The use of herbs for healing has been an ancient practice. Right from the beginning of human existence, human beings used medicinal plants to cure themselves of various diseases. The practice continues till today and will continue for as long as human beings occupy this earth. The knowledge of which herb is useful, and for which disease was by observation, instinct, and experimentation. Over time, human beings developed a more advanced way of knowing which plant is medicinal or poisonous, and which is beneficial for which illness.
In the modern world, the knowledge of herbal medicine has significantly advanced. In fact, many of the so-called modern western drugs are derived from plants. Some examples are aspirin derived from willow bark, penicillin from Penicillium mold, cocaine from the coca plant, and quinine used for the treatment of malaria that is derived from Cinchona Ledgerina, nick-named ‘fever tree.’
Over 100 active chemical ingredients are presently known to be derived from plants for use as drugs and medicines. There are over 400,000 species of plants on this planet. Human beings in different continents use about 100,000 of these plants for medicinal purposes. Of these, only 10,000 (10 percent) is said to have been clinically analyzed and thus recommended for human consumption. This shows that despite the advance in medical and scientific knowledge, we have just begun to scratch the surface of the vast body of knowledge available in nature. This should make us humble and accept our ignorance.
In the year 2000, I published the book titled: ‘Nature Power: A Christian Approach to Herbal Medicine’, which became very popular among Nigerians and across Africa and the world. When Nature Power was first published, at the time, the practice of herbal medicine in Nigeria and most parts of Africa was mainly, and widely associated with witchcraft, sorcery, ritualism and all sorts of native fetish practices and beliefs. Because herbal medicine was profoundly linked to paganism, therefore, many African Christians decided to secretly patronise traditional healers, while the elites and the religious figures did not want to identify in any way with traditional African Medicine, not at any one point even.
The Nature Power, therefore, like a lonely voice in the wilderness, was written to try and correct the misconception that African Herbal medicine is synonymous with paganism, ritualism, and fetishism. Eighteen years after its publication, the levels of negative perceptions have reduced considerably. Since then, people from all walks of life, namely; religious authorities, medical practitioners, healthcare professionals, academics, etc. now openly and proudly patronise herbal medicine and speak boldly in support of it. There is also a growing interest at the moment in the scientific study of herbal medicine across the continent and Nigeria in particular.
Since the publication of ‘Nature Power’ in 2000, there has been demands by readers for a plant album, to help readers identify the medicinal plants pictorially. This is very important to avoid taking the wrong herbs. Some herbs look so much alike that it takes careful examination and experience to spot the difference. The other day, I saw a man with some fresh leaves at the back of his car. He told me that the plant’s name is dandelion and that the plant is used to treat diabetes. I told him that the plant in his car is not dandelion but roseflower leaves. Some people see the leaves of pumpkin and call it garden egg leaves. There are many other instances of such mistaken identification of plants.
To contribute to finding a solution to this problem, I decided to document some of our local herbs with their pictures, to help proper identification. Happily, this collection of local herbs and their pictures have now been published as a book, which has just been released to the public, with the title: ‘Medicinal Plants of Nigeria. An Ethnobotanical survey and Plant Album’.
Hopefully, there will be many more similar books to follow. If you are an herbal medicine practitioner, or a natural medicine user, or lover of plants, ensure that you give pride of place to proper identification of plants.
At a time so much attention is being given to phytochemical screening of plants, there is a temptation to overlook the philosophy of ethnomedicine and cultural use of plants, thereby losing the link between plants and the community. This is why a plant album that documents how the local people use the plants is essential.
Another reason the documentation and proper identification of local plants are crucial is that even the traditional healers have become a highly endangered species, as many of them die mainly due to old age and other tropical diseases, without passing on their knowledge and expertise to their children and grandchildren. This has all been facilitated by the high rate of migration of the immediate generation to the cities, in the quest for modern education, where they attend modern universities and acquire degrees in fields like modern medicine, business administration, banking, architecture, geography, criminology, engineering, and a host of others.
Some become fire-spitting evangelists, pastors and Christian crusaders who declare ‘war’ on traditional medicine and brand their kin, as idol worshipers and pagans. Western education and foreign religions seem to have indoctrinated African children against their predecessors, traditions, and culture, which have led to the current dimness in knowledge, as far as traditional medicine is concerned.
It is not the will of God that we throw away the wisdom of our forefathers and mothers. The challenge for today’s African thinkers, scientists and philosophers is to sift out the fetish and superstitions from our inherited deposits of knowledge without throwing away the truth.