Number 43   July - August 2005


By Katarina Eriksson


Herbs have been with us from the beginning of time. Man has used herbs to treat his illnesses for thousands of years. Most of the world?s people still continue to use herbs to the benefit their bodies. People thought that herbs put the body in tune with nature as nature intended. Many scientific studies are being done with modern research following the lead of old folklore and herbal uses to help find new western medicine.

It is believed that herbs have been used since the beginning of life form. Animals have instinctively learned early on to use different plants for their own healing and strengthening. The usage of herbs by humans has been documented in all major ancient civilizations. Earliest herbs were discovered by trial and error. There were bitter experiences that taught people which herbs are toxic and happier experiences that have shown herbs with therapeutic and strengthening properties.


The Middle East is known as the cradle of civilization and many plants we grow as crops today were domesticated in this region. The first written record of herbs used as medicines was made over five thousands years ago by the Sumerians, in ancient Mesopotamia (present day Iraq.) Sumerian prescriptions for healing using herbs such as caraway (Carum carvi) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris) have been found by archeologists on tablets made of clay. At about the same time, and perhaps even earlier, herbal traditions were being developed in China and India. Several herbs are also recorded in the Bible, dating back to at least 1500 BC. The King Ashurbanipal of Nineveh recorded 250 herbs on over a hundred cuneiform marble tablets around 668-626 BC.


Ancient Egyptians were highly skilled with herbs. The Papyus Ebers, an ancient text written in 1500 BC, contains references to more than 700 herbal remedies, including herbs such as aloe, caraway seeds (Carum carvi), poppy (Papaver somniferum), and garlic (Allium). C. 2600 BC, Imhotep, a physician, is credited with building the world?s first large stone building, a step pyramid in Egypt.  He was later deified, and was probably the model for the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius, the god of the medical art. In Homer he is not a divinity, but simply the ?blameless physician?  


The Chinese have practiced herbal use for 5000 years. Fu Si (2852 B.C.), was credited with authorship of the I Ching or Book of Changes, the source of the yin/yang distinction, The Chinese are noted for their knowledge and use of ginseng (Panax ginseng) and ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). Many Chinese believe regular use of this herb prolongs life. There are many herbs and minerals currently used in Chinese herbal medicine, and from these countless formulas are devised for use with patients. There are some standard formulas, but each patient will also be given a unique formula to match his/her unique state of ill health and his/her constitution. Modern day, Chinese traditional medicine (TCM) uses the book, Materia Medica. It contains over 11,000 herbal substances. Herbs in common usage number about 400-500 and are still categorized according to their properties as tonic, medicinal and urgent remedies, and according to their major therapeutic action.


The culture and philosophy of India has had a profound impact on the West over the last several decades. Yoga and the medicinal use called Ayurveda embody concepts of body-mind care, which includes spiritual philosophies that transcend religious orthodoxy. Ayurveda, which translated means "The Science of Life", is similar to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in that it represents a practical application of universal philosophical concepts based on universal life energy, which, in TCM, is called "qi", and in Ayurveda, "prana". Both systems go back over 5000 years with Ayurveda, according to records in ancient Vedic texts, being practiced before 4000 B. C as the oldest. As early as 800 BC one Indian writer knew 500 medicinal plants and another knew 760?all indigenous plants of India. Indian herbalism or Ayurveda is still practiced today, and many authentic, traditional formulations are available outside of India. Some herbs used are, Sandalwood (Santalum album), Neem (Azadirachta indica) and Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)


Hypocrites, "The father of medical literature" as he is called, was so far as we know, the first man to practice medicine as an art. Hypocrites believed and taught that in nature there was strength to cure disease. Often, Hypocrites used diet and herbs as the basis of treatment. Today, every doctor swears to the Hippocratic oath. Here is one of his quotes: "All food is medicine, and the best food is the best medicine? Sunshine and fresh air must be considered as good food. Please do not worry as worrying is not considered to be a good food.? Ancient Greece was greatly influenced by Babylonia (or Mesopotamia), Egypt, and somewhat by India and China. Most of our culinary herbs are from the Mediterranean area, like rosemary, oregano, basil, thymes and olives.


The medical inheritance of ancient Egypt passed to Greece, then to Rome. The Roman Empire used herbal remedies quite extensively. Roman medicine was based on the belief that the world is composed of four elements ? earth, air, fire and water. Each of these has its corresponding humour, linked to the four vital fluids in the body. The four humour ? blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile, influence both health and temperament. In order to restore balance, drastic measures such as bloodletting (to reduce excess blood) and purging (to remove excess black bile) were used. This passed down to the Europeans. Mandrake (Mandragora) herb was used in Roman times as an anesthetic.


During the Middle Ages the knowledge of medicinal plants was furthered by monks in Europe who studied and grew medicinal plants and translated the Arabic works on herbalism. ?The doctrine of Signatures? is a concept that found in many plants gave hints to the use as medicine, such as red sap in a plant is good for the blood. The apothecaries still used Hippocrates? and Aristotle?s writings. As early as AD 800. Medicinal plants were cultivated according to a standardized layout in monasteries in central Europe. Famous herbals (often beautifully illustrated) that brought medicinal plant knowledge to ordinary people were very important, and The Huntington Library has a wonderful collection for some of these. A lot of our knowledge of culinary and medicinal uses comes from these writings.


When the Europeans first came to American, they discovered that Native Americans had extensive knowledge of the herbs that grew on their continent. The healing tradition of the Native Americans, like that of many early cultures, was based on a belief in an unseen spirit world. This type of tradition is referred to as shamanism. A priest, or shaman, who was believed to have a unique influence on the spirit world, used magic along with healing herbs to cure the sick. The European settlers had great respect for the herbal wisdom of the American Indians and relied heavily upon their knowledge. When Lewis and Clark made their famous expedition westward from the Mississippi River, one of their goals was to learn as much as possible from the Native Americans about their beneficial herbs. The native Echinacea or Cone flower (Echinacea purpurea) is thought to be good for the immune system.


The natives in Central and South American also had extensive knowledge of the herbs indigenous to their areas. We have many herbs available to us as a result of their traditions, including Peruvian bark, (Cinchona pubescens) used for malaria and Uña de Gato or Cat's Claw herb (Uncaria tomentosa). This herb from the Peruvian Rain Forest has become very popular in the United States as an immuno-stimulant.


On every part of the globe where humans have lived, there has developed a body of herbal knowledge. From native Africans we discovered the herb Aloe vera (Aloe ferox)

From the Australian Aborigines we discovered Tea Tree oil?from the leaves of the Melaleuca tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), which was used by British soldiers during World War II as an antiseptic for wounds.

From the natives of the South Pacific we discovered Noni (Morinda citrifolia), which has proven to have many health benefits including stimulation of the immune system (immuno-stimulant); and Kava Kava (Piper methysticum), which helps promote relaxation without dulling the senses.


In ancient times, herbalism, like life in general, was mixed with magic and superstition. Today, with our scientific methods we can determine what is superstition and what is fact. Many traditionally used herbs have been put to the scientific test and many have proven to possess remarkable curative powers. This is one reason for the renewed interest in herbalism that we are seeing today. Herbs are often proving to be effective and safe alternatives to dangerous and costly drugs. Today, we truly have the best of both worlds. And we are no longer limited to the herbs that are found in our region, for we now have access to plants from around the world. Please do not self diagnose and self treat with herbs, this possibly would not be a reliable way to be cured; always see a professional doctor before using herbs for medicinal purposes.

Katarina Eriksson, Head Gardener, Perennials and Herbs

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