Medicinal Plants

Hot Spot 1 Prickly pear cactus

Opuntia ficus-indica (Cactaceae)

Distribution

Opuntia ficus-indica originates from Mexico and today has spread widely throughout the drier climates of the world, especially in the Mediterranean, South Africa, and Australia.

Plant parts used

Fruit (prickly pear), young pads (nopal), and cochineal scale insects which feed on and are collected from the plants (carmine red).

Active constituents

Pectin, phytosterols, (ß-sitosterol), vitamins A, B, und C; calcium- and magnesium salts. Carminic acid from cochineal scale insects (up to 10%).

Traditional medicine

Fruit pectin useful against digestive problems and (questionably) against diabetes and hypercholesterolemia.

Miscellaneous

Pads (shoots) from which thorns have been removed are eaten raw or cooked as a vegetable called nopales/nopalitos. Peeled prickly pears (the fruit) are a refreshing snack. The female cochineal scale insects are extracted to obtain carminic acid, used as a dye in the food industry and for cosmetics (lipstick, rouge).

Location

Tropicarium: Semidesert (different species of Opuntia)

Hot Spot 2 Nightblooming Cereus (Queen of the Night)

Selenicereus grandiflorus, Cactaceae

Distribution

Central to South America, spread to other tropical areas. Often cultivated in greenhouses.

Plant parts used

Fresh, young shoots and flowers.

Active constituents

The flowers contain flavonoids (isorhamnetin glycoside a.o.: 1.5%) and the nitrogeneous betaine pigments; shoots with biogenic amines (3 mg per 100 g dry weight).

Medical use

In traditional medicine it is used against nervous cardiac conditions, angina pectoris, stenosis, as well as bladder and kidney ailments. Proof of efficacy is lacking. In homeopathy “Cactus grandiflorus” is used against organic and dysfunctional cardiac disease, atherosclerosis, and high blood pressure.

Miscellaneous

The flowers bloom for one single night only, have a strong vanilla-like fragrance, and are pollinated by bats. The fruits are edible. This climbing cactus is a protected species.

Location

Tropicarium: Semidesert

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Hot Spot 3 True Aloe

Aloe vera (Xanthorrhoeaceae)

Distribution

This succulent plant is native to northern Africa, but today is common in South Africa and India. It was brought from Spain to the New World in 1650, and since has also been referred to as Barbados aloe or Curaçao aloe.

Plant parts used

Aloe vera gel: viscous mucilage obtained from sliced leaves by removing the outer green tissue. Pharmaceutical aloe product is the concentrated exudate of slashed, entire leaves.

Active constituents

Mucopolysaccharides in the gel and anthraquinones in the dried latex (up to 40%).

Medical use

Today, aloe is used as a strong laxative against obstipation and only under medical surveillance (50 mg evenings). Aloe is not indicated for chronic obstipation, not as a dietary regulator, nor as a substitute for bulking agents.

Miscellaneous

Aloe vera gel is used as a moisturizer and softener in ointments and cosmetics. Sunscreen lotions contain aloe gel as an anti-inflammatory and to alleviate sunburn. In former days, the bitter aloe gel was rubbed on children’s fingers to keep them from chewing nails. All aloe species in the wild are now protected by the Washington Convention CITES. Exempt are plants that have become naturalized and those that are agriculturally propagated.

Location

Tropicarium: Semidesert

Hot Spot 4 Hoodia

Hoodia gordonii (Apocynaceae)

Distribution

Namib and Kalahari deserts

Active constituents

Steroid glycosides, mainly P57AS3 or P57 (an oxypregnane glycoside) as well as the hoodigosides A to K.

Medical use

The Bushmen have been using Hoodia as an appetite suppressant for centuries. The mechanism of action is not entirely clear though. Hoodia has also been used as a cough medicine and against the common cold, as well as an aphrodisiac. Several drug preparations are marketed containing ground Hoodia stem.

Miscellaneous

The appetite and thirst suppressant activity was reported during the Angola war in the 1960s.

Location

Tropicarium: Fog Desert (view from passage to Humid Tropics)

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Baobab Baobab

Adansonia digitata (Malvaceae)

Distribution

Tropical Africa, and often cultivated as an ornamental in tropical countries. Merchants brought the tree to Arabia and India in the 13th century.

Plant parts used

Fruits with woody husks, leaves, bark.

Active constituents

The fruit pulp contains vitamin C (300 mg/100 g dry weight) and pectin. Seeds provide a nondrying oil; vitamins and pectin in leaves.

Medical use

Fruit pulp; in African traditional medicine it is used as a digestive stimulant, febrifuge, and analgesic. The bark is applied as a febrifuge and as an antidote in strophanthin poisoning.

Miscellaneous

The seed oil is edible and is employed in the cosmetics industry, the fruit pulp and leaves as a moisture retainer in cosmetics, and the young leaves are eaten as a vegetable

Location

Tropicarium: Seasonally Dry Tropical Forest

Hot Spot 6 Lignum vitae

Guaiacum officinale (Zygophyllaceae)

Distribution

Roughbark lignum-vitae (Guaiacum officinale) occurs from Central America to northern South America.

Plant parts used

Guaiac resin is obtained from the wood by heating (yield 15 to 25%).

Active constituents

Saponins in the wood; guaiaretic acid and guaiaconic acid in the resin

Medical use

Wood used as an infusion against rheumatism; formerly against syphilis. In Central America still used in traditional folk medicine against syphilis and skin diseases. Resin: in homeopathy against bronchial ailments and rheumatism. Guaiac gum is used for fecal occult blood testing.

Miscellaneous

The wood is extremely dense and heavier than water. Bowls and wooden joints have been made from lignum vitae. An essential oil is distilled from the wood serving as a fixative in the perfume industry. CITES has recently restricted the commercial trade of lignum vitae wood and its resin.

Location

Tropicarium: Monsoon Forest

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Hot Spot 7 Monsoon Forest

Cinnamomum verum (Lauraceae)

Distribution

Native to Sri Lanka (Ceylon), today often cultivated in Southeast Asia, Brazil, and the Caribbean.

Plant parts used

Bark and leaves.

Active constituents

1) Essential oils: in the bark up to 2.5% cinnamic aldehyde; in the leaves up to 0.8% eugenol (also a main constituent of clove oil).
2) Polyphenols (tannic acids): in the bark; probably essential for its effect against diabetes.

Medical use

Bark: Type-2 diabetics may take 3 g of ground bark per day over a period of four months, with the possible outcome of reducing blood sugar by 10 to 20%, blood cholesterol is apparently also lowered. Other applications: loss of appetite, digestive problems.

Miscellaneous

Certain commercial products against diabetes contain the less costly cassia bark (C. aromaticum). However, this species contains higher amounts of the hepatotoxic coumarin (1% or more), which also provides the aromatic scent of sweet woodruff. The oil obtained from the leaves is used in cosmetics and in soap perfumes.

Location

Tropicarium: Monsoon Forest

Hot Spot 8 Pineapple

Ananas comosus (Bromeliaceae)

Distribution

The ancestral stock of pineapple originates from tropical South America. Crops are grown throughout the tropics, mainly in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Columbia. Hawaii still has a minor production of pineapple.

Plant parts used

Fruit, leaves, roots.

Active constituents

The fruit contains 12% carbohydrates, fruit acids (mainly citric acid), vitamin C (20 mg per 100 g), low amount of vitamin B and nicotinamide, 0.4% minerals (calcium, potassium, magnesium). Bromelain is a proteolytic enzyme, concentrated in the hard core of the fruit axis along with other enzymes. Leaves contain about 5% fiber.

Medical use

Bromelain is employed in the form of a stomach acid-resistant formulation for indigestion and as an anti-inflammatory after surgery or accidents. Traditional medicine: unripe fruits as purgative and anthelmintic. In Sierra Leone the leaves are applied in case of snake bites and in Congo the roots are used to alleviate respiratory ailments.

Miscellaneous

Bromelain is a meat tenderizer (proteolytic). Leaf fiber used for ropes and silk-like fabrics.

Location

Tropicarium: Bromeliad House

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Hot Spot 9 Tea

Camellia sinensis (Theaceae)

Distribution

Originally from montane forests of South China, Assam, and Myanmar; tea plants are now grown in the tropics and subtropics worldwide.

Plant parts used

Leaves – green tea results when leaves are dried immediately after harvesting; for black tea the leaves are fermented prior to drying.

Active constituents

Purine alkaloids (up to 3–4%); the main alkaloid being caffeine (formerly referred to as theine); also theobromine (0.2%), theophylline (0.03%) and tannins (up to 25%). The dark-brown color of tea infusions results from theaflavines (2%) that are formed in fermentation; green tea is lighter and more bitter.

Medical use

Against sleepiness, migraine, and diarrhea; formerly for treating skin diseases as fungal infections on the feet, eczema, and infected wounds. In Chinese medicine tea is used to stimulate blood circulation and for the increased elimination of alcohol, fats, and nicotine.

Miscellaneous

Green tea (6 cups per day) is supposed to help lower blood lipids. Chinese folklore claims it to have an effect on longevity.

Location

Tropicarium: Montane Rainforest

Coffee Coffee

Coffea arabica (Rubiaceae)

Distribution

Originally from Ethiopia and Sudan, coffee plants are now grown in all tropical countries up to altitudes of 2000 m; major producers of coffee beans are Brazil, Vietnam, Columbia, and Indonesia.

Plant parts used

The coffee “beans” (seeds), two of which are enclosed in the red berry (fruit).

Active constituents

Roasted coffee contains 0.6–1.7% caffeine, 3% chlorogenic acid, and 12% plant oils.

Medical use

Strongly roasted coffee charcoal against diarrhea (9 g coffee charcoal per day). In homeopathy it is employed against nervousness and insomnia. Pure caffeine is synthesized industrially.

Miscellaneous

A single cup of coffee contains about 30 to 100 mg of caffeine, an espresso about 40 mg. The lethal dose is about 250 mg caffeine per kg body weight (cf. potassium cyanide 10 mg/kg; table salt 3000 mg/kg). Caffeine pills (200 mg) are occasionally employed against sleepiness. Analgesics against headache, toothache, and mentrual cramps sometimes contain caffeine.

Location

Tropicarium: Montane Rainforest

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Hot Spot 11 Red cinchona (quinine bark)

Cinchona pubescens (Rubiaceae)

Distribution

Native to South America (eastern slopes of the Amazonian Andes), now cultivated throughout the Tropics; also an invasive plant (e.g., in Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands).

Plant parts used

The bark of 10–12-year-old trees – obtained either from red cinchona (C. pubescens) or yellow cinchona (C. calisaya) as well as other species, often also from hybrids of these plants.

Active constituents

About twenty quinoline alkaloids, incl. quinine and quinidine; quinic acid, tannins and other bitter compounds.

Medicinal use

Cinchona bark was formerly the chief source of quinine used as an antimalarial. Quinine is also being prescribed against headaches, bronchitis, whooping cough, influenza, fever, muscle cramps and applied as a tonic (stimulating gastric digestion and hepatic metabolism).

Miscellaneous

The bark is extracted for its high content of quinine (up to 80%). Quinine is added to “bitter lemon” providing the drink’s slight bitter taste. A single dose of 10–15 g of quinine can be deadly for an adult.

Location

Tropicarium: Montane Rainforest

Hot Spot 12 Ginger

Zingiber species (Zingiberaceae)

Distribution

There are about 100 species of ginger, all of which native to Southeast Asia and Australia. Some are cultivated as ornamentals, as spices, or for medicinal purposes. Zingiber officinale, the true ginger, originates from tropical Asia, but is now cultivated throughout the tropics, particularly in the Caribbean and West Africa.

Plant parts used

Rhizomes.

Active constituents

The spicy gingerols convert to shogaol upon drying. Essential oils (in excess of 1.5% in dried rhizome); fragrant compound: zingiberole

Medical use

Against loss of appetite, digestive problems, as well as a prophylactic against nausea and traveler’s sickness. Some people report about a stimulating and aphrodisiac effect. Excessive amounts of ginger seem to cause hallucinations. In Asia ginger ointments are used against rheumatism.

Miscellaneous

Ginger is mainly used as a spice and condiment and is an integral part of curry powder.

Location

Tropicarium: Lowland Rainforest (various ginger species)

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Hot Spot 13 Guarana

Paullinia cupana (Sapindaceae)

Distribution

Native to the Amazon Forest. The plants are now cultivated in more easily accessible areas throughout Brazil.

Used parts

Seeds – embedded in a white, cup-like aril. The seeds are roasted and ground into a powder; by adding water the powder is transformed into a paste ("Pasta Guarana").

Compounds/Active ingredients

Caffeine (3 to 5.9% in dry seeds), some theobromine and theophylline; tannins (ca. 12%). Guarana is considered to be the plant with the highest concentration of caffeine.

Medicinal Use

In homeopathy as “Paullinia sorbilis hom".

Miscellaneous

Marketed as an "energy drink", as chewing gum and tablets. As the contained caffeine is bound to tannates, it is only slowly resorbed, and thus its action is less intense than in coffee.

Location

Tropicarium: Lowland Rainforest

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