A Little Context
An "enduring strength of herbalism is that it has solid foundations in traditional healing, but is at the same time a part of modern science." David Hoffman, FNIMH, AHG
Plant medicine is part of our heritage as human beings, and has a long tradition in cultures around the world. In many cases, societies on different continents found similar uses for the same or related plant. Highly respected medical approaches in India and China have relied on plants for wellness for thousands of years.
In the US, the Eclectic Movement is considered the starting point of modern herbalism. In the early 1800s, many mainstream doctors were using strong "heroic" practices like blood-letting, purging, and poisons like mercury, lead, and arsenic. Because of their belief in the body's innate ability to heal itself, the Eclectics sought more gentle, non-toxic plant medicines to simply aid the body’s self-repair. This knowledge came in part from extensive Native American plant medicine tradition. Experimentation by colonists was imperative due to their distance from European apothecaries and doctors, who generally did not immigrate. The British government ordered the colony of Virginia to find medicinal plants in the wild, and doing so was a source of income for colonists. Extensive research was done by groundbreaking botanists, and a substantial US medicinal plant catalogue was formed by 1830.
The first medical schools in America included the study of medical botany. Scientists began to extract and modify the active ingredients in plants in the early 1800s. Chemists began making synthetic versions of plant compounds, and herbal medicines became less popular. This is due in part to the lower cost of producing a synthetic drug, which eliminates the need to wild-harvest or grow a given plant. In addition, wild plants themselves cannot be patented, which lowers the incentive for pharmaceutical companies to focus their research there.
Today, many feel that a plant’s use over hundreds or thousands of years is a long-term safety trial they can trust. It is estimated by the World Health Organization that 80% of individuals around the world depend on plant medicines in some way for health care. Over 1400 medicinal plants are in use around the world. In Germany, 70% of physicians prescribe plant medicines; 600-700 herbal remedies are available to them. Use in the United States is increasing as well. Approximately one-third of American individuals use plant medicines. Nearly a quarter of pharmaceutical drugs are currently derived from plants.
1. University of Maryland Medical Center. "Herbal Medicine Overview." May 7, 2013. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/treatment/herbal-medicine
2. Massachusetts Medical Society Gardens. "Hortus Medicus: List of Medicinal Herbs." www.piam.com/mms_garden/officinalis.html. viewed April 12, 2015.
3. Shar, Douglas, PhD. "Eclectic School of Medicine: History of the Eclectic Movement." viewed April 24, 2015. http://doctorschar.com/archives/eclectic-school-of-medicine/
4. Foster, Steven and James A. Duke. Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America, Third Edition. Boston: 2014. Introduction.