Plant medicine is bunk, says medicinal plant expert

The Irish Times has an interview with the delightful crotchety doctor who is the garden fellow at London's Royal College of Physicians. Basically, he manages the College's collection of plants that have been historically used for medicinal purposes. Ironically, the job has convinced him that most herbal medicine is complete bunk. And he is not shy about saying so.

PLANTS HAVE been trying to kill us, not cure us," says Dr Henry Oakeley, the garden fellow at London's Royal College of Physicians.

But if plants are, for the most part, as medicinally useless as he believes, how does he explain their centrality to the beliefs and practices of medical practitioners for centuries?

"Because they believed in the tooth fairy," he says matter of factly. "They had no concept of illness or of chemistry or biochemistry. They believed all plants had been put on the earth by the creator for mankind's use. So if the plant had a particular shape, it indicated that the creator had put it on the planet for a particular use."

Citing as an example the use of blue liverwort, Hepatica nobilis , once cultivated as a liver tonic because its three-lobed leaf form mirrored the shape of the liver, he says, "It was absolute rubbish. They had no idea how the body worked." In the 1880s, at the height of its popularity, those taking it to cure feelings of "liverishness" were stuck down by jaundice because the plant was in fact toxic to the liver.

"The basic concept that most people have missed is that [many] plants are poisonous," he says. "We just have to find a way of using the poisons in plants to our advantage."

Oakeley doesn't deny that some plants have been useful, with plant-based chemicals leading to the development of important medicines. And, sometimes, ancient people guessed right, using those plants to treat the very things the plant-derived prescriptions treat today. His argument is simply that you can't just trust the ancients' opinion on a plant's medicinal value without first proving that it is effective and safe. In most cases, he says, the traditionally-used plants don't turn out to be effective. And the ones that are effective aren't as 100% safe as they're made out to be.

Via Tim Lloyd