The Science of Biodiversity and Conservation

   Herbal History


Written records for Chinese herbal medicine date back over 3,500 years. The first known Chinese herb book lists 365 medicinal plants and their uses - including ma-huang, the shrub that introduced the drug ephedrine to modern medicine. One-fifth of the world's population still relies on this healing system for primary care. Chinese doctors treat the whole person by examining his or her medical history, birth constitution, living habits, and home environment. According to the Chinese, most health problems are caused by deficiencies in some system of the body, whether the digestive system or the reproductive system. Chinese doctors help rebalance an individual's entire body by strengthening the system that is weak. The Chinese also use tonic herbs like astragalus, ginseng, and foti to prevent health problems altogether.


This 5,000-year-old philosophy and healing system from India is based on each person's unique constitution, body type, personal habits, emotions, and behaviors. According to this philosophy, each one of us is made up of varying amounts of the elements earth, water, fire, air, and ether that determine our individual constitution. Ayurveda is about balance and inner harmony. Once you have identified your constitutional "type", you can choose the herbs that will balance your entire being: your body, mind and spirit. The fascinating art of ayurveda includes the medicinal powers of culinary spices and herbs that play an important role in creating the flavors of Indian cuisine.

Western Herbalism

This tradition started when prehistoric people learned through trial and error to treat physical complaints with plants. The basis of modern medicine in the West dates back to Greek herbal medicine and its famous doctors like Hippocrates and Galen. While Hippocrates advocated the use of a few simple herbal drugs (along with fresh air, rest, and proper diet) to help the body's own life force in eliminating the problem, Galen believed that direct intervention with large doses of complicated drug mixtures (often accompanied by some magical incantations) was necessary to correct bodily imbalances that caused disease.

The Greek physician Dioscorides compiled the first European treatise on the properties and uses of medicinal plants De Materia Medica in the first century A.D. The compendium of more that 500 plants remained an authoritative reference into the seventeenth century. Similarly important for herbalists and botanists of later centuries was Theophrastus' Historia Plantarum. This book founded the science of botany and was written in the fourth century B.C.

Though the 1400s through the 1600s are officially referred to as the "Golden Age Of Herbalism", the golden age never disappeared in countries like Germany and France. Native American Earth-centered healing has played a key role in the American herbal tradition and has given us such important roots as echinacea.