Mother Nature's Guide to Wild Medicine


by Eric Furman

The rainforest supplies more than 120 prescription drugs worldwide. Here are just a few of nature's recipes for a vigorous life.

How to Mix a Life-Saving Cocktail

Quinine is a miracle drug that lowers fever, lessens pain, reduces inflammation, and, most famously, prevents malaria. But because it's made from the bark of South American cinchona trees, it tastes horrible. To curb the bitter flavor, British colonists in India—where the plant was later cultivated—washed down the drug with gin and lemon. Eventually, the bitterness became an acquired taste and led to the creation of tonic water, which is flavored with quinine. A splash of tonic water won't exactly cure your malaria, though. A person would have to down more than six quarts a day to feel an effect.

How to Make a Poison Arrow

If you're in the Amazon and regular arrows simply won't do, try poisoning the tips with curare, a toxin that comes from a South American vine. English explorer Charles Waterton brought the substance back to Europe after watching a half-ton ox die less than 30 minutes after being shot in the leg by three curare-tipped darts. The toxin is a potent muscle relaxant that becomes fatal when it spreads to the lung muscles, making it impossible to breathe. But doctors have figured out ways to use curare safely in medicine. It can help control the spasms of Parkinson's disease and it works well as anesthesia for eye, tonsil, and abdominal surgeries. Â

How to Use a Potato to Avoid Getting Pregnant

In 1940, scientist Russell Marker discovered that the roots of wild yams growing in the Mexican desert were full of progesterone, a hormone that prevents women from ovulating. He brought the yams back to his lab and used them to develop the first birth-control pills. But before you trade in your pills for heaping platefuls of Mom's candied yams, just know it won't have the same effect. The Mexican yams are unrelated to the ones we eat at Thanksgiving.

This article originally appeared in the Scatterbrained section of the Jan-Feb 2009 issue of mental_floss magazine.