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Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Page

1. Introduction: Medicinal Plants and Their Origins

What are medicinal plants?

Those plants that have healing properties are termed as medicinal plants or herbs. The plant kingdom is divided into several groups, but the botanical classification is beyond the scope of this section. However, medicinal plants can be simply classified as trees, shrubs, woody perennials, annuals and biennials, and climbers. In this page, only the flowering plants are mentioned, with little or no references to fungi, ferns, mosses and algae.

Medical herbalism is the practice of healing with medicinal plants. Modern western treatment is different from medical herbalism, but at some point these two merge. For example, the use of friar's balsam or benzoin tincture for treating colds, the use of aloe vera gel for treating sunburn and bruises and the use of cascara or senna to relieve constipation. The tendency in modern medicine is to use synthetic drugs, that eventually were modelled on compounds obtained mainly from plants. Therefore, whether the plants are used as a whole, or extracts or their synthetics, their discovery originated from the long term practice of medical herbalism by Man.

History of Herbalism

Since the dawn of civilisation, Man utilised plants for their medicinal and edible value. By trial and error, Man distinguished between the beneficial and poisonous plants. Man also observed that in large quantities medicinal and edible plants may be poisonous, and learned about the usefulness of plants by observing animals. Sick animals utilise certain plants that they usually ignore. Today, this method is used by scientists to isolate active compounds from medicinal plants.

Herbalism is thought to have started some 60,000 years ago, where pollen grains of several medicinal plants such as marshmallow (Althaea), yarrow (Achillea), ephedra and muscari were documented at burial sites at Shanidar in Iraq. This confirms the use of medicinal plants by the Neanderthal Man.

The earliest written historical information dates back to 2500 B.C. when Sumarian ideograms described the use of medicinal plants such as the poppy as the "the plant of joy" 1728 to 1686 B.C. in the Code of Hammurabi, the King of Babylon. Plants mentioned include mint, henbane, senna and licorice. It is impossible to determine at what point in time mankind first discovered the medicinal use of specific plants.

With time, more documents were written or drawn and by the sixteenth century B.C. the earliest written records of practices were produced by the Egyptians, who were greatly esteemed in the ancient Mediterranean world. Medicinal plants such as fennel, castor oil, opium, thyme, linseed, aloe and myrrh, were mentioned. Some of the early uses of medicinal plants are still valid today. The first documented healer by name was Imhotep. He was so famous that after his death his stature was elevated to that of a god.

During the Greek Era, knowledge on the use of medicinal plants expanded in such a way that conquered adopted skills and knowledge of various cultures to their own. Also, there was an exchange of information between professionals especially between the three great civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and India. In fact, the uses of several medicinal plants is common in the Mesopotamian, Indian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman documents. Some plants include:

Castor oil that was used as a powerful laxative, one teaspoon to two tablespoons taken in the evening.

Fennel seeds that were used for their carminative, stomachic and other digestive problems, taken steeped with water, or as two drops of seed oil.

Saffron was used as a carminative or to increase the blood flow.

By 400 years B.C., Hippocrates, the father of medicine, tried to weed out the superstitions bound to health and the use of medicinal herbs. As a result, the Hippocratic writings that are anonymous, deal with several medical subjects, taken from a more logical point of view. He also tackled medicinal plants in a more scientific way than ever before.

The Romans were famous for their organised administration. They were attentive to learn and put into practice what they learned. The two most important medical figures of Rome whose contributions remained the uncontested "standard" for botany and medicine were Dioscorides and Galen. By around 50 A.D., Dioscorides described plants in a methodic way including their name, synomyms and picture, habitats, botanical description, drug actions, medicinal uses, harmful side effects, quantity and dosage, instructions on the collection, preparation and storage, adulterants and mode of detection and their veterinary uses. He classified plants on their medicinal action. He compiled works of previous herbalists and botanists in his herbal "De Materia Medica".

Around 130 A.D., Galen traveled with the Roman army, like Dioscorides, and gathered information on several medicinal plants. He was the last and most important physician after Hippocrates.

The Greek and Roman works were translated to the Syrian and Persian languages and the Arabs reintroduced these works in Europe, when they invaded Spain. The Arabs also introduced Chinese and Ayurveda works.

Many plants with medicinal virtues are termed officinalis. The Latin name denotes that the plant is medicinally useful. This term dates back to the early Christian period, when monasteries were utilised as centres for the gathering and writing of information and usage of medicinal herbs.

After the first millenium after Christ, several botanists and herbalists wrote on the usage of medicinal plants. Authors include Hildegarde, Albertus Magnus, Valerius Cordus, Theophrastus, Pier Andrea Mattioli, William Turner Carolus Clusius, Nicholas Culpeper and Friedrich Hoffmann extending from 1098 to 1791. Later the isolation of chemical substances from plants was commenced by Caventou and Pelletier who isolated alkaloids such as caffeine, while Geiger and Hess isolated atropine and other alkaloids dating up to 1850. Later scientists from the mid-nineteenth century to date, isolated most of the chemical constituents that we know of. Some of them are still in use in their natural form, while others are produced more efficiently by chemical synthesis, in industry.

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Last Update: 26th September 2005


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