The Ginkgo or maidenhair tree, Ginkgo biloba, has been called a living fossil. The tree evolved around 250 million years ago and has no close living relative. A characteristic of the young leaves is that they have two lobes which is why Linnaeus gave the tree the epithet biloba – the two-lobed. The tree is originally from China and Japan. In 1730 the first samples came to Utrecht but the tree soon spread to the rest of Europe. Linnaeus didn’t use gingko medicinally, but it has been used for centuries in China.

Maidenhair tree or Ginkgo – one of our
'modern' medicines which comes from
nature and which has been used for more
than 500 years in China.
Photo: Håkan Tunón.

In the 1930s a group of substances called ginkgolides was isolated. However, it took until 1967 to discover their chemical structure. Ginkgolides have been shown to increase the blood flow in the brain which helps old people symptoms such as memory loss, tiredness and tinnitus. They have also been shown to have positive effects treating shock, burns and inflammatory skin diseases.

Bruhn, J G 1996. Ginkgo biloba – en översikt. Svensk Farmaceutisk Tidskrift 100(2):42-45.

Bark for Malaria

As early as the 16th century quinine bark was being used to treat fevers. It was found that the bark from the quinine bark tree, the various Cinchona-species, was effective against remittent fever, or malaria as we say today. Great quantities of bark were therefore transported from South America to Europe.

The discovery has been assumed to be due to brothers of the Jesuit order and it was hence commonly traded under the name Jesuit bark. It is sometimes also called China bark, but the name has nothing to do with China; it derives from the Indian name of the bark, quina-quina or kinakina. During the 18th century it was found that it also stimulated the heart. In 1820 two French pharmacists isolated a substance from the bark, quinine.

In 1820 it was shown that a salt, quinine sulphate, was excellent for treating fevers. Several similar substances have been refined since then, amongst them is quinidine which is still being used for cardiac illnesses.

A French stamp which celebrates
the discovery of quinine in quinine
Photo: Jan G. Bruhn.

At the beginning of the 20th century, plantations of quinine bark were opened in Indonesia and therefore the collection of bark in South America was discontinued. Quinine was an unbeatable product against malaria. During the Second World War the Japanese occupied the quinine bark plantations which led to a shortage of quinine for the allied troops. This led in its turn to the production of synthetic products based on the chemical structure of quinine.

Harvesting quinine bark for the extraction
of quinine.
Photo: Finn Sandberg.

By the end of the war, virtually only synthetic malaria products were being used. However, the malaria parasite managed in time to develop resistance and survive many of these synthetic products. In some areas quinine still works, but the parasite is starting to survive even medication with quinine, which calls for the development of new anti-malarial drugs. As an alternative, artemisinin, a substance from sweet wormwood and derivatives is beginning to be used.

Deadly nightshade relieves cramp

Deadly nightshade – the whole plant
contains muscle relaxing substances. It is
therefore highly poisonous.
Photo: Håkan Tunón.

The plant belladonna or deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, got its name from an old Italian custom of dropping the juice of the bush’s berries into the eyes. This was mainly used as a beauty product. When the juice came into contact with the eye, it relaxed the circular muscle which controls the size of the pupil and the pupil could not contract.

The women who used it therefore got big dark eyes which were considered beautiful, thus giving rise to the Italian name belladonna.

Atropin is a very powerful poison that has been refined from the plant. It is a muscle relaxant and is used for antispasmodic drugs e.g. during operations. It affects the muscles by inhibiting a certain part of the nervous system. That is why, apart from cramp relief, it has side effects that relax the circular muscle of the eye, reduce the production of saliva and make urination difficult. Atropin is used in the army as an antidote to nerve gas. This is because some nerve gases affect the nerves in exactly the opposite way and so one kind of poison cancels out the other.

Last modified: 2021-11-08