Let’s take a closer look at the brief history of herbalism!

The use of plants as medicines dates as far back as the origin of humankind. Even carnivorous animals are known to consume plants. When ill a Jaguar for example, will eat leaves after grooming as a remedy against furballs. Everyone has seen a dog, or a cat eat grass which they may do to relieve digestive distress or to dislodge parasites.

Since the beginning of humankind people have relied primarily on plants for nourishment. Through trial and error. They discovered that some plants are good for food, that some are poisonous, that some produce bodily changes such as increased perspiration, bowel movements, urination, relief of pain and some are excellent for healing. Over the millennia these observations were passed orally from generation to generation, with each generation adding to and refining the body of knowledge. Every culture the world over has in this manner developed a body of herbal knowledge as part of its traditional background of herbalism.

Herbalists of the past paved the way for today by experimenting with plants, using their intuition, recording their findings, and continuing to spread the herbal word by teaching and sharing their experiences. Each generation of herbalists expanded and built off of those before them, creating a history that is intricate, woven, and thousands of years strong.

The evolutionary path of herbalism arguably stretches back to the time when archaic humans and Neanderthals walked the Earth. Despite the passage of time, there are still many strong threads between ancient herbal practices and those that are practiced today. Shamans throughout different indigenous cultures around the world still heal their people using native herbs. Alchemical herbal preparations are still being practiced, used, and taught through the form of spagyrics, a modern application of old alchemical working methods (Junius, 2007). Schools teaching the ancient practices of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine are now located all over the world.

Herbalism schools and clinical herbalists are still referencing and drawing from ancient texts for formulation advice and perspectives on working with various diseases through the elements of nature. There is not only a reverence for the herbalists of the past but a modern-day application of their work.

By studying herbalism and walking the path of an herbalist (in whatever way that manifests for you), know that you are actively preserving the roots of an ancient tradition while paving the way for herbalists of tomorrow.

New Stone Age 8000 to 5000 BC Europe

In this time, it has been shown the gathering of herbs and plant matter did take place. The lake dwellers cultivated and gathered over 200 different plant species unknowingly oblivious to their relevance to herbalism. In later years the majority of gatherers in this time frame were women who sought to the nutritional needs of the family, as well as to the ailments and health. Many rituals, magic rites and beliefs used herbals and other plant matter, and this was very evident right up to the time of the Egyptians in 2500 BC.


The first written record of herbs used as medicine was made over 5000 years ago by the Sumerians. in ancient Mesopotamia, present day Iraq, Sumerian prescriptions for healing using herbs such as caraway and thyme have been found by archaeologists on tablets made of clay. At about the same time, but perhaps even earlier, herbal traditions were being developed in China and India.

The roots of Chinese medicine which is based largely on herbalism also date back approximately 5000 years. The Chinese Emperor Chi’en Nung put together a book of medicinal plants called Pen Tsao. It contains over 300 herbs including ma huang or Chinese ephedra which is still widely used today and is the herb from which the western scientists have derived the drug ephedrine.


Menes was the founder of the first dynasty and united upper and lower Egypt around 300 BC. In this time the secret book of the heart tells of three different kinds of healers, the physician, the priest, and the sorcerer. The most complete medical document that exists is the papyrus 1550 BC and the Edward Edwin Smith papyrus 1600 BC. However, the Kahun medical papyrus was the oldest that was translated. It comes from 1900 BC and deals with the health of women including birthing instructions. Thereafter the Babylonian and Syrian medicine formed a bridge between Egypt and Greece and flourished between 1000 and 2000 BC.


The roots of Indian medicine were set forth in the sacred writings called the Vedas, which date back as far as the 2nd century BC. The Indian system of medicine was called the Ayurveda (Science of Life). The Indian Materia medica, or list of herbs used as medicines, was quite extensive. As early as the 1800 BC one Indian writer knew 500 medicinal plants and another knew 760, all indigenous plants to India. Indian herbalism or Ayurveda is still practiced today, and many authentic traditional formulations are available outside India.

Greeks and Romans
The Greeks and Romans derived much of their herbal knowledge from these early civilizations. Ancient Greece was greatly influenced by Babylonian or Mesopotamia, Egypt, and somewhat by Greek physician Hippocrates C46O-377 BC, who is often referred to as “The Father of Medicine” was an herbalist. He is accredited with having written “Let your food be your medicine and your medicines your food

Middle Ages, Europe, and America

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. When the Europeans came to America, they discovered that the Native Americans had extensive knowledge of the herbs which grew on their continent. The healing traditions of the Native Americans like that of many early cultures, was based on the belief in an unseen spirit world. This type of tradition is referred to as shamanism. A priest, or shaman, who was believed to have unique influence in the spirit world, used magic along with the 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 North Americans about their beneficial herbs.

The natives in Central and South America also had extensive knowledge of herbs indigenous to their area. We have many herbs available to us because of their traditions, including the Claw also known as the Una de Gato. This herb from the Peruvian rain forest has become very popular in the United States as an immune stimulant.

Africa, Australia, and the South Pacific

On every part of the globe where humans have lived, there have been developments of a body of herbal knowledge. From Native Africans we discovered the herb Pygeum (Prunus Africana,) which has proven to be beneficial for the prostate gland. From the Australian Aborigines we discovered Oil from the leaves of the Melaleuca Tree, which was used by British soldiers during World War Two 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 and Kava Kava, which helps promote relaxation without dulling the senses.

And last, but not least is The South African Tradition of folklore, Boereraad and Muti’s, which has been depended on for hundreds of years, although precise records are not always a strong point. The history dates to the natives of South Africa, such as the Khoi San people, Nguni, and the Sotho people, who passed on medical systems by word of mouth from generation to generation. South Africa has well over 30,000 species of which approximately 3000 are used for medicinal purposes and about 350 that are commonly traded and used.

The South African tradition

Southern Africa has well over 30,000 species of plants, of which approximately 3000 species are used as medicines. The estimated 200,000 indigenous traditional healers of South Africa keep the tradition of herbal remedies alive as an adaptive and dynamic system.

The impact of this tradition brings the authors of ‘Medicinal Plants of South Africa” to the conclusion that “traditional medicines will survive well into the next century, strengthened by modern medicine, not subsumed by it.

The earliest records of use of the medicinal plant’s dates from 1649 when 15 sailors were placed in the care of the Khoi San people and healed from their boils within two weeks. Gunn and Codd in botanical explorations of South Africa also tell the story of how herbalists since the time of Jan Van Riebeeck -1652, cultivated and used herbal plants. It is very difficult to know how herbalism was practiced throughout the ages since not much was documented. All we have today are oral tales and many recipes for herbal preparations. One such tale is that of Professor Douw Steyn who worked at Onderstepoort for 20 years and spent much of his time in collecting of herbal stories of healing. He tells how he for instance tested “Maagbossie” (Vernonia Kraussis) for stomach ailments; “Elandsboontjie” for boils and “Gifappeltjie” (solanum incanun) for ringworm and found them very effective. The ringworm remedy he had learned from a Zulu Medicine man who treated cattle with these poisonous apples.

Other folk medicine that are receiving pharmacological attention today include the treatment of diabetes with the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharantus roseas) and Sutherlandia frutescens. Medical treatments using Digitalis for heart conditions was apparently derived from the old lady in England, who had healed her own heart condition by regularly drinking tea from the Digitalis purpurea that she grew in her garden. Much of these folk medicine tales were brought to South Africa with the coming of the Huguenots community in the 16th century.

Common medical herbs especially from the Cape Biome became very popular. The long list includes trees and shrubs such as the Baobab (kremetart) or Adansonia digitata, for fever and diarrhea. Buchu (Agatosma betulina) for stomach complaints. Aloe ferox as a laxative, African Wormwood for de-worming, Agtdaegeneesbos (Lobostemon fruticosis) used for ringworm and skin wounds. Aster bakernus (phoa in Sotho) for headaches, African potato (Hypoxis hemerocallidae) for bladder disorders and insanity. Sutherlandia (Kankerbos) or better known as Cancer Bush for cancer and stomach problems, kougoed (suurvy, perdevy or vyerank) (Carpobrotus edulis) for infections of the mouth and throat as well as eczema, and (Withani somnifera) (geneesblaar bossie or Winter Cherry) for open cuts, wounds abscesses, rheumatism, and syphilis and Devil’s claw or Duiwelklou (Harpagophytum procumbens) for rheumatism and arthritis.

Chinese Traditions

Chinese medicine is a kind of traditional treatment method and philosophy of physical balance in China. It has a long history of more than a thousand years, still important and has even spread around the world.

How did traditional Chinese medicine begin?

The history of Chinese medicine begins about the second century BC because there are no clear records of medical techniques that are older than that. There exists written descriptions about disease from the Shang Dynasty era (1600-1046 BC), but there isn’t a record of their medical techniques.

The first clear medical treatise is the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon. In the text, the use of moxibustion or acupuncture to manipulate the Yin and Yang are described in ways similar to that practiced nowadays. This and later texts covered a variety of techniques based on traditional physical concepts, but now traditional medicine has a secondary role in China compared to Western medicine.

Similar Ancient Medical Practices and Ideas

Could it be that the ancient concepts came from abroad? It is interesting that many similar traditional practices and ideas were believed around Eurasia at about the same time. For example, the traditional Five Phases concept seems similar to the Greek scientific ideas of the Five Elements (Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and Ether) that date from before Socrates and were widely believed by Europeans until modern times. The concept is also similar to the ancient Indian and Buddhist ideas of the Four Elements (earth, water, fire and air).

The idea of Qi was described in the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Cannon. Traditional medicine practitioners actually believe that there are various kinds of Qi. It is thought that various techniques such as acupuncture and cupping can manipulate the various kinds of Qi. Fire cupping also was practiced in the Western world and Egypt long before Christ. The cupping technique was used in the ancient West to manipulate the “humours.” That seems similar to the concept of manipulating the kinds of Qi. But whether East and West shared medical knowledge long ago isn’t known.

The Most Influential Texts

The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon 黄帝内经(Huángdì Nèijīng) has been the most influential treatise for more than 2,000 years. The multi-volume treatise presents views on the function of the human body and the physical world that remain the basic ideas believed by traditional medicine practitioners. Yin and Yang are described, and so are the Five Phases of nature (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) and Qi. It isn’t known how or where these ideas originated.

The Treatise on Cold Injuries 伤寒论 (Shānghán Lùn) and the Bencao Gangmu 本草纲目(Běncǎo Gāngmù) are two other essential books for traditional medicine practitioners. Both deal with drugs and herbs. The Treatise on Cold Injuries is ascribed to Zhang Zhongjing. It was published about the year 220 at the end of the Han Dynasty era (206 BC-220 AD). It is the first known treatise on drug and herbal medicine.

Bencao Gengmu

The Bencao Gengmu is the most important traditional work on herbs and drugs. It was written in the middle of the Ming Dynasty era (1368-1644) by Li Shizhen (1518–1593). He was a doctor and a former official of the Imperial Medical Bureau of the Ming Empire. He realized through studying the dynasty’s collection of rare and old medical texts that the texts had inaccuracies.

The texts were written and republished over thousands of years during which time there were many changes of empires. They contradicted each other. He thought that the medical knowledge of his time was not well defined. He wanted to compile correct information in a logical system of organization. Li Shizhen composed several treatises, but the greatest work is called the Bencao Gangmu本草纲目, (lit.: Herbal Essential Details). This text is usually called Materia Medica in English. The extraordinarily long and detailed tome was considered to be the most exhaustive and detailed text on traditional herbal medicine. He classified and described hundreds of kinds of herbs, medicinal minerals and medicinal animal parts. He included information on geology, physics and other topics. He included a useful very long list of references for research. The Bencao Ganmu is considered the greatest scientific achievement of the Ming era. The treatise shows the state of Chinese medical theory before the introduction of Western medicine in the 1800s.

Central to the Chinese system is the belief that health results from balancing the entire system. Acupuncture is often used in conjunction with herbs to achieve this balance. In Chinese medicine there are some 50 000 herbal formulas, although only about 500 are commonly used. Over 8000 herbs are known to have medicinal properties, but the word herbs are often used for other components of remedies as well such as minerals, clay, bones, animal parts and proteins.
The ancient herbal system is not based on the pharmacological properties of herbs but rather on flavours and temperatures as well as energetic tendencies.

Five flavours

Sour-referring to the properties that can contract, hold back or pull back
Bitter-for properties that clear and dry up
Sweet-for toning, soothing, or harmonizing herbs
Acid/pungent-for herbs that dispenses or promote movement of vital substances.
Salty-any property that is softening or purging
Bland-any property that is draining or promotes urination
Stringent-any property that is contracting and that is stronger than sour

Four temperatures
Cool-any herb that counteracts heat and inflammation
Cold-similar to cool but more extreme
Warm-any herb that works against a cool condition
Hot-more extreme than warm
Ascending-uplifting action
Descending-calming or purging herb
Floating-similar to the same thing but only affects upper parts of the body
Sinking-similar to descending, but effects only lower parts of the body

Materia Medica

This refers to the herbs used in treatment protocols. Many herbs have Chinese names that are unknown in the West such as Xu Duan Zhong, but others have western names as well, such as Hung Qi, known as Astragulas. Chinese herbalism also makes use of medicinal mushrooms with great success.

More on Ayurveda

Our bodies, minds, and spirits are intimately interconnected. When the body is in good health, the mind and spirit thrive. We’ve seen the incredible ways in which practicing Ayurveda has changed lives over the years.

Ayurveda isn’t as esoteric as it might seem at first glance. It’s actually a simple, logical system of health that you can easily incorporate into your day to day life. We’ll be exploring the basics of Ayurveda, demystifying this ancient way of life and bringing it home to the modern world. We want you to live your happiest, healthiest life, and through Ayurveda, you can!

So what is Ayurveda, anyway?

The foundation of personalized medicine is the differentiation into two metabolic types known as:

Vata -they tend to be slender with prominent features, joints and veins and dry cool skin. These people are unpredictable and changeable, moody, enthusiastic, imaginative, and impulsive. They are prone to certain diseases such as anxiety, insomnia, PMS, and Constipation.

Pitta body types-medium build and strength, well-proportioned and usually blonde or red hair with freckles. They tend to be passionate with a quick temper, eat and sleep regularly. Suffer from acne also, hemorrhoids, and stomach ailments.

Kapha body type-they are relaxed people. Solid and strong in appearance, a tendency to be overweight. Slow to anger, oily hair and cool, damp, pale skin. They sleep long and heavily and are prone to high cholesterol, obesity, allergies, and sinus problems.

In the most basic of terms, Ayurveda is an ancient system of health and wellness, developed in India and practiced for thousands upon thousands of years.

The word “Ayurveda” means “the knowledge of life”; “ayur” translates to “life,” and “veda” translates to “knowledge.” Unlike classical western medicine, Ayurveda seeks to help the practitioner achieve optimal wellness through balance and integration, and seeks to treat the root cause of illness, rather than the symptoms.

Ayurvedic philosophy doesn’t separate us from our environment, but celebrates and recognizes the importance of the cycles of the earth, the seasons, and the time of day. It places great importance on hygiene, plant-based medicine, and physical and mental wellness. Health, in Ayurvedic terms, is a state in which your thoughts, emotions, and body are in a state of thriving harmony with each other and with your environment.

The origins of Ayurveda

Ayurveda originated in India, and can be traced back to as early as the 4th century BC; Ayurvedic wisdom was even included in the Vedas, which are the holy scriptures of Hinduism and the oldest surviving Sanskrit literature. Ayurveda has actually undergone very few changes over the centuries — advancements in medicine and science are often in line with what Ayurveda already knows.

How Ayurveda can improve your health?

Ayurveda is all about balance. To start with Ayurveda, it’s important to understand what forces are at work within yourself and the world, and to learn how to bring those back into balance. Ayurveda focuses on streamlining treatment to every single individual, rather than prescribing certain things across the board. Through an Ayurvedic diet, living by an Ayurvedic clock, and developing a custom system of health for yourself, you can become the best you ever.

This is the Indian system of ancient medicinal practice that especially became very influential during the period 800 -BC 1000 AD. It is practiced in India for the past 5000 years and means “Science of Life”. It combines natural Diagnosis is based on observation of the metabolic system. In addition, the tongue is also used for diagnosis along with the eyes, and often urine samples. Cleansing and detoxification play a major role in treatment. Palliation is the process whereby herbs and spiritual balancing is used to restore harmony. This is followed by rejuvenation (Rasayana) where the body is toned to enhance its ability to function optimally. Mental hygiene (Satvajaya) is a method used to improve the mind. The spectrum of diet, exercise, meditation, herbs, massage, sunlight, and breathing is used by the practitioner to enhance overall wellness. Ayurveda is especially successful in treating eye disorders, hepatitis B, cardiovascular disease, and asthma with herbs.

Famous works and authors

Dioscorides the authority in medicinal plants for almost 1400 years.
Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides (c.40 to c.90) was from Anazarbus, a small town near Tarsus in what is now known as southern central Turkey. As a surgeon with the Roman army of Emperor Nero, Dioscorides travelled through Italy, Gaul, Spain, and North America, recording the existence and medicinal value of hundreds of plants. He compiled an extensive listing of medicinal herbs and their virtues in about 70 AD. Originally written in Greek, Dioscorides’ s herbal was later translated into Latin as De Materia Medica. It remained an authority in the medicinal plants for over 1500 years. It’s known as the oldest manuscript of work that houses explicit illustrations of plants and herbs found in that period of time.

Badianus Manuscript an Aztec Herba 1552

The oldest known American herbal “The little book of medicinal herbs of the Indians”
The people of North and South America also used herbal and medicinal remedies. Over thousands of years, the people of the North and South America had accumulated a vast store of knowledge of botanical and medicals knowledge, a fact that surprised many European explorers when they began their conquest on the Americas in the 16th century.

The Aztecs, for example, were expert herbalists in 1552, during the early years of the Spanish rule in Mexico, two Native American students at the College of Santa Cruz, Martinus de la Cruz and Juannes Badianus, compiled a list of herbs that have been used as medicines for centuries by the Aztecs. Martinus wrote, and probably illustrated the original Aztec text, and Badianus translated the work into Latin. Today their work, Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis which is Latin for “The little book of the medicinal herb of the Indians. Badianus Manuscript is housed in the Vatican library. It’s known as the oldest American Herbals

Herball, Generall Historie of Plants by John Gerard 1597

Contact with the Native Americans and their strange, unique American plants prompted an expansion of European herbals. While the Spanish were the first to introduce American plants to Europe, explorers from other countries soon followed. In 1597, Englishman John Gerard incorporated New World plants in his Herball, or Generall Historie of plants. Gerard was a Superintendent of the gardens of William Cecil, advisor to Queen Elizabeth. Gerald was one of the most respected plant experts of his time, but, strangely, he was not the primary author of the famous herbal that bears his name. Except for the additions of several plants from his own garden and from North America, Gerald’s herbal is simply an English translation of the Dutch scholar Rombert Dodoen’s highly popular herbal of 1554.

The English Physician by Nicholas Culpeper 1652
One of the most influential writings in the history of herbalism was Nicholas Culpepper. Culpepper popularized astrological herbalism, or what he called astro-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs. In his most famous works, The English Physician (1652), Culpeper’s description of herbs and their uses are tightly intertwined with the readings of the stars and the planets.
Culpepper was a Puritan and a parliamentarian at the time when most of the colleagues of surgeons we’re Anglican royalists. This in part accounts for his rejection by the college, and it might also explain his tremendous popularity with a new English Puritans. Over 40 editions of Culpepper’s The English Physician had been printed since its original publication.


As we stand today, we are in the throws of fighting for the survival of Natural Medicines and it is my belief that as long as we are diligent, and adhered to good manufacturing practices, training and development, we will ensure that we will survive. By aligning with industries that are as passionate about supporting humanities free world choices of variety of modalities, we will ensure that natural medicines remain the easiest in availability and affordability too.

Herbalism today

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 specific tests and many have proven to possess remarkable curative powers. This is one reason for the renewed interest in herbalism that we are seeing and experiencing 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 only in our region, for now we have access to plants from all around the world.

Modern herbal practice

The use of the word herb needs clarification since it is not being employed as a botanical term. According to the Atha, the simplest definition of the herb is that it is a plant that has medicinal use for people separated from its existence as a plant growing in the garden or in the wild. This includes a wide variety such as shrubs, flowers, and trees.

Although folk medicine is normally based on the use of herbal teas that can easily be prepared by steeping plants in boiling water, herbal remedies are nowadays manufactured according to standardized laboratory practices.

It cannot be assumed that if, for instance, the leaves have medicinal properties, it will also apply to the roots. The active ingredients in these different parts of the plants are quite different, one part may be very toxic and another beneficial for human usage. The whole plant is rarely used in medicine. Herbalists will know exactly which part to use in preparing herbal remedies. Parts of the plant that contain alkaloids, a poisonous chemical compound, should not be used.

Whether roots or barks are used it may often lead to destruction of the plant as it is often removed. In many instances the outer root bark is used, rather than the inner woody part. The frequent medicinal use of bark is attributed to the high concentration of active ingredients in the bark. It is possible, fortunately, to harvest bark in a sustainable way without destroying the tree. Leaves and twigs are rarely separated for medicinal use and the vigorous growth from the young tips are preferred. Irrespective of the part of the plant used, it should be preferably used in conjunction with complementary plants in the vein of synergism.

Table of plant parts used for medicinal purposes:

• the roots or radix linked to the plant with reference to the botanical name, for instance your Urtica radix = roots of Urtica dioicia (Stinging Nettle) and Harpagophyti radix =the roots of Harpagophytum procumbens -Devil’s Claw)

• Herbalists sometimes make use of the Latin designation of the part used. So, for instance, Populi cortex refers to the bulk of the Populus, folium refers to the leaves, herba refers to the aerial plants above the ground, aetheroleum to the essential oils. Radix cum herba refers to the roots as well as the leaves

• The rhizome or woody stem such as the Zingiber officinale or ginger
• The bulbs such as the Allium sativum or garlic
• The tuber or fleshy structure that is part of the stem and part of the root such as that of the Hypoxis tuber or Afrika-aartappel
• the bark or cortex such as that of Warburgia salutaris or pepperbark
• Wood or lignum that include Santalum album or sandalwood
• the leaf of which there are numerous examples such as Ginkgo biloba or Maidenhair Tree
• the herba or aerial parts of which Hypericum perforatum or St. John’s Wort is a good example
• Stigma such as saffron
• the flos or flowers such as the Matricaria recutita or chamomile and hibiscus as good examples
• fractus or fruit such as the pimpinella anisum (anis) or Silybum marianum or Milk Thistel
• Seed or semen such as the Ricinus communis or Castor Oil, Trigonella foenum-graecum or fenugreek
• gummi or gum such as Aloe Vera
• resina or resins such as the Tolu balsam
• oleum or fatty oils such as Castor oil
• aetheroleum or essential oils such as peppermint oil (mentha x piperita)

What does the future hold ?

Some are afraid that an increased interest in herbs will be dangerous for an already overly exploited environment. It is true that a few herbs, such as the Ginseng and the Golden Seal Root, have over the years become dangerously over harvested. But in most cases the opposite is proving to be the case. The people in less industrialized regions, such as those in central and South America, are finding that it is often more profitable to conserve the rain forest for the harvesting of herbs than it is to slash and burn them for agricultural use. For example, thanks to the large demand of the Peruvian rain forest herb Una de Gato, the Peruvian government have taken steps to conserve their rain forests. Many other cultures are likewise discovering that there is great economic potential in protecting their rain forest for responsible harvesting of its herbal treasures. The future of herbalism does look good as long as we keep in mind and keep considering that sustainable harvesting is the key to herbal longevity.