Ingenious plants

19/03/11

I meet Alex Laird at Fulham Palace, and we sit in the shade of a Cedar Tree as I talk through ideas for my project and ask her about specific plants. She tells me about some of the plants on the ‘Schedule III’ list – that only qualified herbalists can prescribe. She talks of Foxglove and Lily of the valley, both the source of powerful heart medicines; tells me that Yew is the source of the chemotherapy drug Taxol, and describes the properties of mistletoe, and the use of Belladonna by contemporary opticians. These plants are all examples of something that can be harmful if used in the wrong way, or in too large a dosage, but that are medicinally extremely useful when used correctly.

As I learn more about plants and herbalism, I realise that plants do not illustrate a neat metaphor about tipping points – they are far more complex than that. Herbalists treats their patients holistically, and the impact of a particular plant may vary from person to person. I wonder how and why plants have developed such potent chemicals that effect humans and animals so profoundly.

“Most of the ingenuity of plants – that is, most of the work of a billion years of evolutionary trial and error – has been applied to learning (or rather, inventing) the arts of biochemistry, at which plants excel beyond all human imagining… while we animals were busy nailing down things like locomotion and consciousness, the plants, without ever lifting a finger or giving it a thought, acquired an array of extraordinary and occasionally diabolical powers by discovering how to synthesise remarkably complicated molecules. The most remarkable of these molecules (at least from our perspective) are the ones designed expressly to act on the brains of animals, sometimes to attract their attention, but more often to repel and sometimes even destroy them.” (Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire)

The root of the word ‘Poison’ is the same as that of ‘Potion’: From the Latin Potare, ‘to drink’, indicating a draught with health-giving or toxic properties. There’s a fine line between medicine and poison, a delicate balance between a substance that supports health and life, or causes illness and death. The plants we look to for healing are powerful drugs that have a profound effect on the body. The art of medication is the art of preparation, and dosage.

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