Reviews of the best medicinal plants 2018-02-15T15:27:15+00:00

EthnoHerbalist explores the biology, cultural history and health benefits of medicinal plants.

As a college professor, I teach courses on human physiology and ethnobotany. As a scientist, I run a drug discovery research program. We extract chemicals from wild plants growing in the Sonoran and Mojave Desert. We then test these chemicals for activity in human cells.

I maintain this website as a means to communicate the world of healthy plants to the general public.

Thanks for stopping by…

 ~Dr. Kevin Curran

medicinal plants and their uses

Kevin Curran out and about in southeastern California, near the Mexican border.

Humans have always relied on plants when seeking nutrition and remedies for illness. 

This makes sense as plants are filled with bio-active chemicals. Bio-active chemicals interact in meaningful ways with cellular pathways in living organisms. When we eat plants, these bio-active chemicals are transferred to our body. Some of these chemicals will then improve our physiology and keep us healthy.

There is no question that plants play a key role in human health.

70% of the global population currently relies directly on wild plants for medicine.

In the United States, about 25% of prescription drugs are derived from plants.

In 2018, as we learn more about nutritional science and chronic illness (obesity, diabetes), it is increasingly evident that a plant-rich diet is a key ally in our quest for good health.

NEW: Read my review of Essential Oils.

I summarize the biology of smell and aromatherapy – and then share my thoughts on the various applications of essential oils.

  • aromatherapy
  • pharmacology
  • household cleaning

Spoiler Alert: Essential oils are not actually essential.

essential oils

Click on a plant below to learn more…

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Turmeric is a flowering plant from Asia. Turmeric roots are rich in curcumin, a compound with anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.



Dulse is a red algae that grows along rocky coastlines. This tasty vegetable is packed with minerals, vitamins, fiber, protein and anti-oxidants.

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White mulberry is a tree from China. The leaves and fruits are high in fiber and protein and can help lower our blood-sugar levels.

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Maca is a Peruvian plant with a thick radish-like root. Both men and women take this superfood for stamina and sexual health.

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Echinacea is a genus of purple coneflowers from the sunflower family. All parts of the plant are used to strengthen the immune system and address a cold or flu.

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Chaga mushrooms grow in the cold, northern forests. Chaga tea can enhance our immune system and serve as an antioxidant.

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Psyllium Husk

Psyllium husk is the seed coat from a plant called Blond Psyllium. This husk is a rich source of soluble fiber, which helps with digestion and LDL cholesterol levels. Photo: JoJan

medicinal plants and their uses

St. John’s Wort

St. John’s wort is a yellow-flowering herb native to Europe. This plant is widely used as an alternative to prescription anti-depressants.

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Devil’s Claw

Devil’s Claw is an African plant with a spiny seedpod. A root extract is taken in response to back pain and osteoarthritis. Photo: Roger Culos CC BY-SA 3.0

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Black elderberry is a flowering tree native to Europe. The plant contains compounds that boosts our immune system, helping us stay healthy during the cold and flu season.

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Butterbur, a member of the sunflower family,  displays rhubarb-like leaves and thick roots. Butterbur is used in response to migraine headaches.


Rhodiola rosea

Rhodiola is a flowering plant from Central Asia. The roots of this plant are used in response to stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Photo: Badagnani (CC BY 3.0)

Thanks for visiting the EthnoHerbalist!

medicine plant

As a plant biologist, I spend far too much time thinking about the science of plants. When I’m not teaching or updating this site, my botany research is focused on the search for new medicines in wild plants. Currently, I am looking for novel, therapeutic compounds in the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts of southern California and northern Mexico.

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Ask an Ethnobotanist?

Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between people and plants. This field of study explores the way humans use plants for medicine, food, shelter, art, ext.

We may be biased, but we find ethnobotanists to be incredibly interesting people.

The EthnoHerbalist site publishes articles and interviews with ethnobotanists and plant biologists from around the world.

The purpose of Ask an EthnoBotanist is to explore the current state of medicinal plants, drug discovery and habitat conservation.

Where do native people still rely on plant based medicine?

Which plants continue to provide health benefits?

Can the indigenous people who discovered these plants be compensated if commercial success is achieved with the plant?

Will the search for new natural medicines play a role in habitat conservation?

We’ll be exploring these topics in our Ask an Ethnobotanist articles.

Khairol, a Borneo native, describes the wild plants of Sabah. I wrote this article documenting our time with Khairol.

Lesley Randall describes the chaparral and coastal scrub biomes found within the San Diego Botanic Garden. In this article, we discuss the ethnobotany of the Kumeyaay culture as presented along the Native Plants and Native People Trail.

We recently had the chance to sit down with a group of Thai botanists. They showed us their new medicinal plant garden in Suanluang Rama IX Park in Bangkok, Thailand.

At EthnoHerbalist, we have compiled a page that describes the ethnobotany of southern California.

This page lists many of the native plants that were used for food, medicine, art, tools, clothing and shelter by various groups of southern California Native Americans. We also briefly describe the various plant communities of southern California.

Acaté is an international organization that strives to support the indigenous communities of the Peruvian Amazon. During the summer of 2015, Acaté helped compile a comprehensive encyclopedia of medicinal plants from the region. This accomplishment was a collaboration with the Matsés healers from the region.

The Philosophy behind our EthnoHerbalist site

EthnoHerbalist reviews the science behind the best herbal supplements.

There is no question that plants play a key role in modern medicine.

The challenge is to decide which plants are most effective for your specific health concern. There’s a lot of information on herbal supplements out there…some of it good and some of it misleading. We’re here to help guide you through this information.

At EthnoHerbalist, we help you find the best herbal supplements. We look for companies with high integrity and high standards in their farming and manufacturing process.

How can you determine which herbal supplements are the most effective?

This is a great question. We consider the following three factors when deciding which plants to discuss.

1. The medicinal value of a plant is partly determined by the historical use of the plant.

The story of human civilization is interwoven with plant based medicine. Thousands of years ago, native peoples around the world fought for survival every day. Their only resource was the natural world. Through trial and error, these early foragers learned that certain plants were toxic or deadly, while other plants strengthened their bodies and improved their chances of survival. This survival information was passed down through generations, via shamans and herbalists. Consequently, future generations placed more value on these beneficial plants. Over time, the usage of these plants increased. Eventually the plant became an integral part of the native culture. The most effective plants would continue to provide health value for each new generation.

In this sense, the most effective medicinal plants were deemed beneficial through a natural selection process.

During the Age of Exploration in the 15th century, natural resources from one part of the globe were suddenly shifted to the opposite end of the world. As Europeans crossed oceans and explored new continents, they collected medicinal plants from Asia, South America, North America, Africa, ext. When the explorers returned to Europe, they brought their botanical samples with them. Herbalists in Europe then assimilated these new plants into their culture.

Throughout this ethnobotanical history, some plants have shown themselves to be broadly beneficial. They were first discovered as a means to survival and good health with native foragers. They then traveled the world and still delivered value to a diverse audience.

At EthnoHerbalist, we look for herbal supplements with a long history of providing health value. 

2. A plant’s medicinal value is also determined through modern clinical trials.

The modern world is upon us. This has good and bad implications. However, one irrefutably positive aspect to our modern world is the development of the scientific method as a tool to answer questions. The medicinal value of a popular herbal supplements can now be tested systematically in hospitals and laboratories across the world.

For example, let’s say there’s a growing interest in the medicinal value of the Butterbur plant. Perhaps many people report that this plant helps them with migraines. This is interesting, although, this information may only be anecdotal (based purely on personal accounts). Its also possible that people are responding to the placebo effect, as opposed to a real biological effect.

Fortunately, we now live in a world where we can test the accuracy of a health claim. Now that we’re armed with the scientific method, specialists can design an experiment that will produce an answer to a specific question. Does the use of butterbur plants lower the incidence of migraine headaches?

The accuracy of the health claim can be tested in a laboratory and in clinical studies. Most of the scientists performing these experiment will adhere to high standards while designing their experiments because they want their results published in the best possible scientific journals.

Here at EthnoHerbalist, we examine the most relevant published results for one particular health claim.

We only consider high-quality scientific data. This means we’re looking for clinical studies that are placebo-controlled, randomized, double blind and conducted with sufficiently large test sizes. We’re also looking for significant results as determined by statistics (p values).

3. Your choice of herbal supplement brand will also determine the benefit you receive from medicinal plants.

To put it succinctly, some brands of herbal supplements are better than others.

We won’t name names, but suffice to say that certain companies mislabel their products. Certain companies do not adhere to strict farming and manufacturing processes. You want to avoid these brands. Recent investigations have revealed that many of the herbal supplement brands sold in big box stores do not contain the correct plant.

Fortunately, this problem is completely avoidable. There are many excellent herbal supplement companies that produce high quality plant extracts.

At EthnoHerbalist, we recommend respectable brands that verify the contents of their products with DNA bar-coding or chemical analysis. These tests ensure the purity and potency of the medicinal plant in each bottle. We endorse herbal supplement companies that grow their plants organically. We also recommend brands that follow strict manufacturing standards when processing the plant material.

We’re here to help you discover the best herbal supplements.

The EthnoHerbalist Blog

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There appears to be some forward motion on the recent efforts to clean up the herbal supplement industry. Here is an excerpt from Anahad O'Conner's report in the NY Times GNC, the country’s largest [...]

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This Sliding Bar can be switched on or off in theme options, and can take any widget you throw at it or even fill it with your custom HTML Code. Its perfect for grabbing the attention of your viewers. Choose between 1, 2, 3 or 4 columns, set the background color, widget divider color, activate transparency, a top border or fully disable it on desktop and mobile.