Excluding the Goddess of Beauty and Love herself, Aphrodite, there is nothing in the world more beautiful than a flower or more essential than a plant. Without the green plants we could neither breathe nor eat: the lower surface of each leaf works with its mobile lobes to absorb carbon dioxide and return oxygen.
In the world, a total of sixty million square kilometers of foliage area work incessantly and daily through photosynthesis, producing oxygen, energy and food for humans and the entire animal kingdom. Much of the food consumed annually comes from the plant kingdom and the rest, of animal origin, is directly linked to the plants for its sustenance. Food, beverages and medicines are made available to us by plants.
There is no doubt that the first therapeutic attempt of all time was made with medicinal plants. The accidental observation that a leaf placed on a wound gave relief or procured a faster and more infection-free healing did not escape the primitive man, careful observer of nature. Thus arose a completely empirical phytotherapy, which from the dawn of human history has been maintained up to the present day.
Already 60,000 years ago the ancient human beings, in the territory that today we call Iraq, left traces of the use of some wild plants such as yarrow, millefeuillea or marshmallow. They had probably noticed that sick animals ate plants they normally did not know about and had drawn intelligent conclusions from their observation: those plants could help them.
This is how they began to use sprigs of rosemary or sage to put on freshly hunted meat to slow down its deterioration and then to apply them on fresh wounds to disinfect them and help heal. From then on, the knowledge of medicinal herbs grew steadily over the years and centuries.
Traditionally, when we talk about phytotherapy and herbal medicine, we refer to four fundamental strands of study: the Chinese tradition, the Indian Ayurvedic tradition, the European Western tradition (including the Egyptian and Arabic traditions) and the Indian tradition of America. It is curious to note that although these cultures remained substantially isolated until the middle of the second millennium, they all used and all knew the same herbs in a similar way.
The origins of Chinese herbalism are lost over the centuries and legends. Tradition has it that around 3400 BC the wise emperor Shen Nung invented agriculture and discovered that many plants have a medicinal value. He experimented with herbs on himself, recording the effects and names in a notebook, and then died ingesting a poisonous plant.
Chinese herbalists attribute to Shen Nung the authorship of the first Chinese herbarium, which listed 237 herbal prescriptions consisting of dozens of plants each. Subsequent emperors, driven by the success of the practices, ordered the development of new herbaria, increasingly elaborate until 1600 when a herbarium was published in 52 volumes, containing more than 11,000 formulations.
The expansion of phytotherapy and, more generally, of Chinese medicine suffered a sudden setback in 1800, when Europeans introduced their medicine to China, banning and pursuing what for them was a strangeness made of needles and popular remedies.
A partial rehabilitation took place with the People’s Republic in the mid-1950s, when the lack of medical assistance forced the Communist Party to reconsider traditional Chinese medicine as valid. Today, the two methods coexist, and in homes and hospitals, Western-trained doctors work side by side with traditional trained doctors, herbalists and acupuncturists.
The Indian herbal tradition is at least as old as the Chinese one and equally studded with heroes and legends. According to one of these, a poor young Indian named Jivaka, eager to study medicine, turned to the great Punarvasu Atreya, founder of the first school of medicine in India, around 1200 BC offering himself as a servant to study medicine.
After seven years Jivaka asked the Master when he could finish his studies; instead of answering, Punarvasu challenged him to go and look for and collect in the fields all those plants he considered to be of no medical importance. After weeks of research, Jivaka reappeared empty-handed and visibly frowning. He told his mentor that he had not been able to find a single plant that had no healing power. The Master replied, “Go. Now you have the knowledge to be a good doctor.
The ancient Indians called their medicine ayuverda, which from Sanskrit means knowledge of life. Ayurvedic medicine developed from the Vedas, the four Indian books of wisdom and knowledge. The oldest of these, dating from 4500 years ago, contains detailed descriptions of ophthalmology, surgical medicine and numerous formulas for medically based healing herbs.
Indian medicine also had a major influence on Arabic practices from 600 AD onwards.
As in China, Western medicine was also introduced in India in the 19th century, but it is estimated that even today more than 60% of the population in India and Pakistan make constant use of Ayurvedic practices combined with herbal remedies.
Although elements of traditional and herbal medicine have come to Europe over the centuries through the work of the Arabs, phytotherapy and Western herbal medicine are indebted to Ancient Egypt. Already in 1500 BC, the ancient Egyptians knew of more than 500 medicinal plants processed into more than 800 preparations.
The Egyptians in particular had a real passion for garlic and onion, which they considered to have essential healing properties: it is no coincidence that the Greek historian Herodotus used to call them “the fetids”, for the smell that emanated from the fruit of large consumption of these two herbs.
Egyptian herbalists were however considered the most experienced in the Mediterranean and many Roman or Greek doctors made trips and studies in the shadow of the pyramids to learn the phytotherapeutic secrets of the pharaohs.
From this knowledge developed the whole strand of European tradition, which even between ups and downs (the use of the power of herbs as poisons, the accusations of witchcraft against women who practiced herbal medicine by the Catholic Church, the preservation of practices and knowledge by the monks) parallel to the historical events and peoples who governed the various territories, remained stable and active until today.
The fourth and last great herbalist and phytotherapeutic tradition is that of the Native Indians of America. Considered crude and wild by most of the European conquerors and settlers, in reality the Indians possessed a deep medical knowledge that derived from their continuous contact with nature.
Despite the initial mistrust, these practices over time took root among the settlers who became accustomed to cultivate medicinal plants in their land and to use them in infusions and preparations. As in Europe, also in America, especially in the North, herbal medicine experienced periods of obscurantism and others more golden.
In fact, it was practically always opposed by the central government of the United States and by the traditional medical class, who saw in the phytotherapeutic practices something not sure, not effective and too cheap.
In 1928 Congress established the Food and Drug Administration to oversee the safety of medicines and food for consumers. The FDA, following problems with some medicines, adopted a strict regulation on the production of new drugs: only after passing strict and expensive controls (from 50 to 100 million dollars per drug) they could enter the market.
Of course, this measure also affected dealers of herbs and phytotherapeutic remedies, which unlike the large pharmaceutical companies could certainly not afford to carry out those tests that the legislation required.
What most consumers today do not know is that researchers from pharmaceutical companies study the properties of medicinal herbs, isolate their active ingredients and manipulate them to create unique substances from a chemical point of view that can then be patented and included in expensive drugs (clearly you can not patent and obtain the exclusivity of a medicinal herb, but a chemical preparation that starts from its active ingredients instead yes).
In the 1960s, despite all the scepticism that had been desired, the United States started a sort of attitude revolution that saw the return of herbal medicine and phytotherapy to strong vogue with the birth of the first modern schools. This rediscovery, in its original scope, has also touched the coasts of old Europe, bringing the importance of medicinal herbs and their preventive and medicinal use back into the homes and to the attention of the media.
The therapeutic properties of plants have not changed over time, and what was a healing herb a thousand years ago is still. In the ancient world it was implicit that doctors knew about herbs and their properties, that they spent most of their time wandering around the fields and woods studying and cataloguing leaves, roots and flowers.
Today, we enjoy the advantage of having this knowledge accumulated for centuries to make a prudent and precise use of it, exploiting the theoretical and empirical studies of ancient peoples, adapting them to our times. It is a knowledge that should not be ignored, on the contrary expanded and made ours in everyday life.