3000 Plants with Cancer Treatment Potential 

By Ingrid Naiman

Mayan Shaman
(Theatrical Performance)

Though plants have been the primary source of nutrition and medicine since life on Earth began, the term “ethnobotany” was only coined in 1895. Today, it tends to refer to plant uses by traditional societies, often those without written histories of plant uses. Now, more than a century later, ethnobotany has become the backbone of efforts to preserving rainforests, endangered species plants, and indigenous knowledge of the medicinal value of the plants.

For me personally, the boundaries between medical anthropology and ethnobotany and medical history are not always distinct. A good example of how modern science and tribal culture come face-to-face is in the efforts of cancer researchers to determine how Amazonians shrink heads — because if we knew what substances are used to cause this shrinkage, we might discover herbal agents that can be used to shrink tumors. 

Another example of cross-disciplinary interests is in the burgeoning field of zoopharmacognosy, the study of how animals medicate themselves. In terms of its relationship to my own work, one of the most successful yet controversial cancer treatments, that of the Hoxsey family, was attributed to a horse who was set free to graze when it was discovered that the horse had cancer. When it was observed that the horse healed, the great-grandfather of the controversial 20th-century figure developed an internal herbal tonic from the herbs growing in the meadows where the horse had found the cure for cancer. Though there are questions about the veracity of the story, such as whether the horse actually dug up roots, there are examples of animals that have healed themselves — as well as plants that have produced toxins to preserve their species from excess grazing.

Jack Rabbit Eating Chaparral

Scientists who spend years acquiring the educations necessary to perform sophisticated work in the laboratory scoff at the notion that an illiterate individual much less an animal could have a cure for cancer. This attitude is best summed up in a statement by William Grigg, Public Information Officer of the FDA:

“The idea that the American Indians, or this person or that person . . . would accidentally stumble upon some herb that would cure (cancer) is rather farfetched. It’s like the idea that if you put three billion monkeys in room, one of them might write a Shakespearean sonnet.”

Despite his evident wounded pride, it is apparent to all who have devoted the necessary time to these investigations that traditional societies — and animals — have, in fact, been successfully curing cancer.

Mayapples in Virginia

In an almost routine survey of the literature on Podophyllum peltatum, Jonathan L. Hartwell discovered that twenty years before he had identified the chemical agents in mayapple responsible for the anticancer activity of the resin obtained from the rhizome of the plant, it had been reported that the Penobscots of Maine had used mayapple to treat cancer. Then, he found that a hundred years earlier, the resin had been recommended as a cancer treatment in the early American materia medica and that it was used by physicians in Mississippi in 1897.

Harvard educated Hartwell was hooked. He poured over 5000 years of published literature, starting with the Shen-Nung, 2828-2698 B.C., the Ebers Papyrii ca. 1550 BC, and so on through modern times. In all, he catalogued at least 3000 references to plants used in the treatment of cancer. These he published in eleven volumes of Lloydia between 1967 and 1971. He retired in 1975, but James Duke picked up more or less where Hartwell left off. He screened 35,000 plants for anticancer activity and found 3000 plants possessing some power to inhibit cancer.

While these findings are not astonishing to botanists, herbalists, or medical anthropologists, many scientists have been slow to accept the idea that a cure might be found outside the laboratory. Despite resistance, the relatively new discipline of ethnobotany has finally gained a proper seat in the halls of academia.

The fact is that none of us would be alive today if the ways of our ancestors had not sufficed to sustain life and remain viable in the face of a host of threats to survival. Thus, it is somewhat incredulous when we think that the fervor of science was once so arrogant that it almost eradicated knowledge of the ways that had served humanity for countless eons before modern times.

This said, it is not difficult to see how those who take a certain comfort in believing that smallpox was eradicated in less than a century following acceptance of the germ theory of disease would see a line between historic and modern, especially if they really believe that prior to Ignaz Semmelweiss (1818-1865), no one really understood the need for hygiene and aseptic procedures. Speaking for myself, I certainly grew up believing we only understood the need for washing our hands when, in the face of enormous opposition and ridicule from erudite doctors, Lister proved Semmelweiss correct. What perhaps neither knew is that Iroquois medicine men already knew what science needed to prove before it could make believers of skeptics.

Many traditional methods survive because they work. Moreover, the knowledge now sought by those scouring rainforests in search of cures for what ail mankind relies on a very specific kind of understanding, one based on intimate observation of Nature and long oral traditions passed along through apprenticeships that school people in such a way as to preserve both knowledge but also a perpetual supply of the plants needed to make medicine.

Assuming trusteeship for a forest and to observing the growth cycles and life of the plants is a different calling that luring botanists and pharmacists to collect specimens, press them between boards, and send them to laboratories for chemical analysis. Ethnobotanists have contributed greatly to our appreciation of our natural medicine chest and in helping us to separate allegations of superstition from wisdom.

We are indebted to the individuals who have kept alive the diverse traditions of our Planet: the shamans, curanderas and curanderos, medicine men and women, witchdoctors, alchemists and herbalists. Thanks to their dedication, we have come to appreciate the reasons for protecting land and traditions from destruction, and we are learning that it is safe to rely on Nature for relief.


Mayan Shaman
Dreamstime ID 26238454
© Victor Torres

Jack Rabbit Eating Chaparral
Dreamstime ID 126246849
© Scott Madaras

Mayapples in Virginia
Dreamstime ID 115178721
© Larry Metayer

Native American Shaman at Sunset
Dreamstime ID 90474347
© Bogdan Sonyachny

Many experts throughout history have regarded cancer salves and pastes as the most thorough, safe, and efficacious way to treat cancer, especially skin and breast cancers but also cancers of other organs. In this book, Ingrid Naiman meticulously traces the use of such products in ancient India and by Hildegard of Bingen, Native Americans, and modern physicians. She provides detailed instructions for making and using the salves, a fair comparison of the pros and cons, and eight pages of color pictures showing responses to the products. Visit her Cancer Salves site for more information, answers to frequently asked questions, and a checklist for people facing cancer.



Cancer Plants


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Copyright by Dr. Ingrid Naiman 2003 and 2018
All Rights Reserved || Institute for Invisible Epidemics