Herbal Gardening- Herbs: History and Myths
For millenia, herbs have been the center of a wide range of myths concerning their healing and curative powers.
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| Certain herbs and other plants have been known to have useful properties - as seasonings or preservatives for food, medicines or simply for having a pleasurable odor - for thousands of years. Ancient knowledge, however, is often intertwined with ancient myths.
Tombs uncovered in Mesopotamia
(now Iraq) as old as 60,000 years held the
remains of medicinal
herbs preserved with the humans buried there. Over 5,000 years ago, Ancient Egyptians had acquired an extensive catalog of
plants (many of them herbs) that could be used as laxatives, for relief from headaches and as medicines for other ailments.
For example, thyme was used as far back as 3,000 BC in Sumaria as an antiseptic.
(the leaves of which are used to produce cilantro) has been
used for 3,000 years or more. Hebrews used it to flavor meals. Roman
soldiers brought it on campaigns to the region to use as a meat
The Greek physician Hippocrates
(460 BC - 377 BC)
systematized much of what was known about herbs in his era and extended that
knowledge by his own research and application. He used
many herbs in his treatments of illnesses, believing that disease had
natural causes. This line of thought, by the way, was
contrary to that of many of his contemporaries who held that it illness
was inflicted by gods. Hippocrates used parsley to
treat rheumatism and relieve
kidney pain. Tarragon
was used to treat toothaches.
In both the Greek and Roman worlds, basil was a
commonly used herb. Chives
were used by ancient Romans to relieve sore throats. Oregano,
however, was simply believed to be a favorite of Aphrodite, the Greek
goddess of love.
Myth lay alongside science.
During the Middle Ages, after a nearly thousand year lull, knowledge of
botanicals, including herbs and their uses, again began to accumulate
and expand. Much of the base of the
medieval age's valid knowledge had been preserved in, and was now
imported from Arabic cultures.
Myths still persisted, however.
was believed to have
magical powers. Rosemary
was thought to be able to ward off plague.
was used in an attempt to treat epilepsy.
Some of this has come down to us in the song, "Scarborough Fair".
Many believe the refrain, "parsley, sage, rosemary, and
thyme" refers to these beliefs and in some way relate to the plague,
although research tends to indicate that it is simply the result of
someone's attempt to create a rhyme and has nothing to do with the
years of the plague at all.
All the while, while Europe was having its intellectual, and medical,
ups and downs, Chinese and Indian herbalists in the east were busy all
the while, accumulating their own storehouse of information about the helpful
qualities of certain herbs. Ginseng is
just one of the better known examples of their research.
The Renaissance (meaning "rebirth") was, in essence, the rebirth of a
Greek style of science depending upon observation and validation by
experimentation. Though, if truth be told, even the Greeks weren't entirely consistent
in that approach. During the 16th and 17th centuries, knowledge of the beneficial effects of
certain herbs grew by leaps and bounds in the western world. Nicholas Culpeper
(1616 - 1664), an English botanist, herbalist, and physician, published
an herbal compendium in 1652 that listed an extensive array of herbal
remedies known in Great Britain at that time.
Though science began to depend increasingly more on artificial
chemistry beginning in the 19th century, there is still today a thriving practice of
attempting to analyze what is helpful in herbs. These compounds, found
in their natural setting, often carry additional substances that are
missing in purely synthesized products. There are many
practitioners of herbology
who promote the curative and medicinal power of herbs, in addition to
their many uses in cooking.
The mixture of valid knowledge and superstition concerning herbs
remains with us to some degree today. The belief that herbal medicines can cure disease is
in many cases a combination of verified observations and medieval hokum. Observation
shows that some herbs do work on some conditions, while the
causes for their efficacy are often based on invented myths and
This has not been improved by the totally unfounded claims of many
seeking to sell their products to those in search of "natural" cures to
many very real diseases and conditions.
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