Herbalism Through The Centuries

The history of herbalism establishes that herbs have been around a very long time and that they are intrinsic to humans and animals. Let’s go back in time say, 60,000 years ago, and take a look at the human species and what we know of our early way of life. We know that Paleolithic humans were hunters and gatherers; agriculture was still far off into the future. It is believed that their diets consisted of wild game, insects, leafy greens, grasses, nuts, and fruits. The improvement of stone tools would have contributed to a new way of life and a more diverse diet. There are current hypotheses that suggest that Paleolithic humans may have eaten a diet consisting mainly of vegetables which would be in contrast to some popular beliefs about their having eaten mostly meat. Of course, the diets of prehistoric humans would have varied considerably depending on the regions in which they lived.


There is also archaeological evidence suggesting that humans were using medicinal plants in the Paleolithic Era. This makes perfect sense! Imagine that as a Paleolithic human your life literally depended on your immediate environment and a very keen sense of awareness. You and your fellow humans would have learned to recognize how different plants could be used to treat specific illnesses. Indeed, we also know that animals seek out and ingest plants with medicinal properties.

The First Written Sign of Herbalism

The first written record of medicinal plants was created on clay tablets over 5000 years ago by the Sumerians, in ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq). Around 1500 BCE the Ancient Egyptians wrote the Ebers Papyrus which listed over 850 herbal medicines. This compilation includes many herbs that we recognize and use today.

From “Ancient Egyptian Medicine” on http://www.crystalinks.com/egyptmedicine.html

    • Acacia (Acacia nilotica) – vermifuge, eases diarrhea and internal bleeding, also used to treat skin diseases.
    • Aloe vera –  worms, relieves headaches, soothes chest pain, ulcers and for skin diseases and allergies.
    • Basil (Ocimum basillicum) – excellent for heart
    • Balsam apple (Malus sylvestris) or Apple of Jerusalem – laxative, skin allergies, soothes headaches, gums and teeth, for asthma, liver stimulant, weak digestion.
    • Bayberry (Myrica cerefera) – stops diarrhea, soothes ulcers, shrinks hemorrhoids, repels flies.
    • Belladonna – pain reliever; camphor tree-reduces fevers, soothes gums, soothes epilepsy.
    • Caraway (Carum carvi; Umbelliferae) – soothes flatulence, digestive, breath freshener.
    • Cardamom (Eletarria cardamomum; Zingiberacae) – Used as spice in foods, digestive, soothes flatulence.
    • Colchicum (Citrullus colocynthis) – also known as “Meadow Saffron”, soothes rheumatism, reduces swelling.
    • Common Junniper tree (Juniperis phonecia; Juniperis drupacea) – digestive, soothes chest pains, soothes stomach cramps.
    • Cubeb pepper (Piper cubeba; Piperaceae)- urinary tract infections, larynx, and throat infections, gum ulcers and infections, soothes headaches.
    • Dill (Anethum graveolens) – soothes flatulence, relieves dyspepsia, laxative and diuretic properties.
    • Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) – respiratory disorders, cleanses the stomach, calms the liver, soothes pancreas, reduces swelling.
    • Frankincense (Boswelia carterii) – throat and larynx infections, stops bleeding, cuts phlegm, asthma, stops vomiting.
    • Garlic (Allium sativa) – gives vitality, soothes flatulence and aids digestion, mild laxative, shrinks hemorrhoids, rids body of “spirits” (note, during the building of the Pyramids, the workers were given garlic daily to give them the vitality and strength to carry on and perform well).
    • Henna (Lawsonia inermis) – astringent, stop diarrhea, close open wounds (and used as a dye).
    • Honey – was widely used, a natural antibiotic and used to dress wounds and a base for healing ungaunts, as was castor oil, coriander, beer and other foods.
    • Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) – mild laxative, expels phlegm, soothes liver, pancreas and chest and respiratory problems.
    • Mustard (Sinapis alba)- induces vomiting, relieves chest pains.
    • Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) – stops diarrhea, relieves headaches, soothes gums, toothaches and backaches.
    • Onion (Allium cepa) – diuretic, induces perspiration, prevents colds, soothes sciatica, relieves pains and other cardiovascular problems.
    • Parsley (Apium petroselinum) – diuretic.
    • Mint (Mentha piperita) – soothes flatulence, aids digestion, stops vomiting, breath freshener.
    • Sandalwood (Santallum Album) – aids digestion, stops diarrhea, soothes headaches and gout (used, of course in incense).
    • Sesame (Sesamum indicum) – soothes asthma.
    • Tamarind (Tamarindus indica) – laxative.
    • Thyme (Thymus/Thimbra) – pain reliever.
    • Tumeric (Curcumae longa) – close open wounds (also was used to dye skin and cloth).
    • Poppy (Papaver somniferum) – relieves insomnia, relieves headaches, anesthetic, soothes respiratory problems, deadens pain. (“Ancient Egyptian Medicine,” n.d.).

Herbal Traditions Developing

At this time, or perhaps earlier, herbal traditions were developing in China and other parts of the world. The Chinese Emperor, Chi’en Nung, wrote the book Pen Tsao which listed over 365 remedies.

Nicholas Culpeper

Nicholas Culpeper

Hippocrates (460-377 BCE), the famous Greek physician who believed that the body naturally became diseased and that this disease was not caused by superstitions or by gods, spent 20 years in prison for opposing the authority figures of his day. While in prison he wrote, The Complicated Body, which included many medical theories that we hold true today. He is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Medicine.” Doctors today still take the Hippocratic Oath upon completion of their medical degrees.

Hippocrates used many herbal remedies in his practice and wrote the famous words “let your foods be your medicines, and your medicines your food.” In his writings, he preserved the medical practices of the Greeks and Romans. He incidentally wrote about the medicinal properties of willow bark and how it could be used for fevers and pain. During the 1800’s, scientists began synthesizing active compounds from willow to make aspirin.

During the Middle Ages, the Benedictine monasteries were a place for medicinal studies and where many herbs were grown, studied and employed in medical treatments. It was in these monasteries that the ancient Greco-Roman and Arabic writings on medicine were translated.

The Herbalism Boom

The great age of herbalism was between the 15th and 17th centuries. Herbal books were just becoming available in English rather than in Latin or Greek. The first anonymous herbal book to be published in English was Grete Herball of 1526.

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) was an herbalist, botanist, physician, and astrologer. He published a most extensive herbal on pharmaceuticals, herbal knowledge, and the practice of astrological medicine. Culpeper spent a great amount of time outdoors and cataloged hundreds of medicinal herbs. He was the people’s herbalist as he sought to bring medicine to the poor and to make medical information available to all, even as he was being scorned by his peers and colleagues in the medical community.

In the latter half of the 19th century, a group of physicians known as the Eclectics (from the Greek word eklego, which means “to choose from”) combined botanical medicines with other substances and therapies to treat their patients. They integrated and employed many forms of treatment that were more innovative and inclusive than the conventional medical treatments of the day such as purging, bloodletting, and the use of mercury-based medicines.

In the USA, this movement flourished in the later part of the 19th century until the formation of the Council on Medical Education (CME) by the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1904. The AMA determined to standardize medical education set very specific standards of operation that were not met by many medical teaching facilities. Schools that could not meet their standards were shut down. Between 1910 and 1935, more than half of all American medical schools merged with large universities or closed. Homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic, osteopathic medicine, and Eclectic medicine were strong competition to allopathic medicine. Schools offering training in any of these disciplines were forced to drop these courses from their curricula or lose their accreditation.


Herbalism Today

Who knows where we would be today if these medical schools had all been allowed to continue? There are of course very good reasons to regulate and raise standards of expectations for learning facilities, but there is also something to be said for tolerance and support for different belief systems. Things have changed and accepted schools of medicine include Osteopathic Schools (DO; Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine), as well as traditional Medical Schools (MD; Doctor of Medicine). Nurse Practitioners are now able to practice as primary care providers in many states.

Happily, herbalism is once again gaining in popularity and being recognized and accepted in our expanding medical environment. This resurgence can be seen throughout our culture. New, wonderful books are being authored by herbalists that bring learning right into people’s hands. Herbal remedies are becoming common place in many grocery stores. And there are now many herbal schools offering education to budding herbalists.

The Herbal Academy is one of those very schools offering high quality, affordable herbal education online with the hope of bringing an herbal education to as many people as possible and helping passionate folks follow their dreams of becoming an herbalist. Also available is membership to a virtual Herbarium providing high quality research and reference materials to both herbalists and students.

Please visit our course page to learn about all of our offerings: https://theherbalacademy.com/courses-classes/ 

Read more about herbalism and its fascinating history on the Academy blog:

Now that you have learned about the history of herbalism, try out this fun little history quiz to test your knowledge!


Ancient Egyptian Medicine. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.crystalinks.com/egyptmedicine.html