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.
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.
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
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:
• The Ebers Papyrus of Egypt, which dates to 1500 b.c., includes descriptions of dozens of herbal remedies and their uses, including castor oil.
• Around the same time, in India epic poems (the Vedas) presented stories rich in herbal lore.
• Eight hundred years later, the Charaka Samhita was written by the physician Charaka in India. He describes about 350 herbal medicines, including visnaga, an herb of North African origin that has recently proven effective in treating asthma.
• The Shen’nong Bencaojing, or Divine Husbandman’s Classic, was written in China during the first century. It includes 252 herbal medicines. This early herbal paved the way for Traditional Chinese Medicine.
• At about the same time in Europe, Dioscorides wrote his De Materia Medica, a text that lists about 600 herbs. It was used as the principal reference for medicinal herbs in Europe until the 17th century. Originally made for Juliana Arnicia, daughter of the Roman emperor Flavius Avicius Olybrius, the herbal contained nearly 400 full-page color illustrations.
• By the second century, world trade was established; medicinal herbs were wares. Writers began to catalog them and record their properties.
• Between the sixth and 14th centuries, Arabic culture spread to Europe, bringing the knowledge of blending herbs to achieve different effects—in other words, the art of pharmacy. In India, Ayurvedic medicine developed in the universities and hospitals.
• Hildegard of Bingen, who was an herbal authority and the first German woman physician, wrote the Book of Simple Medicine and Book of Composed Medicine between 1151 and 1161. In the former, she describes the medicinal uses and harvesting of more than 200 herbs and other plants. In the latter, she lists more than 300 plants, along with herbal treatments.
• On the other side of the world, in 1552, 31 years after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City), Aztec physician Martinus de la Cruz wrote an herbal in the Nahuatl language (a local Aztec language). Called the Badianus Manuscript, it’s the first herbal of the Americas, and details therapeutic uses of 251 Mexican plant species. Written under order of the son of the first viceroy of New Spain, who was interested in herbs and spices of the New World and the medical knowledge of the Aztecs, the herbal conveys Aztec knowledge of medicinal plants and their pharmacological actions.
• In the 1600s, Nicholas Culpeper’s The English Physitian was published. Culpeper advocated affordable health care based on the use of locally grown plants, and his herbal was a bestseller.
• Native Americans in North America shared herbal knowledge with settlers, especially at the end of the 18th and into the 19th centuries. Samuel Thomson based his regimens on Native American herbal practice, and a group of physicians called the Eclectics combined the then-new knowledge of physiology and pathology with herbal traditions.
• By the early 20th century, herbal medicine in the United States became secondary to conventional medicine, largely because of the government’s decision to give financial support only to schools that practiced conventional medicine.
Chevallier, Andrew. The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. New York: Dorling Kindersley, DK Publishing, 1996.
Foster, Steven. “The Badianus Manuscript: America’s First Herbal.” The Herb Companion 1994, pp. 27–33.
Griggs, Barbara. Green Pharmacy: The History and Evolution of Western Herbal Medicine. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1997.
Suellentrop, Joyce. “Hildegard of Bingen: Medieval Healer of the Rhine.” The Herb Companion 1995, pp. 62–66.
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