Herbals and Herbalists

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Herbals and Herbalists

For most of human history, people have relied on herbalism for at least some of their medicinal needs, and this remains true for more than half of the world's population in the twenty-first century. Much of our modern pharmacopeia also has its roots in the historical knowledge of medicinal plants.

What Are Herbs, Herbals, and Herbalists?

To botanists, herbs are plants that die back to the ground after flowering, but more generally, herbs are thought of as plants with medicinal, culinary (especially seasoning), or aromatic uses.

Traditional herbals are compilations of information about medicinal plants, typically including plant names, descriptions, and illustrations, and information on medicinal uses. Herbals have been written for thousands of years and form an important historical record and scientific resource. Many plant medicines listed in older herbals are still used in some form, but some herbals, especially earlier ones, also contain much inaccurate information and plant lore.

Herbalists follow a long tradition in using plants and plant-based medicines for healing purposes. Some gather medicinal plants locally, while others use both local and foreign plant material. Some rely on age-old knowledge and lore, while others also consult the findings of new research.

Herbalism in History

There are herbalist traditions going back centuries or millennia in most parts of the world, and lists of medicinal plants survive from antiquity, such as Shen Nung's Pen Ts'ao (2800 B. C. E.) and the Egyptian Papyrus Ebers (1500 B. C. E.).

European herbal medicine is rooted in the works of classical writers such as Dioscorides, whose De Materia Medica (78 C. E.) formed the basis of herbals in Europe for 1,500 years. Then, as voyages of exploration began to bring new plants from faraway lands, European herbal authors expanded their coverage. This also led to a heightened interest in naming and classifying plants, contributing to the development of botanical science.

Significant European herbals include those by Otto Brunfels (c. 1488-1534), Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566), Pier Andrea Mattioli (1500-1577), and John Gerard (1545-1612), among others. Reports from the New World include the Badianus manuscript (1552), an Aztec herbal by Martín de la Cruz and Juan Badiano, and works by Nicholas Monardes (1493-1588) and John Josselyn (fl. 1630-1675). Herbals were published in Europe into the eighteenth century but declined as modern medicine took new forms.

Herbal Medicine Today

Today, traditional herbalist healers continue to use knowledge passed down for generations. Some ethnobotanists are studying with traditional healers to save such knowledge before it disappears.

Due to a growing interest in alternative medicine, herbalism is also attracting new practitioners, and herbal research is constantly underway. Critics note that dosages can be difficult to control, even among plants of the same species, and side effects can be unpredictable.

A number of essential modern drugs derive from plants, and scientists generally agree that only a fraction of the world's plants have been studied for their medicinal potential. However, threats to the environment, particularly in tropical forests where the highest numbers of species (many still unknown to science) reside, may reduce the possibility of identifying new plant-derived drugs.

see also Ethnobotany; Herbs and Spices; Medicinal Plants; Taxonomy, History of.

Charlotte A. Tancin


Anderson, Frank J. An Illustrated History of the Herbals. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Arber, Agnes. Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution. A Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670, 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, reprinted 1988.

Arvigo, Rosita, Nadine Epstein, Marilyn Yaquinto, and Michael Balick. Sastun: My Apprenticeship with a Maya Healer. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.

Balick, Michael J., and Paul A. Cox. Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany. New York: Scientific American Library, 1996.

Duke, James A. The Green Pharmacy: New Discoveries in Herbal Remedies for Common Diseases and Conditions from the World's Foremost Authority on Healing Herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1997.

Foster, Steven. Herbal Renaissance: Growing, Using, and Understanding Herbs in the Modern World. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 1993.

Schultes, Richard E., and Robert F. Raffauf. The Healing Forest: Medicinal and Toxic Plants of the Northwest Amazonia. Portland, OR: Dioscorides Press, 1990.

Thomson, William A. R., ed. Medicines from the Earth: A Guide to Healing Plants. New York: Alfred van der Marck Eds., 1983.