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The history and mythology of herbs and herbalism

Although interest in the medicinal use of herbs is growing all the time and many applications may appear to be innovative, herbs and other plants have been widely used as medicines for thousands of years.

According to archaeologists our love affair with plants goes back around 30,000 to 50,000 years maybe even longer.

The traditional use of herbs as medicine varies from culture to culture. In Asia, particularly India and China, their curative virtues have always enjoyed great respect and herbs play an important role in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicines today.



In many tribal societies herbs were seen as plants with wisdom, that called out to a person to use their qualities. Buddha is said to have received ultimate enlightenment from sitting under a fig tree. My own ancestors, the Celts, wrote a whole alphabet based on the virtues of trees. Herbs were considered to be children of the earth mother, each marked by divinity and worthy of respect.


Ancient herbalists, including those of Cathay, India, Sumer, Assyria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, testify to the use of herbs in the treatment of disease. Hippocrates, Galen, Charaka and Pedanius Dioscorides, among others, employed them.

No one can accurately say when man first used herbs in food. Sesame seems to have been employed as food, for making wine, and for its oil from time immemorial. Garlic and onions were used as part of the diet in very early times. Certainly by the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans many herbs had come into use to flavour food and beverages.

The first written record of herbs used as medicines was made over five thousands years ago by the Sumerians, in ancient Mesopotamia (present day Iraq.) Sumerian prescriptions for healing using herbs such as caraway and thyme have been found by archaeologists on tablets made of clay. At about the same time, and perhaps even earlier, herbal traditions were being developed in China and India.

One of the earliest Chinese herbalists was the Chinese Emperor, Chi'en Nung (Shennong), he wrote the book Pen Tsao aka Classic of Materia Medica. This listed around 365 healing remedies, most of which were from plants, including including ma huang, or Chinese ephedra, which is still widely used today and is the herb from which Western scientists have derived the drug ephedrine. Chi'en Nung is said to have invented agriculture around 3400 B.C. and discovered that many plants have medicinal value.  He was known to have learned the hard way, he tested herbs on himself recorded their effects, and then died after consuming too much of one that turned out to be poisonous, a salutory lesson to us all.

The famous Greek physician Hippocrates (460 - 377 BC), who is often referred to as the "Father of Modern Medicine", and after whom the Hippocratic Oath is named, used many herbal remedies. Around 400BC. He wrote "Let your foods be your medicines, and your medicines your food". He also famously wrote about a bitter powder extracted from willow bark that could ease aches and pains and reduce fevers. If he had only stuck a patent on it!

Another famous Greek, Dioscorides, wrote a manuscript about herbal remedies in the 1st Century AD, and that became a standard reference work for hundreds of years. Hippocrates , a Greek physicianwrote in the 5th century BC

The Romans brought many of the popular varieties that we enjoy now to Britain.  They grew them in their villa gardens, and many survived the cold conditions.  The Romans used herbs not just for medicinal purposes, but also for flavourings for their feasts and as a preservative.

The Emperor Charlemagne (AD 742-814) encouraged the planting of herbs which formed a part of his "Capitulare de Villis" a document from the ninth century which detailed the plants he wished his gardeners' to plant on his estates and in monasteries. And it was throughout the Middle Ages that the knowledge of medicinal plants was furthered by monks in Europe who studied and grew medicinal plants and translated Arabic works on herbalism.

The ancient Aztec Emperors encouraged their people to learn about all varieties of the regions plants. When Cortez and the Conquistadors invaded Mexico in the 1500's, they found the Aztecs quite learned in herbal knowledge and lore. Fortunately, some of this knowledge survived the destruction of the Aztec's civilization. King Phillip II of Spain, sent his personal physician to catalogue and describe the Aztec plants. Francisco Hernandez wrote down this information, which was to serve as the basic text on the plants of Mexico for years to come.

In fact the use of herbs in general was very strong in the middle ages. Gerard (1545-1612) author of The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, and the famous Elizabethan herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654), who in his short, somewhat tragic life-time wrote over 40 books including his famous Complete Herbal, wove their tales of plants and herbs in this period. Plants were associated with colour, shape, form, and with good (light) and evil (dark).

A herb which was traditionally seen as evil or dark was a herb with much power at a deep level which quite often seemed to drift beyond the grasp of an individual person or concept. Akin to the effects of storms and other natural events beyond structure and control it was quite often feared and also respected. These herbs were strong and deep in their effects and quite often challenged those areas in a person that they perhaps would not wish to see.

A herb traditionally seen as light and good was a herb which dealt with what we have in a gentler manner. More structured and dealing with what is visible and usually having more predictable effects.

Herbal medicine was also strongly linked with astrology and was an art taken up by many herbalists. Shakespeare makes many allusions to the property of herbs in his plays. For instance, "They are but burs (Burdock), cousin, thrown upon thee in holiday foolery" from As You Like It (William Shakespeare, 1599).

Nicholas Culpeper's Complete Herbal lists the rulership of plants and planets. He picked and dried the herbs himself, choosing the right astrological moment to do so. Culpeper suggested that plants are best gathered during the planetary hour associated with the plant. Yes, even hours are ruled by planets. For instance, a Mercury plant like Lavender is best gathered during the hour of the day ruled by Mercury. The aim was to pluck the herb/plant at its greatest potency.

The first anaesthetics were herbs of course, such as Opium and Hemp - narcotics that come under the rulership of Neptune, a planet associated with the unconscious.

Planetary Associations of Herbs



Herbs under the dominion of Jupiter include agrimony, alexanders, asparagus, avens, balm, barley, basil, beet, betony, bloodroot, borage, bugloss, bur marigold (Bidens spp.), centaury, chervil, chick pea, chicory, cicely (sweet), cinquefoil, colewort, costmary (alecost), daffodil (narcissus), dandelion, endive, feverfew, flax, garlic mustard, hart's tongue, houseleek, hyacinth, hyssop, liverwort, lungwort, marjoram, meadowsweet, milk-thistle, milkweed, mint, ox-eye daisy, ox-tongue, paeony, pimpernel, pinks, Polygonum spp., self-heal (all-heal), rhubarb, rice, rose (esp. red), sage, samphire, scurvy grass, squinancy (quinsywort), St. John's wort, stonecrop, strawberry, violet (sweet), water figwort (water betony), wheat, and willowherb. Trees include almond, apple, apricot, bay, beech, bilberry, birch, (sweet) chestnut, clove, fig, gooseberry, hazel, linden (lime), liquorice, manna, maple, mulberry, nutmeg (inc. mace), oak, olive, peach, pear, pine, pistachio, spruce, sumac, thorn-apple, and (grape) vine.


Herbs under the dominion of Mars are mostly those red in colour, with sharp, pointed leaves, a caustic, burning taste, and a love for growing in dry places, with a corrosive, penetrative action on the human body, generating a subtle heat. They include wood anemone, amaranthus, asarabacca, basil, bindweed, brooklime, broom-rape, butcher's broom, Scotch broom, goldilocks buttercup, bryony, cayenne (chili), lesser celandine, chick pea, chive, cress, crowfoots, cuckoo-pint, cumin, daffodil, dame's rocket (Hesperis / eveweed), eggplant, erysimum (treacle mustard / wormseed mustard), fenugreek, fleabane, frankincense, galangal, garlic, gentian (autumn), (wall) germander, ground pine, hedge hyssop, hedge mustard, hellebore, hop, horehound (white), horseradish, leek, lettuce (wild), madder, marjoram, marrow, masterwort, mustard (black and white), nettle, onion, pepper, Polygonum spp, radish, restharrow, rhubarb, rue, saltwort (Russian thistle), sanicle, sarsaparilla (Smilax), sowbread (ivy-leaf cyclamen), spurge, squinancy, tarragon, teasel, cotton thistle, holy (or blessed) thistle, sowthistle, star thistle, toadflax (flaxweed), tobacco, weld, sweet woodruff, wormwood. Trees include bitter almond, barberry, chestnut, cinnamon, gorse, hawthorn, pear (wild), pine, gum tragacanth, savine (dwarf juniper), tamarind, and all that are prickly.


Herbs under the dominion of Venus include ale hoof, amaranthus, anemone, annual rocket cress, apple tree, arrach, barberry, birch tree, blight, bramble or blackberry, bugle, burdock, carnation, catmint, cherry tree, coltsfoot, common alder tree, common tansy, columbines, cornel tree, cowslips, crabs claws, crane's bill, cudweed, currants (red, white, black), daisy, elder, figwort, filipendula, french beans, geranium, golden rod, gromel, herb robert, herb true-love, lady's bedstraw, lady's mantel, mallows and marshmallows, mint, moneywort, mugwort, navew, orach, oxlip, parsnip, peach tree, pear tree, pennyroyal, pennywort, plowmans spikenard, plantain, plums, primrose, robert geranium, rough shepherds needle, shepherds needle, self-heal, sicklewort, skirret, soapwort, sorrel, sow thistle, speedwell, spignel, strawberry, sycamore tree, thyme, vervain, violet, water pepper, weld, wild teasel, winter-cherries, wood sage, yarrow.


Herbs under the dominion of Saturn include aconite (monkshood), amaranth, angelica, baneberry, barley, beet (red), belladonna (deadly nightshade), birdsfoot trefoil, bistort, burdock, cabbage, candytuft, cardus benedictus, castor oil plant, lesser celandine (pilewort), cleavers (goosegrass), comfrey, cornflower, crosswort, cudweed, cumin, bearded darnel, dodder, earth chestnuts, ground elder (bishop's weed / goutweed), endive, ferns (Asplenium), Royal fern, fireweed, flax, fleawort, fumitory, stinking gladwin, hare's ear, hawkweed, heartsease, hellebore, false hellebore, hemlock, hemp (cannabis), henbane, horsetail, houseleek, knapweed (greater), lentil, mallow, mandrake, marrow, mullein, nightshade (common), parsnip, pepper, buck's horn plantain, polypody, poppy (inc. corn / field), rue, rupturewort, meadow saffron, saffron, sage, shepherd's purse, Solomon's sea, starflower, melancholy thistle, toadflax (flaxweed), tutsan, valerian, vervain, water-parsnip, water-violet, willowherb, and dyer's woad. Trees include acacia, blackberry, blackthorn, box, buckthorn, caper, elm, holly, ivy, myrtle, olive, pine, poplar, quince, savine (dwarf Juniper), sloe, tamarisk, turpentine tree, willow, yew.

The Sun

Herbs under the dominion of the Sun are those of pleasant smell, good flavour, a love of open, sunny places, majestic form, and yellow or reddish flowers, with uses connected with the heart, the eyes, resistance of poison and evils, and comforting of the vital organs. They include amber, angelica, balm, barley, burnet, burning bush, butterbur, celandine (greater), centaury, chamomile, chick pea, cinnamon, cinquefoil, cumin, daffodil, elecampane, fenugreek, feverfew, frankincense, galangal, garlic, ginger, eyebright, hellebore, lavender, leek, lovage, maize, marigold, marjoram, onion, paeony, pepper, pimpernel, radish, rice, rosemary, rue, saffron, spikenard, St. John's wort, storax tree, sugar cane, sundew, tormentil, vervain, viper's bugloss, and water-lily. Trees include ash, bay, cedar, citrus (lemon, orange), heliotrope, ivy, juniper, laurel, mistletoe, mulberry, myrrh, palm, vines, and grape vines.

The Eastern View

The Eastern View on herbalism as well as spirituality was that of Yin and Yang, of everything tying in and having an influence on everything else. The chinese and others believe in the energy centers of the body. Many shamans and other traditional healers believe in spirit bodies and the interconnectedness of our physical body to our spiritual body. Traditional tribal herbalists believe that a connection and dialogue and understanding need to be made between a herb and a patient, for the herb also teaches and communicates.

The 16th century was seen by many as the heyday of herbal knowledge. Since the 17th century plants have been classified, dissected and demystified and the idea of botany and medicine went their separate ways , also losing a strong folklore and personal tradition in the process.

Herbalists and those who used herbs in the old traditional holistic manner treated plants, the soil they lived in, the sun and moon that cycled above , the rain that nourished as all interlinked aspects of a whole. When a plant was first planted, the location and soil type, the amount of sun, when it was harvested, and whether it was treated with respect all contributed to the essence and energy and efficacy of the herb. Herbalists were strong advocates of the environment. The way the herb looked and felt, the way the colours effected the eye were all important parts of the process of finding what herb was efficacious.

Herbal Signatures

Old style herbalists also classified herbs by their signature. Called the doctrine of signatures. The shape and colour, and outward appearance of the plant was associated with various parts of the body and the ailments it would cure. Some people believe that scientific studies of the constituents of the colours bears out their associations even today.


Sage: The colour of blood, to stir up and vitalize.
Science: rich in iron for blood hemoglobin.

Sage: a soothing relaxing, sedative .
Science: potassium and phosphorous, helpful to brain and nerves.

Sage: flowing bile. Digestive system, liver and gall bladder.
Science: sodium rich associated with digestion and liver.


The first known heart medicine

The first known heart medicine was discovered in an English garden. In 1799, when physician John Ferriar noted the effect of dried leaves of the common foxglove plant, digitalis purpurea, on heart action. Still used in heart medications, digitalis slows the pulse and increases the force of heart contractions and the amount of blood pumped per heartbeat.

The 1930's

In the 1930's Mrs M Grieve wrote 'A modern herbal' which drew together both scientific and traditional approaches. Recently the interests in herbs and the relationship between food and medicine has grown.


In 2004 , the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine started to fund clinical trials into the effectivness of herbal medicine.

The curative effects of many herbs have now been scientifically proven. These herbal applications now appear either in their natural state or in man-made active compounds. In fact more than 25% of our modern drugs contain plant extracts as active ingredients and these days herbal preperations can be found in stores everywhere, prepared in a variety of forms, such as tablets, powders or creams.

All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

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