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A millenary tradition

The long history of herbal medicine


Men have always used medical herbs; for example archaeologists have discovered pollens belonging to two kinds of renowned therapeutic plants: milfoil and hollyhock. Primitive men used a lot of different wild officinal plants and aromatic leaves, roots and seeds to flavour their meals. A careful observation of nature and the experience of previous generations had provided them with a very useful knowledge of wild plants. In the burial places dating back the Neolithic, some poppy, angelica and cumin seeds have been found. One of the first written witnesses about the use of herbs is the Pen Ts’ao Ching (attributed to the Chinese Emperor Shen-nung who lived in the III millennium B.C.), where the properties of 366 plants are recorded among which there is ginseng, rhubarb and hemp. This knowledge was widespread towards the West and acquired by Sumerians and Egyptians which integrated and enlarged the previous knowledge as can be assumed by several written documents (clay tablet and papyrus) which have reached us. Most of the medicinal and aromatic plants cultivated in the past in India, Egypt, Mesopotamia, still have a major role in food preparation and in herbal medicine as, among the others, thyme, cumin, laurel, dill and fennel.


The development of trade and cultural relationships among the different civilizations allowed both an intensification of information exchange in the herbal field, and the import of many species from the East which are today part of the Western herbal patrimony. The Greeks had a leading role in passing down the knowledge of aromatic and medicinal herbs to successive generations. The most ancient known Greek herbarium was completed by Diocle of Caristo, a pupil of Aristotle, in the 4th century B.C., but historically, the most remembered person is Hippocrates (460-370 B.C.) who brought medicine out of the superstition sphere to give it the dignity of empiric science. He compiled a list of 400 medical and aromatic herbs among which there was juniper, thyme and garlic. Dioscorides, who lived in the 1st Century A.D., in his main work, “Medical matter”, described around 600 herbs, most of which are still nowadays included in the modern pharmacopeia. From Hippocrates these notions were handed down and resumed in the Roman era by Galen (121 – 180 A.D.), a doctor and a friend of the Emperor Marc Aurelio. The adjective “galenical” comes from his name and means a medical preparation composed of natural organic substances. Galen’s work were fundamental reference texts until the 16th Century, so until the age of Paracelsus (1493-1541), the Swiss doctor and alchemist who can be considered the first modern herbalist and chemist because he systematically studied the therapeutic effects of substances obtained by plants.


Taking into account more relatively modern times (the 17th Century), we need to cite the herbarium of the English chemist Nicolas Culpeper, published in 1652, considered revolutionary because popular and official phytotherapy are declared equivalent by the author. Practically, Nicolas Culpeper combined the knowledge of doctors and chemists to that of housewives which was orally passed and empirically applied. For this reason contemporary doctors defined him an “ignorant”. Same examples of the popular remedies with aromatic and medicinal herbs are: laurel and lemon decoction against indigestion, flax seed soup to cure cough, sage decoction to depurate the liver after an abundant meal. These herbs were also used to prepare and flavour food and to prevent possible problems. So our great-grandmothers used to grow these aromatic herbs – which have accompanied us through millenniums and helped us - in kitchen gardens or on the balconies. Until the beginning of the 20th century the knowledge about officinal and aromatic herbs were handed down orally or in written form but without any continuity. Sometimes, medical and botanical information were mixed up to very ancient popular believes, superstitions and magical-religious traditions; nonetheless men, in the most of the cases, were able to use these herbs daily and with wisdom and good results. It is useful to think that since one century ago herbs were the only “pharmaceutical” source for humanity and that the man has survived the millenniums thanks to the only help of phytotherapy, despite the inevitable mistakes. But things were destined to change .

In the 20th century, with the development of industry and technology, the popular herbal tradition stopped and many recipes were forgotten. For about 50 years (from the ‘20s to the ‘70s) doctors and chemists thought they could do without such “outdated” and approximate herbal remedies. Medical research imposed pills, syrups and intramuscular injections which certainly had a quicker effect than herbal preparations, but having sometimes detrimental side effects. It was the age of synthetic drugs. Things begun to change also in kitchen, and many natural products as herbs were forgotten. Instead of colouring food with red beet juice, chemical dye was used; vanilla stick was replaced by cheap but synthetic vanillin. The culinary art was impoverished, while canned and deep frozen food seemed to easy our lives. “Handmade” became synonym of “primitive” and also not hygienic. Little by little, modern men were losing the contact with nature. Only in the ‘70s people became aware that technological progress brings along a decreasing quality of life. Millions of people were accustomed to a massive consumption of synthetic drugs and bad side effects had to be taken into account; at the same time it was becoming clear that ready-made food contained artificial colouring and additives which were risky for the health. Facing this dangerous perspective, little by little, many have rediscovered the advantages of herbs and, in general, a life more attuned to nature.

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