Flower Power has been a hippy anthem but it is also a reminder that we should not underestimate the power of plants as medicine. Antibiotics have been a gift to doctors and patients for decades, but that gift has been abused. Through the overuse of antibiotics for the sick, or possibly sick, and as a preventative in livestock many bacteria strains have developed resistance to these ever more powerful and available antibiotics.
In the New York Times Magazine article (September 18, 2016), Flower Power Ferris Jabr lays out dangers that we might face. He interviewed ethnobotantist Cassandra Quave about the threat and consequences of loosing our effective antibiotics. Experts say that they (resistant bacterias) currently cause 700,000 lives a year globally and that number will only grow. “We’re standing on the precipice of a post-antibiotic era. We just haven’t fallen off yet, Quave said.
Anti-biotics have been around since the 1940s, but herbal medicines have been around as long as the human race has existed. Even animals like members of the raccoon family in panama know to rub a minty tree resin through their fur to deter fleas and ticks. Sumerian cuneiform tablets dating back to 3000 B.C. list prescriptions, and in c. 50 A.D. the Roman surgeon Dioscordes was putting together his De Materia Medica which gave the medical benefits of 600 plants. This information was used for 1500 years until the Renaissance began to supplant it with revised herbals.
Quave says we need to turn to plants again to create new medicines. Some are skeptical and smell “a whiff of mumbo-jumbo folklore,” and some see the difficulties and expense that will be necessary to understand and use the complicated plant chemistry to make these new medicines.
Fortunately the work has begun and Jabr’s article describes some of them. For instance, Quave found that in southern Italy healers used blackberry roots to treat boils. She collected and worked with those roots in her lab and found that while the resulting product did not kill MRSA bacteria it did prevent them from adhering to living tissue and medical equipment in hospitals. This keeps the level of bacteria down to such a low level that they are no longer dangerous.
Quave said this is a new way of looking at the problem. “We’ve been in the mindset that we need to kill microbes. What we need is to find a balance.”
This is such a fascinating article because it shows us that we should not dismiss the power of plants, and that we might need to take a different approach to managing bacteria.