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Tara S. Kerpelman/MEDILL

An Elephant Foot tree, or Pachypodium lamerii, at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This tree comes from the Dog Bane, or Apocynaceae, family and can be researched along with thousands of other plants on the garden's PlantCollections Web site.

Plant database may help with natural remedy research

by Tara S. Kerpelman
Jan 14, 2009

A tall mug of hot lemon, ginger and honey tea may sound inviting with temperatures dropping in Chicago and more people aching with flu-like symptoms.

But people don’t always consider that combining home remedies with over-the-counter or prescription medications can cause unpredictable side effects or even be dangerous.

However, a new tool from the Chicago Botanic Garden may help scientists carry out more extensive research on medicinal plants.

The garden’s website, PlantCollections, was launched in 2008 and continues to gather global information about thousands of varieties into a database. “The goal of this project is to make available the information that has been hidden away,” said Boyce Tankersley, director of Living Plant Documentation at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Tankersley said that the project collaborators are still developing PlantCollections and will be making improvements to it based on user feedback. “With computerized databases and the ease with which information can be gathered and now shared between institutions, this is really a very exciting time,” he said. 

The advent of PlantCollections means researchers who are studying a plant can now look up information such as other plants in the same family or even its locations and where to get a hold of a physical sample.

“I’ve been frustrated in the past because I’ll see somebody publish some research and the research would have been more complete if [the investigators] had known that we had representative samples that they could have used in their research,” Tankersley said. “So I really want this to help the research community.”

PlantCollections consolidates 161 information fields and represents over 9,000 plant varieties. But the database does not specify the medicinal properties of any plant per se. Tankersley explained that the project organizers had reservations about giving out information on medicinal uses. “They’re afraid that someone will go and eat [a plant] and die,” he said.

But users can find a wealth of details about any plant and a listing of places where it is located, helpful resources for researchers studying medicinal properties. For example, a scientist who knew about a species containing cardiac glycosides, chemicals found in plants that are used to regulate heart contractions, could look them up in PlantCollections to find out where to get a sample. Samples from various species could then be tested for bioactive contents and, once any medicinal properties were found, the researchers could test for dosages that would be safe.

People may not realize that you cannot just pick a plant and use it in its raw form for medicinal purposes because some of them actually contain poisonous substances, Tankersley said. “The [poisons] first need to be flushed out and this is done through extraction.”

Norman Farnsworth, director of the Program for Collaborative Research in the Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago explained that “when you make a [medicinal plant] extract, you have to standardize it. The crop of plants this year may not be the same as last year so it will be biologically different. You have to adjust the plant for potency.”

Another database of medicinal plants offers a resource of continuing research. It was launched online by Farnsworth and his department in 2006 and the difference with this site, called NAPRALERT, is that it contains information on scientific papers as well as on ethnic medicines and pharmacological and biochemical information about natural products, Farnsworth said. The database is available for a free search but there is a fee to download the information.

Information needed by the average plant lover, gardener or landscaper is readily available on the PlantCollections Web site, where users can search and download for free. The service can be used in conjunction with published research to find out more about medicinal applications, Tankersley said. Photos of some of the plants are available too.

Mark Edelheit, a pharmacist at Ivan T. Matthei Pharmacy in Chicago, said that he has noticed an increase in the use of natural products by his customers. “The big thing is natural remedies,” he said.

Even so, Edelheit said he prefers recommending over-the-counter medications that have Food and Drug Administration approval for their use. “If someone had a real bad cold and real bad symptoms, I’d stay with the known drugs that work. There’s no real way of knowing if [natural cold remedies] work because there’s not a lot of studies out there that tell you definitively what works better,” he said. “Natural is not synonymous with no problems.”