Traditional Herbology

The earliest indications of medicinal plant use by humans were found in the Middle East and date back to the Stone Age. Travelers and traders introduced Greek and Roman curative practices to Indian and Chinese practitioners, who blended them with their even older ones. Reintroduced by knights returning from the Crusades, these modified practices energized medieval European medicine and the Unani medicine of the Muslims.

This cross-pollination of ideas and theories between European and Asian cultures regarding medicinal plants helped advance knowledge about plants and somewhat standardize their uses. Books cataloging medicinal plants helped preserve, disseminate and standardize this knowledge.

American Indian

When the early settlers arrived in the United States, there were more than two thousand different tribes of Native Americans. Each tribe had its own system of herbal medicine that was in many ways far superior to the European style of health care practiced by the settlers. The typical tribal medicine man was as well equipped as a modern pharmacy to treat a wide range of medical needs, ranging from the common cold to birth control.

In the Native American tradition, the energy of plants is considered to be connected to “human spirit-beings” and to other living things. The plants have their own spirits and according to early teachings, these spirits chose to become “helpers” to the human spirit-beings. The value of the plants and herb helpers can be used and identified by experience or by asking the plant to “talk to you.” The plants should be asked for permission to be pulled and to be used as a helper for bringing harmony back to the individual, family, clan or tribe. The direction the plant faces or which one you gather is part of the medicine the planet provides.

An understanding of the “Four Directions” is essential to learning the use of natural plants as medicine or remedies.

  • Plants from the East – related to the heart and circulation.
    Special healing properties: stimulating digestion, increasing appetite or as a healing plant for bringing the family together, used as tonics.
    Alfalfa, Bloodroot, Cardinal flower, Curly Dock, Garlic, Ginger, Rhododendron, Wqatercress
  • Plants from the South – related to the outer body, skin, lips, eyes, and hair.
    Special healing properties: stimulate the system for healthy activity, special value for harmony and balance to children and those who need to be children again.
    Balm, Burdock, Indian Tobacco, Mayapple of Mandrake, Plantain, Witch Hazel.
  • Plants of the West – related to reproductive system.
    Special healing properties: cleanses the system, and clears up infections.
    Adler, Balsam Fir, She Balsam, Black Cohosh or Black Snakeroot, Blue Cohosh, Cabbage, Carrot, Chickweed, Joe-pyweed, Licorice, Milk Thistle, Pine, Strawberry.
  • Plants of the North – related to the head, the chest fro breathing and warming the body in the presence of the cold North.
    Special healing properties: balancing our mood and calm the changes with the shifting winds. Slows one down to relax the physical body and mind for balancing or healing.
    Adam and Eve Root, Cedar, Catnip, Fennel, Feverfew, Maidenhair, Mullein, Skullcap, Yellowroot.


The first “herbal guide” dates back five thousand years to the Sumerians, who used herbs such as caraway and thyme for healing. Greek medicine, which was deeply indebted to and influenced by the medical practices of western Asia and Egypt, flourished during the first millennium BC.  The influence of Greek medicine spread waestward, where it dominated Roman medicine. The most important centers for study and treatment were in the eastern Aegean and on the coast of Asia Minor, where the cultures of Greece and Asia met.

Other Notable Events:

  • 1800 BC – the Babylonians, famed for their “Hanging Gardens,” value saffron, coriander, cinnamon and garlic beyond the customary culinary uses for their medicinal properties. In the ancient classic, Epic of Gilgamesh, the importance of herbs is indicated when the legendary hero loses the “mythical plant” of eternal life to a snake.
  • 668-627 BC – The “Gardens of Nineveh” (Assyria) serve as a desert sanctuary of plants collected from all over the then-known world.
  • 521-401 BC – Darius’ famed “Garden of Paradise” (Persia) serves as a symbol for preserving spirituality against secular threats.
  • 500-300 BC – The Golden Age of Greek Medicine. The school at Cos, led by Hippocrates, Praxagoras and Chrysippus, becomes the leading institution for medical learning in the Greco-Roma world. Hippocratic teachings stress taking a rational approach to medicine, combining observation, reasoning, and philosophical assumptions.
  • The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 BC) records between three hundred and five hundred remedies in his writings.
  • 371-287 BC – The naturalist, Theophrastus, considered to be the “Father of Botany,” initiates the classification of medicinal herbal lore with his Inquiry into Plants.
  • 331 BC – A major center for medical study, research, and teaching is established at Alexandria in Egypt. Iw will remain the most important medical center in the Mediterranean until its destruction in the second century AD. Among the many students to study there is Galen of Pergamum.
  • 70 AD – In Rome, Dioscoride formulates his De Materia Medica, which is widely used until the seventeenth century.
  • 130-193 AD – The Roman physician Galen expands on Hippocrites’ principles of the complementary interdependence and the body’s ability to heal itself. His major work on therapy, the Ars Magna, will become the bible for medical practice for centuries, well into the sixteenth century.
  • 512 AD – The Byzantine copy of Codex Vindobonensis, a splendidly illustrated botanical reference created by the physician Krateuas, first appears. It ill serve Europeans well until Leonard Fucks’ naturalistic woodcuts in De Historia Stirpium is published in 1542.
  • 1248 AD – The Muslim Canon of Medicine, by Avicenna, comprises a knowledge-quest for medicinal properties in herbs with the expression of universal and spiritual understanding, according to the Koran. As part of the Divine Creation, plants and their beneficial nature are to be shared and studied by traveling scholars across all cultures.

(Source: Roderick E. McGrew, Encyclopedia of Medical History, 1985).


According to Chinese folklore, the use of botanicals for medicinal purposes began when a farmer in Yunnan province spotted a snake near his garden and beat it with a hoe, leaving it for dead. A few days later, he found the same snake and reapeated the beating, felling assured that this time it was truly dead. When the apparently indestructible snake appeared for a third time, the farmer noted that this time after the beating, the snake slid into a thatch of {san qi” (Panax notoginseng), and began to chew them. By the next morning, the wounds were healing and the snake had recovered some of its vitality. “San qi” is the main ingredient of Yunnan bai yau, a white herbal powder that is known to counteract internal and external bleeding, bonding the edges of wounds and healing torn tissue. Seeing the evidence before him, the farmer learned of the healing power of herbs from the snake.

It is significant that it was a farmer, and not a skilled tradesman or a soldier, who witnessed the snake’s recovery. There is a Chinese saying, “One cannot always draw a line between foods and herbs.” This is because some herbs are so mild in effect and pleasing to the taste that they can be eaten as foods, while some foods also contain healing properties sufficiently powerful enough for them to be used as herbs. Consequently, Chinese physicians often advise patients to eat certain foods and herbs simultaneously for treatment.

Most Chinese historians agree that the Nei Ching, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, written over 2000 years ago, is probably a composite, compiled  and amended by dozens of unknown authors over hundreds of years. It takes its name from Huang-di, the Yellow Emperor, to whom the work is most often incorrectly attributed. this first attempt at codifying Chinese medicine established the principles underlying all aspects of Chinese medicine. Rooted in the same principles found in Taoism, it stresses the oneness of all things in nature, the human body is seen as a microcosm of the universe and operates according to these principles. The Nei Ching became the source for all subsequent works.

Important as it is, the Nei Ching was not the first effort in herbal medicine. Around 3000 BC, the Pen Tsao, another compilation text containing some 1000 herbal formulas, first appeared. The first Chinese work that dealt exclusively with herbs was developed sometime prior to the East Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) and entitled, “The Classic of the Agriculture Emperor’s Materia Medica.” This publication listed 365 herbs, including 252 plants, 67 animals, and 46 minerals that were each divided into three classes based mostly on their toxicity.

The first major Chinese medical work translated into western languages was Dr. Li Shizhen’s Ben Cao Gang Nu, General Outlines and Divisions of Herbal Medicine (it is also known as An Outline of Materia Medica), written during the sixteenth century. A great compendium of remedies that took three decades to compile, it listed 12,000 prescriptions and formulas and analyzed 1074 plant substances, 443, animal substances and 354 mineral substances. He classified all herbs into 16 categories, with a total of 62 subcategories. He broke from the tradition of the three-tiered classification system, and classified herbs by plant, animal and mineral, similar to what modern science does. By comparison, the first Western scientific work on botany, published over 150 years later, contained only 12 pages of classifications. Li’s book is still studied today by traditional Chinese physicians, who compose the majority of practitioners in the country.


The resulting synthesis or Roman and Greek medicine formed a substantial part of the medical inheritance of medieval and early modern Europe. In medieval Europe, ancient herbal remedies passed from generation to generation, but there was no real system of healing. A village “wise woman” was often the most obvious source of information on healing properties of elements found in the immediate environment. The more affluent might seek care from a doctor who would prescribe his own homemade concoction or a prescription from plant or animal parts.

During this same period, the church bore primary responsibility for developing institutions of care. In what became known as “cloister” medicine, monasteries played an important part in the development of western medicine. Although the church emphasized faith healing over other forms of healing, local monks preserved many of the early Greek and Roman medical texts. Many monasteries grow their own herbs and it is believed the monks used them to treat not only their fellow monks but also their parishioners.

Herbal knowledge expanded dramatically during the Crusades, when returning knights brought new ideas and medicines back with them. By the fourteenth century, European culture began leading the world in medical studies and practices. In the fifteenth century, the printing press made information more accessible to the masses. John Gerard published The Herbal or General History of Plants in 1597, one of the first English herbals, which was quickly followed by Nicholas Culpepper’s The English Physician Enlarged, an interesting blend of folklore, astrology and botanical medicine.

Other Notable Events:

  • 812 AD – Charlemagne decrees in his Capitulare de Villis, “Volumus quod in horto omnes herbas haveant, id est …” which translated states: “Physic gardens are suppliers of health and a physician’s friend.
  • 842-845 – Walahfrid Strabo creates his lyrical herbal, “De Cultura Hortorum,” which is dedicated to the magical synthesis of esthetics, fragrance and medicinal properties.
  • 1000 – In England, King Alfred commissions the Leech Book of Bald, Britain’s firs herbal collection of ancient Celtic and Druid traditions. \
  • 1098-1179 – Hildegard von Bingen’s writings, “Physica” and “De Planis,” significantly focuses on her experience in the healing arts. Her work, an blend of mystical Catholicism and folklore, signified the culmination as well as the end of “cloister” medicine. It states, “These healing tool are assigned by God. They will either be curing or cause a person to die, or God will not free the patient from the disease.”
  • 1300-1650 – One-quarter to one-third of Europe’s population is killed by the plague (popularly know as “Black Death.”) Those suspected of using herbal traditions are made scapegoats for this phenomena, banished by their secular male-oriented medicine, defamed and executed.
  • 1530 – The teachings of Paracelsus openly challenge the long-standing unitary theory of disease, which argued that disease arose from malfunctions in the fluid or tissue composition of the body. Paracelsus believed that diseases were entities separate from man and antagonistic to life, that they were the product of external causes, that they affected particular organs. and that they produced anatomical changes in these organs. His ideas will influence Hahnemann and the establishment of Homeopathy.
  • 1542 – With the advent of printing, the “Great Age of Herbals” begins. The naturalist artist, Otto Brunsfeld, publishes his acclaimed botanical illustrations.
  • Physician Leonard Fuchs renders more than 500 woodcuts of educational specimens in De Historia Stirpium. It included “new world arrivals.”
  • 1554The Cruydebook by Rembert Dodoen, a Belgium professor of medicine, becomes popular in many languages.
  • 1597 – John Gerald’s sincere but essentiall erroneous Generall Historie of Plantes is circulated.
  • 1640 – John Parkinson’s produces Theatrum Botanicum, a true classic of herbal literature.
  • 1649 – Nicholas Culpepper makes medicinal information public by translating the Latin Pharmacopoeia into English.
  • 1651 – Culpepper’s English Physician’s Complete Herbal details medicinal properties through signature and astrological reflections which, while much loved by the populous, is attacked by the scientific world.
  • 1673 – The “Chelsea Physics Garden” was dedicated to apothecary research and resulted in the Gardener’s Dictionary, a classic by Philip Miller. It is widely distributed in the English colonies.
  • (Source: Roderick E. McGrew, Encyclopedia of Medical History, 1985).


The Ayurvedic knowledge of medicinal plants was said to have been a gift to the original inhabitants of India by Brahma, the Divine Creator. The core of medicinal knowledge was handed down orally for thousands of years until Charaka, the third member of the triad of legendary Indian physicians, provided the first written text in the Charaka Samhita or Treatise of Charaka.

A remarkable feature of Charaka’s great treatise was its theory of classification, most exacting in its classification of living things born from seeds. These are the plants and trees which became the pharmaceutical laboratory of Ayurvedic medicine. Charaka isolated 350 plants useful to Ayurvedic medicine.

The medicinal plants are divided into fifty groups, divided according to the physiological actions of the medicines that can be extracted from them. These fifty groups cover everything from curatives to preventatives. The treatise is careful to remind readers that plants powerful enough to cure disease are often the exact plants which are most poisonous when used by those who do not understand their properties. The plants described by Charaka present a cross-section of medicinal herbs, shrubs, and trees ranging from diuretics, cardiac tonics, and plant extracts capable of knitting together bone fractures, to plants that increase fertility both in men and women.

Charaka classified botanicals according to the poisonous actions of the plant, season and time of day when the plant’s medicinal effects are the most potent and should be harvested or used: and parts of the plant that should be used and which ones should be avoided.

Latin America

The abundance and variety of herbs found throughout Central and South America have placed them at the center of the healing process fro centuries. They have remained there to this day, though sometimes used differently from their original purposes. Many have become the source of potent modern pharmaceuticals. An excellent example of a plant’s importance and usage changing over time is the bark of the cinchona tree found in Peru. Several centuries ago, Spanish priests discovered the bark had properties that controlled malaria. The bark’s active constituent, quinine, was the most widely prescribed drug against this disease for the last three centuries. But by converting quinine into quinindine, scientist have created a drug to control atrial fibrillation, a type of cardiac arrhythmia.

The region has produced many other useful herbs. Peru also gave the world cocaine, which has been important in medicine despite its negative associations today. Emetime, which is extracted from the ipecac root and used to treat ameb8ic dysentery, comes from Brazil. Curare was originally used by South American jungle tribes to poison their arrow tips, but is now used in anesthesia as a muscle relaxant. Unfortunately, medical science has only begun to tap into the botanical riches of the region and the knowledge of the native medicine men an women. The destruction rate of the jungle accelerates with each passing day, and with its disappearance goes this knowledge.