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.

What is an Herb Anyway?

What is an Herb Anyway?
Herbs are plants that are used in medicine, cuisine and aromatherapy. In the culinary industry, herbs have a more specific meaning and refer to the leafy green parts of the plant. Herbs can be dried or fresh, and they are used to flavor dishes but never act as the main ingredient. Some of the most common herbs include basil, parsley, thyme, dill and rosemary.

When it comes to a broad topic like herbs, you’ll find that there are many definitions that are accepted around the world. Botanists have a more general definition for herbs and describe them as coming from small, seed-bearing plants that have fleshy parts rather than woody ones. Herbs may also include trees, shrubs, vines and annuals as well as ferns, mosses and algae.

It may be easy to tell an herb apart from something like a vegetable. Take spinach for instance. Spinach is green and part of a plant, but you can prepare this food on its own and use it as the main ingredient in a dish. It’s the same case with lettuce; the plant is green and found in the ground, but it acts as the main ingredient. Therefore, both spinach and lettuce are vegetables, not herbs.

Vegetables and herbs have a clear difference, but the lines become blurred when making the distinction between herbs and spices. Since herbs are the green parts of the plants that are used for flavoring dishes, spices are pretty much everything else. Things like roots, berries, twigs and dried bark are all examples of spices. Some of the most common spices include allspice (dried berries), cinnamon (bark) and cloves (dried flower buds).

What are the Uses for Herbs?

Herbs are found all around the world, and some are native to the area while others have been introduced. For people who study herbs, they understand the dynamic nature of these small but intriguing plants. For instance, did you know that there are over 90 varieties of rosemary?

With so many different varieties of herbs, you can imagine that they have many uses in traditional living. Herbs are valued for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal purposes, pesticidal properties, dyes and health qualities. Let’s delve deeper into the various contexts where herbs are used.

Culinary Herbs

One of the most common uses for herbs is to add flavor to dishes. Every American home has some type of dried herbs in their spice cabinet, and they may even have a fresh herb garden in their backyard. Most culinary herbs are perennials or biennials such as thyme, rosemary, basil and parsley.

Culinary herbs have been used for centuries, and they were especially popular during the pioneer days when immigrants were traveling to America and bringing native herbs with them. While herbs have remained a large part of the culinary world, processed, frozen and fast foods have become popular staples for American families because of their convenience. These foods rely on preservatives and sodium to bring flavor, but they also carry little nutrients or health value.

Thankfully, this trend is starting to reverse itself, and there is more appreciation for flavoring fine cuisine with a blend of herbs and spices rather than salt and butter. As we learn more about how these ingredients can contribute to health problems, there is a drive to get back to the basics and start cooking with natural ingredients. Herbs also have many health benefits, so adding them to foods delivers both flavor and a natural health boost.

Medicinal Herbs

Since plants have photochemicals in them, they have the potential to cause various effects on the body. The same goes for herbs; when ingesting them into the body, they have certain effects, many of which are beneficial to the functioning of our bodies. The medicinal purposes for herbs are no secret, and our ancestors used them regularly to treat certain health conditions. The problem was that the information surrounding medicinal herbs was a bit confusing, and quantities, dosages and the types of herbs could be easily confused.

For instance, St. John’s Wart extract in a low, controlled dose can help with depression and stress. Yet if you take the extract in large quantities, it can lead to toxic overload that can result in serious complications for the body. Still, herbs can be a powerful tool in alternative medicine. When used appropriately, herbs can provide the body with antioxidants, aid in digestion, calm upset stomach and anxiety and deliver anti-inflammatory properties. Some of the most common medicinal herbs include chamomile, ginger, milk thistle, peppermint and ginkgo biloba.

Sacred Herbs

Another use for herbs is in a sacred manner. Interestingly, some of our earliest uses for herbs were in sacred rituals, as sickness was often tied to a supernatural occurrence. In countries other than America, herbs are actually quite popular to be used in rites of passage, religious ceremonies and spiritual cleansings. Yet there are many people across our own country who choose to use herbs in their practice of magic to aid in spiritual enhancement, protection and healing.

Before now, you probably didn’t think much about what an herb really was and the many ways it could be used. Herbs are very interesting, and their numerous uses have given them a solid role in our world. Before processed foods and commercial products, our ancestors depended on what the world around them could produce – water, plants, herbs and wild game for example. Today, we are starting to appreciate this simplicity and recognize that sometimes things in their most basic form are the best for our health and survival.