Column T.W. Paterson: Pioneering UBC botanist missed the mark

“With B.C.’s climate, native flora, and long-growing season, we have advantages…”

Cascara bark was used as a laxative. (Province of B.C.)

Cascara bark was used as a laxative. (Province of B.C.)

“With B.C.’s climate, native flora, and long-growing season, we have advantages over all other provinces in Canada and most of the United States.”—Prof. John Davidson

With a century’s retrospect we can clearly see how close UBC botany professor John Davidson came to seizing the golden ring. He obviously was well researched and meant well; he was even patriotic, but you know that old expression about coming close but no cigar…

In 1914 and again, 10 years later, Davidson was quoted at length in the B.C. press, latterly in the Cowichan Leader, on the subject of “commercial drug plant cultivation in British Columbia”. In 1914 because Canada was just beginning more than four hellish years of world war and medicines were of vital interest.

Davidson’s proposed contribution was the commercial cultivation and harvesting of plants with known medicinal values. His was not a get-rich-quick scheme as were some others, he declared, and he cautioned would-be growers that a little knowledge could be a dangerous thing. The cultivation of drug plants was a gamble, a “$7000 or $8000 crop [could take] five or six years to mature, [and require] an outlay of about $1500 per acre [only to] be reduced or wiped out some of many fungous diseases, or insect pests”.

He said his proposal was based on known science: “In British Columbia we have more than 40 species of wild plants which are well known for their medicinal properties. The majority cannot be profitably cultivated here; some, if found in abundance in the wild state may be profitably collected for the market.

“After investigating the properties of each from an economic view, I have come to the conclusion that B.C. may prove to be an important centre for the establishment of a wholesale drug manufacturing industry…”

He began with the native Cascara tree (Rhammus Purshiana) which was widely used as a laxative; up to 1,000 tons of bark was annually needed to meet the demands of the world market. “All of this is shipped from the west to eastern firms of manufacturing druggists, and the freight on a thousand tons for several thousand miles has to be paid; whereas, with a manufacturing druggist near the source of the raw material, the extract could be prepared here with an enormous decrease of cost or an enormous increase in profit.”

He said he’d placed this proposal before several large drug firms in eastern Canada, in the U.S. and Great Britain, all of whom had replied that Cascara alone couldn’t sustain a factory year-round; it was necessary that other medicinal and drug plants be harvested as well.

This had prompted his research into other plants and their potential for yielding “the same percentage of drug contents as the best grown elsewhere”. He noted that Belladonna (Atropa belladonna) leaves grown in the U.S. sold for 25 cents per pound but for $1.50 per pound in England, the prices reflecting the quality of the plants. In recognition of such disparities he said he’d advise growers as to what species they should cultivate. “British Columbia grown material [should be] carefully analyzed by a competent chemist, and be guided by the results of such analysis”.

Two fellow professors at UBC, a chemist and a biologist, had supervised biological tests of some native plants to ascertain their medicinal potency as compared to the same plants grown elsewhere. Their work was yet underway but the potential, he said, was there for provincial agriculturalists to “grow some species yielding a percentage of drugs equal to, or greater than the best now available. It will help growers to secure a ready market and the maximum price for their crops”.

The existing demand and availability of Cascara was key to his plan, the starting point of a multi-medicine plant industry. Both he and the provincial government encouraged farmers and settlers to learn about harvesting this tree through literature provided free of charge by the province and the Dominion government.

He said that foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) used for treating heart failure was another plant of promise. Still popular as a decorative flower, today we consider foxglove an invasive species because it was introduced by settlers. Like many other invaders it grows more luxuriantly here than in its British homeland where it had been crowded out by food farming during the Great War, thereby creating a medical shortage.

Davidson was convinced that, grown commercially, foxglove could become marketable; the key to success lay in the harvested plant’s drug quality.

He went on at considerable length, touching upon the potential medicinal markets for by-products and extracts of the native hemlock, peppermint and spearmint, henbane, golden seal, ginseng, thorn apple, dandelion root, burdock root, balm of Gilead (found in a native poplar) and bearberry leaves.

Some of these were and are yet dismissed as weeds; in Davidson’s book they were potential gold mines. In conclusion he stated, “…it is fitting we should discuss the prospects for the establishment of a drug manufacturing industry in this province as the basis for drug-plant farming.

“With B.C.’s climate, native flora, and long-growing season, we have advantages over all other provinces in Canada and most of the United States, and if we make use of these advantages we may contribute much to the prosperity not only of Canada but of the British Empire.”

I said that he was ahead of his time but that he missed the golden ring. I guess he hadn’t heard of B.C. bud in 1914 and 1924.


A cascara flower. (Province of B.C.)

A cascara flower. (Province of B.C.)

Cascara grows as a shrub or tree. (Province of B.C.)

Cascara grows as a shrub or tree. (Province of B.C.)