Herbal and plant remedies have been the most consistent and universal forms of treatment for human ailments for thousands of years. Plants have been the basic source of therapeutic products from prehistoric man to the early days of the twentieth century when chemotherapy (chemical-based treatments) gained popularity. More than five thousand years ago, the Sumerians had established uses for herbs. The first known book about herbs datesback to about 2700 B.C. from China and lists numerous herbs that are still used in today’s modern medicine, such as ma huang, from which the common asthma drug ephedrine is derived.
Herbs and spices possess a long and illustrious history. The earliest written records indicate that teas, herbal extracts, and powders were commonly used in ancient China, India, Egypt,
and Mesopotamia. Ancient Egyptian and Chinese texts record the use of herbs for treating and curing ailments of the body, mind, and spirit. The Egyptians cultivated vast herb gardens around their most important temples and their priests derived medicines from these herbs. Scholars believe that Egyptian herbalist schools existed by 3000 B.C. Even the great Pharaoh Rameses II, who died in 1225 B.C., donated more than five hundred plots of ground to
be used for the cultivation of herbs after his passing.
During the biblical period, herbs were honored for their mystical and magical qualities. Essential for both medicinal and religious purposes, they were used by priests of the ancient Near Eastbecause of their secret healing powers. Many kings of biblical times used herbs for their beauty, fragrance, flavor, and therapeutic qualities. For example, King Merodaachbaladar II of Babylon, who lived during the eighth century B.C., grew more than seventy
different herbs in his palace garden, and King Solomon cultivated herbs in his orchards and vineyards. According to the Roman historian Flavius Josephus, Solomon grew camphor, cinnamon, frankincense, sweet flag, aloes, lilies, and saffron.
The tradition of cataloging and describing the uses of herbs began to develop in ancient Greece, and we know of an Egyptian papyrus on the subject of herbs dating back to 1800 B.C. Many of today’s culinary plants were used and described by Dioscorides, a first-century Greek physician and botanist. For fifteen hundred
years, his reference work De Materia Medica served as the standard work on botany and the therapeutic use of plants. Before Dioscorides, there was a lack of material in ancient Greek literature on the use of herbs and spices.
As in Egypt, ancient Greek gardens were generally linked to temples. It is known, for example, that in 800 B.C. Greek priests planted herbs for therapeutic purposes in orchards surrounding the temple of Aesculapius. These priests/physicians would obtain their drugs and prepare their potions from these gardens. Known as “root-diggers,” or rhizomoi, they gathered their herbs while offering prayers of thanksgiving.
The Greeks took the Egyptian art of aromatherapy to a more sophisticated level by planting fragrant herbs around their houses and near their living rooms. These rooms opened out onto the gardens so that when the sun shone on the plants, the fragrance of their oils would evaporate and waft into the house.