In the search for a miracle cure deriving from plants, News Editor Lauren Kahme and Monday Daily Editor Lillian Rountree attend a discussion with botanical specialists and give their thoughts below.

Has your grandmother ever encouraged you to put turmeric or honey in your tea to promote heart health and your immune system or soothe your throat? Maybe you have used an aloe plant’s gel to treat your sunburn. These traditional remedies for ailments, typically passed on through centuries of generations of human populations, derive from plant life.

This Thursday, the Columbia Science Review hosted its first event of the semester, “Finding A Miracle Cure: The Science Behind Medical Botany,” a talk exploring the history of medicinal botany and the cultural interactions between traditional and conventional medicine today. The panel began with an introduction of its three speakers: Dr. Yan Xu, plant biologist and associate professor at Ramapo College; Dr. Daniela Shebitz, Executive Director of the School of Environmental and Sustainability Sciences at Kean University; and Dr. Victoria Johnson, a Columbia alumna and author of the Pulitzer-nominated book American Eden. Each was given a 15-minute slot to discuss their current work, each of which focused on different areas of medicinal botany.

Dr. Xu began, setting the stage by establishing the basics of traditional medicine through a discussion of her research traveling to hospitals and pharmacies in China that practice traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Dr. Xu explained that with TCM in particular, the goal of the doctors is not to address a specific problem with a specific treatment, but rather, to consider the patient’s overall health and target the root of a symptom: frequently an issue such as stress or anxiety. Similarly, she also emphasized TCM’s focus on long-term treatment for chronic conditions instead of temporary treatment for alleviating symptoms in the short term. This holistic approach serves a very large population today; Dr. Xu shared that in the city where she conducted research on different methods employed by various hospitals, Nanjing, China, a TCM hospital may see about 20,000 patients a day, and a conventional hospital may see about 40,000 patients a day. She thoroughly conveyed the utility and importance of traditional medicine, even in modern times.

Dr. Shebitz spoke next, shifting the focus from TCM and long-term treatment to the links of the questions central to her research: can we look at the ecology of a plant to evaluate its viability as a medicine? What insights can local cultural practices offer to visiting researchers? What are the ecological, economic, and cultural arguments necessary to promote the preservation of forests and their medicinal plants? Dr. Shebitz focused on her research in the north of Costa Rica, where she has spent time with local residents who, due to the four-hour drive necessary to reach the closest hospital, rely heavily on medicinal plants as a source of primary care—even as these plants are at risk of destruction due to clear-cutting. She discussed the connections her research has shown between the ecological role of a plant, particularly in facilitating successful regrowth of forests, and its medicinal one. Dr. Shebitz used Vismia, a fast-growing plant genus effective against both bacterial and fungal infections, as a prime example and argument for the necessity of preserving pioneer forests. After clear-cutting occurs, pioneer forests begin to emerge as the second-growth forest. This new generation of forest growth is much more useful for providing medicinal plants compared to old-growth forests, and Vismia’s roots stimulate and encourage the soil to continue thriving with sufficient nutrients which helps other plant species grow, too. Not only is Vismia beneficial to the promotion of growth in a young forest, but its medicinal properties mean that it possesses a crucial cultural and economic value. Her emphasis on the fact that 80% of the world’s populations still use traditional plant-based medicines as part of treating humans solidified her previously explained arguments and made concrete the urgency of medicinal plant conservation.

The final speaker, Dr. Johnson then went, taking the audience 200 years into the past to New York City at the turn of the 19th century. A trained historical sociologist, Dr. Johnson’s storytelling skills were on full display as she discussed the subject of her work: doctor-botanist David Hosack. She engaged the audience in the story of Hosack’s breakthrough treatment of a young boy suffering from severe fever in September of 1797. Where older doctors’ humoral medical treatments (such as bloodletting) failed, Hosack’s strategy of breaking the fever by raising the boy’s body temperature by placing him in a steaming bath doused with Peruvian bark succeeded in bringing the boy back from the brink of death to a stable condition. This Peruvian bark, sourced from a Cinchona tree, has aromatic and chemical properties–specifically, quinine and quinidine–that help treat anything from malaria to fevers to arrhythmias. If Hosack’s success wasn’t enough of a surprise, Dr. Johnson then revealed just who the boy’s father was: Alexander Hamilton. Dr. Johnson went on to discuss Hosack’s attempts and eventual success to begin the United States’ first public research botanical garden, located in Manhattan where the Rockefeller Center now stands. In the end, it turned out to be an incredibly Columbia-related story: not only was Hosack an alumnus and a professor, but the school received the botanical garden when he passed, and used species from the garden to beautify the new uptown campus in the 1890s.

To finish off the panel, the student moderators of the Columbia Science Review conducted a brief Q&A session. One key question explored how the classification of medicinal plants has changed. Dr. Xu argued that there is no one set definition that qualifies a plant as medicinal, pointing out that many of the foods in our modern diet—like lemons, onions, papaya, and several spices such as turmeric—have medicinal qualities but are not considered medicine as much as they are food. Dr. Johnson pointed out that the emphasis on the distinction of plants as either food or medicine is a more modern conception, though one that is beginning to change. When asked about TCM and COVID-2019, the coronavirus causing an epidemic in China, Dr. Xu acknowledged that proposed treatments for the disease based in TCM are circulating, but that, just as with conventional medicine, due to the novelty of this disease, the evidence for any treatment is scant and any treatment’s efficacy is uncertain. Dr. Xu also acknowledges that modern trending diets are more plant-based, especially because the leading causes of death (at least in the U.S.) have to do with one’s diet. Dr. Xu wrapped up the Q&A session with a presentation of her “props,” which included raw lavender seeds, moxa sticks, and other ingredients commonly used in TCM; these items were open to the audience to smell and touch when the presentation was over. The interactive nature of the presentation allowed us, as viewers, to more easily visualize the uses of plants as medicine.

Overall, the panel gave a brief but comprehensive look at the world of medicinal botany, both in the past and the present. The general message given by the speakers was that the use of plants as medicine is a method of treating humans that has stood the test of time. Though cyclical in its varying levels of popularity, traditional botanical medicine offers alternative solutions to bodily problems which makes it indispensable to people.

panel via bwog staff