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What are Medicinal Plants?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 20, 2024
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Medicinal plants are plants that have a recognized medical use. They range from those used in the production of mainstream pharmaceutical products to plants used in herbal medicine preparations. Herbal medicine is one of the oldest forms of medical treatment in human history and could be considered one of the forerunners of the modern pharmaceutical trade. Plants that have medical uses can be found growing in many settings all over the world.

Some medicinal plants are wild crafted, meaning that they are harvested in the wild by people who are skilled at plant identification. Sometimes, plants cannot be cultivated, making wild crafting the only way to get them, and some people believe that wild plants have more medicinal properties. Wild crafting can also be done to gather herbs for home use, with people seeking them out to use in their own medicinal preparations.

Other plants may be cultivated. One of the advantages of cultivation is that it allows for greater control over growing conditions, which can result in a more predictable and consistent crop. Cultivation also allows for mass production, which makes plants more commercially viable, as they can be processed in large numbers and priced low enough that people will be able to afford them.

People who work with medicinal plants can process them in a variety of ways. Many plants contain pharmacologically active compounds that can be accessed by making teas, tisanes, and other preparations. Plants can also be blended with each other to achieve a desired outcome or processed to make homeopathic medicines, along with medicines designed for topical application, such as oils and creams.

The history of studying and working with medicinal plants is quite long. Many chemists are interested in studying plants that have not been researched before, to identify which compounds in the plants are active and to see how those compounds work. Usually, the goal is to develop a synthetic version of the compound that can be easily produced in a lab and packaged in pharmaceutical preparations. Chemists may also be interested in historic medical treatments, examining plants to see whether or not preparations used historically would have worked, and if they would have, how they would have worked.

Preparations made from these plants are available for sale in many health food stores and through the offices of naturopaths, practitioners of Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, and other alternative health care providers. Some preparations are widely used in the conventional medical community as well; preparations of aloe, for example, are commonly used to treat burns.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By OeKc05 — On Apr 11, 2012

Aloe vera plants are the best medicinal plants, in my opinion. I have one at home, and I break open the leaves when I need a soothing remedy for my sunburn.

I work outdoors a lot in the garden, so sometimes, even sunscreen isn't enough to keep me from getting a bit pink. Aloe can actually keep my red skin from peeling off if I apply it every night before bed. It also is so cooling to the hot area.

Aloe keeps me from itching so badly when I have an insect bite, too. My legs sometimes get eaten up by mosquitoes, so I apply fresh aloe to the bumps for relief.

By wavy58 — On Apr 10, 2012

@kylee07drg – Be careful where you plant it. If you have an area of your yard that can be sectioned off just for St. John's Wort, this would be best.

It is a creeping ground cover. This means it will likely take over and choke out the surrounding plants. It destroyed my mother's rose moss garden.

Also, be sure that no livestock will have access to it. My mother told me that it can be toxic to cattle. Since it creeps and spreads, don't plant it if you have a pasture anywhere near your yard.

By kylee07drg — On Apr 10, 2012

I am considering growing my own St. John's Wort. I have been using it as a supplement to treat my anxiety attacks for years, and I think it would be great to grow it myself.

Does anyone know what the plant looks like? Is it good to grow in a flower garden, or will it react negatively with my other flowers? I have roses, zinnias, and gladiolus growing in the garden, and I would love to incorporate a section of St. John's Wort.

The supplement has really helped lessen my anxiety. I will probably be taking it for the rest of my life, so growing it at home makes sense.

By orangey03 — On Apr 09, 2012

I like to grow medicinal plants from seed. That way, I don't have to spend a bunch of money at a health food store for a processed supplement. I can simply harvest the leaves or flowers and eat them or make tea from them as needed.

Of course, I am careful. I know that certain parts of some plants can be toxic. I keep a big book of information on hand, and I never do anything without consulting it first.

I am also careful to only grow plants that are not harmful to my pets. I have both dogs and cats, and I don't want them munching on my garden and getting sick.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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