranate in 1878, etc. and that of glycosides. This led to the discovery of active substances like etheric oils, hormones, saponosides, vitamins, and tannins.

In late 19th century and early 20th century, medicinal plants showed some disadvantages like their healing action being dependent on mode of drying, but later it was proved that pure alkaloids acted fast but alkaloid drugs were better with long-lasting effect. Later, in the early part of the 20th century, medicinal plants with sensitive biocomponents were subjected to stabilization methods and a lot of attention was paid to conditions of cultivation of medicinal plants and manufacturing of drugs from them.

Fast forward, once again, to myself sitting in pharmacy school. There were two overarching themes that were instructed. One, drugs can cure and drugs can cause. Two, just because it is natural, doesn’t mean there are risks. The example that was given is that rattlesnakes are natural. Whether from natural resources or synthetic, there is a window of therapeutic effects where too much of the substance can be toxic and too little can be ineffective. Pharmacognosy helps us to understand both the benefits of nature’s gifts and where that balance for safety lies.

What a beautiful world we live in! So many secrets yet to discover! How exciting is that?! At Bella Eden Farms, we are excited to bring nature into our products. Whether your goal is to relax, protect, moisturize, or glow, let us do the science. You get to enjoy the results!

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