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The Guide to Herbalism, Herbal Medicines, Natural Cures and Therapies.









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History of Herbs and Herbalism

Herbal medicine is the oldest form of healthcare known to mankind. Herbs had been used by all cultures throughout history. It was an integral part of the development of modern civilization. Primitive man observed and appreciated the great diversity of plants available to him. The plants provided food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Much of the medicinal use of plants seems to have been developed through observations of wild animals, and by trial and error.

Records of Native American, Roman, Egyptian, Persian, and Hebrew medical practices reveal that herbs were used to cure practically every known illness.
As time went on, each tribe added the medicinal power of herbs in their area to its knowledgebase. They methodically collected information on herbs and developed well-defined herbal pharmacopoeias. Indeed, well into the 20th century much of the pharmacopoeia of scientific medicine was derived from the herbal lore of native peoples. Many drugs commonly used today are of herbal origin. Indeed, about 25% of the prescription drugs dispensed in the United States contain at least one active ingredient derived from plant material. Some are made from plant extracts; others are synthesized to mimic a natural plant compound.

The history of herbology is interlinked with that of modern medicine. Many drugs now listed as conventional medications were originally derived from plants. Some examples being

  • Salicylic acid, a precursor of aspirin, was originally derived from white willow bark and the meadowsweet plant. Cinchona bark is the source of malaria-fighting quinine.
  • Vincristine, used to treat certain types of cancer, comes from periwinkle.
  • The opium poppy yields morphine, codeine, and paregoric, a treatment for diarrhea
  • Laudanum, a tincture of the opium poppy, was the popular tranquilizer in Victorian times.

Before the discovery and subsequent synthesis of antibiotics, the herb echinacea (which comes from the plant commonly known as purple coneflower) was one of the most widely prescribed medicines in the United States. For centuries, herbalists prescribed echinacea to fight infection. Today, research confirms that this herb boosts the immune system by stimulating the production of disease-fighting white blood cells.

The use of plants as medicine is older than recorded history. Evidence of this can be seen by the discovery ofmarshmallow root, hyacinth, and yarrow have been found alongside the bones of a Stone Age man in Iraq. These three medicinal herbs continue to be used today. Marshmallow root is a demulcent herb, soothing to inflamed or irritated mucous membranes, such as a sore throat or irritated digestive tract. Hyacinth is a diuretic that encourages tissues to give up excess water. Yarrow is a time-honored cold and fever remedy that may once have been used much as aspirin is today.

In 2735 B.C., the Chinese emperor Shen Nong wrote an authoritative treatise on herbs that is still in use today. Shen Nong recommended the use of Ma Huang (known as ephedra in the Western world), for example, against respiratory distress. Ephedrine, extracted from ephedra, is widely used as a decongestant. You'll find it in its synthetic form, pseudoephedrine, in many allergy, sinus, and cold-relief medications produced by large pharmaceutical companies.

The records of King Hammurabi of Babylon (c. 1800 B.C.) include instructions for using medicinal plants. Hammurabi prescribed the use of mint for digestive disorders. Modern research has confirmed that peppermint does indeed relieve nausea and vomiting by mildly anesthetizing the lining of the stomach.

The entire Middle East has a rich history of herbal healing. There are texts surviving from the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India that describe and illustrate the use of many medicinal plant products, including castor oil, linseed oil, and white poppies. In the scriptural book of Ezekiel, which dates from the sixth century B.C., we find this admonition regarding plant life: "..and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and leaf thereof for medicine." Egyptian hieroglyphs show physicians of the first and second centuries A.D. treating constipation with senna pods, and using caraway and peppermint to relieve digestive upsets.

Throughout the Middle Ages, home-grown botanicals were the only medicines readily available, and for centuries, no self-respecting household would be without a carefully tended and extensively used herb garden. For the most part, herbal healing lore was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. Mother taught daughter; the village herbalist taught a promising apprentice.

By the seventeenth century, the knowledge of herbal medicine was widely disseminated throughout Europe. In 1649, Nicholas Culpepper wrote A Physical Directory, and a few years later produced The English Physician. This respected herbal pharmacopeia was one of the first manuals that the layperson could use for health care, and it is still widely referred to and quoted today. Culpepper had studied at Cambridge University and was meant to become a great doctor, in the academic sense of the word. Instead, he chose to apprentice to an apothecary and eventually set up his own shop. He served the poor people of London and became known as their neighborhood doctor. The herbal he created was meant for the layperson.

The first U.S. Pharmacopeia was published in 1820. This volume included an authoritative listing of herbal drugs, with descriptions of their properties, uses, dosages, and tests of purity. It was periodically revised and became the legal standard for medical compounds in 1906. But as Western medicine evolved from an art to a science in the nineteenth century, information that had at one time been widely available became the domain of comparatively few. Once scientific methods were developed to extract and synthesize the active ingredients in plants, pharmaceutical laboratories took over from providers of medicinal herbs as the producers of drugs. The use of herbs, which for most of history had been mainstream medical practice, began to be considered unscientific, or at least unconventional, and to fall into relative obscurity.

In recent years doubts have been aroused about the safety of some drugs produced by pharmaceutical laboratories resulting in a growth in popularity "old fashioned" herbal remedies


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