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(Florida Today) -- Anneke Penn expects plenty of new business at her Mrs. Mango's &Co. herbal shop after the Affordable Care Act takes effect next year.The use of medicinal plants could well spike because of the new law andits interest on prevention, wellness and patient involvement.

"I'm very excited about the opportunity, because medicinal plants are so important in preventive care," Penn said.

Inthe past five years, Penn has seen a shift in the profile of hercustomer base, once composed primarily of retirees looking for solutionsto chronic health issues.

"We now get a lot of new parents and high school kids, even football players from Rockledge High," Penn said.

Forsixth-generation herbalist Penn, medicinal plants can take care ofpretty much whatever can ail customers who seek her help at theRockledge herbal shop her grandmother, Netherlands émigré AnnekeLangendonk, started 28 years ago.

"Themajority of our customers have problems that they want to treat thenatural way," Penn said. "They may want to avoid drugs or have alreadytried medications that aren't working or have side effects."

Highblood pressure or cholesterol, arthritis, bowel issues, insomnia,depression and anxiety are typical medical issues Penn and her customersbattle with the aid of medicinal plants, some of them grown in Florida.

Gotan ear infection? Tea tree oil could help. Hot flashes bothering you?Black cohosh works for 90 percent of women, Penn said. Can't sleep? Pennwould recommend valerian root, one of her top three favorite medicinalplants.

Long history

Generationsfrom long ago realized the powerful healing capacity of plants.Thousands of years before the Europeans first set foot on the continent,America's first residents were relying on the medicinal value of closeto 3,000 plants.

Whenleading tours through the Pioneer and Native History gardens of SamsHouse at Pine Island Conservation Area on Merritt Island, naturalistMartha Pessaro often discusses the medical aspects of plant specimenssuch as Serenoa Repens, aka saw palmetto.

"The berries support a reported $50 million annual industry in the treatment of prostate cancer," Pessaro said.

Beautyberry, also in the Sams House gardens, has a long history of healing.

"Medicinal uses include treatment of stomach disorders, colic, dropsy and skin disorders," Pessaro said.

"Leavescrushed into the skin repel insects and may be more effective thanDEET. The USDA is studying the chemicals in the leaves for usecommercially."

Elderberry,often used in wine and champagne, is also a good antiseptic to treatwounds and insect stings and can be made into syrup for upperrespiratory ailments and to induce vomiting.

ThePlant Conservation Alliance, a consortium of 10 United States federalagencies, notes that more than 175 species of North American nativeplants, many of them collected in the wild, are available for sale aspills, tinctures and powders through the nonprescription medicinalmarket in the United States, a $3 billion annual industry.

Monitor its use

Yetwhile plants can have impressive curative powers, they can also be toomuch of a good thing and their use must be carefully monitored.Belladonna, or deadly nightshade, for example, has been used forcenturies as a muscle relaxant, pain reliever and for relief of ulcers,among other problems. It also forms the core for the drug atropine,considered part of the "essential drugs list" by the World HealthOrganization and used to treat a diversity of disorders that range fromcolitis to Parkinson's. Belladonna is on the list of the world's mosttoxic plants.

"Icertainly wouldn't tell people to go out and dig up nightshade formedicinal purposes," said Dr. Jay Barnhart, a general practitioner for17 years and a former forensic pathologist with the Dade County MedicalExaminer's Office.

"I would consider using medicinal plants, but make sure to first do no harm."

Pessaroand Penn agreed. Plants can play an important part in health care, aslong as they are prescribed and well-monitored by someone thoroughlyfamiliar with their pluses and minuses.

"All our discussions of historic plant use is responsibly prefaced bynoting that individuals should seek referral from a physician orherbalist to use any native plant in treatment and should not attempt toself-treat," Pessaro said.

Consumersshould exercise care when venturing into the world of medicinal plants.Do-it-yourselfers, quacks and lack of government regulation continue toplague this segment of health care.

Althoughmore doctors are recommending herbal medicines and a smattering ofinsurance companies are offering coverage, the bulk of medicinal plantrecommendations are left to herbalists such as Penn, a member of theAmerican Herbalist Guild and the Association for Drugless Practitioners.

"Be sure the person you're dealing with knows what they're talking about."

Fewclinical trials exist to prove the medicinal effects of plants, andmost medicinal plants have not been approved by regulatory agencies.

Theissue may not be the plants, but rather the driving force behind thedevelopment of most prescription medication, the income that could beextracted from them.

"Drug companies aren't going to promote a plant that grows in the back yard," Barnhart said.

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