Introduction

The path to comprehending the role of plants in the development of human civilization is akin to leaping head first into Alice’s rabbit hole. The story weaves into an intricate tapestry combining evolutionary biology, economics, medicine, anthropology, religion and folklore to name a few. To attempt to touch into every minute facet of the relationship would be quixotic. Plants have enriched the human society in the aspects of folklore, mythology and medicine and the evolutionary journey that humans and plants have undertaken is very interesting. The relationship between humans and plants predates the origin of the species itself. Hominids including humans have coevolved with plants that surround them. Evidence for this can be found in fossil records. The hominids belonging to the genus Australopithecus dwelled in forests gained subsistence from hard nuts and underground storage parts of plants (Ward & Hammond, 2016) with their large jaws and teeth with thick enamel (Henry et al., 2012) and modified skull facilitated easier chewing of the tough plant material. Australopithecus also possessed an elaborate digestive tract to enable digestion of the aforementioned plant material. The recent ancestor, Homo erectus with a lighter skull with smaller teeth, reflected a shift in diet to a more palatable grass seeds and grasses (Schaal, 2019) and the modern humans still make up most of their diets as grasses and grass seeds (Pariona, 2019). The significant adaptation in the hominids is the ability to utilize the derivatives of the shikimic acid pathway as a source of the essential amino acids. The shikimic acid pathway is also the source of valuable secondary metabolites such as flavonoids and alkaloids, many of which possess medicinal qualities (Ali Ghasemzadeh, 2011). A major turning point in human civilization is the domestication of wild plants that brought the changes from a life of hunter and gatherers to the development of agrarian societies. This support the argument that the process of domestication was the catalyst that enabled the rise of human civilization (Jared, 1997). Domestication has occurred numerous times around the globe: wheat and barley in the Fertile Crescent, rice and soya bean in Asia, and potatoes and maize (Fig. 1) in the American continents (Gepts, 2014). Invariably plants have been a constant and frequently repeated motif occurring in the tales, myths and traditions of people throughout the planet. In several systems of belief both extinct and extant, including the Ancient Mesopotamians, Ancient Iranian, Ancient Slavic, Norse and Germanic mythology as well as Hinduism, Buddhism and the Abrahamic faiths, there exist the archetypes of “tree of life” and “tree of knowledge” which entwine all life and creation (Simor, 2000) (Figs. 2-4). Mythology, especially Greco-Roman mythology, has been the source botanical names for innumerable species. Several belief systems have been associated with the divine intervention for the creation of certain plant species. A few plant genus/species which have a special place in collective beliefs are highlighted in this paper with reference to their medicinal values. 

Figure 1. Comparison between Teosinte and Maize

Figure 1. Comparison between Teosinte and Maize  
License: Public Domain

Depictions of tree of life from various cultures

a. Ancient Assyrian

Figure 2. Ancient Assyrian
Source: By Sailko – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31582814

b. Ancient Urartu

Figure 3. Ancient Urartu
Source: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1663794

c. Islamic Tree of Life

Figure 4. Islamic Tree of Life
Source: By King muh – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40794390

Norse Mythology

Ash (Fraxinus sp.)

The genus Fraxinus belongs to the family Oleaceae, found all over Asia, Europe and North America. There are 351 plant names of species ranked under the genus, among these 63 are accepted species names (Fraxinus — The Plant List, 2020). The Yggdrasil plays a pivotal role in Norse mythology and connects the Nine Worlds. In both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, the Yggdrasil is described as an enormous ash tree that is the centre of the cosmos, where the various gods assemble and is home to several mythical creatures.

Several species of the genus Fraxinus possess medicinal properties a few noteworthy species have been enlisted in Table 1.

Table 1. List of few medicinally important species belonging to the genus Fraxinus.

S. No.SpeciesCompoundsPharmacological PropertyReferences
1.Fraxinus excelsiorNuzhenide, GI3, GI5, ligstroside, oleoside 11-methyl ester, 1’’’-O-beta-D-glucosylformoside, excelsides A, excelsides B, oleoside dimethyl ester, coumarinAnti-hypertensive, antihypertriglyceridemia, anti-adipogenic, anti-diabetic, anti-hyperglycaemic, anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic(Bai et al., 2010; Maghrani et al., 2004; Montó et al., 2014; Von Kruedener, Schneider, & Elstner, 1995)
2.Fraxinus rhynchophyllaHydroxyframoside B 2’’-hydroxyoleuropein, oleuropein, ligstroside, syringin, esculin, fraxetin, fraxetin-8-O- [11’-methyl-oleosidyl-(7’ → 6’’)]-beta-D-glucopyranoside, esculetinInhibitor of pancreatic lipase, adipocyte differentiation as well as free radical and metal induced LDL oxidation, neuroprotective, anti-dyslipidemia, renoprotective, anti-diabetic, anti-atherosclerosis, anti-oxidant, anti-toxoplasmosis, hepatoprotective(Ahn et al., 2013; Artis et al., 2009; Choi et al., 2011; Jiang et al., 2008; Kim et al., 2018; Thuong et al., 2009; Tien et al., 2011; Wang, Liu, He, Lv, & Du, 2015; Xiao, Song, Zhang, & Xuan, 2008)
3.Fraxinus mandshuricaCalceolarioside AImmunosuppressant(Chen, Xue, Liu, & Gong, 2017)
4.Fraxinus bungeanaEsculetin, fraxetinAnalgesic, anti-inflammatory(Chang, Lin, Chuang, & Chiang, 1996)

Yggdrasil

Figure 5. Yggdrasil – Norse Mythology
Source: By Friedrich Wilhelm Heine – Wägner, Wilhelm (1886). Asgard and the gods. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Le Bas & Lowrey. Page 27., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5240798

Fraxinus ornus

Figure 6. Fraxinus ornus
Source: By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4550955

Greek Mythology

Zephyr Lily /Rain Lily (Zephyranthes sp.)

The genus belongs to the family of bulbous plants Amaryllidaceae and the plant is immensely popular as an ornamental plant due to their beautiful blooms. The name of the genus is derived from ‘Zephyrus’ the Ancient Greek God of the west wind (anemoi), the gentlest among the cardinal winds and the messenger of spring and the word ‘anthos’ means flower. There are 91 accepted species under the genus (Zephyranthes — The Plant List, 2020). The plants have also been used to treat various ailments in traditional medicine of several countries.

Medicinal properties of a few key species belonging to the genus are mentioned in Table 2.

Table 2. Pharmacological properties of a few members of the genus Zephyranthes.

S. No.SpeciesCompoundsPharmacological PropertyReferences
1.Zephyranthes candidaTrans-dihydronarciclasineAnti-neoplastic(Pettit, Cragg, Singh, Duke, & Doubek, 1990)
2.Zephyranthes robustaHaemanthamine, lycorineAnti-mitotic(Furmanowa & Oledzka, 1978)
3.Zephyranthes grandifloraPancratistatinAnti-neoplastic(Pettit, Gaddamidi, & Cragg, 1984)
4.Zephyranthes concolorChlidanthine, galanthamine, galanthamine N-oxide, lycorine, galwesine, and epinorgalanthamineAcetylcholinesterase inhibitor(Reyes-Chilpa et al., 2011)

Figure 7. Zephyros Statue, St. Petersburg, Russia
Source: By GAlexandrova – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66911345

Zephyranthes

a. Zephyranthes rosea, Siliguri, Darjeeling, West Bengal, India

Figure 8: Zephyranthes
Source: Authors

b. Zephyranthes carinata, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India

Figure 9: Zephyranthes carinata
Source: Authors

Asphodel (Asphodelus sp.)

Asphodelus is a genus of flowering plants belonging to the family Asphodelaceae. There are seventeen accepted species names in this genus (Asphodelus — The Plant List, 2020). In Homer’s Odyssey, the plant is said to grow in the ‘Asphodel Meadow’ which is portrayed as a dark, gloomy, and mirthless place where the souls of the dead flit aimlessly (Reece, 2007).

Notable members of the genus Asphodelus along with their bioactivity are listed in Table 3.

Table 3. Biological activities of a few species belonging to the genus Asphodelus.

S. No.SpeciesCompoundsPharmacological PropertyReferences
1.Asphodelus tenuifoliusGlucopyranosylbianthrone 1 and 2Anti-cancer(Khalfaoui et al., 2018)
2.Asphodelus microcarpusLuteolinDe pigmenting(Di Petrillo et al., 2016)
3.Asphodelus lutea1,8-dihydroxy anthraquinonesAnti-biotic(Al-Kayali, Kitaz, & Haroun, 2016)

Figure 10. Asphodel
Source: Image by Julien Wilhelm from Pixabay

Laurus nobilis L.

L. nobilis L. is an aromatic flowering plant from Lauraceae family. The plant in Ancient Greece was named after the mythic mountain nymph ‘Daphne’. According to lore the God Apollo had fallen in love with Daphne, a priestess of the primordial earth Goddess Gaia, and to avoid his advances she had prayed for help to Gaia, who transported her to Crete. In Daphne’s place the Goddess Gaia left a bay laurel tree, out of which Apollo fashioned a wreath to comfort himself and the tree became a sacred symbol of Apollo (Graves, 1960).

The compound 3-kaempferyl p-coumarate which has been isolated from the plant shows anti-mutagenic activity (Samejima et al., 1998) and the anti-convulsant activity of essential oil has been attributed to the compounds methyl-eugenol, eugenol and pinene (Sayyah et al., 2002). Beta-ocimene, 1, 8-cineole, alpha-pinene, and beta-pinene present in the essential oil possess anti-viral activity (Loizzo et al., 2008).

Figure 11. Apollo and Daphne
Source: By Gian Lorenzo Bernini – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75895896

Figure 12. Laurus nobilis
Source: By Ανώνυμος Βικιπαιδιστής – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67441243

Indian Mythology

Night Flowering Jasmin (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis L.)

N. arbor-tristis L. is a flowering plant belonging to the family Oleaceae. ‘Nyctanthes’ means night flowering while ‘arbor-tristis’ means tree of sorrow. The plant holds a special place in Hindu mythology and is called ‘Parijat’ in Sanskrit language. According to lore it is said to have been created during the ‘Samudra manthan’ or the churning of the primordial ocean and was found on top of the Mount Meru. The plant was claimed by the ruler of the gods, Indra.

The compounds Arbortristoside A and B in the seeds have anti-cancer properties (Susan et al., 1986), Rengyolone in the flower has anti-malarial property (Tuntiwachwuttikul et al., 2003) and Calceolarioside A isolated from the leaves shows anti-leishmanial properties (Poddar et al., 2008).

Figure 13. Krishna and Satyabhama steal Indra’s Parijata tree
Source: By Unknown author – http://www.indianminiaturepaintings.co.uk/Pahari_Krishna_steals_Parijata_tree_28411.html , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42871587

Figure 14. Nyctanthes arbor-tristis, Botanical Garden, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India
Source: Authors

Egyptian Mythology

Blue Water Lily (Nympheae caerula)

N. caerula belongs to the family Nymphaeceae. The bloom of the plant emerges out of the water in the morning and recedes back at noon. Ancient Egyptians thought it symbolized the daily cycle of the sun and renewal of life. The ancient symbol of life the ‘Ankh’ is often represented as being formed out of the stems of the blue water lily.

Ancient Egyptians observed that the compound nuciferin has hallucinogenic and narcotic effects (Emboden, 1981). Recent research has also shown it to be an effective anti-tumor agent (Qi et al., 2016).

Figure 15. Blue lotus depicted in the Ancient Egyptian art
License: Public Domain

Figure 16. Nympheae caerula
Source: By Kemmi.1 (Stefan Kemmerling) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7986811

Abrahamic Faiths

European Olive (Olea europaea L.)

O. europaea L. is a flowering plant affiliated to the family Oleaceae and native to the Mediterranean. The Ancient Greeks were the first to attribute divine origins to the olive. When the God of the sea Poseidon and Goddess of wisdom Athena competed to become the patron God of Athens, Poseidon gifted the people of Athens a saltwater spring while the Goddess had created an Olive tree. People having found Athena’s gift more appealing had chosen her as the patron of the city. The olive tree also found a special place in the Abrahamic faiths. The olive branch brought back to Noah by a dove was the sign and universal symbol of peace that showed that the great deluge was over.

Oleanolic acid, Oleuropein and hydroxyl tyrosol found in the plant have anti-diabetic effect (Dubey et al., 2013; Jemai, El Feki, & Sayadi, 2009). Oleanolic acid and uvaol found in olive oil also act as anti-hypertensives, cardiotonic and antidysrhythmic (Somova et al., 2004).

Figure 17. The Return of the Dove by Sir John Everett Millais
Source: By John Everett Millais – Unknown source, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=134341

Figure 18. Olea europaea
Source: Image by Katarzyna Tyl from Pixabay

About the Author

Anurabh Chakravarty grew up in touch with nature in the misty hills of Darjeeling, West Bengal.  Anurabh did his Bachelors in agricultural sciences from Visva-Bharati University, Shantiniketan. He is currently doing his Masters in agricultural biotechnology at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore. He plays guitar, is an ardent quizzer, and has a passionate interest in mythology.

Dr.R. Gnanam is Professor and Head in the Department of Plant Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, India. Dr. Gnanam has 31 years of experience in teaching and research, and administration, and she supervises a range of  national and international research projects. Her research is focused on optimizing tissue culture protocols for tree species such as Sthalavirushams (temple trees), banana, pomegranate, Aegle marmelos, and wood apple and androgenesis in cocoa, brinjal and tomato. Dr Gnanam also researches micropropagation of medicinal and food plants including Aloe vera, Coleus forskohlii, Stevia rebaudiana, Tinospora cordifolia, Annona muricata.


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