Healing Herbs Around the World

Although the people of ancient cultures—those who discovered and passed their herbal knowledge on to scores of succeeding generations—no longer survive, many of these healing herbs around the world still do.


| June/July 2009



Origins1

When humans began using formal writing systems, they also began documenting their use of medicinal herbs around the world, so we can be more certain about the history of herbal remedies dating back to about 3000 B.C.


Illustration by Sophie Kittredge

We can only speculate about our prehistoric ancestors’ behavior, but clues and common sense tell us our ancestors used ancient medicinal plants to survive, relying on them for nourishment and, over time and after observation, medical treatment. These plants might have been more than just food and medicine to early humans—through their healing powers, plants may have represented a connection to the supernatural world. At the 60,000-year-old burial site of a Neanderthal man, researchers found eight species of flowering plants—laid there, some surmise, to fortify the man as he journeyed to the next life.

When humans began using formal writing systems, they also began documenting their use of medicinal plants, so we can be more certain about the history of herbal remedies dating back to about 3000 B.C. As civilizations developed and trade routes became established, travelers began observing other cultures’ use of plants and brought both herbal remedies and knowledge of their use back to their home countries.

Such observations lead in a more-or-less straight line to conventional medicine’s adoption and adaptation of some phytomedicines, including Taxus brevifolia or Pacific yew, which gives us the anticancer drug Taxol, and Chondrodendron tomentosum, which gives us tubocurarine chloride, used to calm patients’ muscles during surgery. In terms of more commonly used herbal medicines, we prepare and take some of them in the same way our ancestors did. We know, for instance, that the constipation remedy castor oil, which comes from the castor bean, was used as a laxative thousands of years ago. Such knowledge may be humbling, given our ­contemporary emphasis on expensive health care and medical research.

Healing Herbs Around the World

Central to all of these events, of course, are the herbs themselves. While the people of ancient cultures—those who discovered and passed their herbal knowledge on to scores of succeeding generations—no longer survive, many of the plants do. Here are descriptions of some key medicinal herbs of the world, with their past and present uses.

• Healing Herbs around North America
• Healing Herbs around Europe
• Healing Herbs around Australia
• Healing Herbs around Central and South America
• Healing Herbs around Asia
• Healing Herbs around Africa  

Timeline: Crossing the Globe

Tracing the development of medicinal plant knowledge is a mapmaker’s paradise. It follows paths leading from royal physicians, Buddhist monks and Amazonian hunters to the hands of early traders, world explorers and North American pioneers. It runs a line parallel to the first writings known, moving from the eyes of a select few and then, thanks to the invention of the printing press, to the eyes of the masses.

A few big events and a few big names are pivotal to this transfer of knowledge. Among them:

Second and First Millenia B.C.





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