Weeds may be unwanted, but they’re more valuable than you think. Anthropologist Richard Steep says, “If I had one place to go to find medicinal plants, it wouldn’t be the forest. There are probably hundreds of weeds growing right outside people’s doors they could use.”
Stepp looked through scientific journals to find drugs that come from plants instead of being created in laboratories. He discovered that although only about 3% of the world’s quarter-million plant species are weeds, they make up more than a third of the 101 plants used to make drugs.
The world’s best known medicinal weed is the poppy, from which opium and heroin are made. They are considered illegal drugs now, but were once important pain relievers. Other weed-based medicines are Scopolamine, for treating motion sickness, and several cancer medications.
Most medicinal plants come from rain forests and pharmaceutical companies worry that they’ll run out of new drugs if rain forests are cut down. But Stepp says we’re missing a lot of important weeds all around us. He says, “?We need to broaden our horizons if we’re going to search for new drugs from plants.”
When he was doing research in Mexico, he found that indigenous people there use plants to cure colds, upset stomachs, skin rashes, and aches and sprains. Stepp says, “They don’t go to the doctor when they’re sick because they don’t have a doctor. They treat themselves, and they treat themselves very effectively with the plants that are around. What people don’t realize is that two-thirds of the world’s population relies on plants in this way.”
Mayans are “natural botanists,” according to Stepp. He says, “We worked with 4- and 5-year-old kids who could name 100 plants. An American kid might be able to name 100 Pokemon characters, but if you ask him the names of three plants, he would probably have a real hard time.”
Anthropologist Daniel Moerman found that as many as 50 plants commonly found in fields in the U.S. have been used as medicine by Native Americans. “?Medicinal plants are readily available in a living pharmacy right outside the door,” Stepp says. “They are readily available, cost nothing to gather and are often more effective.”
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