Medicinal plants and their active principles

Today we address a topic that we had in mind to comment on the blog about medicinal plants . We all know that plants are a biochemical marvel in all their parts, which we use for different purposes in our body. We talk today about its effects and why they are.


Medicinal herbs are today the most valuable reserve that humanity has for obtaining active principles that after all are those that have (in the right proportions) the effects that we seek for a certain condition.

In the media environment that surrounds plants and plant species, there is always talk of “not losing biodiversity . ” Among other things, the extinction of a specific plant species means the loss of invaluable genetic information that we do not know what it might contain or more importantly, what it might have cured.

This extinct plant has been the product of adaptations to the environment for millennia, generating an unparalleled chemical compendium (active principles among others), which may not have current relevance for humans, but we do not know what we could obtain in the not too distant future. . For this reason, maintaining biodiversity is something that we must bear in mind.


If we talk about medicinal plants , the active principles are usually secondary metabolites that are not necessarily those involved in the development of the plant. Secondary metabolites are synthesized by plants for purposes such as defense or adaptation and are normally generated in minimal concentrations. As they say – good perfume, in a small bottle.


The infinite possibilities of organic chemistry offered us by the millions of species that we have have been studied and continue to be studied. A multitude of compounds have been isolated, tested and proven that have various beneficial effects (and some less so) in humans. Among the entire catalog of organic chemical compounds that exist, the main groups that we mention today are collected, although it is the task of an organic chemistry or pharmacology blog to explain each one of them in detail:

  • Polyphenols : Who has not heard of the polyphenols in wine? Tannins, flavonoids? This is a group of very beneficial substances such as antioxidants that you hear a lot about in recent times (and not so recent).
  • Alkaloids : One of the most important groups of compounds. Compounds as well known as caffeine, morphine, quinine, nicotine, atropine … Very toxic elements are also found in these groups.
  • Terpenoids : When we talk about the essential oil of any plant, we will be talking about compounds belonging to this group. We already discussed some of these terpenoids in the post about valerian a few days ago.
  • Heterosides : It involves a huge group of compounds with different properties depending on the group.

This is a very very general classification as we have already said. There are numerous groups and subgroups and within them, the molecular combinations that each species or even each plant can generate are innumerable and we may not yet discover many of them.


There are numerous books on medicinal plants and their effects, but in Spain we have a specific book that in our opinion is the vademecum of medicinal plants, and it is not written by just anyone. In agromatics we knew about it for some time, although not much considering that it was published 50 years ago. You will think that after this time much progress will have been made, and you are not lacking, but even today, this book together with another on botany by the same author, continue to be international reference points for consultation on botany and medicinal plants.

This is the name of the book. Its author, Pío Font Quer, an absolutely vocational botanist who cataloged and collected hundreds of species in Spain during the 20th century. If it had not been for the civil war, which undermined many of his professional aspirations, he would have achieved much more from the botanical legacy he has left us (which is not little). If you want to know more about this great botanist, I recommend the following article: The medicinal plants of Pío Font Quer.

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