The Carnivorous Plant FAQ v. 11.5
- courtesy of -
The International Carnivorous Plant Society

Q: Do carnivorous plants have pharmacological (medicinal) properties?

Drosera scorpioides
Drosera scorpioides
A: This question, while seemingly simple, is loaded with controversial topics. However, let me break it down into five main components.

  1. Are carnivorous plants used in any "western medicines" or pharmaceuticals?
  2. Are there any untested or "fringe medicines" based on carnivorous plants?
  3. Are there historical medicinal uses of carnivorous plants?
  4. Are there herbal medicines based on carnivorous plants?
  5. Can I use carnivorous plants to get high?

Even this set of sub-questions is controversial. For example, when should a drug be listed in category #1 vs. categories #2 or #3? Indeed, cultural imperialism might be an issue when trying to classify a compound used widely in India, but not registered in the USA. Nonetheless, let us try to wade through this briefly. (And do not forget, the "Dr." in front of my name has nothing to do with medicine, either human or for other animals.) Since this is an area in which emotions can run high, I will be particularly fastidious on this page to cite all my relevent sources.

Pinguicula
Pinguicula glands
1) Western medicines
Take a look at the veritable chemical factory in the close-up photograph of the mucilaginous Pinguicula leaf to the right, and you could see why people might think it is a place to find interesting potential drugs. However, as far as I know, carnivorous plants have not been used in mainstream medicines.

There is a compound ("Sarapin") based upon an extract of Sarracenia purpurea that some claim can reduce neuromuscular or neuralgic pain. However, this drug (and "prolotherapy", its method of application) is not quite mainstream medical practice (Leslie 2000). For what it is worth, as of 2001 Aetna did not consider Sarapin or prolotherapy legitimate enough to cover in its health plans (see Anonymous, 2001). You can learn about this compound at www.sarapin.com.

Some carnivorous plants such as Dionaea and Drosera contain naphthoquinones, and these may have some therapeutic value. Unfortunately, these chemicals have a high toxicity and this limits their curative values (Hegnauer & Hegnauer 2001; Burrows & Tyrl 2001). I am not a medical doctor, so do not e-mail me questions about this issue.

2) Untested or Fringe medicines
I hear of medicinal uses that do not appear to have been tested in laboratory conditions for their effectiveness. Lewis et al. (1977) note that Drosera burmannii has been used in Hindu medicine as a rubefacient (skin counter-irritant).

The tragedies of AIDS and cancer, and the impression that new medicines are not being developed rapidly enough, have forced many people to look to medicines that have not passed the usual and substantial (some would say unnecessarily obstructive, others would say merely wisely cautious) hurdles for pharmaceutical registration. These formulations are sold as "dietary supplements" or other such loose classifications. I know of one compound called Carnivora which falls into this class. I have been critical of Carnivora in the past because of the way a web site used AIDS and cancer scare tactics to sell it. However, I have spoken to a USA distributor and am convinced he is, fortunately, more ethical in his sales approach. As to its efficacy, I am not qualified to make a judgement--it is claimed to be good for all sorts of things, and if nothing else would have value as an interesting placebo. (And studies indicate that as much as 15-30% of the effectiveness of all drugs are due to this powerful effect.) Dionaea muscipula (Venus flytrap) is used in the formulation. I have been told by the US distributor that all the plants used in making it are artificially propagated, and are not field collected. I hope this is the case.

A recent study (Todorov et al. 2000) suggests that Carnivora may at most have a "moderate antiproliferative effectiveness on sensitive and resistant tumor cells at relatively high concentrations and after a long time of exposure."

D. anglica

D. anglica
D. anglica
3) Historical uses
Old herbals list a number of uses for carnivorous plants. Culpeper's Complete Herbal (Nicholas Culpeper, 1616-1654) says of Drosera anglica:

"The Sun rules it, and it is under the sign of Cancer. The leaves, bruised and applied to the skin, erode it and bring out such inflammations as are not easily removed. The juice destroys warts and corns, if a little be frequently put upon them....It flowers in June, and then the leaves are fittest to be gathered."

Verhoek-Williams (1976) notes that in the middle ages, French sorcerers would rub Drosera leaves on their skins on St. John's Eve (June 23) to become indefatigable. The plants were said to glow at night (they don't, not really), and could be detected by the behavior of woodpeckers which used the plants to harden their bills (they don't, not really). The sorcerers collected the plants at midnight on St. John's Eve, and were supposed to walk backwards as they did this to avoid being followed by the devil! Well, walking backwards at night in a bog is not a smart thing, so I'm not surprised this practice died out.

Charles Millspaugh, back in 1892, said that the Native Americans of eastern North America used Sarracenia purpurea subsp. venosa as a poultice against small pox:

"...of which the root furnishes the greatest remedy known for that dreadful scourge, small-pox. I may mention that, to my personal knowledge, this precious root not only saved my brother's life, but its use also appears to wholly obviate the unsightly pitting common to the disease."

It should be noted, however, that contemporary tests of the same concoction were disastrous:

"This medicine was thoroughly tested by Mr. John Thomas Lane in the spring of 1864 at the Small-pox Hospital at Claremont, in Alexandria, Va., for the period of several weeks, in the presence of the medical officers of the Third Division Hospital; and proved to be without any curative powers in this disease, and Mr. Lane a humbug. He lost more than fifty per cent. of the cases of variola committed to him, more than were lost by any other treatment."

Millspaugh noted Rafinesque's claim that Drosera juice is used "to destroy warts and corns; with milk, for freckles and sunburns....Deemed pectoral in South America, a sirup used in asthma." Millspaugh further noted that many medical writers recommend its use in "different kinds" of coughs related to "bronchial attacks, phthisis, and other diseases of the lungs."

Snyder (2005) has written a compelling and most interesting analysis of the historical uses of Drosera by secret societies and alchemists, and suggests that Drosera dew might have been an ingredient involved in the construction of the philosopher's stone, which would impart immortality to the user. Has Snyder been reading "The DaVinci Code"?

4) Are there herbal medicines based on carnivorous plants?
OK, first let me say that I am not really sure at this point what constitutes an "herbal medicine." After all, most non-herbal medicines have their origins in plants (aspirin from willow trees, ephedrine from Ephedra, morphine from Papaver somniferum). I used to think that the difference was that conventional medicines were extracts---and in particular refined compounds packaged in pill form. Herbal medicines were in the form of fresh or recently dried leaves, twigs, roots, etc. of some plant. A tea would usually be made out of this botanical concoction, and would be drunk, inhaled, or applied topically. But now, when I visit my local co-op and look in the herbal medicine section, I see row after row of bottles containing---well---extracts in pill form! The distinction is very blurry here.

I am a little bitter about herbal medicines, because their advocates are ultimately responsible for the illegal, unsustainable harvesting of rare species such as American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), threatening these plants with extinction.

My mild rant over (it's my FAQ and I can cry if I want to), I have seen Drosera rotundifolia used in herbal cough medicines. Also, Olin (1989) says that an extract of the plant is yet another of the diuretics available to herbal medicine aficionados. (Why do these people want to pee so much?) Doing a quick google web search using good key words (i.e. herbal medicine Drosera) I got lots of hits describing uses for D. rotundifolia, D. intermedia, D. anglica, D. ramentacea. You can do more searches using the other carnivorous plant genera yourself.

Sarracenia
Duuuuuuude!
5) How to get stoned on carnivorous plants
Hah hah. If you are one of those dorks who e-mail me from time to time, trying to use carnivorous plants to get high, you are really a twit. No, you cannot get a euphoric or psychoactive effect from carnivorous plants. However, I am here to try to help. I took a close-up photo of Sarracenia leaf patterns (on the right). Kind of psycho, huh? Look at that for as long as you can without blinking, then you will "see" the secret message about the workings of the Universe. It works best if you stick your fingers in your ears and keep your mouth open while you do it---this improves your "Cosmic Receptivity". Then send me lots of money to pay for the buzz.

For nonmedicinal, "ethnobotanical uses" of carnivorous plants, try the next FAQ entry.

Page citations: Anonymous, 2001; Burrows & Tyrl, 2001; Hegnauer, R. & Hegnauer, M. 2001; Leslie, M. 2000; Lewis, W.H. et al. 1977; Millspaugh, 1892; Olin, 1989; Todorov, et al. 2000; Rice, B.A. 2006a; Schlauer, J. 2002 (personal communication); Snyder, I. 2005; Verhoek-Williams, S. 1976.

back forward

bar

Revised: January 2007
©Barry Rice, 2005