Medicine could benefit from over 28,000 plants that show some form of useful or pharmaceutical property, that is if only more research was invested in studying them. Reported in the annual State of the World’s Plants, compiled by scientists at Kew Gardens, they recommend that more should be done to fully examine the plants that show promise.
Plants with medicinal attributes are still the primary form of healthcare for millions of people in many parts of Africa, Asia, and South America. Yet despite the fact that the popularity of herbal remedies continues to grow, fewer than 16 percent of the 28,000 plant-based medicines have been cited in publications that regulate their use.
This is of concern because it shows that not only are official bodies failing to assess potentially beneficial plants for their pharmaceutical qualities, but it could also be risking the health of people who are taking plant-based remedies without knowing their full effects. For example, two of the most important drugs used to fight malaria – which kills over 400,000 people annually – are derived from plants, yet there are still another 1,200 species frequently used locally to treat the parasite. Could any of these other plants help tackle the disease? Are any harming those already taking them?
The report also documents how researchers have discovered over 1,700 new plant species in the last year alone. These include new species of rose, coffee, Aloe vera, and cassava, and could be of great significance in the agricultural, cosmetic, and horticultural industry.
In Brazil, scientists discovered 11 new species of cassava – known variously as garri, manioc, or tapioca – which could open up new food sources for people in the tropics. The plant is already a staple for millions of people across South America and Africa, but as with many food crops, there is concern that the genetics are not diverse enough. It is hoped that this discovery of new wild species could help inject variety into the cultivars.
Many of the newly discovered plants, however, are already threatened with extinction. Seven new species of redbush, or rooibos tea plants, have been discovered in South Africa in the past year, but already six of these are at risk. The main dangers are from climate change and wildfire.
Climate change already affects plants around the globe, shifting their distribution as temperatures and rainfall patterns change. But wildfires are also of significant worry, as each year around 340 million hectares (840 million acres) of land go up in flames, an area roughly the size of India. While many plants need fire to germinate, this can be a fatal issue for those not adapted to fire.