The Pharmaceutical Power of Native Plants

| General

Welcome to the fourth installment of the Native Plants for Healthy People and a Health Planet series. In previous posts, we discussed native plants as a means for combating chronic health issues, infectious diseases, and mental health disorders. We’ve explored how native plants and improved biodiversity support our bodies and minds directly. This post will address the pharmaceutical nature of native plants and their relationship with medicine.

By: Helene Wierzbicki

Traditional medicine has an ancient history of using native plants for their medicinal properties. The first documented use of native plants as medicine is a 5,000-year-old clay slab from Nagpur, India (Latham, 2021). Many cultures still use traditional medicine passed down from generations, including Indigenous tribes and people living in isolated, remote areas (WHO, 2021). About 80% of people living in developing countries rely on traditional medicine for primary care needs (de Burca, 2024). Folk and traditional knowledge of native plants contribute to biochemists’ adaptation of plants into modern medicine. Yet through countless campaigns of western colonization and industrialization, most systems of traditional medicine are all but eradicated. It is imperative to preserve knowledge of traditional medicine as a safeguard for future medicinal development. 

Photo from Knowles Apothecary

Following in the footsteps of traditional medicine, modern medicine derives much of its advancement from native plants. About 60,000 different species of plants, animals, fungi, and microbes are used for medicinal properties (WHO, 2021). The WHO estimates that one third of modern medicine is directly composed from compounds found in nature, while many other drugs are designed to mimic those same natural compounds (2021). For instance, about 70% of cancer drugs are derived from natural resources or synthetic compounds inspired by nature (WHO, 2023). Additionally, 11% of the WHO’s list of “basic and essential” medications come from flowering plants (Pavid, 2011). Penicillin is famously derived from mold grown in a petri dish, while willow tree bark contains salicylic acid needed for aspirin. Snake venom is used to create angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, an important medication used to manage blood pressure (Alves and Rosa, 2007). Some compounds are so complex that they cannot be replicated synthetically and can only be used in their natural form, such as the cancer drug vincristine from the periwinkle plant (Latham, 2021). 

Using native plants as medicine is an old solution to solve new problems. For example, antibiotic overuse has led to the evolution of drug-resistant microorganisms. Pharmaceuticals have little to no effect against these resilient bacteria, with no natural compounds that naturally fight against them (WHO, 2021). The pace of discovering new antibiotic components has slowed down significantly, but the use of antibiotics continues to rise (Review on AMR, 2014). A UK analysis estimates that by 2050, ten million will die annually due to drug-resistant microorganisms (2014). In June of 2021, scientists extracted a molecule from European chestnut tree leaves that may neutralize methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) (Latham, 2021). Research was inspired by folk medicine in rural Italy, highlighting the continued importance of preserving traditional knowledge of medicine (Emory Health Sciences, 2021). 

Photo from the Convention on Biological Diversity

Habitat and biodiversity loss threaten the sustainability of pharmaceuticals. Wildlife populations across the globe have decreased more than two-thirds in less than 50 years (Latham, 2021). Many public health researchers have indicated that marine life offers a potential wealth of new medicinal resources, but these ecosystems are threatened by an onslaught of pollution and warming waters (de Burca, 2024). The WHO reports that through the various forces of destruction leading to habitat loss, compounds of one important drug are lost every two years (2021). Global trade and the ever-growing need for medicine places manufacturers under further pressure to exploit natural resources (WHO, 2021). In order for the sustainable extraction of natural resources, pharmaceutical companies need to invest in biodiversity measures. 

Native plants are a crucial and even inimitable part of our healthcare. My home in the Pacific Northwest alone grows many plants used as medicine by Chinookan, Umatilla, and Clatsop tribes, to name a few. Oregon grape stimulates liver and skin protein metabolism, while trillium tinctures assist with postpartum hemorrhage (Vincent, 2015). Your local Wild Ones chapter can help you identify what native plants have medicinal uses in your community, and your doctor can help you understand how to implement these supplements into your lifestyle. Native plants have the additional benefit of avoiding non-degradable compounds found in major pharmaceuticals (Lynch, 2014). Ultimately, preserving native plant biodiversity is vital for the health of people, ecosystems, and the planet.

About the Series

Native Plants for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet series will explore the importance of strengthening biodiversity resilience by protecting and restoring native plants and natural landscapes. My goal in writing this blog series is to channel biodiversity through a healthcare lens and examine its relationship with human chronic, acute, and mental health. If more people understand how entwined biodiversity is with human health, perhaps policy-makers will take biodiversity resilience more seriously.  Native landscapes are vital for improving health outcomes within communities. This series is made possible though the ANHE Environmental Health Nurse Fellowship Program.

The Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE) is dedicated to connecting nursing and environmental health. They focus on educating nurses, advancing research, and influencing policies to promote healthier people and environments. ANHE recognizes the crucial role nurses play in addressing environmental health issues within communities and at policy levels, aiming to equip them with the necessary knowledge and leadership skills for this challenge. 

About the Author

Helene Wierzbicki is a community-psychiatric nurse from Portland, OR. She works with the Washington County ACT team through the nonprofit LifeWorks NW. Helene is a fellow with the 2024 cohort of Allied Nurses for Healthy Environments (AHNE). For her AHNE project, Helene is contributing to Wild Ones through a blog series titled “Native Plants: Healthy Planet & Healthy People

Photograph of Helene Wierzbicki


Alves, R. R., & Rosa, I. M. (2007). Biodiversity, traditional medicine and public health: Where do they meet? Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 3(1), 14. doi: 10.1186/1746-4269-3-14. PMID: 17376227; PMCID: PMC1847427.

De Burca, J. (2024, January). Biodiversity and medicine: The hidden pharmacy in our ecosystems. Constructive Voices.

Emory Health Sciences. (2021, June 28). New molecule found in chestnut leaves disarms dangerous staph bacteria. ScienceDaily.

Latham, K. (2021, October). How biodiversity loss is jeopardizing the drugs of the future. The Guardian.

Lynch, T. (2014, August). The case for native medicinal plants in the landscape. Ecological Landscaping Alliance.

Pavid, K. (2023, June). Aspirin, morphine, and chemotherapy: Essential medicines powered by plants. Natural History Museum.

Review of Antimicrobial Resistance. (2014, December). Antimicrobial resistance: Tackling a crisis for the health and wealth of nations (Chaired by Jim O’Neill).

Vincent, K. (2015, November). Medicinal native plants. The Garden Hotline.

World Health Organization. (2021). Nature, biodiversity, and health: An overview of interconnections. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

World Health Organization. (2023, June). Nature, biodiversity, and health.–biodiversity-and-health