Today’s guest post, the first of 2014, comes from Dr. Beth Burrous who is one of the Earth Matters partners at the US Botanic Garden in Washington DC. The US Botanic Garden currently has African plants that you can see up close, plants that have become especially important to our daily lives and show how much earth really does matter!
African Plants in Everyday Life
We frequently reap the benefits of African food and medicinal plants, a topic I explore when conducting tours at the U.S. Botanic Garden. A few of the many beneficial African plants are highlighted here. Come to the U.S. Botanic Garden to take a look.
Chocolate – Equatorial Africa supplies about 75% of the world’s cocoa beans that are used to make chocolate. While the chocolate plant (Theobroma cacao) is native to South America, it grows well in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria. Beans are harvested from cocoa pods . After fermentation, drying, roasting and grinding, the beans are made into edible chocolate products. Nearly all cocoa is grown on small (5-10 acre) family farms. Preliminary studies suggest that eating dark chocolate (the darker the better) may promote cardiovascular health.
Roasted cacao beans Cacao bean pods
Vanilla – Vanilla “beans” are the fermented and dried fruit of the vanilla bean orchid (Vanilla planifolia). The beans are used for cooking and to make “vanilla extract.” While the vanilla orchid is native to Central America, about 65% of the world’s vanilla beans are grown on the island of Madagascar.
Coffee – Historians believe that the coffee plant (Coffea arabica, robusta) is native to Ethiopia. Nowadays, ripe coffee plant berries (“cherries”) are aged, dried and roasted to make coffee “beans” for brewing coffee. But long before the invention of a brewed coffee beverage, people used the caffeine-containing coffee “cherries” as medicine. Islamic medical texts from the year 1000 C.E. prescribe coffee cherries as a stimulant and digestive aid. Preliminary studies suggest that consuming moderate amounts of coffee (about 3-5 cups per day) may prevent certain types of cancer, dementia and Type 2 diabetes and prolong longevity.
Roasted coffee beans Coffee cherries
Periwinkle (“Vinca”) – Catharanthus roseus is a popular landscape plant native to Madagascar. It is also the source of cancer-fighting medicines. The drug vinblastine is used to treat cancers including Hodgkin’s disease, various lymphomas, breast cancer and testicular cancer. The drug vincristine is used to treat cancers including Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia, neuroblastoma and a rare childhood muscular tumor. Manufacturers use about five tons of periwinkle plant material to make one ounce of drug.
Foxglove – This common garden plant (Digitalis purpurea ) is native to Northwestern Africa. It is the source of the heart medicine digoxin (digitalis), used to treat heart failure and irregular heartbeat.
Deadly Nightshade – Atropa belladonna is native to Northern Africa. “Belladonna” is derived from Italian and means beautiful woman because long ago, the plant was used in eye drops to dilate the pupils. While all parts of the plant are highly poisonous, several medicines are extracted from this plant and close relatives. Atropine is used to resuscitate patients with extremely low heart rate, and U.S. troops carry atropine-loaded syringes to treat nerve gas poisoning. Scopolamine is used in trans-dermal patches to treat motion sickness, and may be useful in treating severe depression.