A Brief History of Herbalism

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The use of plants as medicines dates as far back as the origin of humankind. Even carnivorous animals are known to consume plants when ill.  A Jaguar, for example, will eat leaves after grooming as a remedy against fur balls. Everyone has seen a dog or cat eat grass, which they may do to relieve gastric distress or to dislodge parasites.

Since the beginning of humankind people have relied primarily on plants for nourishment. Through trial and error they discovered that some plants are good for food, that some are poisonous, and that some produce bodily changes such as increased perspiration, bowel movement, urination, relief of pain, hallucination, and healing. Over the millennia these observations were passed orally from generation to generation, with each generation adding to and refining the body of knowledge. Every culture the world over has in this manner developed a body of herbal knowledge as part of its tradition.

Mesopotamia

The first written record of herbs used as medicines was made over five thousands years ago by the Sumerians, in ancient Mesopotamia (present day Iraq.) Sumerian prescriptions for healing using herbs such as caraway and thyme have been found by archeologists on tablets made of clay. At about the same time, and perhaps even earlier, herbal traditions were being developed in China and India.

China

The roots of Chinese medicine, which is based largely on herbalism, also date back approximately 5,000 years. The Chinese emperor Chi’en Nung put together a book of medicinal plants (an “herbal”) called Pen Tsao. It contained over 300 herbs including ma huang, or Chinese ephedra, which is still widely used today and is the herb from which Western scientists have derived the drug ephedrine.

India

The roots of Indian medicine were set forth in the sacred writings called the Vedas, which date back as far as the 2nd century BC. The Indian system of medicine was called the Ayurveda. The Indian materia medica, or list of herbs used as medicines, was quite extensive. As early as 800 BC one Indian writer knew 500 medicinal plants and another knew 760—all indigenous plants of India. Indian herbalism or Ayurveda is still practiced today, and many authentic, traditional formulations are available outside of India. (Ayurvedic herbalism is discussed in further detail in a later lesson.)

Greeks and Romans

The Greeks and Romans derived much of their herbal knowledge from these early civilizations. Ancient Greece was greatly influenced by Babylonia (or Mesopotamia), Egypt, and somewhat by India and China. The Greek physician Hippocrates c.460 – 377 BC, who is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Medicine” was an herbalist. He is credited with having written, “Let your Foods be your medicines, and your medicines your food.”

Middle Ages, Europe and America

During the Middle Ages the knowledge of medicinal plants was furthered by monks in Europe who studied and grew medicinal plants and translated the Arabic works on herbalism.

When the Europeans first came to America, they discovered that the Native Americans had extensive knowledge of the herbs which grew on their continent. The healing tradition of the Native Americans, like that of many early cultures, was based on a belief in an unseen spirit world. This type of tradition is sometimes referred to as shamanism, with the healer referred to as a shaman. But many Native Americans object to this terminology, which originated in Asia, preferring medicine man instead.

The European settlers had great respect for the herbal wisdom of the American Indians and relied heavily upon their knowledge. When Lewis and Clark made their famous expedition Westward from the Mississippi River, one of their goals was to learn as much as possible from the Native Americans about their beneficial herbs.

The natives in Central and South America also had extensive knowledge of the herbs indigenous to their areas. We have many herbs available to us as a result of their traditions, including Uña de Gato or Cat’s Claw herb (Uncaria tomentosa). This herb from the Peruvian Rain Forest has become very popular in the United States as an immuno-stimulant (supports the immune system in its attempt to keep us well.)

Africa, Australia, and the South Pacific

On every part of the globe where humans have lived, there has developed a body of herbal knowledge. From native Africans we discovered the herb pygeum (Prunus africana), which has proven to be beneficial for the prostate gland. From the Australian Aborigines we discovered Tea Tree oil—from the leaves of the Melaleuca tree—which was used by British soldiers during World War II as an antiseptic for wounds. From the natives of the South Pacific we discovered Noni (Morinda citrifolia), which has proven to have many health benefits including stimulation of the immune system (immuno-stimulant); and Kava Kava (Piper methysticum), which helps promote relaxation without dulling the senses.

Herbalism Today

In ancient times, herbalism, like life in general, was mixed with magic and superstition. Today, with our scientific methods we can determine what is superstition and what is fact. Many traditionally-used herbs have been put to the scientific test and many have proven to possess remarkable curative powers. This is one reason for the renewed interest in herbalism that we are seeing today. Herbs are often proving to be effective and safe alternatives to dangerous and costly drugs. Today, we truly have the best of both worlds. And we are no longer limited to the herbs that are found in our region, for we now have access to plants from around the world.

What does the Future hold?

Some are afraid that an increased interest in herbs will be dangerous for an already overly-exploited environment. It is true that a few herbs, such as Wild American Ginseng and Golden Seal Root, have over the years become dangerously over-harvested. But in the majority of cases the opposite is proving to be the case. The peoples in less industrialized nations, such as those in Central and South America, are finding that it is often more profitable to conserve their rain forests for the harvesting of herbs, than it is to slash and burn them for agricultural use. For example, thanks to the large demand for the Peruvian rain forest herb Uña de Gato, the Peruvian government has taken steps to conserve their rain forests. Many other cultures are likewise discovering that there is a great economic potential in protecting their rain forests for responsible harvesting of its herbal treasures. The future for herbalism looks good.

Concluding this topic, as we considered the rich history of herbalism, we discovered that herbalism is as old as humankind, and virtually every culture on Earth has developed an herbal tradition. Today we are fortunate because we have access to herbs and herbal knowledge from many different cultures from around the world. We also have the tools of science now to help us discern fact from myth.

Below we have a thought question.  Unlike quizzes, our thought questions are not graded or recorded. They are to encourage you to pause and think. Select your answer below and then proceed to the next topic by clicking on the MARK COMPLETE button.

What is an herb?

A seed producing plant that does not develop persistent woody tissue but dies down at the end of the growing season.
A plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities.
Both of the above are correct.