Periwinkle grows on all six inhabited continents. It has been cultivated for herbal medicine and as an ornamental plant all around the world. In Ayurveda (Indian traditional medicine) the extracts of its roots and shoots, though poisonous, are used against several diseases. In traditional Chinese medicine, extracts from it have been used against numerous diseases, including diabetes, malaria, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Humans have know about cancer for thousands of years, and excavation of ancient burials prove the presence of cancerous tumors on all continents in prehistoric times. Amerindians of North America had treatments for cancer hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans who had no cure or effective treatments. In 1955 the United States government established the Cancer Chemotherapy National Service Center, whose job it was to screen natural and synthetic substances for anticancer activity. Plants from around the world were tested, and hundreds of plants are now known to have some slowing effect on cancer growth.
At the same time these tests were being conducted by the government, other researchers were drawn to Catharanthus roseus (periwinkle) as a cure for diabetics and more. Independent workers at Lilly injected a crude extract of the whole periwinkle plant into mice that were infected with P-1534 leukemia. Amazingly, 60-80% of the mice experienced prolonged life. Lilly produced VLB as the drug Velban and synthesized another alkaloid, vincristine (VCR), as the drug Oncovin.
The substances vinblastine and vincristine extracted from the plant are still used in the treatment of leukemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This conflict between historical herbal use for treating the same disorders, and recent patents by Lilly on drugs derived from Periwinkle without compensation, has led to accusations of biopiracy.
The periwinkle in my yard showed up uninvited and comes and goes, mostly in the same area of my yard. I love it for it’s beauty and contibution to mankind. This post will be mostly duplicated in The Plants of Judith’s Hill. I will also copy the post on Datura and move it with the other plants.
Herbalists are now constantly warned about the use of periwinkle tea for any reason because it is potentially poisonous. Meanwhile Lilly continues selling their periwinkle medicines whose side effects potentially include death. However, the medicines usually appear to provide miraculous cures in many situations, so people take the risk.
In Voodoo, it is used as an incense and to promote love. It is banned by the state of Louisiana as a hallucinogenic although I found no other citations on this effect. Perhaps the Legislators of Louisiana believe love is a hallucinogenic experience which should be banned for everyone.