Ask A Scientist

Can poisonous plants be used for treatments?

Asked by: Jacob Martin
School: St. James Middle School
Grade: 5
Teacher: Mrs. Walter
Hobbies/Interests: Collecting racecars, playing hockey, collecting Buffalo Sabers "STUFF!"
Career Interest: An Orthodontist or NHL player

Answer from Debra Bohunicky, RN, MS, CCHT

Nursing Faculty: Psychiatric and Mental Health Nur

Research area:
Spirituality and Health, Applied Hypnotherapy, Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing

PhD School:
PhD Candidate in Educational Psychology, Capella University

Interests/hobbies:
Creative writing, gardening, needlecraft, music, theater, walking my dog, spending time with family and friends.

Long before the present day, plants of all sorts have been used for healing. In many cultures, the shaman, or medicine person, held the power of the plants to heal the sick. This power was the knowledge they possessed about which plants were safe and which were poisonous. In the witch trials of the 1600s, many women of the towns were tried and found guilty as witches because they knew and utilized their knowledge of plants to heal. These natural healing tonics (sometimes called the witches' brew) worked so well they became mistakenly suspect as magic. Among many people today, there is a rising interest in natural healing and in the use of herbs (which are plants), and other plants for healing outside of and in cooperation with medical and health sciences. Medical providers studied the ancient shamans and medicine people's plant healings by working side by side with them as well as researching them within the study of medical anthropology. From these studies and other scientific studies, several poisonous plants were found to have a both a deadly effect in certain doses and a healing benefit at other doses. One the most commonly known of these poisonous plants in medicine today is Foxglove, also known as Digitalis. From this plant the drug Digoxin is derived which regulate the heart's output for people with heart failure. Another familiar drug, sometimes seen in mystery thriller stories to subdue an opponent is Curare, a strong paralyzing muscle relaxant. The benefit of curare is especially seen in surgical anesthetics. One of the medications used in anesthesia is a curare-like substance to get the person into a complete state of stillness without reflex so the surgeon can perform the surgery without having a mistake because the patient jumped reflexively. This drug paralyzes the person but does not cause them to loose consciousness. Other anesthetics do that. My final example is the plant Ephedra from which comes Ephedrine. This is a strong example of how a poisonous plant can be both a benefit and a danger. The drug from this plant raises the heart rate and causes loss of appetite. It was used as a weight loss drug until the dangerous effects on the heart were noted. It was also found in a common decongestant cold medicine known as pseudoephedrine or Sudafed. This is also the dangerous street drug known as Ecstasy. Cold medicines such as Sudafed have been used in the making of the deadly drug, Crystal Meth or Methamphetamine. That is why you must have a prescription for this cold medication now. So yes, poisonous plants can have medicinal value provided they are properly utilized at the right doses.

Last Updated: 9/18/13