Skip to main content

KNOXVILLE — Grandma’s cure-all natural remedy may not have as much medicinal value as she thinks. Jim Caponetti, Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Tennessee, says that many plants traditionally used as medicine don’t produce the promised health benefits.

Caponetti will help people sift through the myths of plant medicine during his UT Science Forum talk, “Medicinal Plants of the Past — Some Snake Oil, Some Worthwhile,” on Friday, Sept. 29.

Caponetti developed an interest in plant medicine early in his career as a pharmacist.
“I began to realize that medicinal plants were losing popularity because of the development of Western medicine,” said Caponetti, now retired from teaching developmental botany. “Scientists tested various plant medicines using placebos in drug trials and surveys, and found that [many] didn’t work.”

Usage of medicinal plants has prevailed because of psychological benefits, he said.
“People mix the plant in hot water, make teas…and it keeps them happy,” Caponetti said. “They perceive they’re getting health benefits from [the plant medicine], but they aren’t.”

Although St. John’s Wort and echinacea are on Caponetti’s list of snake oil medicines, he admits there are still other plant medicines worthy of praise.

“Spearmint and Peppermint aid digestion, and Indian snakeroot is still very effective as a tranquilizer and also helps to lower high blood pressure,” Caponetti said.

Caponetti adds that a number of Western medicines have been synthetically patterned after effective medicinal plants. Attendees at the Science Forum on Friday will learn more about the history and worth of plant medicine for personal use.

The UT Science Forum is held every Friday, from noon to 1 p.m., in the Thompson-Boling Arena, Dining Room C-D. Attendees are encouraged to ask questions once the 40-minute presentation ends.

Upcoming Science Forum topics include the following:

• “Use It or Lose It!–Any Body Can Exercise, Even at 92,” Friday, Oct. 6, by Professor Diane Klein and Martha Rider, post-doctoral fellow, Department of Exercise, Sport, and Leisure Science.

• “Advances in Radiation Therapy,” Friday, Oct. 20, by Dr. Chet Ramsey, medical physicist, Thompson Cancer Survival Center.

• “How the Concept of Number Emerged,” Friday, Oct. 27, by Professor Bill Wade, Professor of Mathematics.


Jay Mayfield, media relations, (865-974-9409,

Jim Caponetti, Professor, Dept. of Biology, (865-974-0365,

Mark Littmann, forum organizer, (865-974-8156,