June 8, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Weeds to Your Health

Why traverse the rain forests for miracle drugs, EurekAlert asks, when the weeds we yank out of our gardens may hold promise for curing a host of common health woes.  John Richard Stepp (University of Florida) claims that fast-growing, herbaceous field plants are more likely to hold useful substances than those deep in jungles.  Indigenous Americans tended to gather more medicinal plants from the fields than the forests.  Though weeds constitute only 3% of plant species, they make up a third of the plants used in pharmaceuticals, he discovered.
    Stepp also worked among indigenous peoples and found they had considerable knowledge about their native plants.  In Chiapas, he found that “Mayan residents use weeds for all sorts of day-to-day illnesses, such as common colds, upset stomachs, skin rashes, and aches and sprains.”  He talked with 4- and 5-year old Mayan children who could name 100 local plants.  “An American kid might be able to name 100 Pokemon characters, but if you ask him the names of three plants, he would probably have a real hard time,” he remarked.
    Stepp and other botanists feel there is a veritable living pharmacy right outside the door and along trailsides.  This overlooked treasury is readily available, costs nothing, and is often more effective than synthetic drugs.  But heed their caution: “Americans may be able to get similar benefits from weeds as do people in developing countries, although he warns that people shouldn’t experiment on their own.”

How many native plants in your neighborhood can you name, and how many do you know how to use?  Teaching your children about local native plants is much more profitable than letting them waste time watching Pokemon or whatever the latest fad on TV.  For today’s jaded youth, it’s a pretty cool discovery that it’s possible to reach down and pick a wild plant to eat, use another as a natural sunscreen or insect repellant, and find one to make soap or rope.  You must exercise great caution, however, since there are poisons and irritants to avoid (remember the joke about poison ivy?  It’s an “all-natural herb that does wonders to your skin.”)  Find a knowledgeable teacher, preferably part Indian guide and part PhD botanist, and use a reliable book on wild plants.  Be extra wary of mushrooms, since even experts can confuse edible ones with poisonous look-alikes.  But you never know; learning how to use wild plants could save your life some day.  Camps, recreation centers and parks should incorporate plant lore into their activities.
    The study of native plants also provides an opportunity for research labs to apply good scientific method, employing carefully controlled experiments, to make discoveries for the benefit of mankind – like science used to be done.  It requires no Darwinian storytelling, either, weed reckon.

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