The Herbalists   

For thousands of years, plants have been collected from meadows, woodlands, swamps or jungles to create preparations for medicinal purposes. Through the oral tradition, herbalists have learned and applied the healing powers of these green "allies". Their sagacious knowledge about plants make the healing herbalists the center and source of medicine and healing for their communities. In addition to wise herbalists who know how to use them, every culture throughout the world has a great body of information concerning plants indigenous to their region. 

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What is an Herb?

The term "herb" is used to refer to any plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory or aromatic qualities. There are approximately 380,000 species of plants on earth. Of the number of known plants, 260,000 are classified as higher plants, which means they contain chlorophyll and perform photosynthesis. In photosynthesis, plants utilize the energy provided by sunlight to manufacture carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water. Although all of the members of the higher plant group have the potential to offer medicinal benefits, only 10% have been studied for this purpose.

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Herbs are defined by two names, the familiar name by which it is commonly known and the Latin botanical name describing its genus and species. The genus or first name is the general grouping of plants by family. Although plants in a given genus are not identical, they have in common certain similar characteristics. The species is a more specific way of defining each plant's distinctive qualities. For example, onions, garlic and chive are all members of the Allium genus. However, each of these herbs is classified as a different species. 

Historical Uses of Herbs

The use of herbs for medicinal purposes may predate the human race. Animals have been known to instinctively seek and ingest specific plant substances when they are sick. For example, dogs will graze on grasses when they have an upset stomach. Early humans may have taken clues from the animal world when seeking plants with healing powers. 

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Herbal prescriptions have been found in hieroglyphics on papyrus in ancient Egypt. The Ebers Papyrus, named after Egyptologist George Ebers, is a papyrus written around 1600 BC that refers to more than seven hundred plant medicines including peppermint, myrrh, and castor oil. This early medical text recommends applying a moldy piece of bread to open wounds. In 1928 - thousands of years later - by pure coincidence, Sir Alexander Fleming noticed in his laboratory that bread mold was a potent antibiotic. His observation led to the development of penicillin and spawned the era of the "wonder drugs."

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Discovering Medicinal Plants

The medicinal qualities of plant materials are most likely discovered by the "trial and error" method. For example, when the colonists first settled in the coastal regions of North America, those who journeyed to the North Carolina-to-Florida coastal region discovered a plant known as the saw palmetto. A vigorous grower, it would quickly reclaim the farm areas that had been cleared for farming, climbing over the newly built fences that rest5rained the livestock. When it fruited, the livestock would eat the berries. After a few seasons, the farmers noticed that the livestock that ate the berries grew larger, had richer coats, produced more offspring and were not as prone to illness.

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Once the colonists noted this result, they started to include the berries in the food they gave the livestock. They eventually realized that what was good for the animals was good for them, too.

Today, was palmetto is used by body builders to add bulk to their muscles and by people who suffer from depleting conditions like AIDS to avoid losing weight.

Early Herbalists

In 1649, Nicholas Culpepper made medicinal information available to the general public by translating the Latin Pharmacopoeia into English. In 1651, Culpepper's English Physician Enlarged, which detailed the medicinal properties of plant materials, blended folklore, astrology, and botanical medicine in a book aimed at the masses. He was attacked by the scientific world because of his herbal work incorporated astrology with healing. A medical school dropout, Culpepper opened an apothecary in 1640 where he dispensed low-cost botanical medicines. His willingness to share his knowledge of herbs with the public endeared him to them but raised the ire of the medical establishment who considered him a quack.

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Around 1850, the Eclectic School of Medicine came into existence in the United States. The Eclectics believed medicine should never hurt the patient in the process of healing. They worked mainly with those who could not afford mainstream medicine. Using plants from around the globe, they sought to bring people back to health during what proved to be the golden are of herbal medicine. The group lost respectability in the face of a growing drug and pharmaceutical industry and died out by the 1930s.

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