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"The Healing Herbs": The ancient Roots, Stems, Leaves, Flowers, Fruits and Seeds

Updated on December 26, 2016


Healing Herbs. Herbal Plants. Healing Plants. Herbalism. Herbology. Medicinal Plants. Phytomedicine. Ethnobotany. Esoteric. Prehistoric. Curative.

From Love-Life Quotes
From Love-Life Quotes

1. Introduction

Throughout human history, man has been dependent on plants for food, clothing, shelter, rituals and religious ceremonies, medicine, and commerce. The use of plants for medicine predates human history. An ancient man by observation noticed that even animals eat certain plants when ill. By trial and error man's knowledge on the importance of plants on human survival expanded and spread over millennia and across human civilization. This knowledge was passed by words from generation to generation until a written record was established in the first- century BC.

From antiquity until today, many of these plant used for medicinal purposes are still with us. The records found on ancient herbal books become the basis for the development of modern medicine and we can consider them as "super plants" because of curative effects derived from their roots, stems, leaves, seeds, flowers and fruits. The whole gamut of this distinction becomes a way of life called Herbalism. Herbalism is a traditional medicine or folk medicine practiced base on the use of plants or plant extracts. Presently, Herbalism is also known as Botanical medicine, Medicinal herbalism, Herbal medicine, Herbology, and Phytotherapy among others. and further extended in the study of medicine derived from natural sources known as Pharmacognosy.

However, before we go further into the realm of herbalism, let us first know what are the historical background of these plants, who are the people responsible for the spread and adoptions of these plants considered as super herbs and what role they play in traditional medicine. This article does not presume to cover all aspect of Herbalism, but to present some specific attributes of plants unique on its own.

Shennong Ben Cao Jing
Shennong Ben Cao Jing | Source
Ayurvedic Medicine
Ayurvedic Medicine | Source
Theophrastus-Father of Botany
Theophrastus-Father of Botany | Source

2. Historicals

The use of plan as medicine predates human history and until today. They are collectively known as herbs and consequently arise the study and usage of herbs as Herbalism, Herbology, Medicinal plants, Phytomedicine, Botanical medicine, Ethnomedical and Alternative medicines among others. Over the millennia plants have evolved the ability to synthesize chemical compounds that are either beneficial or toxic to man.These chemical compound mediate their effects in humans by binding to the receptor molecules similar to the effects traditional medicines that are pharmaceutically synthesized .

Known records of the use of plants as medicine can be traced back from ancient Chinese, Egyptians, Indians, Babylonians and Native American herbalists among others. For instance, the oldest known list of medicinal herbs was Shen Nung's Pen Ts'ao or Shennong Ben Cao Jing (3,000BC), a Chinese herbal that is probably the oldest compilation of herbs used as medicine.

3. The Pillars of Herbalism

The use of plants as medicine has no author, nor culture or country who owns it. However, there are prominent herbalists who should be credited for the growth and development of herbalism from prehistoric to modern day herbalists and Apothecaries.Suffice to say that there are individuals who were instrumental in the propagation of Herbal medicine due to their study, translation of ancient texts, and applications in the cure of human maladies that stand the test of time:

  • The ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia (5,000BC), present day Iraq
  • Emperor Shennong of Han Dynasty (3,000BC)-Chinese Materia Medica: Shennong Bencao Jing
  • Ancient Egyptian Herbalists (2,500BC)-Egyptian Medicine, Ebers Papyrus(1550BC)
  • Hippocrates (c.460-377BC)-Greek physician, who is openly referred to as the Father of Modern Medicine was a Herbalist. He is credited for having written "Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food"
  • Theophrastus (c.371-c.287BC)-Father of Botany, wrote two important books: The Inquiry into Plants(Historia Plantarum) and theCauses of Plants.which further advance our knowledge on the uses of plants as herbal medicine and have a profound influence on Renaissance science.
  • Dioscorides (c.40-90AD)-a.k.a Pedanius Dioscorides was a Greek physician, Pharmacologist, Botanist, and author of Materia Medica (On Medical Material), a 5 volume Greek encyclopedia on Herbal medicine and related medicinal substances( a Pharmacopia) that exerted its influence for more than 1,500 years.
  • Galen (129AD)-a.k.a. Actus Galenus or Claudius Galenus anglicized as Galen and better known as Galen of Pergamon. Prominent Greek physician, surgeon, and philosopher of the Roman Empire. An herbal practitioner developed a classification system for remedies and illness.
  • Avicenna (980-1037AD) also known as Ibn Sina an Iranian physician combined the Herbal traditions of Dioscorides and Galen with the ancient practice of his own people in the Canon of Medicine (al-Qunum fi at-tibb). One of the most influential medical text ever written. Avicenna's Canon spread throughout Europe during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Healing herbs eaten by Chimp
Healing herbs eaten by Chimp | Source

4. Herbalism in Ancient Times

I. Prehistoric Man.

Among the early humans, the discovery of the healing power of plants was a trial and error method and observations from animal behavior. It's not uncommon for the ancient man to observed Chimp or other primates eat certain leaves of plants that normally they don't or animals that eat a particular grass when they feel ill. Ancient man also discovered that certain leaves when wrapped around meats, prolonged spoilage. Ancient man was also attracted to nice scent exudes by some plants and some when used in food preparation improved its culinary value.

Ancient man also discovered that certain plants are good for ceremonies, rituals, and religious practice, still, other plants were considered as an aphrodisiac to increase male virility and performance, while others lead to addiction, sacred herbs in religious offerings and further into the realm of the spirit world.

The Papyrus Ebers
The Papyrus Ebers | Source
Ancient Egyptian Healing Herbs
Ancient Egyptian Healing Herbs | Source
Ancient Sacred Hindu Text-The RigVeda
Ancient Sacred Hindu Text-The RigVeda | Source
Dioscorides' De Materia Medica (12th-13th Centuries)
Dioscorides' De Materia Medica (12th-13th Centuries) | Source

II. Ancient Civilization.

  • Mesopotamia.The first written record of herbs used as medicine was perhaps made 5,000 years ago by the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq).The Sumerian preparations for healing using herbs such as Caraway and Thyme has been found by Archeologist on tablets made of clay
  • Egypt. From the archeological evidence and papyri translation, the use of herbs in ancient Egypt is as old as Egypt itself. The papyrus Known as Ebers Papyrus (purchased by Georg Ebers in the winter of 1873-74,Luxor,Egypt) dates back in 1550 BC, consists of the list of ailments and their treatments ranging from "diseases of the limbs" and "diseases of the skin" and has information on 850 plant medicine including Garlic, Juniper, Cannabis, Castor Bean, Aloe, mandrake among others. Other than papyri evidence of herbal medicine has also been found in tomb illustrations and jars containing herbs.
  • China. The first Chinese herbal Book, the Shennong Bencao Jing, compiled during the Han Dynasty dating possibly or much earlier than 2,700 BC, lists 365 medicinal plants and their uses including Ma-Huang or Chinese Ephedra. The shrub that introduced the drug, Ephedrine to modern medicine.
  • India. The roots of India's medicine were set forth in the sacred writings called the Vidas. This sacred writing can be traced as far back as the 2nd Century BC. The Indian Materia Medica or list of herbs used as medicine is quite extensive. As early as 800 BC an Indian writer knows 500 medicinal plants and another 760 were indigenous plants of India. The Hindi system of medicine is called Ayurveda.
  • Greeks and Romans.The ancient Greeks and Romans were also renown Herbalists. Surgeons traveling with the Roman army spread their herbal expertise throughout the Roman Empire, in Spain, Germany, France, and England. Greek surgeons, eg. Galen 9131-200 AD) and Dioscorides (40-90 AD) compiled herbals descriptions that remained the definitive Materia Medica that lasts for 1500 years.

Most Influential Herbalists of the Middle Ages
Most Influential Herbalists of the Middle Ages | Source

III. The Middle Ages

  • The Monasteries. Monasteries throughout the middle ages played a crucial role in the propagation of herbal medicine in Britain and mainland Europe.
  • Before the establishment of Universities in the eleventh and twelfth century, Monasteries served as medical schools. Monks copied and translated many of the works of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Galen
  • As the result of the Islamic conquest of North Africa in the seventh and eight centuries, Arabic scholars acquired many of the Greek and Roman medical texts.
  • Iranian physician Ibn Sina also known as Avicenna (950-1037AD) continued the herbal traditions of Dioscorides and Galen with the ancient practice of his own people in the Canon of medicine( al-Qanun fi at-tibb). One of the most influential medical texts ever written.
  • Avicenna's Canon spread throughout Europe during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Ancient Mayan Medicine Man
Ancient Mayan Medicine Man | Source
Faith Healer in So. Pacific Island
Faith Healer in So. Pacific Island | Source
Herbalism in Africa
Herbalism in Africa | Source

IV. The Americas

  • When the Europeans first arrived in America, they discovered that the Native Americans had extensive knowledge of the herbs that grew in their continent.
  • The healing traditions of the native Americans, like that of many cultures, was based on the belief of the 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 according to them originated in Asia, therefore preferring Medicine man instead.

V. Africa, Australia, and the South Pacific

  • Africa. Whenever humans had lived, there has a developed body of knowledge on herbal medicine. From native Africans, a legacy of herbal knowledge led to the discovery of Pygeum. Pygeum (Prunus africana) wich has been proven to be beneficial for the prostate gland.
  • Australia. From the Australian aborigines, the knowledge on Tea Tree oil was discovered. Tea tree oil was discovered from the leaves of Melaleuca tree which were used by the British soldiers during World War II as antiseptic for wounds.
  • South Pacific.From the natives of South Pacific, an important herb called Noni was discovered. Morinda citrifolia, which was proven to have many health benefits including stimulation of the Immune System as immuno-stimulant. Another important herb called Kava-Kava (Piper methysticin) is important relaxant without swelling the muscle.

Medicine Man during Healing Retual
Medicine Man during Healing Retual | Source

20 Popular Herbal Plants Throughout the Ages

(click column header to sort results)
Cinnamomum zylanicum Breyn.
Ellitaria cardamomum Linn.
Boswellia sacra Linn.
Allium sativum Linn.
Panax ginseng Linn.
Whole PlaNT
Zingiber officinale Linn.
Holy Basil
Ocimum sanctum Linn.
Roots, Leaves, Seeds
Cannabis sativa Linn.
Whole Plant
Comniphora myrrha Linn.
Resin, Myrrh Gum
Neem Tree
Azadirachta indica Linn.
Bark, Leaves, Fruits
Allium cepa Linn.
Opium poppy
Papaver somniferum Linn.
Fruits, Seeds
Salvia officinale Linn.
Leaves, Flowers
Crocus sativus Linn.
Santalum album Linn.
Thymes vulgaris Linn.
Whol;e Plant
Curcuma domistica Linn.
Lemon Balm
Melissa officenales
Leaves, Oil extract
Bitter Gourge
Momordica charantia Linn.
Fruits, Seeds, Roots
Prunus africana Linn.
Source: Kurian, JC (2010), Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Breyn.=Breyne, Jacob (1637-1697), Linn.=Linne, Carl von (ne. Linnaeus, 1707-1778)

5. Herbalism in Esoteric Forms

From the time prehistoric man discovered plants as a source of food, shelter, clothing and medicine, it evolved and shaped many human cultures and civilization before man learned to write and record the various uses of these plants. True today, plants as herbal medicine is backed by knowledge from ancient Sumerians to the distillers of modern pharmaceuticals with one unifying goal to seek cures for human ailments physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Magic, religion, and medicine are one to the mind of primitive people and believed that there are spirits that interfere in man's life and therefore may cause illness is extremely widespread and even universal. Most primitive tribe today possessed an expert knowledge of medicinal plants that includes esoteric uses.

  • Adaptogens
  • Aromatherapy
  • Astrology
  • Dreams
  • Doctrine of Signature
  • Hallucinogenic and Psychoactive Drugs
  • Magic and Witchcraft
  • Religion and Human Sacrifice, Sacred Herbs, Rituals and Ceremonies
  • Shamanism, Faith Healers, and Medicine Man
  • Tridosha in Ayurvedic Medicine
  • Yin and Yang concept in Chinese Herbal Medicine

6. Herbalism Today

Today, mankind have benefitted from the accumulated herbal wisdom of the ages. No culture or civilization have not used plants as herbal medicine to treat illness and promote wellness in man. The plants that our ancestors knew and used are still the same today. Our ancestors knew when to pick, the season herbs at their peak, proper time and the appropriate season. No wonder that 80% still rely on herbal medicine among ordinary people.

7. The Future of Herbalism

The plant(s) that we knew today as healing Herb existed before the first human started to write its history. Archaeological evidence shows that as early as 60,000 years ago in Iraq, Neanderthals used herbal plants. People across the globe and cultures used herbal medicine. In other words, herbal medicine is universal, but it was supplanted by pharmaceutical drugs due to a consumer economy, moreover, during the past decades a growing interest on back to basic i.e. the use of herbal medicine is gaining popularity again worldwide for the following reasons:

  • Herbal medicine has both Spiritual and Nutritional value that will help one spiritually and physically with no side effects at an affordable cost.
  • With the increasing cost of prescription medicine, Herbal medicine was often seen as cheaper than their conventional counterparts.
  • According to reports of World Health Organization, 80% of the world population uses herbal medicine and those who use it as the primary form of health care.
  • Many traditionally used Herbs have been put to the Scientific test and many have proven to possess remarkable curative powers and fewer side effects.

8. Conclusion

In conclusion, the use of plants as herbal medicine is the oldest and most popular form of healing in the world today. It is also known as Herbalism, Herbology, Botanical medicine, Phytotherapy, EthnoBotany is based on the system of using plant parts such as leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, roots, bark, wood, etc. that continue to defy the conventional wisdom of medicine. having no inventor, no country or culture owns it, and no starting point is considered the safest and less problematic form of healing for the emotional, spiritual, and physical malady that affects health and wellness in man today.

9. References

1. A brief history of herbalism: Natural Health School-Lesson 2. Retrieved, June 5, 2016.

2. A brief history of herbalism: The use of plants for medicinal purposes. Historical Collections at the Claudes Moore Health Science Library. Retrieved, June 5, 2016.

  • A brief history of herbalism
  • Vienna Dioscorides from Materia Medica
  • Badianus Manuscript: An Aztec Herbal,1552
  • Herball Generall Historie of Plants by John Gerard, 1597
  • The English by Nicholas Culpeper, 1652Ancient Herbal Healers of Maya. Retrieved, June 5, 2016.

3. Bennet, Bradley. 2007. The Doctrine of Signature: An explanation of medicinal plant discovery or dissemination of knowledge. J. of Economic Botany 61(3): 246-255. Retrieved. June 5, 2016.

4. Forever Healthy and Young Doctrine of Signature: Herb that resembles the body parts they heal. Retrieved. June 5, 2016.

5. Hassan, Amjad MD, and H, A, Jafary MD, FACP. 2008. Jafary's Herbal Medicine: Practical Guidelines for the Safe use of Herbs. Beckley, West Virginia. Retrieved, June 5, 2016.

6. Herbology, Herbalism, Botanical Medicine. Retrieved, June 5, 2016.

7. Higher Mind Incense. Plant allies in the dream help. Retrieved. June 5, 2016.

8. Kurian, J.C. 2010. Amazing Healing Plants. Philippine Publishing House. Manila, Phil. (Vol. 1&2) 399 pp.

9. Lemon Balm. Vitality Magazine, 2016. Retrieved. June 5, 2016.

10. Medicinal Plants common to the Philippine Soils, Department of Agriculture (October 31, 2010). Retrieved. June 5, 2016.

11. Nazim, Zahrah. Natural Magic herb and the human body. The Express Tribune, December 9, 2012. Retrieved. June 5, 2016.

12. Professor Pavaki, Herbalist. Retrieved. June 5, 2

13. The healing Herb, the ultimate guide to the curative power of natural medicine. Retrieved, June 5, 2016.

14. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

  • Hippocrates
  • Theorastus
  • Dioscorides
  • Avicenna
  • Galen

10. Acknowledgement

The author wishes to acknowledge and thanks to the author(s) of the references and the owner(s) of images/photos used for making this publication possible, and to for the opportunity.


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