People have been utilizing herbs since even before written word was developed. In the United States it seems herbalism is a new age trend that people who desire natural ways of preventative health use as a way to incorporate balance into their wellness routines. Yet, these remedies and plants have been used for these purposes since the beginning of time. They are literally one of the oldest and most prevalently sought after methods for maintaining health support and wellness. Honestly, many herbs have been utilized and incorporated into modern medicine as well; without our knowledge a lot of the time.
When we look back at its roots we can find evidence through research that shows remnants of herbs like yarrow, chamomile, & poplar in Neanderthal(60000+BCE) tooth plaque. This suggests that it was in their diet or they chewed on these herbs for certain ailments or as common practice for other dietary reasons. Shamans(30000+BCE) of the past also used various herbs in their spiritual practices and rituals. These are some of the oldest known herbalists that were incorporating the use of native plants into their healing/spiritual practices. Herbs are mentioned often in the Bible as well, and some prominent ones are: aloe, balsam/balm, cassia, anise, myrrh, bitter herbs, cinnamon, cumin, frankincense, garlic, hyssop, mint, mustard, & saffron. Then there were the grains they utilized, which are also herbs; like wheat, barley & rye.
The roots of Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM) & Ayurveda, which were developed around the same time, are traced back to clay tablets recorded on by the Sumerians over 5000 years ago. This was in ancient Mesopotamia and they transcribed information about some of the medicinal plants being utilized during that time like laurel, caraway, and thyme. Then in 3000-1500 BCE Egyptians were recording on evolutionary texts called the Ebers Papyrus. These were a compilation of medical papers discussing the use of over 850 different herbs, their uses, and also discussed various areas of medical exploration in subjects including gynecology, psychiatry and dentistry.
In 450 BCE the theory of the, “Four Roots” was developed by Empedocles, a Greek philosopher, which was adopted for the next 2,000 years until it was expanded upon by Plato and his “Four Elements,” and then further into the “Four Humors” by Hippocrates. These were all a precursor to the development of the Unani-Tibb medical system introduced by a Persian physician, Hakim Ibn Sina, around 1000 CE. This is what led to and was the start of modern Western herbalism.
The true herbalism boom happened in the 1400s-1600s and was when the first English text, Grete Herball, was written. This was a compilation of both current herbal knowledge of the time and various texts of the past. The author was Peter Treveris, but since it took information from many different books already recorded, was considered a multi-author book. At this time herbalism was not considered a separate form of medicine but was directly integrated within it.
Some additional influential herbalists in history include: Hakim Ibn Sina (~1000 CE) who wrote the Canon of Medicine which documents the medical practices/formulations of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans & who believed that maintaining health (an evaluation of the whole unique body) should include a regimen of activity for the whole body by balancing activity, rest, food, water, & air; Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179 CE) was a German saint who wrote, Cause and Cure and Physica, in addition to being a scholar, visionary, mystic, composer and scientist; Moses Maimonides (~1140-1200 CE) was an Egyptian migrant who, as a philosopher and physician, became the royal physician to the Arabic regent and wrote the famous Regimen of Health & whose philosophy was that each person should be treated based on their unique bodily needs rather than the disease alone; Apuleius Platonicus (~1400s CE) wrote the Herbarium in response to the demand by people for a reference to help them identify and learn more about plants & their medicinal uses; and then in the late 1400s Paracelsus started the alchemical movement which introduced the ideas of there being connections between physical and spiritual matter in medicine. He is known as saying,
The planets and stars play important parts in the natural world and in the human bodies as macrocosm to the microcosm.
- 1545-1612 CE-An English herbalist, John Gerard, writes his Herball & is the first to include North American plants in an European herbal.
- 1616-1654 CE-Nicholas Culpeper paved the way for modern herbalists and wrote, Culpeper’s Herbal, which is well-known and often referenced in the modern herbalist world as well as, among astrologers and physicians. He was unique in that he combined astrological medicine, herbalism, and pharmaceuticals together in his writings.
- 1700s CE-Herbalism was sought out more than physicians. People desired to learn plant identification and uses because they were less expensive and easily accessible. This eventually led to the Eclectics making a vital contribution to the herbal reference guides.
- 1800s CE-In response to the more barbaric traditions of physicians during this time, like blood letting & mercury poisoning; the Eclectics developed a resource to persuade more beneficial and herbalistic approaches to medicine: the Materia Medica. This was built around the research of American medicinal plants. They also initiated the evolution of the profoundly influential phytomedicine in Germany. This led to the development of an herbal curriculum that has been widely used in modern herbal schools since. Thomsonian Medicine was also developing at this time, by Samuel Thomson, starting the Thomsonian Movement, which many believe to be the “father of American herbalism.”
The Thomsonians treated all disease in the same manner. The basic objective was to “balance inward and outward heat.” This was accomplished with a “course” of medicines, which included the use of steam baths, followed by large doses of Lobelia (Lobelia inflata), heat stimulants such as cayenne, astringents herbs, bitters to restore digestion, and other herbs as needed, including nerve sedatives, anodynes, and enemas. Seventy different herbs were generally used by the Thomsonians, forty-two of which were indigenous forest medicinal plants (Berman, 1954). — Herbal Academy’s Advanced Herbal Course
- 1904 CE-Due to the formation of the Council on Medical Education by the American Medical Association who, based on subjective evaluation of the past adopted practices, deemed current physicians “irregular practitioners” as medical doctors. This excluded them from admittance into the CoME while diminishing & discrediting the herbal and previous medicinal studies that had been used throughout medical history up to that point in time. This led to the closure of Eclectic and Homeopathic schools; including women’s and African-American colleges. This caused the shutdown of many medical schools (unless they taught “orthodox medicine”) or else they merged with larger universities. The AMA caused the disintegration of herbal education in American society.
- ~1950s to Present-A movement begins which is determined to utilize scientific research to “prove herbs can work” based on lab studies of their constituents’ affects on the body. This is the birth of “defensive herbalism.” 1960s-70s CE-The “back to the land” movement begins and people start to reconnect with their natural ways and begin using “alternative practices” to manage health and hinder disease. 1989 CE–American Herbalists Guild is formed which is a non-profit organization that supports the voice & rights of herbalists to promote the education and use of herbs in health and wellness; while protecting the rights to access herbal medicine for all. 1994 CE–Rosmary Gladstar, well-known herbalist & homesteader, founded the United Plant Savers. This is also a non-profit, but its mission is to protect the medicinal plants and their environments in both the United States and Canada.
- Present Day-Herbalism is continuing to grow and more schools are opening as demand for classes & knowledge grows. Our connection to plants is inherent, has been present since the beginnings of humanity, and even when it is restricted, has come back; digging in its roots & flourishing once again. Since the traditions of seeking out nature to aid in health and wellness began long ago, people have used & studied herbs; luckily, recording & documenting along the way. This has left us with an abundance of research that is now continuing & expanding in the scientific labs as we speak. This has given us a long standing herbal foundation, connects us to our ancestors, and paves the way for the next generation of herbalists just like those before us have done!
Today, alternative medicine has become integrative health. Pushed by public interest in natural healthcare prevention and treatment options, major medical and pharmacy schools through the United States and elsewhere have course offerings in integrative health options. Scientific interest in herbs has exploded worldwide, leading to an exponential growth in published research, increasing our understanding of the benefits of herbal medicine. Herbs are integrated into allopathic medicine (mostly in the form of isolated, often synthesized components of prescription drugs), Traditional Chinese Medicine (often prescribed by acupuncturists), naturopaths, who embrace herbal treatment, and chiropractors, who often offer herbal dietary supplements. — Herbal Academy’s Advanced Herbal Course
I hope you’ve learned something from this brief history of our connection to plants, their uses & importance in medicine throughout history. It is for educational purposes and is gathered from the websites references below.
Thanks so much for reading and taking an interest in herbs which offer us a means to reconnect with nature & improve health in traditional ways. As an herbalist in modern society, it seems rebellious to be studying & sharing herbal knowledge, but I hope as time goes on we can rekindle the deep relationship with plants that has been present since the beginning of humanity!
Anne❤️🌿 (My herbal store: Anne’s Backyard Herbal)
References used for this blog post:
All information in this post is for educational purposes only. It has been a compilation of historical material gathered from the websites above. The claims made are simply for informing about the historical evidence researched as a reference for herbal studies.