For thousands of years plants have been used to help heal and treat millions people worldwide. Here a little history of how plants have been used as medicine. Learn more below:
The association of humans and animals with plants obviously originated with the beginning of life on earth. When plants supplied much of the shelter, oxygen, food, and medicine needed by higher life forms.
Over time and with the beginning of societies, humans learned to recognize and categorize plant materials suited for use in meeting the necessities of life. Of these necessities, the use of herbs and herbal extracts for their healing powers can be traced to the earliest myths, traditions, and writings used to codify those plants that can ease pain and treat diseases.
The evolution of these plant-based medicine systems, primarily based on plants within a local area, produced the well known traditional medicine systems, the Ayurvedic and Unani of the Indian subcontinent, the Chinese and Tibetan of other parts of Asia, the Native American of North America, the Amazonian of South America and several local systems within Africa.
The oldest written evidence of medicinal plants’ usage for the preparation of drugs has been found on a Sumerian clay slab from Nagpur, approximately 5000 years old. It comprised 12 recipes for drug preparation referring to over 250 various plants, some of them alkaloids such as poppy, henbane, and Mandrake.
The Chinese book on roots and grasses “Pen T’Sao,” written by Emperor Shen Nung circa 2500 BC, treats 365 drugs (dried parts of medicinal plants), many of which are used even nowadays such as the following: Rhei rhisoma, camphor, Theae folium, Podophyllum, the great yellow gentian, ginseng, jimson weed, cinnamon bark, and ephedra.[3,4]
The Ebers Papyrus, written circa 1550 BC, represents a collection of 800 proscriptions referring to 700 plant species and drugs used for therapy such as pomegranate, castor oil plant, aloe, senna, garlic, onion, fig, willow, coriander, juniper, common centaury, etc.[6,7]
In Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odysseys, created circa 800 BC, 63 plant species from the Minoan, Mycenaean, and Egyptian Assyrian pharmacotherapy were referred to. Some of them were given the names after mythological characters from these epics; for instance, Elecampane (Inula helenium L. Asteraceae) was named in honor of Elena, who was the center of the Trojan War.
As regards the plants from the genus Artemisia, which were believed to restore strength and protect the health, their name was derived from the Greek word Artemis, meaning “healthy.”
Herodotus (500 BC) referred to castor oil plant, Orpheus to the fragrant hellebore and garlic, and Pythagoras to the sea onion (Scilla maritima), mustard, and cabbage.
The works of Hippocrates (459–370 BC) contain 300 medicinal plants classified by physiological action:
- Wormwood and common centaury (Centaurium umbellatum Gilib) were applied against fever
- Garlic against intestine parasites
- Opium, henbane, deadly nightshade, and mandrake were used as narcotics
- Fragrant hellebore and haselwort as emetics
- Sea onion, celery, parsley, asparagus, and garlic as diuretics
- Oak and pomegranate as adstringents.[10,11]
Theophrast (371-287 BC) founded botanical science with his books “De Causis Plantarium”— Plant Etiology and “De Historia Plantarium”—Plant History.
Among others, he referred to cinnamon, iris rhizome, false hellebore, mint, pomegranate, cardamom, fragrant hellebore, monkshood, and so forth.
In the description of the plant toxic action, Theophrast underscored the important feature for humans to become accustomed to them by a gradual increase of the doses. Owing to his consideration of the said topics, he gained the epithet of “the father of botany,” given that he has great merits for the classification and description of medicinal plants.[14,15]
In his work “De re medica” the renowned medical writer Celsus (25 BC–50 AD) quoted approximately 250 medicinal plants such as…
- the star gentian
- false hellebore
In ancient history, the most prominent writer on plant drugs was Dioscorides, “the father of Pharmacognosy,” who, as a military physician and pharmacognosist of Nero’s Army, studied medicinal plants wherever he traveled with the Roman Army. Circa 77 AD he wrote the work “De Materia Medica.”
Of the total of 944 drugs described, 657 are of plant origin, with descriptions of the outward appearance, locality, mode of collection, making of the medicinal preparations, and their therapeutic effect.
In addition to the plant description, the names in other languages coupled with the localities where they occur or are grown are provided. The plants having a mild effect are dominant, but there are also references to those containing alkaloids or other matter with strong effect (fragrant hellebore, false hellebore, poppy, buttercup, jimson weed, henbane, deadly nightshade).[21,22]
Dioscorides’ most appreciated domestic plants are as follows:
- common centaury
- sea onion
- false hellebore
Camomile (Matricaria recucita L.), known under the name Chamaemelon, is used as an antiphlogistic to cure wounds, stings, burns, and ulcers, then for cleaning and rinsing the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.
Owing to its mild carminative action, it is particularly appropriate for use with children.
Dioscorides deemed that it had abortive action, on which he wrote, “The flower, root, and the entire plant accelerate menstruation, the release of the embryo, and the discharge of urine and stone, provided that they are used in the form of an infusion and baths.”
This untrue belief was later embraced by both the Romans and the Arabs; hence the Latin name Matricaria, derived from two words: mater denoting “mother,” i.e. matrix, denoting ‘uterus’. Dioscorides differentiated between a number of species from the genus Mentha, which was grown and used to relieve headache and stomach ache.
The bulbs of sea onion and parsley were utilized as diuretics, oak bark was used for gynecological purposes, while white willow was used as an antipyretic.
As maintained by Dioscorides, Scillae bulbus was also applied as an expectorant, cardiac stimulant, and antihydrotic.
It is worth underscoring that Dioscorides pointed to the possibility of forgery of drugs, both the domestic ones such as opium forged by a yellow poppy (Glaucium flavum) milk sap and poppy, and the more expensive oriental drugs, transported by the Arab merchants from the Far East, such as iris, calamus, caradmomum, incense, etc.
Pliny the Elder (23 AD-79), a contemporary of Dioscorides, who traveled throughout Germany and Spain, wrote about approximately 1000 medicinal plants in his book “Historia Naturalis.” Pliny’s and Dioscorides’ works incorporated all knowledge of medicinal plants at the time.
The most distinguished Roman physician (concurrently a pharmacist), Galen (131 AD–200), compiled the first list of drugs with similar or identical action (parallel drugs), which are interchangeable—“De succedanus.”
From today’s point of view, some of the proposed substitutes do not correspond in a pharmacological context and are absolutely unacceptable. Galen also introduced several new plant drugs in therapy that Dioscorides had not described, for instance, Uvae ursi folium, used as an uroantiseptic and a mild diuretic even in this day and age.
In the Middle Ages, the skills of healing, cultivation of medicinal plants, and preparation of drugs moved to monasteries. Therapy was based on 16 medicinal plants, which the physicians-monks commonly grew within the monasteries as follows: sage, anise, mint, Greek seed, savory, tansy, etc.
Charles the Great (742 AD–814), the founder of the reputed medical school in Salerno, in his “Capitularies” ordered which medicinal plants were to be grown on the state-owned lands. Around 100 different plants were quoted, which have been used till present days such as:
- sea onion
- common centaury
The great emperor especially appreciated the sage (Salvia officinalis L.). The Latin name of sage originates from the old Latins, who called it a salvation plant (salvare meaning “save, cure”). Even today sage is a mandatory plant in all Catholic monasteries.[23,24]
The Arabs introduced numerous new plants in pharmacotherapy, mostly from India, a country they used to have trade relations with, whereas the majority of the plants were with real medicinal value, and they have persisted in all pharmacopoeias in the world till today.
The Arabs used aloe, deadly nightshade, henbane, coffee, ginger, strychnos, saffron, Curcuma, pepper, cinnamon, rheum, senna, and so forth. Certain drugs with strong action were replaced by drugs with mild action, for instance, Sennae folium was used as a mild laxative, compared to the purgatives Heleborus odorus and Euphorbium used until then.
Throughout the Middle Ages, European physicians consulted the Arab works “De Re Medica” by John Mesue (850 AD), “Canon Medicinae” by Avicenna (980-1037), and “Liber Magnae Collectionis Simplicum Alimentorum Et Medicamentorum” by Ibn Baitar (1197-1248), in which over 1000 medicinal plants were described.
For Macedonia, St Clement and St Naum of Ohrid’s work are of particular significance. They referred to the Nikeian pharmacological codex dating from year 850, and transferred his extensive knowledge on medicinal plants to his disciples and via them to the masses.[15,19,20]
Marco Polo’s journeys (1254-1324) in tropical Asia, China, and Persia, the discovery of America (1492), and Vasco De Gama’s journeys to India (1498) resulted in many medicinal plants being brought into Europe.
Botanical gardens emerged all over Europe, and attempts were made for the cultivation of domestic medicinal plants and of the ones imported from the old and the new world. With the discovery of America, materia medica was enriched with a large number of new medicinal plants: Cinchona, Ipecacuanha, Cacao, Ratanhia, Lobelia, Jalapa, Podophylum, Senega, Vanilla, Mate, tobacco, red pepper, etc.
In the 17th century, Cortex Chinae, yielded from quinine bark Cinchona succirubra Pavon, under the name countess’ powder, since the Countess of Chinchon was the first one who used it, was introduced to European medicine. Quinine bark rapidly overwhelmed England, France, and Germany despite the fact that there was many an opponent to its use among distinguished physicians—members of a range of academies.
Paracelsus (1493-1541) was one of the proponents of chemically prepared drugs out of raw plants and mineral substances; nonetheless, he was a firm believer that the collection of those substances ought to be astrologically determined.
He continuously emphasized his belief in observation and simultaneously supported the “Signatura doctrinae”—the signature doctrine. According to this belief, God designated his own sign on the healing substances, which indicated their application for certain diseases.
For example, the haselwort is reminiscent of the liver; thus, it must be beneficial for liver diseases; St John’s wort Hypericum perforatum L. would be beneficial for the treatment of wounds and stings given that the plant leaves appear as if they had been stung.
While the old peoples used medicinal plants primarily as simple pharmaceutical forms—infusions, decoctions and macerations—in the Middle Ages, and in particular between 16th and 18th centuries, the demand for compound drugs was increasing.
The compound drugs comprised medicinal plants along with drugs of animal and plant origin. If the drug the theriac was produced from a number of medicinal plants, rare animals, and minerals, it was highly valued and sold expensively.[9,10]
In the seventh century AD the Slavic people used Rosmarinus officinalis, Ocimum basilicum, Iris germanica, and Mentha viridis in cosmetics, Alium sativum as a remedy and Veratrum album, Cucumis sativus, Urtica dioica, Achilea millefolium, Artemisia maritime L., Lavandula officinalis, Sambuci flosagainst several injurios insects, i.e. louses, fleas, moths, mosquitos, and spiders and Aconitum napellus as a poison in hunting.
In the 18th century, in his work Species Plantarium (1753), Linnaeus (1707-1788) provided a brief description and classification of the species described until then. The species were described and named without taking into consideration whether some of them had previously been described somewhere.
For the naming, a polynomial system was employed where the first word denoted the genus while the remaining polynomial phrase explained other features of the plant (e.g. the willow Clusius was named Salix pumila angustifolia antera). Linnaeus altered the naming system into a binominal one. The name of each species consisted of the genus name, with an initial capital letter, and the species name, with an initial small letter.
Early 19th century was a turning point in the knowledge and use of medicinal plants. The discovery, substantiation, and isolation of alkaloids from poppy (1806), ipecacuanha (1817), strychnos (1817), quinine (1820), pomegranate (1878), and other plants, then the isolation of glycosides, marked the beginning of scientific pharmacy.
With the upgrading of the chemical methods, other active substances from medicinal plants were also discovered such as tannins, saponosides, etheric oils, vitamins, hormones, etc.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a great danger of elimination of medicinal plants from therapy. Many authors wrote that drugs obtained from them had many shortcomings due to the destructive action of enzymes, which cause fundamental changes during the process of medicinal plants drying, i.e. medicinal plants’ healing action depends on the mode of drying.
In the 19th century, therapeutics, alkaloids, and glycosides isolated in pure form were increasingly supplanting the drugs from which they had been isolated.
Nevertheless, it was soon ascertained that although the action of pure alkaloids was faster, the action of alkaloid drugs was full and long-lasting. In the early 20th century, stabilization methods for fresh medicinal plants were proposed, especially the ones with labile medicinal components. Besides, much effort was invested in the study of the conditions of the manufacturing and cultivation of medicinal plants.[27,28]
On account of chemical, physiological, and clinical studies, numerous forgotten plants and drugs obtained thereof were restored to the pharmacy: Aconitum, Punica granatum, Hyosciamus, Stramonium, Secale cornutum, Filix mas, Opium, Styrax, Colchicum, Ricinus, and so forth.
The active components of medicinal plants are a product of the natural, most seamless laboratory. The human organism accepts the drug obtained from the best in view of the fact that man is an integral part of nature.
There are scores of examples of this kind; perhaps they will instigate serious research into the old manuscripts on medicinal plants, which would not be observed out of curiosity about history but as potential sources of contemporary pharmacotherapy.
According to omicsonline.org, tropical rainforests are the richest source of medicinal plants. How illiterate traditional healers know every plant in the rainforest around them and use them correctly for medicinal purposes? In their opinion, they have used several ways:
- Learning through trial and error.
- Spiritual learning by ritual use of medicinal plants in religious ceremonies, such as “invoking hidden power of the plants” and meditation.
- Observing how apes and other animals utilize those plants.
- Preserving the oral tradition when knowledge about plants is passed by traditional healers from generation to generation.
Currently, the investigation of plants used in traditional medicine to determine biological activities is a complicated process that includes several stages:
- Obtaining reliable ethnobotanical data on use in the traditional system
- Collecting specimens from the correct genera and species used in the traditional system
- Investigating the activity of crude extracts and active principles
- Analyzing the chemical structure, synthesis, and structural modification
In present days, almost all pharmacopoeias in the world—Ph Eur 6, USP XXXI, BP 2007—proscribe plant drugs of real medicinal value. There are countries (the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany) that have separate herbal pharmacopoeias.
Yet, in practice, a much higher number of unofficial drugs are always used. Their application is grounded on the experiences of popular medicine (traditional or popular medicine) or on the new scientific research and experimental results (conventional medicine).
Many medicinal plants are applied through self-medication or at the recommendation of a physician or pharmacist. They are used independently or in combination with synthetic drugs (complementary medicine).
For the sake of adequate and successfully applied therapy, knowledge of the precise diagnosis of the illness as well as of medicinal plants, i.e. the pharmacological effect of their components is essential. Plant drugs and phytopreparations, most commonly with defined active components, verified action and, sometimes, therapeutic efficiency, are applied as therapeutic means.
In the major European producer and consumer of herbal preparations—Germany, rational phytotherapy is employed, based on applications of preparations whose efficiency depends on the applied dose and identified active components, and their efficiency has been corroborated by experimental and clinical tests.
Those preparations have been manufactured from standardized plant drug extracts, and they adhere to all requirements for pharmaceutical quality of drugs.
With the new Law on Drugs and Medical Devices dated September 2007 and enacted in the Republic of Macedonia, dry or sometimes fresh parts of medicinal plants (herbal substances) may be used for the preparation of herbal drugs, herbal processed products, and traditional herbal drugs. Herbal substances may also be utilized for the manufacture of homeopathic drugs, which are stipulated in the current law, too.
In the Republic of Macedonia, herbal preparations are dispensed without a medical prescription, as “over the counter” (OTC) preparations.
There are 7 billion people and about 250,000 plants co-existing on this planet. We should never forget that plants lived there for a million years before humans, and the main difference between people and plants is that plants can live without people, but people cannot live without plants.
People need plants for medicine, in addition to the need for oxygen, food, and forage.
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