Plants are our most ancient form of medicine and up until the last 60 to 80 years, with the development of pharmaceuticals, have been our main source of medicine. Even now, many of our pharmaceuticals are derived from medicinal plants. Perhaps it was the mystery of plants having the ability to die and come back to life again which gave them the spiritual esteem in ancient times. According to ancient beliefs, plants are the connection between humans and the Creator, and often grant eternal life. Plant medicine was almost always administered by a spiritual leader, the medicine man.
How was it determined way back then which plant was poisonous or not? Maybe someone in the tribe said “Hey, try this.” If the person was lucky enough to live, the plant was safe. But, with that type of trial and error, chances are we wouldn’t be here now. The ancients were much more in tune with nature, they had to be, their life depended on it. Without getting too abstract, plants are alive so they have an energy associated with them. The medicine men or women were probably intuitive, which gave them the spiritual leadership role. Healing with herbal medicine utilizes not only the physical plant, but its unique life force as well. [This is an important part of herbalism and I will be covering it in more detail in future posts.]
The first written account of the medicinal use of plants dates back at least 5,000 years ago to the Sumerians, Babylonians and the Egyptians.
Collecting and studying medicinal plants is among our oldest trades. The desire for medicinal plants was fundamental to commercial trade. As societies come into contact with others, one of the first activities was to exchange medicinal plants and the knowledge about their healing abilities.
Animals have instinctive knowledge about using plants for healing. Through the observation of animals healing themselves with plants, some of our medicinal plant uses have been discovered. One such plant is the roots from Ligusticum porteri (osha root). Bears respond to osha much like cats with catnip, they will roll on it and cover themselves with the scent. Males have been observed digging up the roots and offering them to females during courting. Bears eat osha root upon waking from hibernation to cleanse their digestive system and also chew the root into a watery paste and spit it on themselves to repel bodily parasites. It has been discovered that osha possesses strong antiviral and antibacterial properties.
Coffee was also allegedly discovered by observing animals. A goat herder noticed that his goats became energetic and stayed awake when they normally slept after eating red berries off a small shrub.
Herbs were also classified during medieval times by what is called the Doctrine of Signatures. This is a belief that the physical characteristics of plants determine the medicinal use of the plant. An example is ginseng root, resembling the male anatomy, is good for sexual vitality. Many of the plants classified with the Doctrine have been proven to heal in the way they were suspected to.