History of Plant Medicine

Gentle healing methods with plant-based medicines, so-called “phytopharmaceuticals”, were used as early as 6,000 BC. used. Whether in China, Persia or Egypt, with the Incas, Greeks or Romans – all major world empires cultivated medicinal plants for medicinal purposes. The knowledge of their effect was and is handed down orally or in writing and is constantly being expanded by new findings.

Holistic healing in China

The “Middle Kingdom” looks back on thousands of years of holistic medicine – Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In addition to the most well-known practices such as  acupuncturecupping  and Qi Gong, over 2,800 healing substances are known in Chinese pharmaceutics. Many of these have similar uses in the western hemisphere, such as angelica, plantain, cinnamon, and rhubarb root.

According to Chinese medicine, these  medicinal herbs have  a very specific effect on the “functional circuits”,   sometimes strengthening, sometimes calming and balancing , depending on taste and temperature. In India, too, Ayurveda used plant substances to regulate imbalanced elements and  fluids  in the body and mind.

In the land of the pharaohs

The ancient Egyptians used all kinds of potions, tinctures, ointments, drops and baths made from animal and vegetable additives as early as 3,000 years ago. Which medicine helps with which illness was recorded in “Medical Papyri”. For example, centaury was used for gynecological complaints, frankincense for disinfection and mandrake as an anesthetic and  sleeping pill . An enema with a decoction of myrrh, frankincense, lemongrass, celery, coriander, oil and  salt  was considered a cure for  hemorrhoids .

Medicine in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Some of these recipes later made their way to Greece and Rome and thus to Europe. Here it was initially believed that the effects of plants were a gift from the gods. Aristotle alone described 550 plant species and the Roman military doctor Dioskorides also examined the effects of 600 plants.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, however, the treasure of botanical knowledge fell into oblivion. Only in the 8th century AD did the Benedictines begin to collect the traditions. In the Middle Ages, it was primarily the monasteries that guarded the healing secrets of herbs and plants.

From alchemy to pharmacy

Although the physician Claudius Galenus (AD 200) is considered the founder of modern pharmacology, it is thanks to the physician and alchemist Philippus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim (1493 -1541), known as  Paracelsus , that simple herbalism became a science. With the help of alchemical practices, he tried to “elicit the soul from the plant”. To do this, he used the art of “separating and connecting”. He divided the raw materials into their individual elements, purified them and put them back together – techniques that are still used today to make modern medicines.

However, Paracelsus also recognized:  “It’s in the dose that a thing isn’t poison”  and that even in large amounts harmless plant extracts can be harmful to health. The scientific approach to medicinal plants and their ingredients, as we understand them today, only found its way into the 19th century.

At that time, people began to isolate the active ingredients using chemical methods. Precise dosing in the form of tablets, drops and ointments became possible and thus also the use of important active ingredients in plants that are poisonous in themselves, such as opium poppy (morphine), deadly nightshade (atropine) or red foxglove (digitoxin).

Lange Tradition

Of the approximately 21,000 medicinal plants worldwide, around 500 are used for general pharmaceutical purposes. Around 40 percent of all medicines are of plant origin or at least have their roots in this tradition. Phytopharmaceuticals therefore have a permanent place in conventional medicine. That does not mean, however, that they are not still being intensively researched today. Most new drugs for the treatment of diseases are discovered in nature, be it in the plant kingdom or in the depths of the sea.


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