History of Herbalism

In early history and even, in the views of some people, human evolution, many aspects of life such as diet, clothing, and broader cultural development used knowledge of plants, wild fruits, trees, and flora generally.

The use of plants for medicinal purposes was recognised in India over 2000 years ago. There are also ancient Chinese records of use of herbal remedies. The Greek historian 'Pliny the Elder' stated that the Greeks produced both written and pictorial records of herbal treatments as early as the 1st Century BC. The Byzantines (in modern day Turkey) produced similar records in c. 500 AD.

From the Middle Ages (ca 1100-1450) onwards numerous European scholars documented and illustrated a wide variety of plants together with accounts of their medical benefits.

Knowledge of the uses and effects of plants grew rapidly. Awareness of their remedial properties for a variety of health conditions, of their hallucinatory properties, of their soporific and stimulating effects, and so on, encouraged the emergence of professional experts and a widespread interest that has continued to the present day.

During the centuries of global exploration, colonial expansion, increasing trade, and improved communications (C16th - C19th), numerous 'new' plants were added to those known in Europe.

Decline of Use of Herbal Remedies

The dominance of urban / industrial society (especially in Europe and North America) of the last two hundred years, together with increasing knowledge in a range of scientific areas, coincided with a decline in use of some traditional remedies and approaches to well-being, such as herbalism, by some professionals, professional groups and so eventually the media and some of the general population. Increasing availability of the chemical and synthetic products of modern pharmacy from about the 1940s onwards also coincided with reduced interest in and use of herbal remedies in many 'modern' countries, though certainly not everywhere in the world.

For example the availability of 'no-cost' (i.e. paid for by governments via taxation rather than paid for by the individual user) prescriptions for relatively much newer, yet increasingly considered 'conventional', pharmaceutical drugs resulted in reduced use of herbs and herbal products by sections of society for whom it had become more convenient to seek a prescription and instructions for use of the latest 'standard' products instead. Consequently herbal treatments became less popular, that is less widely used. Knowledge about their use as had previously been passed-down through families and households also declined as a result.

Herbal Preparations and Remedies available today

More and more herbal remedies are now available through everyday retail outlets such as dispensing chemists (called 'pharmacies' or 'drugstores' in the North America) and online. This is part of a general trend of increasing interest in, and 'respectability' of, more "natural" approaches to health and wellness. Herbal remedies are increasingly considered to be consistent with respect for and care of the natural world and environment, i.e. "eco-friendly", and a potential source of health care that may be free from some of the undesirable side-effects associated with chemically-produced synthetic products.

For example, it seems that more people are now more reluctant to use antibiotics unless absolutely medically necessary than was the case as recently as the 1970s-80s. This is at least partly due to increasing concern about bacteria developing resistance to the increasing range of antibiotics available, leading to the threat of drug-resistant diseases or at least drug-resistant strains of life-threatening diseases leading to potential widespread health risks in the future. In contrast to antibiotics (for the purposes of this example), herbal treatments and remedies are generally considered to be 'gentler' and are often described in terms of 'supporting immune function' as opposed to killing bacteria directly. When such an approach is sufficient it may preferred by some people - though 'herbal' remedies are not necessarily 'safer'; some plants and some parts of plants are poisonous.

The popularity of herbal products is increasing. It is important to use them safely. Regulation or possible regulation (depending on jurisdiction around the world) of herbal medicines is becoming an important issue for producers, distributor, users and potential users of herbal medicine products. Regulation, where it applies, is likely to be inconvenient for some people but is a predictable consequence of the increasing interest in and popularity of herbal remedies and treatments.

In the News:

Total retail sales of herbal supplements in the USA exceeded $8 Billion in 2017 - 13 Sep '18

Scientists develop new drug treatment for malaria - 16 Aug '10

Proposals for UK regulation of Herbal Medicines, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Acupuncture - 1 Apr '10

Lavadin essential oil to manage anxiety before surgery - 31 Dec '09

Ayurvedic Herbal Garden at American Botanical Council Headquarters in Austin, Texas (USA) - 23 Mar '09

Potential anti-cancer compound developed from Chinese salad plant - 16 Oct '08

Herb Experts Report on Benefits of Canadian Remedy for Cold and Flu Symptoms - 1 Mar '07

Traditional Māori Food Plants High in Cancer-Fighting Anti-Oxidants - 27 Feb '06

Pope St Gregory I (c.540-604 CE) stated that there were nine ranks of angels in Heaven.

Although care has been taken when compiling this page, the information contained might not be completely up to date. Accuracy cannot be guaranteed. This material is copyright. See terms of use.

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