At least 10 percent of the 250 most essential modern medicines are derived from flowering plants.

Aspirin (genus Salix)  Known to the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians, Hippocrates in about 400 BCE mentions the use of salicylic tea as a fever reducer. Willow bark extracts have been a standard component of the European pharmacopoeia ever since. Modern aspirin was first synthesized in 1853.

Cinnamon bark (obtained from the inner bark of trees of the genus Cinnamomum)  While there is no scientific evidence of its efficacy (yet), cinnamon has been used medicinally for at least 4,000 years, especially in Ayurvedic medicine. The word derives from an ancient Phoenician one and Cinnamomum trees probably originated in south India or Burma.

Digoxin (genus Digitalis [foxglove])  Known medicinally since ancient times, scientific confirmation of foxglove’s efficacy as a treatment for “dropsy” (congestive heart disease) began in 1775, when William Withering began his investigations. A century later, chemists began purifying drugs from the plant.

Ephedra (Ephedra sinica)  Long part of the traditional Chinese pharmacopeia, where it is known as ma huang and used to treat asthma, allergies, and nasal congestion. Ephedrine was first isolated from the plant in 1885 and subsequently synthesized. The US outlawed ephedrine in commercial products in 2006, as it is a key component in the manufacture of methamphetamine.

Garlic (Allium sativum)  Mentioned in the Talmudic Book of Ezra, garlic is suggested for keeping the body warm, killing intestinal parasites, and for ridding oneself of jealousy. All the Allium species (onion, leek, scallion, and shallot) have a long history of medicinal use. Don’t feed alliums to your dogs and cats; it causes damage to their red blood cells.

Ginseng (genus Panax)  For at least 4,500 years, Chinese healers have prescribed ginseng to treat a wide range of conditions, including insomnia, impotence, and diabetes.

Opium and morphine (Papaver somniferum)  Morphine was the first commercial therapeutic, brought to market by Merck in 1826. Along with Cannabis, Opium is one of humanity’s oldest plant remedies. Opium was cultivated in ancient Mesopotamia 5,500 years ago, but Neolithic finds in Spain and elsewhere push its use by humans back much earlier.

Paclitaxel (Taxol, Taxus brevifolia—the Pacific yew tree)  US Department of Agriculture researchers first collected samples of Pacific yew on behalf of the National Cancer Institute in 1962. Paclitaxel’s antitumor activity was demonstrated in the mid-1970s, and clinical trials resulted in FDA approval of Taxol in 1984 as a treatment for breast, ovarian, and lung caner, as well as Kaposi’s sarcoma. To date, Taxol is the best-selling cancer drug in the world.

Quinine (genus Cinchona)  Native to the forests of the western slopes of the Andes, quinine was first isolated from cinchona bark in 1820. The medicinal properties of Cinchona were known to the Quechua people, who used it as a muscle relaxant to combat shivering in low temperatures and, later, to treat malaria, which Europeans brought to the New World.

Cape quince (Cryptocarya woodii)  In a South African cave inhabited more than 70,000 years ago, archeologists discovered bedding of reeds and sedges laid down on the cave floor. Over the bedding was a thin layer of C. woodii leaves that would have repelled mosquitoes, suggesting that people already had an intimate knowledge of plants and their medicinal uses.

Read more about ethnobotany in “The people’s plants.”



From 1914 to 1948, Washington State University’s program in pharmacy required students to spend time in the drug garden, learning the cultivation, propagation, and uses of medicinal plants.

Please do not take this list as a recommendation to use plants as medicine. Washington State Magazine is not providing medical advice. Always consult with a doctor about medical concerns.