In France, the epithet "sorcerer's violet" has been given to the rosy periwinkle. The origin of this name is with regard to the historical use of the plant in the charms and love potions of medieval Europe. The power of exercising evil spirits was also attributed to the plant by Europeans in the old days. For example, the rosy periwinkle was used by medieval Europeans in their floral garlands to ensure the protection of the bearer from sudden harm. The Italians called the rosy periwinkle, the flower of death and placed garlands made from the plant on the grave stones of infants. The use of the plant and its cultural connotations changed over time, and the periwinkle was considered to be an emblem of friendship by the French during the era of the enlightenment in Europe. Different health disorders have been traditionally treated using herbal remedies made from the periwinkle plant. These have included problems such as memory loss to even toothache and other complaints such as circulatory problems to persistent inflammation of the intestinal region. The diuretic action and the blood sugar lowering ability of the periwinkle has been proven decisively, however, the real effectiveness of the herb in treating all these other ailments is not confirmed even though the plant has a long history of use in a healing role. The early researches conducted on the diabetes related medical properties of the plant during the 1950s, led to the discovery of other useful compound in the herbal extract. The extract is found to be capable of treating juvenile leukemia, it has been found to be effective against Hodgkin's disease, and in the treatment of other cancers - all of which were considered largely incurable earlier. The anti-cancer properties of the herb are due to two main alkaloids, the compounds vinblastine and vincristine, these chemicals seem capable of binding to proteins in some microtubules of the affected cells, leading to the quick death of cancer affected cells. The anti-diabetes action of the periwinkle is made use of in the folk medicine of the Philippine islands. Closer home, soothing eyewash is prepared from the flowers and used in the folk medicine of the Caribbean islands.
Though naturalized and cultivated as a garden plant in many areas of the world, the rosy periwinkle is native to and originates from the rich plant life of Madagascar. There are also similar acting related species of the plant in the Mediterranean - these can also be potentially utilized in the same way as the rosy periwinkle.
Extensive clinical research has been conducted on the properties of the Madagascar periwinkle's due to its long traditional use as an herbal treatment for persons affected by diabetes. The plant also contains two potent anti-cancer alkaloids, the compound vincristine and vinblastine - the identification of these compounds is believed to be one of the most important medicinal finds from plant sources within the past forty years of medical history. Patients with Hodgkin's disease are given vincristine as a standard treatment, and the compound vinblastine is used extensively in the treatment of childhood leukemia cases. The anti-diabetic role of the plant still needs further verification, as it has been found that while herbal extracts from the Madagascar periwinkle can indeed lead to a lowering of blood sugar levels in the body, very simple preparations from the whole plant are not effective and thus an active compound in the extract has to be identified.
Madagascar periwinkle contains over 70 different indole alkaloids, including vinblastine, vincristine, alstonine, ajmalicine, leurocristine, and reserpine.