Common Medicinal Plants

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 80% of the population of Africa makes use of traditional medicine. There are hundreds of medicinal plants and herbs that can be used for healing and in fact, many may already be in your back yard or garden.

Some common plants include:

Aloe vera
Aloe contains various compounds that reduce inflammation, swelling, redness, pain and itching.

Uses: For burns, cuts and minor abrasions and also as a mild laxative
Cut open a fresh aloe leaf and rub it on the wound. It promotes healing, and helps injured skin from getting infected. The clear gel dries into a natural bandage. For a laxative, squeeze out the gel of one large leaf into a glass of fresh purified water, stir and drink.

More than a weed, dandelion is a herb that stimulates the flow of bile and enhances the body’s ability to eliminate toxins.

Uses: As a diuretic (may help with PMS bloating), prevents gallstones and cleanses the liver. The leaves contain vitamin C and beta-carotene and are considered an antioxidant that help  prevent many diseases .
The leaves may be eaten in a salad or steamed or made into a soup.

Lemon balm
Also called Melissa, has a calming effect on heart palpitations and an agitated state of mind.

Uses: Soothes stomach, calms nerves.
Tie a handful of lemon balm in cheesecloth and add it your bathwater. Also used a tea calm stomach trouble or calm nerves; steep two teaspoons of leaves in a cup of water for 10-20 minutes.
Caution: not to be used during pregnancy as it can stimulate the uterus

A very fragrant herb with a long history in both medicine and cosmetics.

Uses: As a sedative, stress reliever and relieve tension.
Add dried lavender to bathwater as aromatherapy to soothe and calm. As a tea, steep one teaspoon of leaves and flowers in one cup boiling water.

Parsley leaves, roots and seeds all contain an oil with significant diuretic and mild laxative properties. Parsley also inhibits the secretion of histamines, a compound produced by the body that causes allergies, hives and hay fever.

Uses: Breath freshener, allergy relief, stomach troubles.
Steep two teaspoons dry leaves or one teaspoon of crushed seeds to a cup of boiling water for 10 minutes, strain then drink. Or chew on a few sprigs for bad breath.

Rosy Periwinkle
Also called Madagascar periwinkle, has been used in traditional Indian and Chinese medicines to treat a wide range of ailments from diabetes to constipation. But more than four decades ago, scientists isolated the plant's alkaloids vincristine and vinblastine, which are today used in chemotherapy treatments and credited with increasing the survival rate for childhood leukemia.


Foxglove's drooping pink or white flowers may be pretty, but they can be highly toxic. Eating any part of this plant can cause nausea, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea and a change in heart rate. But those effects of foxglove, whose formal name is Digitalis purpurea, have long been harnessed to treat disease. In the 18th century, foxglove was used with surprising success in infusions to treat dropsy, a disease now known as edema that can cause swelling bad enough to rip open the skin. Chemicals from the plant have also been used to create digitalis medications such as digoxin, often administered to patients with congestive heart failure.


The seeds of the cacao tree are the source of chocolate. The plant was used by the Maya and Aztec to treat fevers, coughs and even the pains of childbirth. Recent studies have found that cacao has compounds that can have positive effects on heart health, such as lowering blood pressure and preventing the hardening of arteries. 

Citrus offers contains antioxidant vitamin C, but it is also an example of how certain plants can alter the effects of other drugs. Notably, grapefruit juice can increase the potency of certain drugs — examples range from cholesterol-lowering statins to certain oral contraceptives — because it contains a chemical that can disable enzymes that would otherwise break down medications in the digestive system.

Plants used in Common Drugs

Opium Poppy

The plant was used for medicinal purposes in China for centuries. In the early 19th century, the delicate herb gave rise to the powerful analgesic morphine that is still used to kill pain today.

Opium also has a dark side as it is also the source of the body-wrecking drug heroin.


The plant Hyoscyamus niger, or black henbane is highly poisonous. In Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Claudius kills Hamlet's father by pouring a tincture of "cursed hebenon" (thought to be henbane) into his ear. The plant also has psychoactive properties. As legend has it, henbane was used in witch's ointments to create hallucinogenic sensation of flying. It also contains the chemical hyoscyamine which has been incorporated into prescription drugs that can ease muscle spasms and symptoms of Parkinson's disease.


Some Pacific Islanders use ground kava root to make a potent drink used during rituals. Recent studies have shown that kava can indeed help relieve anxiety and stress. The active chemicals of the plant are compounds called kavalactones, which have similar effects to drugs like Xanax.

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