An Introduction to Herbs

Every since the beginning of civilization, man has used what was available to him. Long before the big pharmaceuticals came into being, many would go into the forest or meadowlands and pick herbs and find roots that were beneficial to him. Much of history is based around herbs and their medicinal value. In nature, for every synthesized medicine there is, there is a natural cure. It is said that with the depletion of the Amazon rain forest, hundreds of natural cures will be lost to man forever. In this article, we will look at various herbs, their place in history, and some of their many uses.

The History Of Herbs

History is rich with stories and fable about herbs. They have been used for cooking and healing for centuries. The first recorded systems of medicine in the world today are from China, India and ancient Egypt. Chinese medicine has survived into modern times, and is viewed as the most complete and effective herbal systems that exist to this day. The oldest of the Chinese pharmacopoeias is Pen-ts'ao (Herbal).

The documents are said to be written by the Emperor Shen-nung who allegedly lived from 3737 to 2697 BCE. Legend has it that the Emperor had a transparent stomach and could watch the inner workings of his internal organs. Although this stretches the imagination a bit, Pen-ts'ao records 365 medical preparations, with all but 51 being herbal.

The Indian medical system, known as Ayurveda, or "science of life" has been taught for thousands of years. History has it that this discipline came from the realm of gods. Through the years, it spread throughout India until well into the sixteenth century. Then, due to invasions of the land, the discipline lost a lot of its value. The practice of Ayurveda continues today. In the Rigveda, over 1,000 medicinal plants are listed. This ancient Hindu scripture also lists a group of sages who had extraordinary powers to heal.

The ancient Egyptians were developing their own kind of medicine based on herbology at about the same time as the Chinese. Their traditions included magic, powerful spells and prayers. Much of the history of the ancient Egyptians was oral, but there are a select group of papyrus documents that have survived to this day. Dated between 2000 and 1000 BCE, they list a lot of the passed down information of an older era. Although these papyrus scriptures are rich in medical lore, the focus of the Egyptians was on a high art of embalming. The bodies of important people were preserved by cleansing the interior of the abdomen, and rinsing it with fragrant spices, including cumin, anise, marjoram, cassia and cinnamon.

Ancient Horticulture

Persian pleasure gardens give us the word paradise.
The existence of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon has been confirmed. These gardens dictated how they were to be planted and how they would look in the East and West for over a thousand years. When Alexander the Great conquered Persia, the concept of neat, orderly gardens spread to Greece and throughout the Hellenistic world. Theophrastus, considered the father of botany, wrote A History of Plants, and lists over 450 plants and their classifications. From there it spread to Rome. The Romans developed the idea of a formal courtyard, complete with gardens and fountains. They developed elaborate topiary, and followed the traditions of ancient Egypt and the Persians.

The Age of Herbs

The Crusaders are said to have introduced the Middle Ages to herbs and spices. The Crusaders traveled over much of Europe and the Orient, bringing spices and herbs back with them. Much has been written about food in the Middle Ages, and the introduction of spices made food almost fit to eat. The methods of preservation and storage were unreliable at best, and beef butchered in October was not served until spring. The application of pepper, cinnamon, ginger and cardamom made the most unpalatable meat better tasting by camouflaging bad odors and taste.

Herbs In The New World

The colonists brought much of their herbs with them to America. They planted kitchen gardens. A method that survives today is the use of companion plants in a garden to repel insects. The colonists grew many herbs in their gardens, using them for everything from cooking to the dyeing of clothing.

The Decline of Herbal Medicine

Orthodox medicine did much to bring about the decline of the use of herbs. Today, the use of synthetics in pharmacology is rampant. It has only been in the past few decades that a real interest in herbs and herbal medicine has been reborn. Scientists are finding today that a lot of the old remedies have merit. Story after story comes to us about miracle cures using herbs. The people of old knew that. We re-learn it now.

Alden Smith is an award winning author and regular contributor to He writes on a variety of subjects and excels in research