CHAMPAIGN - Back in the days when Illinois was home mainly to American Indians and wildlife, a natural prairie rich in plant diversity covered a vast 22 million acres of the state.
Little more than a smidgen of it all remains today, and that's a major loss for the world, according to William Handel, a botanist at the Illinois Natural History Survey.
A 1975 study found only about 2,000 remaining acres of Illinois prairie with enough plant diversity to be considered high quality, Handel says, and the acreage has probably dwindled since then.
Once a plentiful source of plants used for food and medicine by American Indians, the prairie is vanishing largely unnoticed because much of the current focus on saving edible and medicinal plants is centered on the destruction of rain forests in Central and South America, Handel said.
?People don't realize - the prairie is almost gone,? he added. ?We should look beyond rain forests to see what we're losing here.?
Handel said North American prairie plants still hold great potential as food and medicine sources. For example, some are being studied for potential use in the treatment of cancer and heart disease and for their immuno-stimulant properties in fighting off viruses.
Still others are potential sources of alternative food and fuel which, under cultivation, can produce substantial yields, he said.
Following is a sampling Handel provides of just some of the many prairie plants and their current and studied uses:
- Bee balm: A source of thymol, which has been used for its antifungal, antibacterial and vermicidal properties. Plant it in home gardens to attract hummingbirds and butterflies, Handel says, or its flowers and leaves may be dried for tea to help fight off a cold or fever.
- Evening primrose: Oil extracted from the seeds can be used to treat atopic eczema, premenstrual syndrome, mild hypertension, burns, wounds and skin lesions.
- Purple coneflower: Handel says research in Germany has yielded more than 200 pharmaceutical preparations from the three species of purple coneflower. Extracts can help stimulate the immune system and inhibit several types of cancer.
- Jerusalem artichoke: A member of the sunflower family that produces edible underground tubers considered a good food source for dieters and diabetics.
- Spiked lobelia: Lobelia is fatal in large doses. But one of its chemical compounds is used to help people quit smoking, revive people after drug overdoses and to resuscitate newborn infants, Handel said.
- Groundnuts: Produce an edible tuber being studied as a food plant.
- Butterfly milkweed: Milkweeds contain cardiac glycosides that are toxic to people, but one of the milkweeds is being studied for use in inhibiting cell growth in some types of cancer.
- Pokeweed: Used in cancer research for replication of blood cells, pokeweed is also being studied for treatment of AIDS. Juice from the pokeweed may cause dermatitis or chromosome damage, Handel said.
- Switch grass: This plant is being ground and made into pellets used to make coal burn cleaner and is also being studied as a potential alternative fuel.
Many prairie plants, such as purple coneflower, can still be grown easily from seed in home gardens, Handel says, but many are becoming increasingly rare and none of these plants should ever be removed from the wild. Nor should amateurs without some knowledge of prairie plants try concocting home remedies out of prairie plants, Handel warns.
Many of the plants are toxic if used incorrectly, and those growing in certain areas, such as along railroad tracks, may have been poisoned with insecticides, he said.
You can reach Debra Pressey at 351-5229 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .