Medicinal Plants

Medicinal plants have been used to treat an array of illnesses dating back thousands of years. It is not known exactly who discovered that plants have medicinal properties, but scriptures describing their uses, written around 3000 B.C. by the Egyptians and Ancient Chinese, have been discovered (Ehrlich 2013). Researchers have shown that, throughout time, indigenous cultures from various parts of the world have used the same or similar plants for treating the same afflictions in their traditional rituals and therapies (Ehrlich 2013). However as scientists began to develop synthetic drugs mimicking a medicinal plant’s properties, the use of natural remedies declined until recently, as many people are deciding the natural way is healthier (Ehrlich 2013). Though the use of natural remedies is increasing, many people buy them from a store instead of going outside and finding the plant itself. This can be due to the fact that many medicinal plants can be poisonous when consumed in large quantities, but typically it is because people do not know how to identify them or where to look for them; not realizing the plant could be growing in their backyard.

There are many commonly found medicinal plants all over Canada, such as Hypericum perforatum (St John’s wort), Plantago major (common plantain) and Asteraceae (dandelion). Due to the time of year and location in which our research project takes place, the study plants must be able to survive late into an Eastern Canadian autumn, which influenced our decision to study 5 perennial and 1 biennial species we knew to be located within the Morgan Arboretum. These species either preferred to live on moist shady soils (Arisaema triphyllum, Asarum canadense,Smilacina racemosa, Polygonatum) or near woodland edges in either part shade or full sun (Artcium minus, Sanguinaria canadensis) (PFAF 1996-2012). By choosing species that typically have similar habitats we anticipated being able to locate them all in the area bordered by the orange trail and within the amount of time available to us.

Overview of Study Species

Arisaema triphyllum (Jack in the pulpit)

Female Arisaema triphyllum

Female Arisaema triphyllum

Description: Grows a spadix encased in a spathe that opens up at the top like a hood. In late summer, mature plants produce a cluster of red berries that become visible as the spathe withers. The sex of individuals is determined by their life stage: juvenile is male, mature is female, and intermediate is often a hermaphrodite (Bierzychudek 1982).

Medicinal properties: Ariseama triphyllum’s root is used as a stimulant and antiseptic substance, and to clear chest phlegm and induce perspiration. If the root is not properly dried, it is poisonous to humans once ingested (PFAF 1996-2012). First nations used roots in decoctions and applied them to bruises, sores, and sore heal throats.

The Arisaema triphyllum that we found along our transects were female, easily discernible from the earlier male stage by its bright red berries, making it easy for us to spot. They grow as single plants; however we often found two or three in close proximity to each other.

Arctimum minus (Common Burdock)

Cluster of Arctimum minus

Cluster of Arctimum minus

Description: A biennial herb, introduced from Europe, which grows with rosettes comprising of broad leaves and purple flowers on a long stalk (Gross and Werner 1983).

Medicinal properties: Infusions of its leaves, used for centuries, cure ulcers and various skin infections. This plant helps purify the blood, kill bacteria and fungi, expel intestinal gases, promote bile and urine flows, and reduce blood sugar levels (PFAF 1996-2012). Boiling the root creates a good antidote for food poisoning.

As fall takes over Arctimum minus begins its seed dispersal and the shoot dies in preparation for winter. It is found in clusters all along edges of paths and clearings.

Caulophyllum thalictroides (Blue Cohosh)

Caulophyllum thalictroides with berries still intact

Caulophyllum thalictroides with berries still intact

Description: A perennial herb composed of a single straight stem and a single leaf bearing three leaflets. At maturity, it is recognized by its blue berry-like seeds surmounting its stalks (Brett and Posluszny 1982).

Medicinal properties: An important North American medicine for its many gynecological uses, promoting urination, menstruation and relaxing muscular spasms and cramps. Native Americans used it to relieve menstrual cramps and to promote childbirth (Betz et al. 1998). The berry-like fruits are poisonous.

They have already browned at this time of year and though they resemble mere twigs they manage to hold onto their blue seeds with strength that astounds us, surviving some harsh winds and heavy rain—partially weakened by the tree canopy. They are found scattered around the forest in groups.

Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot)

Sanguinaria canadensis: (L) leaves (C) root (R) yellowing leaves

Sanguinaria canadensis: (L) leaves (C) root (R) yellowing leaves

Description: An herbaceous perennial, native to North America. Composed of 3 stems each bearing a single basal leaf arranged in palmate lobes (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada). As its common name suggest, the root produces a reddish juice, which has been used to make dyes. In early spring, white flowers will bloom and before winter the leaves yellow and die. The root remains red.

Medicinal properties: The red sap is not poisonous in low doses and was extensively used by First Nations for its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. It can cure poison ivy, promote urine and menstrual blood flows, vomiting and is used to reduce fever or clear phlegm by inducing coughing. It is also used as a stimulant and a sedative (PFAF 1996-2012). It has been used in commercial toothpastes to fight gingivitis but was withdrawn after problems with sores in some patients.

Smilacina racemosa (False Solomon’s Seal) vs. Polygonatum (Solomon’s Seal)

(L) Smilacina racemosa leaves and (C) S. racemosa with beries. Compare to (R) Polygonatum sp.

(L) Smilacina racemosa leaves and (C) S. racemosa with beries. Compare to (R) Polygonatum sp.

Descriptions: Perennial herbs often found in dense clusters in rich woods. Smilacina racemosa is often confused with a Polygonatum as the leaves on both plants are arranged in a similar fashion, with smooth edges and elliptical shapes. The main difference is that Smilacina racemosa develops flowers and small red berries at its tip, while Polygonatum develops them on its underside.

Medicinal use: Smilacina racemosa is a contraceptive and regulates menstruation. The root is analgesic and antirheumatic. When burned, the fumes can heal headaches and body pain. Not commonly used in modern medicine (PFAF 1996-2012). Polygonatum is used for spitting up blood and for treating snow blindness (PFAF 1996-2012).

Project Overview:

Our research question, where in the Arboretum are the chosen medicinal plants found, does this correlate with a specific habitat?, stems from our interest in finding a relationship between the plants and their surroundings; potentially coming up with a map of the areas in the Arboretum likely to contain medicinal plants.

To have a realistic sized research area the orange path of the Morgan Arboretum was chosen as the boundary. We ran eight transects, separated from each other by 70 paces (1 pace = roughly 1 meter). One group member was responsible to maintain our trajectory as straight as possible from one side of the main path to the other by use of a compass and a GPS. The other three members followed scanning the ground for the study species within a 2 m distance of either side of our transect. Each time a study species was found along a transect, its GPS coordinate was taken, along with environmental conditions, and were recorded on a data sheet (figure 1). After transects are completed, the soil type on which each plant discovered, will be determined by reference of a Morgan Arboretum soil survey map.

Data Collection Table

Data Collection Table


Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Sanguinaria canadensis L. (Bloodroot) [Internet]. 2012; [cited on 2013 October 27]. Available from: http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/science-and-innovation/science-publications-and-resources/resources/canadian-medicinal-crops/medicinal-crops/sanguinaria-canadensis-l-bloodroot/?id=1301435750051

Betz JM, Andrzejewski D, Troy A, Casey RE, Obermeyer WR, Page SW, Woldemariam TZ. (1998). Gas Chromatographic Determination of Toxic Quinolizidine Alkaloids in Blue Cohosh Caulophyllum thalictroides (L.) Michx. Phytochemical Analysis [Internet]. [cited 2013 October 25]; 9(5): 232-236. Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.proxy2.library.mcgill.ca/doi/10.1002/%28SICI%291099-1565%28199809/10%299:5%3C232::AID-PCA412%3E3.0.CO;2-5/abstract;jsessionid=F4AA3511F27C4CDC0584CB738111DD7F.f02t02

Bierzychudek P. 1982.  The demography of Jack-in-the-pulpit, a forest perennial that changes sex. Ecological Monographs. 52(4): 335-351

Brett JF, Posluszny U. 1982. Floral development in Caulophyllum thalictroides (Berberidaceae). Canadian Journal of Botany [Internet]. [cited 2013 October 27]; 60(10): 2133-2141. Available from: http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/b82-262#.Um3NZyRie8o

Ehrlich SD. Herbal Medicine. University of Maryland Medical center .  [internet]  2013; [cited on 2013-10-24]. Available from: http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/treatment/herbal-medicine

Gross RS, Werner PA. (1983). Probabilities of Survival and Reproduction Relative to Rosette Size in the Common Burdock (Arctium minus: Compositae). American Midland Naturalist [Internet]. [cited 2013 October 25]; 109(1): 184-193. Available from: http://www.jstor.org.proxy2.library.mcgill.ca/stable/2425529

MacKinnon, Kershaw, Arnason, Owen, Karst, Hamersley-Chambers. 2009. Edible and medicinal plants of Canada. Lone Pine

Plants for a Future (PFAF) Arisema triphyllum [Internet]. 1996-2012; [cited on 2013-10-27]. Available from: http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Arisaema+triphyllum

Plants for a Future (PFAF) Polygonatum pubescens [Internet]. 1996-2012; [cited on 2013-10-27]. Available from: http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Polygonatum+pubescens

Plants for a Future (PFAF) Smilacina racemosa [Internet]. 1996-2012; [cited on 2013-10-27]. Available from: http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Smilacina+racemosa


About Crystal Ernst

Hakai Institute postdoctoral scholar at Simon Fraser University (B.C.)

2 comments on “Medicinal Plants

  1. Nice job on this post. I liked the short synopses of each of your study species, kind of a get-to-know-you section. And little things like formatting made it easy for me to find different sections of your report, and including the datasheet is fun because it makes your reader pause and think about what data collection is really like (we often forget this when reading others’ work!). Might have been nice to move your research question up higher, like before the synopses, so that the reader knows what – specifically – you’re interested in. Did you have reason to think that some of your study species would be found in one habitat type over another (and what were those habitat types?)? That makes me think about whether one of your study species might grow slowly but be able to out-compete the others in the long run, or if others are adapted for different kinds of soil or intensity of sunlight (which I see is on your data sheet). Keep up the good work and keep us posted on what you find! I’ve learned a lot from following your Twitter feed and now by reading this report. 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, the feedback is appreciated. We really were not too sure where to fit in the research question, so hearing that it would be better further up is something we will definitely keep in mind. We did not really have any idea about habitat preference other than what we briefly mentioned in our second paragraph (moist shady soils vs edges of sun or part shade). We did find, however, that the Sanguinaria canadenses will live deeper into the forest if the canopy cover is not too thick, while the Arctium minus was never found inside the forest (only in fields and along the edges).

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