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Encounter: The Giving Trees

Maayan David

Chemist and plant researcher Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, president of the island nation of Mauritius, is on a mission to harness the properties of ancient healing plants near extinction

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

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OPENING SEFER HAREFUOS “Westerners are used to looking for healing on the other side of the drug store counter, but more than 80 percent of the world’s population is reliant on plants for primary health care treatments”

It all began about ten years ago when a small African laboratory published research on the properties of a rather scraggly-looking shrub dubbed the “Never Die” tree by the locals. This indigenous African bush, called a Moringa, can survive long-term harsh conditions and bad maintenance, and even when it’s shriveled and has lost 98 percent of its water, it somehow pops back to life after being hydrated, flowering and thriving within 24 hours.

That obscure article caught the sharp eye of a Western researcher working in Nigeria, and it wasn’t long before the world’s largest pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies had pounced on this miracle plant, working feverishly to harness the properties the natives have known about for centuries. Leaves of this tree are renowned among the local population for their anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive effect, and they use the leaves and the oil from the seeds for treatment of stomach ailments, fever, respiratory conditions, and even cancer. The roots also have a wide range of pharmaceutical uses, and the oil, which doesn’t get rancid or sticky, is in demand by the perfume industry for its ability to retain volatile substances. In cosmetology, Moringa oil is said to rejuvenate, repair, soften, and hydrate all types of skin, and its antioxidants supposedly have incredible anti-aging properties.

With its ability to recover from long-term dehydration, researchers hope the plant will lead them to discover the proverbial fountain of youth — or at least some wonder drug against aging. Meanwhile, companies are giving priority to cosmetic opportunities, as opposed to medicinal prospects, as the approval process is shorter and the profit margin higher.

Unsung Miracle Plants

The Moringa is just one example of what the huge, underutilized plant world has to offer the consumer, especially when it comes to regionally endemic species, according to Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, a world-renowned chemist from the island state of Mauritius off the southeastern tip of Africa — who has recently become president the small country.

                                                                         “I had an idea — I would study the chemistry of plants. After all, plants are really their own self-contained chemistry labs, and this region is blessed with unique healing plants that aren’t found anywhere else in the world”

Remember hearing about the herbal medicines your great-grandmother used in Hungary or Morocco? According to President Gurib-Fakim, nothing has really changed since. Plants still contain some of the most potent medicinal properties around, but some of that vegetation, she warns, is actually in danger of being wiped out.

President Gurib-Fakim’s own meticulous chemistry research showed that the elders of Mauritius were right: The healing plants really did have the chemical properties attributed to them. “Take for example the Terminalia bentzoe, a plant endemic to Mauritius with leaves that come in various shapes and sizes,” she told Mishpacha in a phone interview from her office prior to her becoming president. “Mauritius natives use the essence of these leaves to heal infectious diseases. Scientifically, we’ve shown that the essence of these leaves fights a wide range of bacteria. Today we think these leaves may be a solution to the problem of antibiotic resistance. We are not yet sure about it, but there is one thing we are sure about: This plant, which may be so important, is in danger of becoming extinct because of climate change and human behavior.”

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