Categories: Economic botany and plant uses; medicine and health
Because plants are so biochemically diverse, they produce thousands of substances commonly referred to as secondary metabolites. Many of these secondary metabolites have medicinal properties that have proven to be beneficial to humankind.
The use of plants for medicinal purposes predates recorded history. Primitive people's use of trial and error in their constant search for edible plants led them to discover plants containing substances that cause appetite suppression, stimulation, hallucinations, or other effects. Written records show that drugs such as opium have been in use for more than five thousand years.
From antiquity until fairly recent times, most physicians were also botanists or at least herbalists. Because modern commercial medicines are marketed in neat packages, most people do not realize that many of these drugs were first extracted from plants. Chemists have learned how to synthesize many natural products that were initially identified in a plant. However, in many cases a plant is still the only economically feasible source of the drug.
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