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Echinacea tennesseensis photo courtesy of http://plants.usda.govGoldenseal, ginseng, echinacea, ginkgo - visit your local drug store or supermarket and you'll find large quantities of these products on the shelves, intermingled with old favorites like aspirin. Medicinal plants are used commercially, thanks to contributions of traditional cultures worldwide, modern medicine, and pharmacognosy.

Without plants, most medicines you take would not exist. Over 40% of medicines now prescribed in the U.S. contain chemicals derived from plants. Historically, plant medicines were discovered by trial and error. Our ancestors noticed that aches and pains went away when they drank tea made from the bark of a willow tree. Later, scientists found that willow bark contains salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.

This process continues today. Throughout the world, including the wild places in the U.S., botanists and chemists search the plant kingdom for new medicines. They sometimes find treasures in other people's trash. For years, the native Pacific yew was burned as trash generated by logging operations in the Pacific Northwest. In 1975, a substance in its bark, taxol, was found to reduce the production of cancerous tumors.

A comprehensive search of known plants for medicinal chemicals is an enormous task. Of the estimated 250,000 plant species on earth, only 2% have been thoroughly screened for chemicals with potential medicinal use. Because native plant habitats are destroyed almost daily, many medicinally valuable plants will be gone before scientists can even investigate them.

How many medicines have we already lost? How many more remain to be found?

2011 Medicinal Plant Working Group
Conservation Committee Projects

  • Participate in the continuation of long-term field studies located in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests of Virginia to monitor black cohosh:
    • Reddish Knob JUNE 16-19, 2011 - Details
    • Mt. Rogers JULY 14-17, 2011 - Details

Come one day or come all! Volunteers attending the entire 4-days of either field site will earn a Volunteer Citizen Scientist Certificate.  To register, or for any questions, click here.

MPWG has conducted inventory and monitoring projects on medicinal plants since 2000. These projects continue, thanks to the hard work of Dr. James Chamberlain of the U.S. Forest Service and numerous volunteers. Read the Announcements & Summaries from previous seasons.

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Last Updated: 26-Apr-2011