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  • Jonathan Newell

plants drugs and medicines

At a well-attended meeting we had an entertaining presentation by Jonathan Newell who came armed with tree bark, fungi, coffee pods, and many other woody specimens for our delight.

He has had a very interesting education and training starting with a degree in Agriculture and Biochemistry at Reading University. He has also bred snails commercially, spent time in Greece, and South Africa and then moved on to Kuwait where he was Head of Faculty at a school of 1400 pupils. Returning to England in 2000 he started working for the RHS and now works full time at Wisley as the Public Science Engagement Officer.

The talk centred around various trees and their amazing healing and medicinal properties that have been known for thousands of years. Because of the massive population growth, he stressed that the recent search for synthetic forms of these medicines is vital otherwise the tree population would be decimated.

After a brief quiz showing that we were all quite ignorant of the species of trees, he gave an in-depth review of a number of trees found in the UK.

London Plane Tree

Originally imported from Spain in 1760 it is known as an anti-pollutant. It can absorb 2000 tons of particles each year and cleans city air from all the exhaust fumes. The bark is brittle and if burnt would leave a residue of various metals that the tree has absorbed.

Giant Redwood

By contrast the redwood’s bark is spongy and can be up to 1 metre thick. It protects the tree from extreme heat and the bitter taste is not for insects. When broken down and processed, the tannins are good for reducing blood pressure.


Thought to have been chewed by ancient man 50,000 years ago for tooth ache. There was also written evidence 1500BC on ancient Sanskrit of its medical properties. The willow bark is rich in Aspirin and George Ebers of Leipzig has decoded it into the various constituent chemicals. More recently the chemical has been proven to reduce the mortality from a heart attack by up to 20%.


The yew is a very toxic tree but as recent as 1990 the red berry was found to reduce the division of cancerous cells in the body and so lengthen the survival rate in cancer patients.


This range of trees, from cherry to almond, was discovered in 1847 to assist the fight against cancer using the vitamin B17 extracted from the bark.

Prunus African

Commonly known as the fever tree it has been used in the fight against prostate cancer. Because of its success, the tree has been exploited and is now on the endangered list giving rise to a race to find a synthetic alternative.

If you want to have a fuller picture of Jonathan’s fascination of trees, try tuning into his YouTube channel, if you don’t mind the adverts before the commencement of his site.

Simon Edgington


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