An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of June1, 2003
Issued from the woods just south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

WHY ARE SO MANY PLANTS MEDICINAL?

It seems that most plants I profile in the Newsletter turn out to have at least some medicinal value. For me this provides insight into the question "What is man's place in Nature."

I do not accept the view that "Every plant and animal was put here to serve humankind in some specific way." My opinion is practically the opposite of that. Instead of regarding humans as apart from and being served by nature, I see the human animal as absolutely enmeshed in the continuous web of all living things, each part of that web being appropriate and useful for its time and place.

The chemistry of life supports my view. For instance, most of the chemicals composing both yeast and man are practically identical. The proteins of both yeast and man are made of the same twenty amino acids, their nucleic acids of the same four purine and pyrimidine bases, and their carbohydrates of the same or similar sugars. The chemical pathway by which yeast ferments sugar to alcohol is identical with the pathway by which human muscle cells convert glucose to pyruvic acid. Combining ribosomes from microorganisms with the soluble fraction from a rabbit or a duck will synthesize protein which all can use. In fact, at least when I went to school, the basic mechanisms of synthesizing and breaking down carbohydrate, fat and protein were considered to be identical in all forms of life known to exist.

With the above in mind, it's not surprising to read that 98.4% of our human genetic heritage is shared with chimpanzees, 75% is shared with mice, 30% with yeast, and 15% with the stomach-inhabiting bacterium E. coli.

These high percentages of shared genetic material indicate that the main work Mother Nature had to do in evolving all living things was to figure out such basic procedures as how to store energy in fats and carbohydrates, and how to tap that energy when it was needed. Once genes encoded that how-to information, later considerations -- such as whether an organism would have scales or feathers, or wear a shell or soft skin -- in many cases amounted to little more than tweaking an already-existing "general plan."

But, back to medicinal plants.

Plants and humans, then, in so many ways, are part of one big family, the Family of Living Things on Earth. We are related to one another by common ancestry and many shared features of existence. Since plants share so many problems with us, such as how to keep our tissue from rotting, how to keep the contents of our cells at a constant pH, and how to keep bugs from nibbling on us, through the eons plants have evolved untold numbers of chemical compounds that might also work for us. We assume that certain tools are as useful when working on a nuclear reactor as on a bicycle, so why shouldn't a plant's chemical tools for survival sometimes be of value to us?

I find this view enormously satisfying. I like to reflect that Black Snakeroot, Sassafras and the Pokeweed are all of the same stuff as I, that we are all "works in progress" being wrought during the same creative gesture, and all being constructed with the same building materials and tools.

On the other hand, this is also a scary thought when you think of all the broadband chemicals people release into the environment to kill "weeds" and other unwanted plant and animals. The chemical that throws a monkey wrench into the chemical pathways of mosquitoes and crabgrass may well be a monkey wrench in our own system.

If you can just forget for a moment about your neighbor's drifting and water-borne insecticides and herbicides, what a delight to reflect on all the ways we living things are united. We are all harmonizing notes in a grand, Earth-wide symphony. Facebook Icon.