Plant Extracts

Plant extracts are liquids from plants that are frequently used as medicines. For example, digitalis is a common heart medicine that comes from the foxglove flower. Aspirin was originally derived from the bark of the willow tree. Plant extracts have been used to treat diseases for thousands of years and still play a large role in health care for most people in the world. Plant extracts are also used in toiletries such as shampoo and soap as well as to flavor food. If you read the ingredient list in your toiletries, you will probably find plant extracts!

De Materia Medica of Dioscórides.

Illustrations of medicinal plants from the 15th century Byzantium herbal medicine guidebook, De Materia Medica of Dioscórides.

Plant extracts have been used for medicine, nutrition, and cosmetics for thousands of years in ancient cultures such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China. One recipe found on a clay tablet from 2100 BC near Baghdad included extracts of snake skin, myrtle root, barley, and pine tree resin. This sounds a lot like the witches brew in Shakespeare’s Macbeth! To enhance athletic performance, a Greek physician prescribed a potion that included mule hooves along with extracts of rose hips and petals. Plant derived medicines, cosmetics, fragrances, and performance boosters have been a big business for a long time. Today the annual market for herbs for dietary supplements is $5.3 billion dollars in the U.S. alone. There are many opportunities for science careers in this field including research on herbal medicines and developing treatments and therapies.