A Brief History of Herbs: Their Emergence in Western Culture

ABrief History of Herbs: Their Emergence in Western Culture

Herbs have been used for hundreds of thousands of years, and their earliest uses can be traced back to scents, foods, flavorings, medicines, disinfectants and even currency. One of the first cultures that were known to experiment with herbs was the Ancient Egyptians that lived in 3500 B.C. This ancient civilization understood that herbs could play a significant role in treating disease, which was a unique perception since many old civilizations believed that magic was at the root of healing. By 2700 B.C., Chinese dynasties began using herbs in a scientific manner.

In 460 B.C., our friend Hippocrates borrowed the beliefs from earlier cultures and developed a system for diagnosing various illnesses using herbs. At this time, it was believed that sickness was not a supernatural event but a natural one that required the help of herbs instead of magic. Although much progress was made in terms of science and medicine, much was lost with the fall of the Roman Empire. The Middle Ages retracted to many of the original beliefs that earlier cultures had: sickness and disease were supernatural, and herbs should be used in mystic rituals.

During the Renaissance period, trade with other civilizations became more abundant, and with this practice, knowledge surrounding herbs grew. In fact, the New World was discovered as a result of searching for herbs and spices that would provide medicinal purposes. In the 16th and 17th centuries, universities taught botany and herbalism, and psychic gardens were planted on their premises. There was a firmer understanding for the nature of herbs but also much confusion. A single plant may have had many names, and a single name may have been given to many plants.

Also, there was a conflict between herbs and doctors. In 1652, Nicholas Culpeper published a book on natural remedies and how people should rely on these herbs to recover from illness rather than the advice of doctors. Naturally, doctors did not agree with his works. As society moved into the 18th and 19th centuries, people began relying on medicinal cures instead. In some parts of the Western world, herbalism was outlawed unless practiced by a qualified doctor.

Herbs in Other Cultures: A Global Commodity

Herbs get a lot of recognition in Western culture, but they have been prominent in numerous civilizations across the globe. The Chinese have been using herbs for some of the longest periods of time, and they still rely heavily on certain herbal blends to aid in the prevention and treatment of various medical conditions. Native Americans have also used herbs for many centuries and lived longer, healthier lives than the Europeans did before Christopher Columbus arrived. People often believe that Europeans had the edge in terms of health, technology and education, but this wasn’t always the case, and many primitive cultures surpassed the Europeans during the 12th and 18th centuries.

Growing Herbs: An Apothecary for American Pioneers

During the 1800s, it was commonplace for American homes to have their own gardens, equipped with an apothecary section that included a variety of herbs. These herbs were designed to treat a variety of illnesses or unpleasant symptoms as well as to flavor foods, preserve meats, fragrance the home, keep linens fresh and disinfect floors and surfaces. Having these herbs in the garden was a practical choice and an essential feature of pioneer homes.

Herb gardens were generally placed in a corner near the home so that the herbs were readily available as needed. If you’ve ever had your own garden planted near the home, you understand how convenient it is to go outdoors and pick a fresh herb or ripe tomato to use in your cooking. What made this particular time in history especially conducive to growing herbs is that there were many settlers coming to America. They were bringing a variety of herbs with them that were native to their country, and this resulted in the exchange of different plants.

Some of the most abundant herbs during this time included watercress, liverwort, lavender, wild leeks, sorrel, anise and pennyroyal. Today, there are many types of herbs that can be planted in the modern-day garden, but the classification of them differs. You may find that one book mentions 50-something herbs while another lists 70-something. Herbs are broken down into various categories, including the following:

– Culinary Herbs
– Aromatic Herbs
– Ornamental Herbs
– Medicinal Herbs
– Annuals
– Biennials
– Perennials

The 21st Century Shift to Simplicity

During the late 1800s and 1900s, people started relying more on chemical ingredients and less on herbal ones to treat and cure illness. And, rightfully so. In many contexts, chemical ingredients were more effective. Penicillin was used to treat infection, anesthesia was given to surgery patients and an emphasis was placed on sterile environments. With more research in the early 1900s, people were beginning to understand the link between germs and sickness. Improvements in public health and nutrition were being made to reduce the number of lethal outbreaks, and it was working.

Today, we rely on conventional medications to help with just about everything, but this mentality has taken a turn for the worse. Although medicine is a vital part of our lives that allows us to prevent and treat disease, there is a price to pay for our dependence on these drugs.

Mounting Problems from Conventional Medications

Just think about how many articles have been written, television shows made and songs sung about how dependent we are as a nation on medication. We’ve been referred to as Pill Nation, Pill Poppers or Operation Pill Nation. We’ve become so accustomed to treating the symptom, we’re afraid to feel anything. When we only treat the symptom, we don’t uncover the root of the symptom. For instance, you could be living with thyroid disease without knowing because the symptoms of fatigue, constipation and weight gain would be treated with caffeine, laxatives and diet pills.

Emergency rooms have seen a significant spike in the number of patients being brought in for drug interactions. Poison control centers receive numerous calls from people who have overdosed on their medication. Then there are the terrible allergic reactions that children and adults have suffered from conventional medication. The medical community also worries about the growing resistance to antibiotics.

What about America’s drug problem that revolves around pain medications, muscle relaxers and mood enhancers? Many of our youth have spiraled into heroin addictions because of an earlier addiction to pain medication. Why are pain medications such a popular drug for teens? They can be found in the medicine cabinets of parents and grandparents.

Finally, allergies, attention disorders, chronic fatigue and mental illness are conditions that have exploded into modern culture. As the medical experts look for new diagnoses and medications to treat these ailments, the unforeseen nature of these conditions has left us yearning for something simple and natural instead.

While traditional medication is valuable and necessary to our existence, our reliance on it is not.

Modern Life, Modern Problems

Even in the wake of new problems, we can still expect something good to come from them. This is exactly what is happening as we speak. As we hear another story or come face-to-face with a personal experience, we see that conventional medication has its complications, especially when not used correctly. This new way of thinking has led many people to start questioning what other types of prevention and treatment is available. Do you need antibiotics for every sinus infection? Can walking and exercise do more good for the mind than an antidepressant? What herbs are available to treat allergies, fatigue or muscle weakness?

As a result of modern-day problems, there has been a strong preference for using organic and natural products. People have suffered allergic reactions and skin conditions from the chemicals used in body and hair products. We’ve witnessed an obesity problem emerge from poor eating habits from processed and fast foods as well as a sedentary lifestyle complicated by emerging technology. As a result of increased allergies, attention disorders, early puberty in children and certain cancers, people have started to question every product they pick up.

At one time, organic or natural products were not the norm. They were almost unheard of. Yet now, these are the products that consumers are demanding. Even in the midst of a recession, consumers are still willing to spend more on a natural product compared to one stuffed with chemicals. Manufacturers are completely aware of this trend, and more are starting to redesign their labels and rethink their ingredients to fit the more accepted and approved organic profile.

Basically, people want to get back to the basics and depend on natural products before chemically enhanced ones. From makeup to hair products to the foods we eat, everyone is starting to ask, “What’s in this product? Where did it come from? How will it benefit my family?” It’s this mentality that has led us back to our ancestors and their use for herbs.

Herbs in the 21st Century: Do They Have a Place?

Herbs are natural, and while it’s important to know their effects since they too can have negative reactions, they are about as natural as you can get. There are more products being offered to consumers that are herb-based, including soaps, skin products and supplements. Instead of flavoring foods with salt and butter, people are turning to natural herbs like chives, mint and oregano. Herbal teas have also been known to alleviate symptoms like sore throats, stuffy noses and headache. Even the simple sniff of a lemon balm leaf can do wonders for the soul.

We still have a long way to go, but we are headed in the right direction. While herbs certainly won’t cure or prevent everything, they should be used in conjunction with conventional medication. If you consider the benefits to a natural ingredient before jumping to medicine, you can avoid some of the long-term consequences of prolonged chemical exposure.

The bottom line is that the more you understand and appreciate the simplicity and efficacy of herbs, the better you can meet the unique needs of your family while protecting their precious health and wellbeing.

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