Plants provide humankind with our most basic resources – foods and beverages, medicines, fibers, construction materials, and an array of other useful products. The contributions of plants to health are of increasing public and research interest, and fall into at least three categories. First, the distinction between nutrition and medicine has been blurred as science confirms the potential benefits of diets rich in plant foods. Second, botanical medicines are used to treat existing health problems. In developing countries, about four out of five people rely on traditional medicine for their primary health care. Third, about a quarter of all pharmaceutical drugs are derived from a natural product. Many of the most useful drugs we have come from plants that are or were traditionally used for the same purposes.

Though humans consume thousands of species of plants, only a relative handful have been the subject of substantial research. Most remain poorly understood, and traditional knowledge about their uses is eroding in most cultures. Many plants that are useful or might contain useful compounds, including many tropical species that have not yet been discovered by science, will be at risk of extinction in the next few centuries. Habitat loss, climate change, unsustainable collection for commercial markets, spread of invasive species, and other effects of human activities will have tremendous impact. Never before in human history has there been a more urgent need to discover, understand, conserve, and sustainably use the plant resources that will support the well-being of future generations.

Stewardship of these irreplaceable plant resources will require rigorous science combined with respect for traditional knowledge systems, intellectual property mechanisms that equitably compensate all parties, and local participatory methods that ensure culturally sensitive solutions. In ethnobotanical research programs, WLBC scientists work in close co-operation with local counterparts and communities to document the traditional uses of medicinal plants in detail and develop mechanisms to give this knowledge back to the communities involved. WLBC attempts to establish sustainable harvest and production methodologies through the Sacred Seeds initiative, with ethnobotanical teaching gardens around the world, and collaborates with researchers using modern technology to test the efficacy and safety of traditional medicinal preparations.

Studies of traditional botanicals, though important to human well-being, cannot uncover the full range of health benefits that the plant kingdom has to offer. Just as science is confirming that the benefits of many herbal remedies cannot be replicated by isolating and purifying any single chemical compound from those plants, conversely, many compounds that might be useful as drugs or as leads to inspire drug development are present in plants whose crude extracts have no similar benefit. For example, the plant-derived leukemia drug vincristine is produced by the rosy periwinkle in very small quantities; the plant itself cannot cure leukemia and has no traditional use for cancer. Since most of the world’s flora have not been thoroughly studied, it is a statistical certainty that other such life-saving drugs remain to be discovered — but until the research is done, there is no way to know which species contain them. One implication of this fact is that by allowing thousands of species to go extinct, unstudied and even undescribed, we will permanently deprive future generations of the beneficial products that otherwise could someday have been developed.

The DISCOVERY program of the WLBC links interested communities and partner countries to academic, government and commercial partners in natural products discovery. Since 1986, the WLBC has supplied over 40,000 vouchered bulk plant samples to be screened via bioassays. The Garden has long been a leader in developing ethical collecting agreements; local partners in international projects always have benefit-sharing agreements and receive up-front compensation from the funding source to support local capacity-building efforts.