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Fascinating Traditional Medicinal Plants

by Dawn
toothache plant

Ancient (and Modern!) Medicinal Plants You May Not Have Heard Of

You might remember that I wrote about Weird, Wild & Wonderful Plants a few weeks ago from my trip to the UCONN greenhouses on a gray and dreary winter day. You didn’t really think that was ALL the pictures I took, did you?? Of course not!

There were multitudes of incredibly fascinating plants, many with both traditional and modern medicinal and food uses. I just have to share a few (or maybe a dozen!) more with you.

Veldt Grape (Cissus quadrangularis)

As you may notice, this one looks like a square Christmas cactus, although as far as I can tell from its scientific name, there’s no relationship. (If you’d like some more info on Christmas cactuses and their relatives, you can check out my Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter cactus post here.)

This South African native is used in traditional medicine in Africa and is extensively used in Thailand. According to this WebMD article, it has a multitude of medicinal uses. Although modern medicine won’t go so far as to say that it actually works, they will admit that testing has proven it has anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties. It’s also been shown to have antioxidant properties as well.

veldt grape
Veldt grape (Cissus quadrangularis)

The list of possible medicinal uses for this plant is amazingly extensive, although, as always from a modern perspective, they are listed as “unproven”. However, this “unproven” list extends to 26 different uses, from diabetes to malaria, so my guess is that traditional medicine might be pretty smart on this one.

Rose Periwinkle or Annual Vinca (Catharanthus roseus)

This Madagascar and Indian native might be more familiar to you than some of the other plants I’m talking about, as many of us probably grow its relatives in our gardens. I have a hardy variety I grow here in CT, although rose periwinkle would not survive here, as it’s only hardy in Zones 10 and 11. It’s a beautiful plant, though, and can also be grown as a houseplant.

rose periwinkle plant
Rose periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus)

Rose periwinkle is vitally important in modern medicine as it’s a source of vincristine and vinblastine, both alkaloids used in chemotherapy. As you may have guessed, due to its role in chemotherapy, the plant is somewhat poisonous (because chemotherapy is poison to cancer cells). However, it’s also used in both Africa and Great Britain in the treatment of diabetes.

Again due to its somewhat poisonous qualities, ancient and traditional medicine practitioners use the leaves as laxatives.

Eastern Cape Giant Cycad (Encephalartos altensteinii)

eastern cape giant cycad

Isn’t this a cool-looking plant? Unfortunately, lots of other people think so too, and it’s become critically endangered from people taking specimens for home gardens.

eastern cape giant cycad cone
I just had to show you the “pine” cone this plant produces!
It’s close to 3 feet long. Pretty impressive, huh??

This native of Africa is an extremely primitive gymnosperm. A gymnosperm is a type of plant that includes conifers (ya know, pine trees and such), cycads (like this guy) and ginkgos. Never seen a ginkgo tree? They’re gorgeous, especially in the fall when they turn a brilliant yellow! Wanna see one? Look here.

Two cautions if you should fall in love with the ginkgo and decide to grow one: Although very easy to grow in hardiness zones 5 through 9, the female trees produce fruit that STINKS (really, really stinks, trust me on this) when it begins to rot. If you can find someone willing to guarantee you a male tree, by all means, get that one!

The other thing, which probably isn’t nearly as big a deal, but which I’ve seen personally (and it’s kinda weird!): The tree turns a brilliant yellow, as I mentioned, in the fall. It maintains its beautifully-colored leaves really well…..until the first frost. As soon as it gets frosted that first time, it drops all its leaves, ALL OF THEM, within 24 hours. As in, WHOOOOOSH!!!!, there they go!

There’s a ginkgo tree on the route I used to take to school. I always watched it when we had the fall’s first frost. The morning after, all the leaves would still be there, nice and pretty and yellow. By the time I came home later in the day, every last leaf was on the ground. It was actually kind of impressive!

OK, back to our Giant Cycad. Although there is some possible medicinal use of this plant, it’s most commonly known as the bread plant because natives remove the pith (that’s the innards of the plant). They then bury it in the ground and leave it there long enough to rot.

Do ya really wanna know what they do then?  You may not…. They dig it up, knead it and bake it into bread. Sourdough, anyone?

Cape Myrtle or African Boxwood (Myrsine africana)

African boxwood
Sorry it’s not the best picture. It’s close quarters in that greenhouse!

This plant is native to Africa, the Himalayas and China. It can be grown in the southern US as a small to medium-sized hedge, but is only hardy in Zones 9 to 12.

If you happen to end up with a female plant, the birds will love its berries as well.

In Africa, the Tswana and Kwena tribes use an extract of the leaves as a blood purifier.

Toad Tree (Tabernaemontana elegans)

This is a very attractive South African tree with lots of food and medicinal uses. It’s named Toad Tree because the fruit is brown and knobby and kind of resembles toad skin. And yes, people eat it. (YUM!)

The tree at the greenhouse wasn’t in fruit when I took my pictures, so if you’d like to see it, you can do so here. I have to say, it really doesn’t scream “eat me!”, but to each their own, I guess.

Interestingly, several websites mention that parts of the tree are toxic, yet the sap, roots, fruit and seeds are all used or ingested in one way or another. Hmmmm…..maybe it’s the leaves?

The sap is used to treat lung and stomach issues, to stop bleeding, and as an aphrodisiac. The roots are used to treat sexually transmitted diseases, and the seeds are sometimes burnt and ground and smoked along with tobacco. As mentioned, the fruit is also edible.

Wild Laburnum (Calpurnia aurea)

wild laburnum

Another South African native, this plant seems to be used most to treat issues related to bugs. It’s used outright as an insecticide in Ethiopia. It’s also used to kill maggots in wounds (sorry for that mental picture!) and lice. The seeds and leaves also treat abscesses and allergic rashes.

As a bonus, it’s a beautiful plant with lovely yellow flowers (as you can see above). If you live in the Southern US (Zone 9 and up), wild laburnum is hardy in your area and can be grown as a small tree, assuming you can procure a specimen. I wasn’t able to find anyone in the US currently selling it, although Annie’s Annuals & Perennials had it in their catalog (listed as not in production at this time).

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Buffalo Wood or Wild Pomegranate (Burchellia bubalina)

This is an extremely attractive African tree with beautiful red flowers that attract nectar-drinking birds (hummingbirds, anyone?)

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I was searching for information on this tree and found the seeds available on Amazon. You can find them here, if you’d like.

I’m really tempted to get some, but, although I couldn’t find info on hardiness zones, several sites did mention that they must be protected against hard frosts, so I’d say my Zone 6B New England property is out. Maybe I could grow it in a pot…..I mean, Spike could use a friend, right? (If you haven’t read the story of Spike, my indoor grapefruit tree, you probably should!)

Apparently this tree’s wood is very hard and dense and is used to build huts, and South African natives also use the roots as an emetic (ie., it induces vomiting, YUCK!).

They also use the roots with other plants to create love charms. I hope they don’t swallow the love charm, since it causes vomiting. That seems kind of counterproductive, no? Maybe if they used it as birth control…….Sorry, sorry, let’s move on.

Bear’s Breech (Acanthus montanus)

bears breeches

I almost brushed up against this plant as we were wandering through the greenhouse. I’m really glad I can say “almost”. I did then (verrrrrry caaaarreeffullly) touch one of the leaves, and yes, it’s as spiky and scary as it looks. Although it is a strangely attractive plant…..

This West African native is used as a cough medicine (but only for women and children, I have no idea why). It’s also given to children to induce vomiting.

Tuba Root (Derris elliptica)

tuba root

Is this not the coolest plant you’ve ever seen? (OK, maybe not THE coolest, but pretty high on the coolness scale, right?)

I checked around to see if it could be purchased in the US and found this source. I haven’t shopped from them before so can’t vouch for them, just so you know.

Again, hardiness zone info is hard to come by, but I did find a distribution map that suggests it can only grow in the tropics. How come the tropics get all the fun stuff????

Apparently, this plant eventually grows to become a HUGE vine. Its claim to fame is that it’s a major source of the organic insecticide Rotenone, so I guess if you can grow it, you probably don’t have to worry about bugs getting it, huh??

Toothache Plant (Acmella oleracea)

toothache plant

This plant, with its really neat-looking flowers, is a native to Brazil. Its leaves and flowers can be chewed as an anesthetic, thus its common name! It actually appears to have antibacterial properties, so can promote tooth and gum health as well.

It’s apparently also being investigated as an alternative to Botox because it’s a natural muscle relaxant. If you’d like to read more about that, here’s an article for you.

If you would like to grow your very own toothache plant, you can get seeds here. Keep in mind, though, that it’s a tropical plant and can’t be grown outside in any zone colder than 10. It does stay small, though, so would make a very nice houseplant. Another one I might have to add to my list……

Vanilla Orchid (Vanilla planifolia)

vanilla orchid

Yes, that vanilla. It’s native to Mexico and Colombia and in the wild, can grow to 100 feet tall!! That’s one serious plant! The pods are what we call the “beans” that are used in cooking.

In the wild, vanilla is pollinated by the Melipona bee, but in cultivation is typically hand-pollinated.

You can order a vanilla plant and grow it yourself if you would like. Logee’s Greenhouses has them here. They also have a wonderful plant care guide here.

Quite simply, as vanilla is an orchid relative, it requires the same type of care as an orchid. This means sphagnum moss or orchid mix for “soil”, and somewhat warm temperatures (at least about 60F). It also prefers nice bright light, but not hot noon sun.

Yet another plant I’d really like to try to grow sometime. Although I have had orchids in the past and my house is basically where orchids go to die, sooooo…

Arabica Coffee (Coffea arabica)

Not truly a medicinal plant, although I bet some of you would disagree with me on any given Monday morning!

Arabica coffee is a native of tropical Africa, although it’s grown in tropical areas worldwide for commercial production. The plant will grow 15′ tall in the wild, but is typically kept trimmed to about 6′ in commercial orchards so the fruits can be easily harvested.

You’re out of luck if you try to grow coffee outdoors anywhere north of Zone 10, but it makes a nice and very attractive houseplant.

Although the fruit of the coffee plant is actually edible (who knew?), it’s the seeds that are famous. They’re removed from the fruits, dried, roasted and then ground into the brew we all know and love.

I wonder why we call them beans? I mean, they do look like beans. But, we call vanilla pods beans too. Although I suppose they look like string beans. Hmmmm……

Would you like to grow your own coffee plant? It “only” grows to 4-6′ tall indoors, so you have room, right? Tempted? Here’s a link to buy your very own plant.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this foray into the world of exotic medicinal and food plants. Have you signed up for my email list yet so you’ll get notified of more posts like this? No?? But there are goodies and freebies and never any spam (I promise!) You can sign up here. You’ll get instant access to ALL the freebies in my Subscribers Only Resource Library.

Related Exotic and Unusual Plants Posts

Below you’ll find a couple of pinnable images. If you have an appropriate board on Pinterest, I’d love it if you’d do some pinning. Thanks so much and as always, smile and have a crazy organic day!

traditional medicinal plants
traditional medicinal plants

Ancient (and Modern!) Medicinal Plants You May Not Have Heard Of


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Nikki Gwin 02/24/2019 - 8:59 am

The toothache plant is the only one of these that I am familiar with! But I have to say that I find the ginko tree so beautiful and its been calling to me for a couple of years now. Downtown Birmingham has them planted and they are oh so beautiful. But like you said, I sure want to be sure I get a male. There is a ancient female tree in my old town and when those fruit drop…. oh my….
🙂 gwingal

Dawn 02/24/2019 - 3:57 pm

I know, they’re vile! There is a female one on the campus at UConn and I went by it once when the fruits were dropping. Ewwwwww!!!! The tree itself is so gorgeous though!

Sarita 02/23/2019 - 12:56 pm

So many fascinating plants – and you’re right – the tropics get the best ones! If you ever have a chance to visit Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina, check out their extensive herb gardens and greenhouse. So many interesting varieties there. The only one I recognize in your post is Vinca, which I used to grow when we lived in Southern Ontario. Now that we’re in subarctic Northern Canada, I’m actually amazed at some of the medicinal plants that grow wild here. We forage Labrador Tea, cloudberries, rosehips, chamomile, and wild mint among others. Thanks for the great information and beautiful pics!

Dawn 02/23/2019 - 7:25 pm

Wow! I’m surprised that many plants grow wild where you are now. I would love to visit at least one botanical garden in all 50 states, but I’m woefully behind at this point, LOL. I’ve been to them in MA, PA, CO and MO. I have a loooooong way to go!

Linda Carlson 02/23/2019 - 12:54 pm

Very nice article.. Lots of great information.. I have thought about doing one for our state as it seems to have a lot of interest.

Dawn 02/23/2019 - 7:24 pm

It was a lot of fun to do the research!

Sandra at Thistle Cove Farm 02/19/2019 - 9:09 am

You’re right…never heard of them but this post is fascinating! Almost three decades ago I started a traditional Appalachian medicinal garden which proved to be beneficial. I’m a big fan of natural, holistic medicine and your blog. I just signed up for your newletter.

Dawn 02/19/2019 - 9:12 am

Thank you very much! It was fascinating doing the research for this post as I hadn’t heard of many of these plants either. I’m so lucky to have an agricultural research university so close to me.


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