An herb is defined as 'a non-woody plant that dies
down to the ground after flowering'. However, the term is more widely used
to describe any plant which is (or has been) used for medical treatment,
nutritional value, food seasoning, and for dyeing substances. Throughout
history, the use of herbs has been primarily for medicinal purposes. There
have been many ways in which man has treated injuries and illnesses, but the
use of plants has consistently been the most popular, as well as being the
basic source of therapeutic products for professional and folk medicine from
the earliest times, right up to the 21st century.
times, men used herbs to treat physical complaints, learning through
instinct and by generations of trial and error. In written history, the
study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years. The Sumerians recorded medicinal
uses for plants such as laurel, caraway and thyme. Dating from around 2700
BC, the first known Chinese herbal (herb book) lists 365 plants and their
medicinal uses. Interestingly, this book included ma-huang, the plant which
introduced the drug ephedrine to modern medicine. In 1000 BC, the Egyptians
used garlic, opium, castor oil, coriander, mint and indigo (among other
plants) for medicine, food and dyes. The Old Testament records the use and
cultivation of mandrake, vetch, caraway, wheat, barley, rye and several
other herbs. Greeks and Romans in ancient times valued plants for various
reasons. They used herbs as medicine, symbols and magic charms, food
seasonings, cosmetics, dyes, room scent and floor coverings. Ancient Greek
and Roman medical practices which are recorded in the works of Hippocrates
and Galen, provided the basics for later western medicine. An important work
of the 4th century was written by Theophrastus. Historia Plantarum
was the Greek book which founded the science of botany. Dioscorides wrote
the first European treatise on the medicinal properties and uses of herbs in
the 1st century AD. His book, De Materia Medica, compiled information
on more than 500 plants, and remained an important reference well into the
During the Middle Ages, the use of herbs changed very
little. Although the Christian church at the time discouraged the formal
practice of medicine, many Greek and Roman records were preserved by monks
who painstakingly hand-copied the manuscripts. As a result, monasteries
became central hubs of medical knowledge, and their herb gardens contained
many plants which the community could use to treat common complaints. Herbs
were also recommended for use by people in villages, herbalists, wise-women,
and a few physicians who practiced openly. In the 11th century, medical
schools were opened in western countries, teaching Galen's system, and
instilling a good knowledge of herbalism in many young people.
importance of herbs continued during the centuries after the Middle Ages.
Hundreds of herbals were published after the advent of printing in the 15th
century. One of the first books ever to be printed was Theophrastus'
Historia Plantarum, followed closely by Dioscorides' De Materia
Medica. The first herbal to be published in English was the anonymous
Grete Herball in 1526. In the 17th century, the use of herbs for
their medicinal properties began to slowly decline. This is generally
attributed to the introduction of active chemical drugs. Herbs did remain
popular for day-to-day use however, providing basic materials for medicine,
dyeing, perfume and for elixirs, pills and other preparations.
modern times, herbal remedies are used by homeopathic therapists,
open-minded medical practitioners, naturopaths, family members who have had
recipes handed down through generations, and other interested individuals.
Traditional European herbal treatments are now found in their original form,
and blended with the native lore of the Americas and eastern countries.