Medicinal herbs

Herbal medicine, sometimes known as phytotherapy, is based on the cumulative knowledge acquired by herbalists over thousands of years. Many modern drugs originally derived from plants, for example Digitalis purpurea (foxglove), the value of which in medicine has never been completely dismissed, even by orthodox practitioners. Today herbalism is making something of a comeback in its own right.

History and philosophy

The study and use of the medicinal properties of plants is as old as recorded history. A Chinese compendium of 3,000 BC lists about a thousand medicinal herbs then in use, and there is written evidence of the use of herbs in ancient Greek, Egyptian and Roman civilizations. The widespread use of herbalism in medieval Europe can be attributed largely to the work of religious communities. The introduction of printing in the fifteenth century enabled the rapid spread of their knowledge. Several famous herbalists, including the Dutch professor Rembert Dodoens (1518-1585), who wrote the famous ‘Cruydeboeck’ (1554) and Nicholas Culpepper who wrote his ‘Complete Herbal’ in 1653, lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and many of the remedies he noted down are still used. Many plants were then given common names which related to their medicinal effects; for example, heartsease, liverwort, eyebright and spleen-wort. The early practitioners often attached an aura of mysticism to their practice. Culpepper, for example, the best known British herbalist, combined his practice with astrology, magic and folklore. Another theory which many believed, among them the sixteenth-century Swiss-German physician and alchemist, Paracelsus (1493-1541), was the ‘doctrine of signatures’: that disease responded best to treatment with herbs that resembled the appearance of the affected organ. So, for example, plants with heart-shaped leaves were used to treat heart disease. In his work as an alchemist, Paracelsus advocated the use of inorganic remedies in the treatment of illness, making him a forerunner of the modern drug industry which has now almost completely replaced the use of plants and plant extracts with synthetic chemical substances. By the 1950s enthusiasm for ‘wonder drugs’ – antibiotics and various laboratory-produced chemical agents such as the corticosteroids – was at its height. Many people thought that scientists had come up with the answer to disease. Moreover, an inexhaustible supply of different drugs seemed possible simply by combining chemicals. If an old herbal medicine was of particular therapeutic value, then the scientists could now isolate the active component from the plant, analyze it, and synthetically produce vast quantities of the same chemical substance in a pure, easily controllable form. Using the whole plant was considered an obsolete practice, kept going by a few ‘old-fashioned’ herbalists.

Today these herbalists are experiencing a new boom iademand for their services because many people are becoming disillusioned with modern drug therapy, particularly on account of their harmful and sometimes disastrous side-effects.