Herbalism 101: Plants As Medicine

February 11, 2019
Herbs, like those seen here at The Flower Bin in Longmont, have been used as medicine for thousands of years.

Believe it or not, humans have been using plants as medicine for a very long time. The oldest known compilation of medicinal herbs dates back to 3000 B.C. Historians believe this list was probably devised from an even older oral tradition.

Ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Native Americans and others were herbalists. During the Middle Ages, monasteries in Europe perpetuated these traditions by maintaining “physick gardens” and operating as medical schools: exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/herbs/brief-history

The University of Minnesota shares that archeologists have even found remnants of medicinal plants in sites believed to be 60,000 years old. The author of the article states that humans have been performing their own clinical trials for thousands of years: takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-long-have-humans-used-botanicals

There are many routes through which using plants as medicine became mainstream in our society today. One such avenue was through Shamanism. A facet of this spiritual practice is the belief that sensitive individuals intuit a connection between humans and plants. Part of this viewpoint is that each plant contains a “vital spirt” contributing to its overall effect.

However, in the early 1800s, western scientists disagreed with this approach after they successfully isolated morphine from opium. They concluded that since they could isolate this one compound, the rest of the plant was more or less irrelevant. Ultimately, the majority of scientists decided to create their own synthetic compounds and do away with using plants entirely.

In the 1990s, there was a decided tilt towards a more holistic and integrative approach to medicine. According to the World Health Organization, by 2010, global retail sales of botanical dietary supplements reached upwards of $25 billion. And, 75 to 85 percent of the world’s population still continue to use herbal medicine.

The University of Rochester Medical Center shares some of the more common herbs used as medicine. Chamomile is used for relaxation, anxiety, wound healing, and to reduce inflammation. Echinacea is used to treat colds, flu, and infections. Feverfew is used to prevent migraines and treat arthritis. Garlic is used to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and also has antimicrobial effects. Ginger is used for nausea and motion sickness. For the entire list: urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=1&contentid=1169

I am in no way suggesting we self-diagnose, self-treat or perform our own clinical trials. If a substance has the ability to help you, then it also contains the ability to harm you. This is true for plants also. Herbs interact with each other, as well as prescription and over the counter medications. There also is the possibility of an allergic reaction.

I am suggesting that perhaps we do a little of our own research for whatever ails us, then take that information to our health care provider to start a conversation. Here are some additional links to get you started:

• takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/botanical-medicine/10-top-best-selling-botanicals-what-they-do

• nccih.nih.gov/health/herbsataglance.htm

Kelley Rawlsky has an M.S. in horticulture and is the director of Bringing People and Plants Together, an organization dedicated to bringing horticulture education and therapy to the community. For more information: PeopleAndPlantsTogether @gmail.com or follow us on Facebook.

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