Study: 28,187 Plant Species Used As Medicines Throughout The World

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Study: 28,187 Plant Species Used As Medicines Throughout The World
image © Neil Palmer (CIAT) – Wikipedia – lic. under CC BY-SA 2.0

Plants have long been used as medicines since prehistoric times, with the earliest records dating from the Sumerian civilization. In fact, the usage of medicinal plants for healing is as old as mankind itself. Humans have learned to utilize barks, fruiting bodies, leaves, roots, and other parts of the plants and gradually accumulated and built on this knowledge throughout time. [1]

Sumerian, Indian, Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese historians had written documents on medicinal plants’ usage for the preparation of drugs. One of the most prominent writers on plant drugs was Dioscorides, a military physician and pharmacologist of Nero’s army who is considered as the father of pharmacology. [2]

In present days, the most complete documentation of plant species used as medicines is performed by the Royal Botanical Gardens aka. Kew Gardens. The London-based institution has just published its second annual State of the World’s Plants, which involved 128 scientists from 12 countries and contains data not only on medicinal plants but also information on plant health and climate change. [3]

The report identified an incredible 28,187 plant species with medicinal uses and discovered more than 1,700 new plants in the past year. It also presents data on the relevance of plants and their values to all aspects of the lives of humans.

While the number of plant species cited with therapeutic potential will excite the pharmacopeia world, the report clarifies that the number is probably a very conservative figure. Also, only more than four thousand of the species used in plant-based medicines are mentioned in medicinal regulatory publications. [4] The people behind the report call for more precise use of scientific plant names and greater awareness of the alternative synonyms in use.

Ambiguous labeling has prevented many species from being listed officially, according to Her Excellency, Dr. Gurib-Fakim, President of the Republic of Mauritius. [5] The failure of official bodies to have a concrete assessment of beneficial plants for their pharmaceutical qualities poses a risk to the health of people who are taking plant-based remedies without being aware of their side effects.

A classic example of misleading labeling is the trade name of ginseng which refers to several species, each with its own chemistry and therapeutic properties. However inaccurate labeling could have dangerous consequences: In Belgium, more than 100 patients are now requiring kidney dialysis for the remainder of their lives due to the replacement of one Chinese medicinal herb with another that shares the same name.

Here are a few of the new discoveries:

• Nine species of a climbing vine used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease
• Plants containing Artemisinin and quinine, useful for fighting malaria [6]
• Seven different species of Aspalathus plants used for making South African rooibos tea
• Five new species of Manihot found in Brazil
• A new parsnip species uncovered in Turkey
• New species of rose, coffee, Aloe vera, and cassava

However, many of the newly discovered plants are already threatened with extinction due to desertification and the destruction of natural habitats. It’s in one sense a race against time with so many species being lost due to both natural and man-made causes. Historical climate change has had a profound impact on the distribution of plants and animals worldwide. The general effects of climate change include habitat degradation, habitat loss, and introduction of potentially invasive species. [7]

Wildfires are also of significant worry. When exposed to high-temperatures, mortality can occur in plants and seeds. Kew analyzed satellite imagery to trace the destruction of plants. They found that over the past two decades, an average of 340 million hectares of the Earth burns every year. [8]

Further Reading:

Our List Of Herbs contains over 200 different medicinal plants, with a full page of info on each plant including scientific research.

Amazon Tribe Creates 500-Page Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia

Ancient And Classical Herbals


[1] Biljana Bauer Petrovska. 2012. Pharmacology Review. Historical review of medicinal plants’ usage.

[2] William Burns. September 17, 2016. Knowledge and Power: Science in World History.

[3] Royal Botanical Gardens. The State of the World’s Plants Report 2017.

[4] Nina Lilian Etkin. 1986. Plants in Indigenous Medicine & Diet: Biobehavioral Approaches.

[5] Mark Kinver. November 2, 2016. Project aims to end ‘ambiguity’ of plant-based medicine.

[6] Achan J et al. May 24, 2011. Malaria Journal. Quinine, an old anti-malarial drug in a modern world: role in the treatment of malaria.

[7] Jeffrey S. Dukes; Harold A. Mooney .April 1999. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Does global change increase the success of biological invaders?

[8] Maureen Cofflard. May 18, 2017. UK survey finds 28,000 plant species for medical use.

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