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Plants That Changed The World

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Author Topic: Plants That Changed The World  (Read 1530 times)
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« Reply #15 on: November 06, 2008, 11:39:53 am »


              Coca leaves.

              Photo by Steven R. King,

                                             THE WONDERS OF THE COCA PLANT

The name coca (Erythroxylum coca) comes from an Aymara word meaning simply "tree."

In Andean cultures, the leaves of the coca tree have been primarily chewed to obtain the benefits.

From ancient times, indigenous people have added an alkaline such as crushed seashells or burnt plant ashes to the leaves in order to activate the pharmacologically part of coca.

Literally dozens of different plant species have been utilized by different groups; the coqueros (coca users) were wise not only in how to use the plants, but in how to combine them in order to facilitate
the release of active principles.

Coca is used as a folk medicine for ailments as diverse as toothache and altitude sickness.

Coca has been and continues to be of importance not only for social and medicinal purposes, but the
coca leaves themselves also show significant amounts of nutrients, including more iron and calcium than many of the food crops grown in the Andes.

There is the belief among some Peruvian scientists that the low incidence of osteoporosis among Andean Indians is due in part to the high level of calcium in the leaves.
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« Reply #16 on: November 06, 2008, 11:50:39 am »

Scientists in Europe took little interest in coca until 1859, when an Italian neurologist, Paolo Mantegazza,
wrote about the hygienic and medicinal virtues of the leaves.

In 1860, a year later, a German chemist isolated the chemical responsible for the plant's power,
****. Carl Koler found **** could act as a local anesthetic in eye surgery.

As the years passed, scientists found **** paralyzed nerve endings responsible for transmitting
pain. As a local anesthetic, it revolutionized several surgical and dental procedures.

Poster advertising Vin Mariana,
a wine containing coca.

Photo by Steven R. King,

In the 1860's, a variety of ailments began to be treated with products derived from both coca and ****.

A number of coca tonics became available, including a red Bordeaux wine combined with an extract of select
coca leaves, called Vin Tonique Mariani. Manufactured in Paris, this elixir became the most popular prescription remedy in the world and was used by many celebrities, perhaps the most noted being Pope Leo XIII, who
awarded the wine a Vatican gold medal and carried it around in a hip flask.

****, coca's derivative, has found many uses in developed countries, some positive and some quite detri-

Today in medicine, coca has given us the chemical blueprint for a number of man-made substances
that have local anesthetic properties of **** without the side effects.

But in politics world-wide coca has become controversial due to the illegal use of its **** derivative.

 Many would like to see coca eliminated completely.

Andrew Weil, an ethnobotanist and medical doctor, wrote,

"Washington wants to eradicate coca.

But Andean Indians contend that is a mistake to demonize the plant they hold sacred,
and a surprising new coalition of scientists and politicians agrees."
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« Reply #17 on: November 06, 2008, 12:07:59 pm »

                                       FROM DART POISON TO MUSCLE RELAXANT

In the sixteenth century, a group of Spanish explorers traveled the Amazon River.

During the voyage, one explorer was hit in the hand by an arrow and died soon after. The culprit
was curare, used widely as an arrow poison by many Amazon Indian groups (as it is still used by a
few today).

The complex processes used to make curare were a guarded secret. Often 30 or more ingredients
could be found in one recipe.

Indigenous Amazonians often mixed plants of different genera to concoct their potent toxins; their
skill and knowledge in safely preparing these poisons is a testimony to their incredible ingenuity.

Amazonian curares are divided into two groups based upon the container the plant is stored in: pots
or tubes.

Pot curare in the East Amazon is predominately from the species Strychnos guianensis.

Tube curare in the West Amazon is from Chrondrodendron tomentosum.
(The curare in modern medicine is made from the latter species, therefore, its name: tubocurarine.)

For many centuries the exact content of curare remained a mystery to Western observers; not until 1800 did Alexander Von Humboldt witness and document the preparation of curare by the Indians
from the Orinco River.

In 1814, an explorer named Charles Waterton injected a donkey with curare. Within ten minutes, the donkey appeared dead. Waterton cut a small hole in her throat and inserted a pair of bellows, then pumped to inflate the lungs. The donkey held her head up and looked around. Waterton continued artificial respiration for two hours until the effects of curare had worn off. Curare was found to block
the transmission of nerve impulses to muscle, including the diaphragm muscle, which controls breathing.

In 1939, the active ingredient of curare was isolated.

In 1943, it was introduced successfully into anesthesiology.

Curare provided adequate muscle relaxation without the depressant effect of deep anesthesia induced by ether or chloroform.

Over the last 20 years, physicians have used curare to ease the stiffened muscles caused by polio and to treat such diverse conditions as lockjaw, epilepsy, and cholea (a nervous disorder characterized by uncontrollable muscle movements).

Eventually more effective treatments were found for these illnesses, but the active ingredient of curare, d-tubocurarine, led to the skeletal muscle relaxant Intocostrin, used in surgery ever since.

Synthetic analogs of d-tubocurarine are used tens of thousands of times per day in the operating room.
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« Reply #18 on: November 06, 2008, 12:11:15 pm »

                                               TREATMENT FOR AN EYE DISEASE

Pilocarpine is used to treat glaucoma.
Photo by Steven R. King, 1996.

If you hold the leaf of the jaborandi tree (Pilocarpus jaborandi) up to the light, you see translucent droplets on its surface. Each droplet is a gland that secretes an alkaloid-rich oil.

Several substances are extracted from this aromatic oil, including the alkaloid pilocarpine, a weapon against the blinding disease glaucoma.

The shrub-like jaborandi tree is native to Northern Brazil.

Brazilian folk medicine often uses a tea made from the leaves as a diuretic and sweat-inducer.

Applied to the scalp, it is said to prevent baldness.

An infusion of the powdered leaves has been used as a stimulant and expectorant in diabetes and asthma.

It has been incorporated into the treatment of a number of diseases including pleurisy (inflammation
of the lung tissue) and rheumatism (muscle and joint pain).

Pilocarpine assists in the transmission of impulses from the ends of autonomous nerves to the working muscles. These nerves trigger such functions as the beating of the heart and the focusing of the eye.

When applied to the eye of a person suffering from early stages of glaucoma, pilocarpine stimulates
the muscle that contracts the pupil to relieve eye pressure. Since the disease blinds by building up pressure until the eye can no longer function, pilocarpine can save eyesight.

Pilocarpine has found other medical applications as well.

At present, for example, it is used in tablet form, under the name Salegen, to treat xerostoma, or dry mouth syndrome.

Interestingly, in the Tupi Indian language, the name for the jaborandi is the "slobber-mouth plant," and its long-standing use in Brazil has been to induce salivation. Had we listened more closely to what the indigenous people of Brazil called their folk remedy and questioned its purposes in their medicinal storehouse of knowledge, the development of our dry-mouth syndrome product might have come years earlier.
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« Reply #19 on: November 06, 2008, 12:15:07 pm »

                                        THE MEDICINAL USES OF THE PINEAPPLE

In 1493, Columbus came across the pineapple (Ananas comosos) on the island of Guadeloupe.

The natives who cultivated these fruits called them ananas and believed that they had been brought from the Amazon many generations earlier by the warlike Caribs. (This oral history may be true, as pineapple-shaped jars have been found in pre-Incan burial sites in Brazil.)

A few explorers had observed that Indians used pineapple poultices to reduce inflammation in wounds and other skin injuries. Native people also drank the juice to aid digestion and to cure stomach ache.

In 1891 an enzyme that broke down proteins (bromelain) was isolated from the flesh of the pineapple, accounting for many of the pineapple's healing properties.

It has been found that bromelain can also break down blood clots, which consist mainly of protein.

Research continues.

This enzyme may well play a major part in heart attack treatment in the near future, as well as in the treatment of burned tissue, abscesses, and ulcers.
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« Reply #20 on: November 06, 2008, 12:17:33 pm »

                                              WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

In the early part of the century, plants were a vital source of raw material for medicines.

Later, techniques were developed to produce synthetic replacements for many of the medicines that had been derived from the forest.

But recently, problems with drug resistant microorganisms, side effects of modern drugs, and emerging diseases where no medicines are available, have encouraged an interest in plants once again as a significant source of new medicines. Modern-day researchers are coming to appreciate fully the vast medicinal knowledge of the indigenous people.

Companies from developed countries are now researching plants, some of which are known to have
been used for medicinal purposes and others which offer potential.

One South San Francisco company in particular, Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Inc., emphasizes a respect-
ful collaboration with native and indigenous peoples as their primary method of drug discovery.

With further research and exploration, doubtless many other medicines await discovery in the Americas.
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« Reply #21 on: November 06, 2008, 12:21:07 pm »


              Quechua Andean boy of Chincheros
              standing near Oxalia tuberosa.

              Soil is removed to expose tubers.

              Photo by Steven R. King,

                                                       Tubers from the Andes:

                                                      Extinction or Propagation

Steven R. King, Ph.D.,
Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Inc.,
South San Francisco, CA -
Adapted from Garden Vol.10, No. 6,
pp.6-11, Nov/Dec 1986.


Gifts from the Mountain

The Variety of Propagated Tubers and their Possible Loss

A Change Once Again


Today as in ancient times, the Andean people believe things tend to turn back upon themselves.

In Quechua, the family of languages from the Andes, pacha kuti means a periodic turnaround of the direction of the earth, a reversal in the direction of history and time.

This age-old concept of reversal may now apply to ancient Andean tuber crops. Colorful crops domesticated from wild relatives that still exist, these vital foods have been consumed for more than 3,000 years by millions of Andean people.

Unfortunately, many species of these tuber-bearing plants are in danger of disappearing, a result largely of the introduction of Western crops to the Andes.

Recently, however, Indian crop plants have become the focus of worldwide attention. Researchers are looking for new ways to use these valuable food sources. As pacha kuti suggests, there may be yet another change of direction:

                                             A return to the crops of the ancients.
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« Reply #22 on: November 07, 2008, 08:06:11 am »

                                                           Gift From The Mountains

Drawing by David Wood,
Genentech Graphics Department

For centuries, Andean farmers have selected and bred a wide range of tuber-producing species. The cultivars found in local Andean markets are staggering in their diversity, color, taste, and, as we are now finding, nutritional value. These food plants are similar in some respects, but are nevertheless distinct botanically.

Anu (Tropaeolum tuberosum) is in the same genus as the garden nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) and resembles it in growth. The flowers of anu are eaten, but it is the tubers in their many colors, shapes, and sizes that are most widely consumed. In the cities and countryside, anu is cooked into stews and dishes with eggs, onions and greens. Anu has also been used for its medicinal value. Timothy Johns, an ethnobiologist specializing in Andean chemical ecology, has run clinical tests on the anu. He has found that anu contains glucosinulates that when cooked or ruptured release isothiocyanates, or mustard oils. Testing these isothiocyanate compounds in mice, he has found that they possibly produce some of the pharmacological activities--antibiotic, diuretic, anti-aphrodisiac, insecticidal--that Andeans have claimed.


Drawing by David Wood, Genentech Graphics Department

Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) is an annual herb with a widespread genus that produces tubers in shades of red, pink,
cream, orange, white, and green. The sweeter varieties taste like star fruit (Averrhoa carambola) which is from
a tree of the same family as oca (Oxalidaceae). Andeans steam oca and mix it with cane syrup to produce a
treat called caya. Oca is cooked in stews with meat. Varieties with low levels of oxalic acid are eaten raw.

Ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus) is the only species of its genus. Its tubers are eaten in soups, stews, salads, and a number of regional specialty dishes. The best-liked species in Colombia is a curved pink type called "shrimp of
the earth."

All three tuberous plants, ulloca, oca, and anu, thrive in the harsh mountain conditions of the Andes, tolerating
daily fluctuations of heat and cold, high winds, and steep sloping terrain. They must resist frosts and periodic
heavy rains. Our fourth Andean tuber, maca, must also grow under the extremes of high-altitude.

Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is in the mustard family Brassicaceae. The Spanish who arrived in highland Peru during
the Conquest reported that maca was widely used, but today it is found only in the Puna region. At an elevation
of 13,500 feet, Puna is one of the coldest and least hospitable places to cultivate crops in the Andes. Maca is
one of the few Puna plants domesticated by humans. It is baked fresh, mixed with milk to form a porridge, and
mixed with other liquids to form a butterscotch-like drink. Native Andeans feed maca leaves to guinea pigs, which are a domesticated protein source in the Andes.

Unlike the other three tubers discussed above, maca is propagated by seed, in a complex process. The Andeans select maca tubers to replant, grow, and set seed; the next season they plant the seeds in fields grazed by sheep. The sheep eat other native perennials while their manure fertilizes the growing maca. In Lima, maca is sold for its reputed fertility-enhancing properties. Following Andean practices, the Spanish fed the plant to domestic animals
to enhance reproduction, which tends to be low at high altitudes.
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« Reply #23 on: November 07, 2008, 08:14:04 am »


               Tubers in hand
               (wild crop relative of
               Ullucus tuberosas).

               Photo by
               Steven R. King.

                                The Variety of Propagated Tubers and Their Possible Loss

Domesticated Andean plants first appeared in roughly 5500 B.C. Through the centuries, the Andean farmers selected and bred their plants to create an incredible diversity of properties. Today, the wild relatives of ulluco and anu are fairly uniform in form and appearance (phenotype). In contrast we have seen how the domesticated species are marvelously varied in their characteristics. Of the four tubers described, only maca reproduces sexually in either the wild or cultivated forms. If ulluco, oca, and anu have not reproduced sexually in the recent past, then how can modern domesticated species be so variable?

It seems that enterprising native agriculturists were able to take advantage of mutations that occurred over time in the plant tissue itself (genotype). Since the crops reproduced vegetatively, farmers could select, year after year, for plants which possessed the characteristics they desired. Tubers, for example, should be superior in yield, cooking and processing, taste, and storage. Color and form are also important in the Andean culture and the beautiful tubers, like the extraordinary Andean textiles, reflect this appreciation of pattern and color.

Unfortunately, a number of these native, highly selected, well adapted, and nutritious food crops are in danger of being lost. In Colombia, native Huambiano farmers no longer cultivate oca, because they believe potatoes are more desirable for the market; they only cultivate anu in their house gardens. Agronomist
Dr. Mario Tapia notes that the highland Indians perceive as "modern" such introduced, nutritionally inferior foods as white rice, abandoning cultivation of their own ecologically well adapted and nutritious grains and tubers. In the process, they lose the valuable cultivars that selection has created over centuries.

Until recently local agronomic agencies did not consider the native cultivars worth improving.
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« Reply #24 on: November 07, 2008, 08:28:21 am »

                                                       A Change Once Again

Fortunately, we have recently seen a resurgence in interest in the preservation of both crops and the methods of the ancient peoples. In response to the rapid erosion of Andean tubers and other crops, the United States National Research Council sponsored a seminar on "forgotten" Inca crops in March 1984. U.S. researchers reported on what is known of endemic Andean crops. Following the seminar, Dr. Steven R. King, an ethnobotanist, initiated a project investigating the nutrition and selection process of these highland tubers. Biochemical analysis of oca, ulluco, and anu revealed the great variety of nutritional and protein content from one tuber species to another and between the three genera. Research has been revealing the many possibilities of these nutritious foods.

Agricultural researchers and conservationists, both in the Andes and around the world, are working
to conserve the tuber species by expanding germplasm repositories. They are not only collecting and conserving specimens, but are evaluating agricultural potential and performing nutritional analyses. Other agronomists and conservation agencies, devoted to resource conservation in developing nations, have identified communities that still maintain a wide range of traditional species and have encouraged these communities to create and maintain their own seed banks and to participate in the preservation
of their local crops.

Another approach has involved the exchange and distribution of Andean tuber germplasm to other areas of the world. For example, germplasm of oca has been sent to the Himalayas of Nepal. The aim of these exchanges is to increase crop diversity in mountainous areas or other harsh habitats. The long-term goals include slowing the migration of rural people to urban areas by increasing the rural food supply and improving food self-sufficiency in areas with limited agricultural land.

New uses and new markets for the tubers are also being investigated. Scientists, for example, are experimenting with extracting starch and flour from freeze-dried oca. And some tubers have been successfully exported. Oca, for example, has been introduced to New Zealand, where it is called a
yam and is an accepted dietary product.

Finally, as part of an interdisciplinary effort, a number of ethnobotanical and anthropological studies are under way. The research of Quechua-speaking ethnobotanist Christine Franquemont and anthropologist Edward Franquemont in Chinchero, Peru, is illuminating the subtle tapestry of Quechua thought and culture. These two are discovering the logic behind Quechua systems of plant classification and relating it to Western classification systems. They hope to learn more about how native Andean people manipulate and manage their natural resources to provide the food, textiles, medicines, and shelter
they need.
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« Reply #25 on: November 07, 2008, 08:30:24 am »


The colorful and vital tubers we have discussed are only part of the traditional agricultural heritage
of Andean South America.

More than 20 crops have been domesticated in this zone.

International research efforts to select commercially promising, highly palatable varieties of legumes
and pseudo-cereals are under way in the U.S. and Europe. Many Andean scientists are expanding research programs, to improve yield, disease resistance, and storage of crops. These crops hold
great promise for the world, and with increased international agronomic attention, some could well become crops familiar in Western diet, while the tubers in particular could be integrated into the lives
of people in other mountainous areas.

The increased utilization of the plants in their native Andes is likely to have particular benefit for the Andeans, including both greater food self-sufficiency and improved nutrition of both rural and urban populations. It is the tubers, especially, whose renaissance is welcome, because these cultivars serve as metaphors for the continued durability and vibrancy of Andean culture.
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« Reply #26 on: November 13, 2008, 02:57:01 pm »

                                                     Indians of the New World

J. Grahame Clark, speaking of the contributions made by the Indians of North and South America to the Old World, has this to say: ("New World Origins," Antiquity, 14(54), June, 1940, 118)

"Baron Nordenskiold, unlike some European theorizers, who found it difficult to credit the aborigines with the ability to raise their own civilization independently of the Old World inspiration, had spent many long and arduous years in the field of South American archaeology, and his conclusions carried with them outstanding authority.

In addition to many technical inventions he attributed to the American Indian the achievement of domesticating the animal and plant life of his habitat so effectively that, during the four centuries since the Discovery, the White Man had failed to make a single contribution of importance.

The native fauna gave poor scope, but from it he domesticated the llama, alpaca, guinea-pig, and turkey. Of plants he domesticated hundreds..."

Matthew Stirling, Chief of the American Bureau of Ethnology at the time of this writing, makes the following observation: ("America's First Settlers, the Indians," National Geographic Magazine, November, 1937, 592)

"Among the plants developed by these ancient botanists are maize, beans (kidney and lima), potatoes, and sweet potatoes, now four of the leading foods of the world.

Manioc, extensively cultivated by the natives of tropical America is now the staff of life for millions of people living in the equatorial belt. Other important items, such as peanuts, squash, chocolate, peppers, tomatoes, pineapples and avocados might be added.

In addition, the Indian was the discoverer of quinine, ****, tobacco, and rubber, useful commodities of modern times. Maize or Indian corn was one of the most useful contributions of the American Indian to mankind. Over a considerable portion of the Americas, it is the staff of life."

Kenneth Macgowan adds to this list,

the custard apple,


vanilla bean,

chickle, and

cascara, besides a number of others less familiar.

(Early Man in the New World, New York, NY, Macmillan, 1950, 199.)

His whole list of important plants made up by the Indian's agriculture is impressive, as he says, for it contains fifty items, not one of which is an Old World species! Every one of them can be cultivated
with a hoe, requiring no draft animals whatever.

He also mentions one other accomplishment which is very difficult to account for: The Indian devised a method of extracting a deadly poison (cyanide) from an otherwise useless plant, manioc, without losing the valuable starch it contained. Macgowan says that Henry J. Bruman called this "one of the outstanding accomplishments of the American Indian." The remarkable thing about it is that they should ever have thought of making use of a plant which, as they found it, contained a deadly poison.
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« Reply #27 on: November 13, 2008, 03:01:57 pm »

M.D.C. Crawford gives a list of vegetables which were cultivated by the American Indians prior to
1492 which, in addition to the above, are the following:

(The Conquest of Culture, New York, NY, Fairchild, 1948, 145, 146.)


Jerusalem artichoke

alligator pear


Indian fig


prickly pear

chili pepper


cotton (gossypium barbadense Linn.)
star apple

J.L. Collins wrote: ("Pineapples in Ancient America," Scientific Monthly, 66(11), November 1948, 372.)

"The pineapple shares the distinction accorded to all major food plants of the civilized world, of
having been selected, developed, and domesticated by people of prehistoric times, and passed
on to us through one or more earlier civilizations.

The pineapple, like a number of other contemporary agricultural crops... originated in America and
was unknown to the people of the Old World before its discovery."
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« Reply #28 on: November 13, 2008, 03:11:46 pm »

                      The Library of Congress >> Especially for Researchers >> Research Centers


Rocky Mountain columbine,
Illustration from Gentle Conquest.

                                                    Ethnobotany of the Americas

Tracer Bullet 97-1



Subject Headings

Basic Texts

Additional Titles

Specialized Titles

Selected Titles Reflecting Different Geographical Areas

Related Titles
Handbooks, Encyclopedias and Dictionaries

Conference Proceedings


Selected Dissertations


Abstracts and Indexes


Representative Journal Articles

Selected Materials

Additional Sources of Information
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« Reply #29 on: November 13, 2008, 03:20:01 pm »


Ethnobotany is a term coined in 1895 to encompass the study of the applications and economic potential of plants used by native peoples.

During the first half of the 20th century the anthropological and ecological aspects of the use of plants by indigenous populations became increasingly important. However, it was during the second half of the 20th century that ethnobotany flourished and that ethnobotanical surveys, studies, and reports on explorations proliferated.

These studies were fueled by the interests of major universities, pharmaceutical firms, and government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, who greatly expanded their programs in natural products research in hopes of finding new medicines for a variety of ills, including cancer, diabetes, and disorders of the immune system.

This compilation provides sources useful in chronicling the history of ethnobotany as well as references to published materials on all forms of vegetation which the aboriginal inhabitants of North and South America used for commodities, such as medicine, food, textiles, and ornaments.

Material on the interrelations between indigenous peoples, plants and society is also included.

Not intended to be a comprehensive bibliography, this guide is designed --as the name of the series implies-- to put the reader "on target."
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