Rodale's 21st-Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature's Most Powerful Plants



As an ethnobotanist working to chronicle the relationship between plants, people, and culture, my conversations with traditional healers about the diversity and uses of the plants in their environments—from deserts to temperate regions to rainforests—have been nothing short of extraordinary, even otherworldly. Most of the people I work with are from cultural or ethnic groups that have never codified their healing systems or, as in the case of the Maya, whose great books of learning were destroyed by their conquerors. In most cases, we share common ground—the desire to preserve knowledge, plants, and practices that have sustained people and cultures through millennia and into the present with the hope that, somehow, they will help guide us through the increasingly complex trajectory that is the earth’s future.

It is hard not to be affected by an elder’s unbridled joy when we present their wisdom back to them and their communities in the form of a published book, video, or scientific paper, the results of a collaborative project and partnership. I feel very fortunate to be one of the relatively few individuals who do this work as their profession, a vocation with a diversity of venues ranging from New York City to some of the planet’s most remote regions.

John Gerard (1545–1612) was similarly motivated to capture the essence of herbal medicines traditionally used in England—both native herbs as well as those rare and exotic species brought back from the great explorations of the Elizabethan era. Gerard was a physician, herbalist, and gardener, skills common to those practicing the healing arts of his day. Physicians needed to know the plants they prescribed, so not only did they learn about plant uses, but they also spent a significant amount of their training observing herbs in botanical gardens and other living plant collections associated with medical schools. Gerard’s greatest accomplishment was to take the verification process one step further—he codified the herbal knowledge of the time in his famous book The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, first published in 1597.

Gerard compiled the work of others and added new knowledge gained through his conversations with healers. The Herball contained information on hundreds of herbs, with surprisingly accurate botanical woodcuts providing details of their appearances. This was a way to “publish” a verification of herbs to help physicians grappling with a major problem at the time—how to make certain the plants they prescribed were the ones actually being provided to patients. Mistake the highly toxic digitalis for a plantain species commonly prescribed to treat ulcers, for instance, and the result could be fatal. Gerard’s text covered a wide range of culinary and medicinal uses, such as the use of little “flat cakes” of European cyclamen roots as “amorous medicine.”

I admit to being a bibliophile, and my sprawling botanical library is the result of decades of travel and obsessive collection. Once confined to a room or two, it now spills out all over my home, into narrow hallways, and throughout my office and laboratory at The New York Botanical Garden. Of these books, my favorite is The Herball, a very special original copy obtained for me by a close friend some years ago. I open it, and immediately I am drawn 400 years into the past by the feel of the paper, the smell of the pages, and the extraordinary leather binding—but most of all by the words this priceless book contains. This individual volume also consists of a special sheaf of 18th-century notes made by one of its previous owners. These papers, listing therapeutic family recipes of the time, make it a self-contained and one-of-a-kind reference guide that has survived world wars, pandemics, economic collapse, and the advent of the Internet. It is a remarkable and resilient piece of scholarship.

Health care has made extraordinary and unthinkable advances since 1597, when that book first appeared. Alchemy, famous for its quest to turn lead into gold, also focused on making plant extracts and standardizing remedies, laying the foundation for the eventual development of allopathic (Western or modern) pharmaceutical medicine.

But herbalism persisted as a medical system throughout the world. Today, for example, among indigenous groups that I work with, plant-based traditional medicines are an essential part of healing practices. In fact, scientists estimate that several billion people today use traditional herbal medicines for some aspect of their primary health care. In the West, the field of integrative medicine pioneered by Andrew Weil, MD, partners the use of scientifically validated herbal remedies with conventional allopathic care, optimizing health-care delivery by reuniting the approaches originally rooted in alchemy and herbalism that had been separated for centuries.

Herbs have played a key role in human life since before recorded history. Yarrow, groundsel, and marshmallow, all thought to be ancient medicinal plants, were found in the 60,000-year-old grave of a Neanderthal man unearthed in present-day Iraq. Ancient etchings on cave walls depict people gathering roots, rubbing leaves on their bodies, and arranging plants in ceremonial patterns. Ancestral languages such as Proto-Austronesian had words for herbs, including one for ginger, an herb that may have been carried and traded during the earliest human migrations across Asia. Five thousand years ago, ancient Sumerian healers wrote prescriptions on tablets of clay for treatments that used caraway and thyme. As far back as 2700 BCE, Chinese healers produced written records of dozens of plants used to treat the sick. Ancient Egyptian paintings depict some of the earliest herb gardens, including one from 1400 BCE that clearly shows pomegranate trees and grapevines surrounding a fishpond.

The march of progress and the passing of time have not slowed humanity’s interest in herbs. Botanical researchers are pursuing a global inventory of plants, discovering more than 2,000 new species each year and cataloging some of their traditional uses. In some ways, we have learned more about certain planets than we have about the earth’s biodiversity, and the ongoing age of exploration—aided by modern tools and techniques—continues to yield information that can benefit us all.


For millennia, people on every continent have incorporated beneficial herbs into their daily lives. Whether used medicinally, in cooking, to enhance beauty, or in gardening and handicrafts, herbs and their lore have been woven into the economic, scientific, and social structures of every culture around the world.

The first organized systems of medicine in China and Mesopotamia centered around herbal treatments. Some of the oldest religions in India and Egypt viewed many herbs as sacred gifts from the gods. For centuries, flavor-enhancing herbs such as pepper and cinnamon, both from the Far East, have been coveted by Western cooks. During eras when regular bathing was rare, perfumes extracted from fragrant herbs made social life in Europe and Africa a little more pleasant. And in the Pacific, royalty bathed themselves daily with coconut oil infused with aromatic and cleansing herbs. Around the world, herbs have long been grown in gardens or collected from the wild, highly valued for their beauty and usefulness.

Much of the knowledge held by early healers was passed down orally from generation to generation, often in sacred teachings. In this way, many medicinal herbs took on an additional, spiritual significance. In traditional Persian weddings, for example, incense made from rue seeds was burned, and bunches of herbs such as mint, parsley, and nigella were spread before the bride and groom to protect them from evil spirits.

One particular ritual, the taking of tea and coffee, has been a part of many cultures on earth. It is said that the tea plant originated when an early Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, cut off his eyelids and hurled them to the ground in an effort to stay awake while meditating. This produced the first tea plants, which had the power to keep him and his students awake and alert. In England, Japan, and China, the drinking of tea evolved into elaborate rituals that required years of education and practice to perfect. According to legend, coffee originated in Ethiopia when a shepherd named Kaldi noticed that his goats became euphoric after eating the red berries of the wild coffee bush, and he observed that the fruits’ seeds had stimulant properties. Ethiopian tribesmen first used coffee as an energizer more than 1,000 years ago; they crushed its red berries with animal fat and molded the mixture into balls, which they then ate as food. By the 1600s, Italian traders had introduced coffee from Arabia to Europe, and it was well on its way to becoming a popular drink.

Over the centuries, people around the world have cooked, steamed, ground, sprinkled, and infused herbs into every conceivable food dish. As early as 3000 BCE, ancient Babylonians included garlic in meals, while in 400 BCE, the Romans created a condiment from mustard by mixing its ground seeds with grape juice. In ancient Europe, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme were all widely used to turn cooked meats into palatable meals. Hundreds of years ago, a traveler to East Asia would have been treated to meals saturated in sesame seeds and ginger, and dinner on a Caribbean island would have contained plenty of jerk seasoning made from dried chiles, pepper, and allspice.

Herbs and spices were used not only to enhance flavor, but also to help preserve foods—particularly meats and fish—from spoilage. These properties were validated by Cornell University scientists who published a paper in the late 1990s showing that herbs such as garlic, onions, allspice, and oregano killed most of the potentially harmful bacteria found in foods across a variety of cultures, with other spices such as cinnamon, thyme, cumin, tarragon, and chile peppers substantially reducing the bacterial load, resulting in more healthy consumers.

Many other herbs have been used to beautify human appearances. The ancient Egyptians developed cosmetics made from the oils of herbs and other plants, including olives, almonds, cucumbers, figs, limes, lilies, and generous doses of frankincense and myrrh. Early Arab scientists invented a distillation process for extracting essential oils from flowers, such as roses, which they then used to make soaps, bath oils, and aromatic rose water. In medieval France, both men and women used pomanders—small balls of ambergris with herbs and perfumes added—to mask the stench of unsanitary surroundings.

The world’s earliest civilizations also built herb gardens to beautify the land. The legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon did not actually hang but rather grew on terraced rooftops built to resemble a mountain. The pleasure gardens of Persia, dating from 500 BCE, introduced the concept of arranging plants in regular, straight rows, while the people of ancient Rome grew herbs in the raised beds of their kitchen gardens. In medieval Europe, physic gardens produced a wide variety of culinary and medicinal botanicals.

Culturally and geographically, there are no limits to the uses humans have found for herbs. From the ancient Abyssinians, who stuffed their pillows with fresh celery leaves, to Native Americans who used pennyroyal as an insect repellent, people have always made herbs an essential part of their lives. Today, herbs of all kinds are found in foods and beverages, healing preparations, cosmetics, perfumes, and clothing dyes. They’re found growing in gardens and in the pages of medical texts and history books. There is no part of human culture that herbs have not transformed.

A great deal of the world’s herb lore, and many of its most highly regarded herbs, can be traced to Asia. The world’s largest continent is home to a wide range of plant habitats, from the barren wilderness of Arctic tundra to deserts to lush forests of every type: coniferous, oak, tropical rainforest, and bamboo. With so many people and such a diversity of plants, it’s not surprising that Asia has produced some of the oldest known herbal rituals, recipes, gardens, and systems of medicine. The most influential cultures in the region are two of the most populous countries: China and India. Over the millennia, their ancient herbal beliefs and practices spread throughout Asia, adapting to reflect the local flavor of countries such as Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Tibet.


According to legend, the first emperor of China, a sage named Fu Hsi (ca. 4000 BCE), single-handedly changed his people from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists. The plants they grew became integral to the spiritual beliefs of their early society, which included the I Ching, a system of divination.

The stalk of the yarrow plant (Achillea millefolium) was particularly significant in the I Ching: Fu Hsi instructed wise men to cast sticks of yarrow on the ground and interpret their arrangement in relation to each other in order to predict future events.

Chinese herbs and philosophy have always gone hand in hand, and they mix particularly well in the history of Chinese cooking. The great philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) believed that a good cook must be a skilled herbal matchmaker: Condiments and spices in food must blend harmoniously, or there would be no flavor. He would eat no meal that did not contain a little ginger.

Ancient practitioners of Taoism, another major Chinese philosophy, saw cooking less as the pursuit of beauty and more as the pursuit of health. Leaves, roots, stems, flowers, seeds, bark, and fungi were prepared, tested, and consumed for their health-promoting effects. As a result, most varieties of Chinese cuisine contained plenty of vegetables, grains, and herbs, all cooked in ways that ensured their medicinal value would not be lost.

Tea is an important crop throughout Asia.

Above, tea leaves are harvested on a plantation in China.

Herbal tea has a long history of use in China, dating back more than 4,000 years. According to legend, one of the first Chinese emperors, Yan Di (2852–2737 BCE), discovered the medicinal powers of tea by accident while he was testing the effects of other herbs on himself. After eating a poisonous plant, he fell to the ground on the verge of death. When a drop of water from the leaf of a tea plant fell into his open mouth, he was cured. During the early Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), Chinese people used tea as a religious offering and fresh vegetable. Later, during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), the drinking of tea became a cultural event. Tea shops opened throughout China, and a seminal book, Tea Classics, by Lu Yu, outlined the rules of growing and processing tea, as well as the etiquette of tea tasting. Tea ceremonies grew successively more refined, elaborate, and lengthy.

The first Chinese gardens were cultivated during the Zhou dynasty. Members of the aristocracy sectioned off particularly beautiful parts of the natural world to use for hunting and strolling. During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), wealthy Chinese developed an interest in constructing more personal gardens where they could display rare plants. By the 4th century, the literati of China became associated with scholar gardens—small, enclosed areas containing unusual rocks, water features, and interesting plants that reflected the personalities and knowledge of their owners. Chinese gardens across all eras were meant to be mirrors of the larger natural world, with the random placement of plants encouraged over geometric shapes and lines, and woody trees and green herbs favored over cultivated blossoms and flowerbeds. Chinese gardens, much like Chinese herbal medicines, were designed to create the perfect balance between the two opposing Taoist life energies, yin and yang.

Chinese Herbal Healing

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has very deep historical roots. Sometime between 2700 and 2600 BCE, the emperor Shen-Nung reputedly created the first Chinese written pharmacopoeia, called the Pen-ts’ao (Herbal). It was followed by the Huang-ti Nei ching (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine), allegedly written by the legendary Emperor Huang Ti (2697–2597 BCE). Near the end of the Han dynasty, a physician named Chang Chung-ching wrote the Shang Han Lun (or Treatise on Colds and Fevers), which eventually became the theoretical framework for all herbal prescriptions in TCM. It contained more than 100 formulas, many of which are used today.

In 1590, the herbalist Li Shih-Chen (1518–1593) published the Bencao Gangmu (Compendium of Materia Medica). It contained 11,000 prescriptions and formulas, analyzed 1,094 plant substances, filled 53 volumes, and took nearly 27 years to write. It became the first major Chinese work to be translated into Western languages, and its publication coincided with a dramatic rise in Chinese global exportation of herbs and spices.

In the early 20th century, interest in traditional herbal medicine waned for a time. China’s scientists were instructed to examine native plants using Western scientific methods, which resulted in many important discoveries, such as the isolation of the drug ephedrine from the Chinese ephedra (Ephedra sinica) plant. Ephedrine quickly became one of the world’s most effective decongestants and asthma treatments, and China became its principal supplier. The country also constructed modern hospitals and clinics and began using more advanced instruments and synthetic drugs.

After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, China’s leaders recognized that the most effective health-care system for the populous nation was a combination of Western and traditional methods. Colleges were established to train doctors in both disciplines, and an army of “barefoot doctors” was created to serve the rural population. As the demand for herbs increased, the Chinese government established a program of medicinal plant cultivation, setting aside thousands of acres solely for the production of medicinal herbs. Today, of the 35,000 species of plants growing in China’s various habitats, some 5,000 are used in TCM and provide 40 percent of all China’s pharmaceuticals.

These pages from the 1740 classic text of traditional Chinese medicine, Hu, Tsung-wen Shen-nung pen ts’ao pei yao i fang ho pien, or Herbal and Prescriptions, illustrate plants used medicinally.


Now practiced in many countries worldwide, traditional Tibetan medicine traces its history to 300 BCE. According to ancient legend, Tara, the Buddhist god of compassion, commanded two Indian physicians to go to Tibet to teach the ways of Buddhism, including the secrets of herbal healing. For their efforts, the doctors were granted immortality. Current folklore says that they live on today in the sandalwood forests of the region.

The doctors’ most famous relative was Yuthog Yonten Gonpo, who reportedly lived to the ripe old age of 125 during the 9th century. Yuthog established the first Tibetan medical school and wrote no fewer than 30 seminal herbal books, each incorporating many aspects of traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurveda. His research led him to reorganize and compile the Four Medical Tantras, the basis of Tibetan medicine. The first three tantras focus mainly on the study of behavior, diet, and the causes of diseases. The fourth is completely devoted to the use of herbs in medical treatment through pills, tonics, ointments, and moxibustion, which utilizes a substance called moxa, made from the herb mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). Heat from burning moxa is applied to specific external points on the body, activating the internal organs, increasing blood circulation, and improving the flow of ki, or life force (similar to the Chinese qi, sometimes spelled chi).

Though many of the medicinal herbs used in Tibet came from India and China, about one-third were unique to the region. The herbs were occasionally used to make powders or tonics, but pills, which were composed of as many as 25 herbal ingredients, were by far the most common form of Tibetan treatment.

In an area as difficult to navigate as mountainous Tibet, pills were the easiest form of medication to transport and administer to patients. They could be prepared in advance at a medical facility with access to a wide variety of herbs, then preserved by rolling them back and forth in cloth to reduce the air inside and prevent the growth of bacteria. Local doctors kept as many as 200 different varieties in stock to treat their patients.


Very early in its history, India became a coveted destination for traders eager to profit from the region’s bounty of native herbs and spices. In the early Middle Ages, the people of Europe and Mediterranean Africa developed a voracious appetite for the exotic spices of India and the Far East, including cinnamon, cloves, pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, and mace. Arabs, who occupied the middle ground between the two regions, became experts in spice trading, establishing overland east-to-west trade routes. Later, sea routes were added.

By the early 1600s, the Dutch East India Company had established a near-monopoly of the spice trade. The British, seeking a piece of this lucrative market, founded the British East India Company. Soon, British-built factories in India were profitably cultivating herbs such as tea and indigo by the ton. Seeking a permanent foothold in the region, the British negotiated a treaty with India that gave the East India Company exclusive rights to build factories in certain major ports.

By 1690, the British East India Company had become almost a subcountry within India. It minted its own money, acquired its own territories, held criminal jurisdiction, and commanded its own substantial army.

In 1773, lobbyists working on behalf of the East India Company convinced the British Parliament to ratify the Tea Act, which gave the company the right to trade tea tax-free to the American colonies. Outraged American merchants, who could not compete, stormed one of the company’s ships and dumped its entire cargo into Boston Harbor. The event, which became known as the Boston Tea Party, was one of the catalysts of the American War of Independence (1775–1783).

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), from which morphine and codeine are derived, was first cultivated in lower Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago.

OPIUM and the EAST

Science has never created a painkiller as effective as opium, a highly addictive natural derivative of the opium poppy. In the early 1800s, most opium poppies came from India, distributed to the world by the British East India Company. The Chinese port of Canton was a key trading hub; tons of opium were exchanged for manufactured goods and tea. As a result, millions of Chinese people became helpless opium addicts, spending their money in squalid urban opium parlors while their families suffered in poverty.

In the late 1830s, the Chinese government made an effort to address the problem. They destroyed opium reserves, prosecuted British traders, and attempted to close the country’s borders to opium trade. The British declared war on China, prevailing against them in a series of lopsided battles. In 1842, the Chinese were forced to agree to the Treaty of Nanking, a humiliating agreement that opened new trade ports to the British, exempted British nationals from Chinese law, and more than doubled the trade of opium to China.

The utter defeat of the Chinese in the Opium Wars, however, spurred the modernization of every aspect of Chinese culture. Investing heavily in scientific and technological research, China transformed itself from an undeveloped agricultural society to a world superpower in less than a century. Ironically, the country’s newly trained scientists also applied their skills to the study of opium, yielding derivative drugs such as morphine and codeine—important drugs used universally in medical care.

Indian Herbal Medicine

The bounty of herbs native to India gave rise to a system of medicinal and spiritual healing known as Ayurveda, meaning “science of life.” According to folklore, Ayurvedic herbal remedies were given to the people of India by the gods as early as 10,000 BCE. They were then incorporated into texts called Vedas, upon which the Hindu religion is based. The Rig Veda, dating to ca. 2000 BCE, lists more than 1,000 medicinal herbs and tells tales of gifted sages who unlocked the secrets of plants. These trained healers were said to be advanced in their methods: They performed surgery with instruments, cauterized wounds, constructed artificial limbs, and possibly pioneered the use of an anesthetic made from mushrooms.

Between the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE, the Charaka Samhita was written. One of the fundamental books on Ayurvedic medicine, the text lists 500 herb- and vegetable-based drugs classified into 50 groups based on their actions on the body. One important drug came from gotu kola (Centella asiatica), a key ingredient in a “miracle elixir” purported to extend life and cure leprosy.

Throughout India’s history, the influence of Ayurvedic medicine continued to spread, from the expansion of the Roman Empire into the region, to the Islamic invasions of the 16th century, to the period of British control in the 19th century. The Greek physician and botanist Dioscorides (40–90 CE) made many references to Indian herbalism in his De Materia Medica (The Materials of Medicine). The Book of Simple Drugs, by 12th-century Arabic pharmacologist Al-Ghafiqi, codified Ayurvedic healing prescriptions for the Islamic world. Today, Ayurvedic medicine is practiced worldwide, using herbal remedies that are much as they were centuries ago.

Other Uses of Herbs in India

India has a long history of vegetarianism, driven mainly by the Buddhist and Hindu religions, which hold many animals as sacred. Evidence suggests that Indian people were eating less meat and more cultivated vegetables, fruits, and cereals as early as 800 BCE. The Muslim invasions of India in the 16th century brought new herbal influences to India’s cuisine. The result: an Arabic-influenced Indian cuisine called Mughlai, known for its heavy use of Indian cream, butter, and rice, as well as spices such as cumin, cardamom, coriander, and turmeric. Meat dishes came back into vogue, garnished with pistachios, raisins, almonds, and cashews. Muslims also introduced the idea of ending a meal with dessert, usually a rice cake or wheat bread flavored with sugar, coconut, or rose water.

The cosmetic use of herbs in India coincides with the rise of the Buddhist and Hindu religions. Paintings found in caves in Ajanta (dating from the 2nd century BCE) and Ellora (dating to the 5th to 7th centuries CE) depict Buddhist men and women applying makeup and perfumes during religious ceremonies. Texts from the period suggest that these cosmetics were made from herbs such as turmeric, saffron, indigo, and nettles. Henna (Lawsonia inermis) was widely used as a reddish hair dye and conditioner. Early Hindus used herbal cosmetics as symbols of social class and religious adherence. Applied to the forehead as a sign of auspiciousness, the tilak is a dot of red turmeric powder or sandalwood paste. Perfumes made from agarwood (Aquilaria malaccensis) were worn to honor the gods, and incense from the tree was burned in Hindu ceremonies.

Although no archeological evidence remains of the earliest Indian gardens, 3,000-year-old Vedas give accounts of palaces surrounded by gardens of fruit trees and town houses with enclosed outdoor gardens. These cultivated areas were venerated by early Hindus, who saw the trees within gardens as the embodiment of the god Brahma, his roots firmly connected to the primal being of earth.

India is the largest consumer, producer, and exporter of chile peppers in the world today. The potency of the peppers is traditionally believed to have supernatural origins.

East and Southeast Asia

Historically, many of China’s neighbors borrowed heavily from China’s herbal traditions to create their medicinal systems. Over the years, however, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam also developed their own unique uses for herbs.

In Japan, the herbal medicine system of kampo traces its roots to the 7th century, when the empress Suiko sent emissaries to China to study and bring back theories of herbalism. Kampo takes its name from kan, meaning “ancient China,” and po, meaning “medicine.” The early practitioners of kampo were Buddhist monks who adhered to a strict vegetarian diet and rejected all Chinese remedies that contained animal products. This—along with the Buddhist ideals of simplicity, safety, and prevention—led the monks to reduce the tens of thousands of Chinese remedies to several hundred essential herbal treatments that are used in kampo.

In 20th-century Japan, as in China, the use of traditional medicinal methods declined in favor of Western medicine, only to return in recent decades as an integral part of the national health plan. Today, most Japanese physicians use a combination of Western and kampo medicine to treat patients.

Zen Buddhists in the 9th century also carried Chinese tea (Camellia sinensis) into Japan, beginning with traditional black tea and evolving into matcha, a powdered green tea. By the 13th century, Japanese samurai warriors had laid the foundations of the formal Japanese tea ceremony, characterized by wabi, or quiet, sober refinement.

In Korea and Vietnam, the most important contributions to herbal history were medicinal. Korean healers adapted many of the tenets of Chinese medicine for their own use. Published in 1433, the Hyangyakjibsongbang presents more than 10,000 uniquely Korean prescriptions and describes the collection and preparation methods for 700 Korean herbs. The Uibangryuchi, a 365-volume medical encyclopedia published a decade later, outlines methods for preventing 95 diseases.

Vietnam’s earliest pharmacopoeia is the 14th-century Thuoc nam, which describes 650 indigenous herbs and their medicinal uses. The practices described continued even as Western medical techniques and pharmaceuticals were adopted. During World War II, when supplies of antimalarial quinine were cut off, Vietnamese malaria patients were treated using extracts of chang shan (Dichroa febrifuga), also referred to in English as Chinese quinine, a shrub found in parts of temperate and tropical Asia.

Western Asia

The civilizations of Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq and Syria, were the first to develop irrigated agriculture. Sometime between 4500 and 3000 BCE, the Sumerians who settled in this fertile area began harvesting crops of barley, growing orchards, and inscribing on stone or clay tablets the medicinal uses of herbs. Their herbal healers were experts at mixing plant resins and animal fat to apply to wounds.

In this same region, from 3000 to 400 BCE, the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians established cities with wondrous gardens. The most famous were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, said to have been built around 600 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar II as a gift to his favorite wife, Amyitis. He built a mountain of massive stone buildings with terraces so that trees, flowering plants, and herbs could be grown on the rooftops and terraces. Written descriptions of other gardens of the time suggest that the Babylonians grew such herbs as saffron, mandrake, anise, and thyme. One tablet from an Assyrian library, dated ca. 660 BCE, identifies more than 250 plant-based drugs made from opium poppies, myrrh, crocus, cannabis, hellebore, and other herbs.

After Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) conquered most of the lands between Greece and Persia, both Greek herbal medicine and the gardening styles of Mesopotamia spread throughout the known world. By late Biblical times (300 BCE–100 CE), cumin, bay, garlic, grapes, marjoram, mustard, pomegranates, and many other herbs were being cultivated in the area. Herbs mentioned in the New Testament include mint and dill (flavorings), spikenard and frankincense (perfumes), and aloe (used to anoint the body of Christ).




Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora)

Muscle and joint pain reliever

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)

Flavoring for baked goods and curries

Chinese licorice (Glycyrrhiza uralensis)

Treatment for lung conditions and coughs

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)

Digestive aid

Ephedra (Ephedra sinica)

Bronchial congestion reliever

Forsythia (Forsythia suspensa)

Treatment for acute infection

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

Blood circulation stimulant to the brain

Ginseng (Panax ginseng)

Chinese culinary ingredient, healthful tonic

Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)

Circulatory stimulant

Guggul (Commiphora wightii)

Cholesterol reducer

Jasmine (Jasminum sambac)

Tea flavoring, used in perfumery

Myrobalan (Terminalia chebula)

Considered a cure-all in Ayurvedic medicine

Peony (Paeonia lactiflora)

Treatment for gout and osteoarthritis, regulates menses

Pepper (Piper nigrum)

Treatment for abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea

Qing hao (Artemisia annua)

Treatment for fevers, including those from malaria

Rhubarb (Rheum spp.)


Sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera)

Treatment for blood in the urine

Sandalwood (Santalum album)

Pain reliever, used in perfumery

Serpentwood (Rauvolfia serpentina)

Sedative and tranquilizer, treatment for hypertension

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Wound healer, antiseptic

Arabic Herbalism

At the height of the Roman Empire, spice traders from the area around present-day Saudi Arabia supplied Roman dinner tables with pepper, cinnamon, and cloves in return for gold. As the power of the empire began to wane, the Arabs began to incorporate the teachings of the great Greek and Roman physicians and herbalists into their culture. From the founding of Islam in the 6th century, the Arabic world became the center of scientific and medical knowledge. By the 9th century, surgical hospitals had been built in Baghdad, as well as pharmacies that dispensed herbal medicines.

Arab physicians used hollow needles to deliver medicines and administered herbal anesthetics. The most important Arabic herbalist and physician was Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Sina (980–1037), known to the Western world as Avicenna. His Canon of Medicine became the definitive tome on herbal medicine in the Arab world, and its influence spread through Europe as Crusaders carried it back to their home countries from the Middle East; it was widely utilized as a standard medical text until the 18th century.

As early as the 7th century, Arab alchemists had developed a process for distilling rose oil, which was used to purify mosques, infuse prayer beads with fragrance, sprinkle guests as they entered houses, and flavor everything from sherbet to candy. They isolated the essential oils of other herbs, too, and through this work, aromatherapy developed as a popular medical treatment. During the Middle Ages, much of the Arab world used aromatic baths, powders, and salves to cure a variety of ills. Arabic science and herbal medicine remained highly influential throughout the Western world for hundreds of years.

The history of herbs in Europe is a grand collage of plants and traditions from all over the world. Europeans have always imported ideas about herbal medicine, cosmetics, gardening, cooking, and the plants themselves from Asia, Africa, the islands of the Pacific, and the shores of the New World. Today, travelers to Europe are as likely to stumble upon an Ayurvedic bookstore or Japanese garden as they are a French perfumery or Italian spice shop. Europe is also home to some of the world’s most famous and sought-after indigenous herbs, including lavender, oregano, rosemary, and bay.

Ancient Greece and Rome

The long culture of herb use in Europe begins with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Greek mythology offers dozens of elaborate legends that explain the origins of important plants and herbs. For instance, as Hera, the queen of the gods, nursed her son Hercules, a few drops of milk are said to have fallen to the ground. In this spot, the first white lily grew. According to another legend, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is said to have pricked her foot on the thorn of a white rose on the way to meet her lover, Adonis. Her blood turned the rose red, making it the ultimate symbol of love.

One of Greece’s most enduring herbal legacies comes from the myth of Apollo and Daphne. Apollo berated the young Cupid one day, saying that a god of love should not play with bows and arrows. In revenge, Cupid fired an arrow into Apollo to ignite love, and another into the beautiful maiden Daphne to repel love. From then on, Apollo pursued Daphne relentlessly until, finally, Daphne begged the river god, Peneus, to help her escape, and he transformed her into a laurel tree. Upon seeing her new form, Apollo declared the laurel (Laurus nobilis) sacred and wore a wreath of laurel around his head as a sign of his undying love and honor. This is why athletes in the first Greek Olympic Games were crowned with laurel, and it is the origin of many terms depicting high honors.

Several other herbs gained special, and sometimes superstitious, significance in ancient Greece and Rome. Many Greeks avoided bush basil (Ocimum minimum) because they believed that scorpions would breed under pots of it, while the Roman name for basil was basilescus because Romans believed that ingesting it protected warriors from the deadly gaze of the basilisk, a mythical serpent. Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) was a symbol of love and peace. The Greeks believed that anointing themselves with this small-leafed herb before they went to sleep would cause them to dream of their future spouses. They also planted it on graves to comfort the dead and provide them eternal peace.

The Getty Villa and garden in Los Angeles, which was inspired by blueprints of an ancient Roman villa, features symmetrical beds of flowers, fruit trees, and herbs, as well as ponds and statues. The herb garden contains wormwood, calamint, lavender, rosemary, and other period herbs.

Greek students wore rosemary braids around their necks or in their hair because they believed it would improve their memory when taking written tests. Romans who were overly fond of food would chew stalks of fennel because they believed it would control obesity. Both the Greeks and Romans used thyme in massage oils, bath oils, perfumes, and incense, and Roman soldiers bathed in thyme-scented water for good luck and honor before going into battle.

According to written records, the Romans ate vegetables and herbs with almost every meal. A light lunch, or prandium, often included olives, nuts, and figs. Dinner, or cena, was a more elaborate affair, especially for wealthy Romans. The main course typically was meat accompanied by vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, celery, and peas, seasoned with dill, coriander, chervil, and even opium. Wild blackberries, strawberries, and crabapples were served along with cultivated plums, grapes, medlars (Mespilus spp.), mulberries, and other fruits.

The Romans grew many of their herbs using gardening techniques developed by the Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians, but the enclosed courtyard villa gardens they designed were uniquely Roman. In these villa courtyards, raised flowerbeds were arranged symmetrically alongside herb beds of dill, fennel, bay, rosemary, myrtle, and parsley, all interspersed with topiaries, trees, canals, fountains, and statues collected from Greece. Even in the cities, Roman houses were designed with garden rooms open to the sky. Their orderly rows of herbs and flowers extended to the walls, which were painted with scenes of plant rows extending into the distance to give the impression of a larger villa garden.

Greek and Roman Medicine

Herbs played a prominent role in ancient Greek and Roman medicine. Hippocrates (460–375 BCE), author of the Hippocratic Oath and described by many as the father of modern medicine, was among the first in the Western world to reject the idea that diseases were caused by magic, hexes, or the gods. He offered rational explanations and believed that the body should be treated as a whole, considering all aspects of life to be potential contributors to both sickness and health. Hippocrates assigned health effects to the different herbs used in food, categorizing them as hot, cold, dry, or damp. His natural healing process included a balance of these herb types, along with exercise and fresh air. He rarely prescribed drugs to his patients, instead believing in a gentler approach and that, in many cases, the body would rebalance itself over time.

Like most Europeans throughout history, the Greeks and Romans drew much of their herbal knowledge from other civilizations, such as Egypt, Assyria, Persia, and India. The first of the Greek philosophers and doctors to compile this collected learning was Theophrastus (371–287 BCE). As inheritor of the library of Aristotle and an avid student of the many regions conquered by Alexander the Great, Theophrastus might have known more about the world’s botany than any man before him. His two surviving works, Historia Plantarum (The History of Plants) and De Causis Plantarum (The Growth of Plants), described the structure, growth, habitat, cultivation, and medicinal uses of hundreds of herbs and became the basis of all botanical understanding for centuries to come.

In 77 CE, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) expanded on Theophrastus’s work in his 37-volume Naturalis Historiae (Natural History). Nearly half of the volumes describe the many uses of plants, from producing olive oil to spinning flax; several explain in detail herbal drugs and treatments for diseases. Pliny was the first to categorize herbal drugs according to the type of plant from which they derived. For example, one volume covered drugs derived from garden plants such as garlic and cabbage, one covered those from wild plants such as aconite and wormwood, and another covered drugs from forest trees such as cork and juniper.

The Great Meteoron monastery in Thessaly, Greece, was founded around 1340 by the scholar monk of Mount Athos, Saint Athanasios Meteorites.

During the first century, Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 CE) traveled extensively around the Mediterranean with the Roman legions. Between battles, he studied local herbs and their uses. The result of his research was the first true herbal, De Materia Medica, which describes nearly 600 medicinal plants and close to 5,000 cures, including the use of parsley as a diuretic, fennel to promote the flow of mother’s milk, and white horehound with honey as an expectorant. The De Materia Medica became the chief reference of herbalists from Italy to Scandinavia, and from Britain to Russia. Its influence lasted for more than 1,500 years.

Less than a century after the publication of Dioscorides’s pathbreaking work, the great Greek physician Aelius Galenus (130–200 CE)—known as Galen—promoted the idea of a system of four humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile—similar to the Ayurvedic system in India. A higher or lower level of any one of these humors not only affected a person’s health, but his personality and mood, as well. Galen wrote more than 500 treatises on medicine, only one of which has survived to this day—a recipe book of 130 herbal antidotes and medicines, each designed to bring one or more of the humors back into balance. Like the writings of Dioscorides, Galen’s theories of humors and herbal healing were followed by practitioners throughout Europe for 1,600 years.

The Middle Ages

In Europe, the Middle Ages were a time of few advancements and many superstitions in herbal lore. In an era that witnessed Druid rituals and the practice of witchcraft, herbs played a major role in daily life, even if their uses often were informed by fantasy and imagination rather than scientific experimentation. Nearly every tree, bush, or root in the forest was believed to have some sort of magical power. For instance, the elder tree (Sambucus nigra) was considered sacred in Germany and Denmark, particularly among gypsies, who believed that if a cradle was made from its wood, the Hylde Moer, or Elder Mother, would strangle the baby in revenge. Pagan fertility rituals in Britain coincided with the annual first bloom of midland hawthorn, or mayflower (Crataegus laevigata). On May Day, celebrants would go “a-maying”—they would crown a May Queen with wreaths of hawthorn in the hope that a bountiful harvest would follow.

The folklore surrounding European mistletoe (Viscum album) was especially colorful. Druids in Britain and Gaul (France) carried branches of mistletoe to celebrate the New Year, and since mistletoe could only be cut during a certain phase of the moon and with a sacred golden knife, these branches were known as golden boughs. Germans thought that mistletoe gave people the power to see ghosts. The Norse believed the plant was banished to the treetops because a Norse god had been killed by a mistletoe dart, and people meeting beneath a mistletoe branch were required to kiss to compensate for the god’s death.

Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) was believed to have even more fantastic powers. European practitioners of witchcraft believed mandrake enabled them to fly. In fact, when the plant is rubbed against the skin or crushed and inhaled, it has an intoxicating effect that could evoke a feeling of flying! This is due to the presence of powerful and potentially toxic tropane alkaloids that produce hallucinations. Because mandrake root resembles a human figure, many believed it would make a shrieking sound when pulled from the ground. They feared that anyone who heard the shriek would die instantly, so they often harvested the plant by tying a dog to it, then calling to the dog from a safe distance. The 1st-century historian Josephus provided precise directions for harvesting mandrake, noting that the dog pulling it up would die “instead of his master.”

For centuries throughout Europe, people continued to believe strongly in the magical power of herbs. They wore them around their necks as amulets to ward off evil spells, mixed them into ointments to prevent baldness and sunburn, hung them from doorways as charms to protect cattle or cure madness, and combined them with ale, milk, vinegar, or honey to create powerful potions.

Medieval Europeans also used herbs liberally in their daily diets, as did the ancient Greeks and Romans. The use of spices was more than a matter of enlivening dull food. With few fresh vegetables and no refrigeration to preserve meat, spices were needed to make such fare palatable, to mask repulsive odors and flavors, and even to reduce contamination by killing organisms that could make a person eating it get sick.

Most people usually gathered herbs such as horseradish, parsley, and fennel locally, from nearby fields and forests, but those with more social status and larger incomes relied on intrepid explorers to import exotic spices from the Far East. The kings and gentry of Europe often ate meals and drank wines seasoned with cinnamon, pepper, and ginger grown and harvested continents away.

Medieval Europeans also had spectacular gardens of their own. While herbal medicine and scientific knowledge advanced little over the course of 1,000 years, the art of gardening went through several phases. After the fall of the Roman Empire, most of the gardening in Europe took place within the walls of monasteries. Gardening was considered a devout duty for monks. By the time the Benedictine order was founded in Italy in the 6th century, the importance of gardening was second only to prayer in the monastic hierarchy. For the European fiefdoms, monasteries acted as cottage industries that produced fruits and herbs for food, flavoring, medicine, incense, dye, and additives for wine and ale.

The first person to record the monastic theories of gardening was Walahfrid Strabo (ca. 808–849 CE), the abbot of Reichenau, in Switzerland. His book, Hortulus, a collection of poems, was an ode to his love of the labor of gardening, as well as an elaborate instruction manual on horticulture and healing herbs. He explained how to grow plants in raised beds just as the Romans had 1,000 years earlier, and he offered planting directions for the dozens of plants he tended.

Saint Hildegard (1098–1179), the abbess of Bingen, followed with four treatises on medicinal herbs. Recognized for her great powers as a healer, Hildegard wrote about the abbey’s fragrant herbs and how they were used in perfumes and medicinal concoctions such as lavender water, aqua mirabilis (miracle water), Benedictine liqueur, and the highly prized Carmelite water.

By the 13th century, products such as Carmelite water—a fragrance and complexion aid made from lemon balm, nutmeg, coriander, and angelica root—had prompted many wealthy Europeans to seek instruction from monks and nuns on how to grow gardens of their own. These ranged from simple household gardens stocked with herbs for the kitchen and flowers for the table to elaborate pleasure gardens with a center lawn surrounded by sweet-smelling herbs such as sage, rue, and basil, plus shade trees, benches, and a few resident peacocks for a splash of color.

In 1545, gardening in Europe took an educational turn: The first physic (herbal medicine) garden was commissioned by the University of Padua in Italy for the purpose of teaching botany and herbal medicine. During those days, there was a great deal of confusion about the identity of certain medicinal plants, and it was possible to confuse a healing herb with an ineffective or even toxic species. The Garden of Padua was established to standardize the identification of plants used in medicine and to train botanists and physicians in the plants’ proper identification and use.

A century later, universities all over Europe had established physic gardens. How they were used determined much of their design; at the University of Edinburgh, for example, herbs were arranged in rows by alphabetical order. The educational value of physic gardens grew as explorers carried new plant species back to Europe from all over the world and as scientists grew ever hungrier for knowledge about how herbs could be used.


Walahfrid Strabo was a prolific individual who died tragically in his third decade of life while attempting to cross a river in France. Hortulus (The Little Garden), a collection of 27 short poems, is his only journey into the world of nature and is thought to be his best and most memorable work. His garden was a kitchen garden—a space protected by the monastery’s walls, inside which he grew vegetables, spices, and medicinal herbs, tending his plants with great care. While no original of this work written by Strabo himself still exists, four medieval manuscripts are believed to have been produced by scribes. One of them was translated into English and published by the Hunt Botanical Library in 1966. In the poem “On the Cultivation of Gardens,” Strabo noted:

Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts

the gardener’s multifarious wealth, and if you do not

Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air

Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched soil—

Then, you may rest assured, your soil will not fail you.

In Hortulus, Strabo wrote of 29 plants growing in his garden, most likely his favorites among many more. Of fennel he wrote:

Let us not forget to honor fennel. It grows

On a strong stem and spreads its branches wide.

Its taste is sweet enough, sweet too its smell;

They say it is good for eyes whose sight is clouded,

That its seed, taken with milk from a pregnant goat,

Eases a swollen stomach and quickly loosens

Sluggish bowels. What is more, your rasping cough

Will go if you take fennel-root mixed with wine.

The plants in his collection of 9th-century garden poems were actually medicines, and the poems were a medical guide for the day, meant to foster health and healing. The poems highlighted food plants, as well as medicinal herbs such as chervil, clary, mint, sage, and tansy.

The Global Spice Race

Throughout history, Europeans traveled the world searching for new trade goods and establishing better trade routes. Herbs and spices have been among the most valuable commodities, and the ancient Greeks and Romans were the first Europeans to seek them out. Since the seas were considered treacherous and unpredictable, the majority of trade with the Far East took place over land, until 40 CE, when a Greek merchant named Hippalus made a discovery about the monsoon patterns over the Indian Ocean.

Hippalus realized that a ship leaving Egypt could reach India or the Indonesian Spice Islands faster by traveling with the prevailing southwesterly winds that blow in the summer months, and it could return more easily on the northeasterly winds of winter. Using this knowledge, a major expedition could be completed in just 1 year. The Romans took particular advantage of this insight, importing tons of pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg and decreasing their reliance on the overland trade routes through Persia.

Few new trade routes were discovered until the 13th century, when Marco Polo (1254–1324) traveled from Venice through southwestern Asia, across the vast Gobi desert, and into Mongolia and China to be presented at the court of Kublai Khan. When he returned to Europe 24 years later, his travel journal sparked renewed interest in finding quicker, safer trade routes to the Far East. Many explorers followed over the next 200 years. On separate voyages, Bartolomeu Dias (1450–1500) and Vasco da Gama (1469–1524) navigated the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, opening a direct sea route from Europe to the East. Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) set out in search of a westerly route to the East Indies and discovered the herbal riches of the Americas, instead. Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521) circumnavigated the globe and discovered the Philippine Islands, leading to the establishment of Manila as one of the world’s great spice trading capitals.


Many botanical gardens and universities have collections of rare books, often kept in a room designated as such. In the fields of botanical and horticultural bibliography, The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) has one of the world’s greatest collections of rare medieval and renaissance herbals, housed in the rare book room of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library. From time to time in the course of my research I’ve walked through this extraordinary facility, which is filled with shelves and shelves of ancient books and manuscripts.

The oldest item in the collection, a manuscript known as Circa Instans, is considered a “fundamental work of Western science.” Lacking a title page, the work is known by the first two words of the manuscript, Circa Instans. This work of medicinal simples, or basic ingredients used in formulating medicines, is thought to have been written around 1140. Although the original document is believed to be lost, the Mertz Library has the oldest-known existing copy, most likely written around 1190 by Mattheaus Platearius, a physician from the medical school at Salerno.

The book’s original purpose was to help standardize information about the ingredients used to produce early medical prescriptions, replacing chaos with order—with the goal of improving a patient’s chances of recovering from his or her specific health condition. It describes, for instance, three types of aloe recognized at the time—citrinum (lemon yellow), epaticum (liver colored), and caballinum (horse aloe).

Recently, I went through the notes on this book made by my late colleague Frank J. Anderson, an internationally recognized scholar on herbals who translated the manuscript in the 1970s. Regarding the beneficial properties of aloe, his translation noted:

It [aloe] clears the vision, opens stoppages of the spleen and liver, brings on menstruation . . . and purifies scabies. It will also restore color to the body if the pallor resulted from a preceding ailment, and is curative of alopecia and falling hair. . . . Although aloe is bitter in the mouth, still the stomach is sweetened by it. From which words rises the saying, “cure the pain of the stomach by way of the stomach’s mouth,” which is to say, “a bitter mouth makes a sweet stomach.”

Anderson called Circa Instans the “prototype of the modern pharmacopoeia,” and it was an influential reference in medicine until the beginning of the 15th century. “Of course modern science has long since outgrown the Circa, just as Newton surpassed Euclid, and Einstein overshadowed Newton, but each built on work that had gone before and gladly acknowledged their debt,” wrote Anderson in his classic 1977 work, An Illustrated History of the Herbals. “The Circa may not be consulted nowadays in the prescription room of your corner drugstore, nor in pharmaceutical laboratories, but it was a major instrument in making those places possible.”

Described by Marie Long, NYBG’s reference librarian, as “. . . some of the first real scientific work in medicine that we know of,” Circa Instans documented firsthand experiences and observations of the physicians at the School of Salerno and guided healers of the day in identifying the exotic plant material arriving from around the world to the Mediterranean region. Carefully preserved, protected, and translated, this wonderful volume is the “rarest of the rare” in this great bibliographic collection.—M. J. B.

The Age of Herbals

Advances in gardening and herbal knowledge in 16th-century Europe led to the publication of several new and interesting herbals. In earlier centuries, herbals for the common person were copied by hand from ancient Greek or Roman works, and repeated translations over the years caused many errors. But when printing presses came into use in the 1400s, authors could make more accurate plant descriptions and detailed illustrations available to the public, without the risk of adding errors with each printing. This helped renew interest in botany and the uses of herbs.

New Kreüterbuch (1543) and De Historia Stirpium (1545) by Leonhard Fuchs (1501–1566) of Germany were pioneering works in herbal publishing. The books contained more than 500 large, clear, woodcut prints of plant specimens with little or no text. As a doctor and professor of medicine, Fuchs felt compelled to create accurate depictions of medicinal herbs, having witnessed ignorance among the general public and even among his fellow physicians. Although his illustrations became extremely popular and were widely copied throughout Europe, Fuchs’s writing didn’t include anything new. Like most European authors before him, he simply rehashed the herbal remedies of Theophrastus and Dioscorides.

While Fuchs borrowed from the works of the ancient Romans, a charismatic Swiss physician and alchemist who called himself Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (1493–1541) built on them. He traveled throughout Europe, Egypt, and the Middle East researching folk remedies and considered himself a practical man who spoke for the common people. He rejected Latin and wrote most of his books in German. He also rejected Galen’s theory of four humors, which had been practiced and mandated by the medical establishment for nearly 1,500 years.

Paracelsus was the first European to promote the idea of evidence-based medicine. He believed the active ingredient in each substance (animal, vegetable, or mineral) could be identified, extracted, and purified, and then prescribed in the correct dose to heal the sick. This approach led to the development of new herbal treatments—he dissolved opium in alcohol to produce laudanum, a highly effective painkiller—and to the debunking of current ones—he demonstrated that guaiac (Guaiacum officinale) imported from the West Indies was not an effective treatment for syphilis, as most Europeans believed, but that small doses of toxic mercury were very effective.


The Doctrine of Signatures maintains that a plant’s therapeutic value can be determined from its unique shape, color, aroma, and other characteristics. For instance, a plant with a thick, curled root would be useful for curing snakebite. Rauvolfia serpentina,also known as Indian snakeroot, was used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat snakebites (as well as other conditions) and eventually found its way into Western medicine as an early antihypertensive drug. According to the Doctrine, a plant with a yellow root or leaf might be useful to treat jaundice, associated with yellowing of the eyes and skin.

Exploring the Doctrine of Signatures in a 2008 article in Herbal-Gram, ethnobotanist Dr. Bradley Bennett wrote, “Some believe that the Creator gave physical clues about the value he imbued to plants. In 1669 Oswaldus Crollius wrote: ‘All herbs, flowers, trees and other things which proceed out of the Earth, are books, and magick signs, communicated to us, by the immense mercy of God, which signs are our medicine. . . . for every thing that is intrinsic, bears the external figure of its occult property . . . ’”

So many of the traditional cultures I have worked with—in habitats ranging from deserts to rainforests to high mountains—believe that many plants indicate their uses in this way. An inflorescence shaped like the stinger of a venomous insect can be used to treat the injury from that insect; plants with red leaves are good for treating the blood; and so forth. It really is impressive how ubiquitous this belief is and how well it was embedded in the most ancient of medical theories on the initial identification of plants with therapeutic properties.

But Dr. Bennett offers a more likely interpretation: This theory was not used to discover plants, but to explain and teach their therapeutic uses, as a mnemonic device to help retain and communicate this information to the vast audience of people interested in healing techniques and tools.

As any contemporary student knows, mnemonics are effective for memorizing and retaining information about complicated processes and phenomena. In this case, could there be any better way to learn about the therapeutic properties and preparation of so many medicinal plants?—M. J. B.

The Doctrine of Signatures

Paracelsus also believed that each and every plant was marked by God with a distinctive sign. This sign was both the key to unlocking the plant’s active ingredient and a clear indicator of God’s purpose for the plant. This theory was not entirely new, but it did take on new prominence in the world of herbalists when Jakob Böhme (1575–1624) codified it in Signatura Rerum (The Signature of All Things). This Doctrine of Signatures was extremely popular with the public because it made herbal remedies more identifiable and accessible. The spotted leaves of lungwort (Mertensia spp.), for example, were shaped vaguely like lungs, so clearly, the plant could be used to treat lung ailments. Goldenrod was yellow, so it must be an effective treatment for jaundice. Unfortunately, these simplistic “signatures” rarely corresponded with the actual medicinal values of their plants, and hundreds of new herbal myths grew without thorough scientific testing.

Gerard, Parkinson, and Culpeper

In the late 16th century, English herbalists began to make their mark with books that added to both the fact and fiction of herbal knowledge. John Gerard’s classic Generall Historie of Plantes relied very heavily on an earlier Belgian herbalist’s work. It was supplemented by Gerard’s personal observations, some quite accurate and others based more on popular beliefs of the time. Gerard’s book painstakingly described the proper care and use of thousands of herbs, including many exotics given to him by traveling friends.

Besides advocating aromatherapy and the absorption of herbal oils through the skin, Gerard believed herbal tonics could soothe the mind and spirit. Among his recommended herbal treatments were peony seeds in wine, taken to ward off nightmares, and concoctions made from rosemary, taken to comfort the brain.

In 1640, another English herbalist, John Parkinson (1567–1650) published a far more ambitious work. The Theatrum Botanicum consisted of 1,700 pages covering more than 3,800 plants from throughout the world. Unlike his predecessors, Parkinson combined horticulture, botany, pharmacy, and history in one volume. He made the first serious attempt to classify plants into similar groups, which he called “tribes.” Among his fascinating tribe descriptions are “hot and sharpe biting plants,” “strange and outlandish plants,” and “venomous sleepy and hurtfull plants and their counter poisons.”

The most successful English herbalist was Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654). First, he translated the London Pharmacopoeia from Latin to English and published it for the masses as A Physical Directory. In effect, this put herbal medical knowledge, previously accessible only to doctors, into the hands of the apothecaries who, at the time, did most of the prescribing. This made Culpeper popular with members of the general public, but decidedly less so with the medical establishment.

In another book, The English Physician, published in 1652, Culpeper, a devoted astrologer, ascribed a celestial cause to every illness, with a corresponding treatment based on the planetary aspect of every plant. He believed the planet Venus, for example, governed the sexual organs and that emollients made from heavily scented Venusian plants, such as the Damascus rose or apple blossom, could be used to create a desired sexual effect. Jupiter, decreed Culpeper, ruled the liver, spleen, and kidney, so plants that astrologers associated with Jupiter, such as chestnut and apricot, could be used to treat problems with these organs.

Culpeper’s books and theories soon were eclipsed by the more rigorous science of his contemporaries. In 1646, Sir Thomas Browne published Pseudodoxia Epidemica (or Vulgar Errors), which challenged some of the superstitions and beliefs of his day. This book went through five editions, the final one appearing in 1672. As explorers brought home new plants from newly discovered continents and physic gardens appeared in more and more universities, European physicians, scientists, and pharmacologists made concerted efforts to unlock the true medicinal values of all herbs, familiar and new.




Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Treatment for skin irritations and wounds

Dandelion (Taraxacum offinale)

Strong diuretic

Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna)

Poison, sedative

Hops (Humulus lupulus)


Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)

Shampoo ingredient

Lavender (Lavandula spp.)

Perfumery, aromatherapy

Oregano (Origanum spp.)

Culinary herb

Saffron (Crocus sativus)

Dye and culinary herb

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

Culinary herb, digestive aid

Yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea)

Treatment for gastrointestinal disorders

Science and Cross-Pollination

In the 18th century, colonists traveling to the New World carried with them European plants, herbal books, and gardening styles. In return, traders carried back New World herbs such as tobacco, tomatoes, and corn. The European public quickly found domestic uses for these plants, while the scientific community explored the medicinal possibilities of herbs such as Jesuits’ bark (several species in the genus Cinchona), the source of antimalarial quinine, and sassafras (Sassafras albidum), which was believed at the time to cure venereal diseases.

The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes by botanist and herbalist John Gerard, first published in 1597, was one of the most well known of the English herbals. It discussed the therapeutic application and folklore of healing plants.

In Europe, as the Age of Reason led to the Industrial Revolution, scientists became ever more disciplined in their approach to herbal medicine. They learned how to distill the active ingredients in plants and, eventually, were able to chemically synthesize beneficial molecules and oils. The science of botany continued to develop, with writers and artists creating highly accurate textbooks on the plant world that supplanted the sometimes highly subjective herbals.

In gardening, the formal gardens of the French chateaux gave way to a deliberately informal approach. Symmetry was discarded in favor of the creation of natural landscapes. Yet simple cottage and kitchen gardens never went out of style. In urban centers, the limitations of space led to the invention of the window box, and more and more people moved their plants indoors to grow in pots. Even as scientific advances moved Europeans further from nature, they still found ways to connect with the textures, scents, and flavors of their favorite herbs.

Africa hosts a large variety of herbs that are the result of its many climatic regions. The range spans from the culinary herbs of the fertile Mediterranean coast to the cosmetic herbs of the northeastern regions to the medicinal plants found in the desert oases, dry savannas, mountainous woodlands, and lush rain-forests of the central and southern parts of the continent.

Ancient Egypt

The history of herb use in Africa begins in ancient Egypt, where pharaohs and commoners alike used herbal medicines extensively. Some of the world’s earliest known herb gardens were planted nearly 4,000 years ago in Egypt, often near temples where certain herbs and flowers were needed on a daily basis for worship. One such flower, the water lily or lotus (Nymphaea lotus), was considered sacred, and every part of the lotus plant was used in Egyptian art, food, and medicine.

Another very important herb, garlic, was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen (1341–1323 BCE) and was thought to possess magical powers. If Egyptians took a solemn oath, they swore on a clove of garlic, and garlic was eaten by slaves as they built the great pyramids at Giza because it was believed that it would endow the workers with strength and endurance. Frankincense and myrrh were important in Egyptian rituals, as well. Reliefs in the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut (ca. 1512–1457 BCE) in Luxor show frankincense trees growing in pots. Myrrh was believed to cure cancer, leprosy, and syphilis and was used in embalming.

Believing they could keep alive the souls of the departed by preserving their bodies, the Egyptians developed embalming and mummification. They first removed the brain and all internal organs except for the heart, which was believed essential to the survival of the soul. The body cavities were then cleansed with frankincense, myrrh, and palm wine. Moisture was removed with natron (a mix of sodium compounds), and the cavities were packed with linens, salt, muslin packets of wood shavings, and spices such as cinnamon, chamomile, cassia, anise, marjoram, and cumin. The eyes were replaced with glass or gems, the skin was painted to give it a lifelike hue, and the body was rubbed with a mixture of five oils: frankincense, myrrh, lotus, palm, and cedar. Finally, the body was wrapped in linen and sealed with natural resin. The process took about 70 days.

The Ebers papyrus records Egyptian herbal drugs and treatments, some of which date to the first Egyptian dynasty.

The earliest surviving scrolls date to 2000 BCE, but the Egyptians were administering herbal treatments long before that. The most valuable source of herbal information is a remarkable papyrus dated to ca. 1550 BCE and looted from a tomb of the 18th dynasty. Bought by the German Egyptologist Georg Ebers (1837–1898), the Ebers papyrus is a complete, undamaged scroll about 65 feet long and containing 3,000 lines of hieratic text (an ancient Egyptian writing system). It compiles treatments, diagnoses, prescriptions, and even surgical techniques dating back to the first Egyptian dynasty, or around 3400 BCE. It lists 811 medicinal drugs and their presumed effects, including poppies to induce sleep, aloe to treat excess mucus, and crocus to be used as a diuretic. It also describes the healing effects of anise, mustard, linseed, peppermint, watermelon, fenugreek, caraway, wormwood, elderberry, fig, nasturtium, flax, and—of course—garlic. These herbs are prescribed in complex and carefully measured recipes and are recommended for administration as ointments, infusions, pills, gargles, snuffs, poultices, suppositories, and enemas.

Perfumes and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt

Wall paintings show that most Egyptians, from childhood on, wore a heavy black makeup called kohl. Kohl was a fairly toxic mixture of galena (lead sulfate), powdered malachite, frankincense gum, and goose fat placed in cow dung and burned, then pounded in a mortar with milk and rainwater, decanted, and finally dried and formed into tablets or eye pencils. These valuable beauty products were kept in ceremonial jars, many of which have been found buried in tombs with the kohl still inside.

The Egyptians used the dried powdered leaves of henna (Lawsonia inermis) to dye their nails, palms, soles, fingertips, and moustaches a rich orange-red color. Mixed with indigo, henna was used as early as 3200 BCE to dye hair, as well as the manes and tails of horses. Henna tattoos were applied to the chests, shoulders, arms, and thighs of exotic dancers, musicians, and servants.

Beauty creams were commonly used by ancient Egyptians. These included depilatories made of gum, cucumber, and fig juice; cleansing lotions of oil and lime; and hair tonics of lettuce, fir oil, and juniper berries. Daily applications of wrinkle creams were made from frankincense gum, the oil of the moringa tree, and fermented cyperus grass. Papyrus scrolls dating from 2700 BCE describe fragrant herbs, oils, perfumes, and incense being used in ceremonies and as protective skin salves.

Perfumes were commonly made from frankincense and myrrh, combined with animal fats and oils, mixed into gum resins, and burned as incense or applied liberally as ointments. Other popular scents included almond, sesame, olive, and balanos oil as well as lily oil, which was made from the petals of 2,000 lilies mixed with cardamom, cinnamon, and sweet flag. One powerful fragrance, called kyphi, was made from pistachio resin, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, spikenard, henna, and calamus. Kyphi was burned at sunset to honor the sun god Ra and was used as an aromatic oil to eliminate sorrow and anxiety and to increase the vividness of dreams. Ancient Egyptians rubbed fragrant gums and creams under their arms and between their legs. Some made pomades of herbal extracts mixed with animal fats, shaped them into mounds, and wore them on their heads, where they gradually melted down over their hair and bodies as the day progressed, spreading a pleasing fragrance and oil.

North Africa

The history of North Africa is one of conquest, survival, and lucrative trade. The indigenous people of the areas now called Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were the Berbers. The first invaders of this region were the Phoenicians, who established the city of Carthage in present-day Tunisia. Though the Berbers eventually gained control of Carthage, it finally succumbed to Roman rule. The Berbers then moved southward and westward, establishing important trading posts throughout most of North Africa, particularly in today’s Morocco, which became an important stop for spice-trading ships traveling to and from Europe.

Many of the foods and spices now associated with Moroccan cuisine came from the influence of Islamic Arabs, who conquered the region in the 7th century. In the centuries that followed, most of the countries of Europe battled for control of Morocco, a fight finally won by France in 1912. Morocco gained its independence in 1956, inheriting a population that was 80 percent Berber, with heavy Arabic, Spanish, and French influences.

Over the centuries, Morocco has grown almonds, dates, walnuts, chestnuts, prickly pears, cherries, oranges, lemons, apricots, olives, and mints. Spices imported and incorporated into the region’s foods include paprika, black pepper, nutmeg, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, and saffron. Proprietors of spice shops developed secret mixtures known as ras el hanout (“head of the shop”), which contained as many as 100 carefully blended spices. While there are subtle variations in cuisine across North Africa today—Tunisian foods contain more fiery spices than Moroccan foods do—the blended influence of indigenous Middle Eastern and European people has created a cohesive herbal tradition that stands on its own.

Spice shops add color to the streets of Morocco, which was once an important stop on the spice trade route. Paprika, turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon are often used in the regional cuisine.




Aloe (Aloe vera)

Treatment for skin irritations and burns

Buchu (Agathosma betulina and A. crenulata)

Treatment for gastrointestinal ailments

Castor bean (Ricinus communis)

Oil used as laxative and motor lubricant

Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens)

Treatment for arthritis

Iboza (Tetradenia riparia)

Fever reducer

Lotus (Nymphaea lotus)

Sacred flower

Milk bush (Euphorbia tirucalli)

Treatment for warts

Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis)

Caffeine-free tea substitute

Wormwood (Artemisia afra)

Treatment for bronchitis

Yohimbe (Pausinystalia yohimbe)

Aphrodisiac, treatment for fevers and coughs

West, Central, and East Africa

In many areas of Africa, local systems of herbal medicine began as religious rituals, such as holy men drinking herbal tonics to better commune with a god or gods. Over time, religious leaders also became tribal healers, harvesting herbs, tree barks, roots, and berries to cure common ills and combat diseases such as malaria and yellow fever.

In the Yoruba religion, which dates back thousands of years, medicinal plants and herbs, called ewe, were believed to possess strong spiritual powers. Cemeteries, for example, were the territory of Oya Orisha, the goddess of change, so ewe harvested there was thought to possess her ability to bring about violent but necessary transformations. Many herbs used in Yorubic medicine, including cola, buchu, and ginger, were steeped and prepared as teas, and some were administered as enemas. One medicinal soup, or ose, recipe includes water, oil, salt, pepper, cooked melon, and locust seeds.

In much of Central Africa, the history of herb use varied depending on the local flora and the traditions of individual tribes. Natives of Cameroon, Gabon, and the Congo have long believed that the bark of the tall evergreen yohimbe could cure coughs, fevers, and leprosy. The long-standing trade of cola nuts (Cola nitida) began with the tradition of chewing cola before each meal to aid digestion and sustain strength.

In Ethiopia and Somalia, traditional herbal medicine has been practiced for nearly 2,000 years, with recipes being passed down from healer to healer by word of mouth because people believed the herb would lose its medicinal power if a patient knew its name. For centuries, Ethiopian healers have prescribed ground twigs and buds of African pencil cedar (Juniperus procera) to treat stomach worms, flaxseed as a laxative and to speed the healing of deep wounds, and bosoke (Kalanchoe spp.) to treat boils and wounds.

Other tribes had traditional uses for herbs. Slukari hunters in the Congo rubbed the gel of aloe over their bodies to mask their scent from prey. The algum tree of Somalia, probably a type of sandalwood, was prized for its ability to produce fragrant incense. The Masai people of eastern Africa have always supplemented their staple foods of beef, milk, and yogurt with wild weeds, tree bark, and tree gums that might help counterbalance their cholesterol-rich diet. Traditionally, cassava tubers have been the primary food of millions of people in Uganda. In times of famine, when grain crops failed, Ethiopians routinely gathered and ate the roots and stems of the wild treelike herb Ensete ventricosum, known as the Ethiopian banana, to survive. This plant, also known as ensete, is cultivated as an important food source, mixed with other crops such as sorghum or coffee, depending on the region.

Cola nuts, native to the rainforests of Africa, are valued for their stimulatory properties.

South Africa

In 1652, an outpost of the Dutch East India Company was established at the Cape of Good Hope. Initially, the purpose was to resupply company ships traveling between Europe and the East Asian spice ports. But soon, a full Dutch colony was established. As colonists planted kitchen gardens for their own use in the early 1700s, they began to learn more about the local herbs. Probably by observing local tribes such as the Khoisan, the Dutch learned that honeybush (Cyclopia genistoides) was a pleasant substitute for tea. Honeybush tea also proved to be an effective treatment for coughs and other respiratory conditions, so before long, it became another profitable export for the Dutch East India Company. The popular herb rooibos (Aspalathus linearis), long used by tribes as a mild sedative and to relieve colic in babies, gained worldwide acceptance as another tea substitute. Blended with cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg, rooibos creates a full-bodied, caffeine-free red tea filled with antioxidants.

Through the centuries, practitioners have gone by a variety of names: inyanga, or herbalist; sangoma, or diviner; and, after the arrival of the Dutch, bossiedokter, or bush doctor. These healers all collected herbs from the wild, or “bush.” Some of the more popular herbs in traditional South African medicine were devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), used for arthritis and gastrointestinal disorders; pepper-bark (Warburgia salutaris), used for sinusitis and disorders of the lungs; African wormwood (Artemisia afra), used for measles and malaria; and wild willow (Salix mucronata), used for arthritis and fevers.

Herbal healing remains popular in South Africa, and large quantities of herbs collected from the wild are still prescribed and sold. Even newly introduced diseases are treated herbally. African potato (Hypoxis hemerocallidea)—used for centuries by Zulu healers to treat urinary tract infections, cardiac disorders, tumors, and nervous disorders—is used today as an immunostimulant for HIV/AIDS patients.

Isolated from the rest of the world’s landmass for millions of years, the Americas developed a fascinating flora and fauna, with many unique species. The people who migrated to the western hemisphere over the Bering land bridge many thousands of years ago learned numerous uses for the plants that grew around them. The Navajo Indians used desert plants of present-day Arizona in religious ceremonies. Maya Indians incorporated Mexican rainforest plants into daily spiritual rituals. And Incas created medicines from the high-altitude herbs of the Peruvian mountains. Over time, each culture developed its own uses and recipes for therapeutic herbs.

North America

Many of the first North American inhabitants became expert botanists and developed sophisticated systems of herbal medicine and healing, represented most clearly by the medicine wheel. On the wheel, the four cardinal directions—north, south, east, and west—represent the proper balance of bodily energies, an idea remarkably similar to Chinese, Indian, and Greek herbalism. On a Native American herb wheel, the directions are represented by different animal totems, personality types, colors, and herbal medicines. Shamans used these symbols to travel spiritually through the cosmos, searching for the souls of the sick and seeking spirit guides to assist in their healing.

To become a shaman, individuals were required to learn plant identification, preparation, and medicinal use, as well as patient diagnosis and tribal rituals and songs. Sometimes they underwent a spiritual awakening, called a vision quest, which required them to spend time alone in the wilderness. Initiated shamans were expert healers who were well versed in the medicinal powers of their region’s native herbs.

Navajo shamans used a tea prepared from Fendler’s bladderpod (Lesquerella fendleri). The Meskwaki tribe ground the flowers of goldenrod into a lotion and applied it to bee stings. Plains Indian tribes applied purple coneflower to insect or animal bites. Cherokees covered their bodies with an insect repellent made of a mixture of pounded goldenseal roots (Hydrastis canadensis) and bear fat. Many tribes had natural treatments for more serious ailments, as well. The Winnebago and Dakota peoples ate or smoked the roots of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) to remove excess phlegm produced by asthma, whooping cough, bronchitis, and hay fever. Many Native Americans used dandelion as a tonic for problems ranging from liver spots and kidney pain to sore throats and indigestion.

The process of childbirth was aided by many natural remedies, too. Healers used the tubers of the wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) to relieve pain during childbirth. Cherokee and Iroquois women used partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) to speed labor, while other tribes used warm infusions of blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) to produce the same effect. The Navajos made a tea from the broom snakeweed plant (Gutierrezia sarothrae) to promote the expulsion of the placenta, and the Omahas boiled smooth upland sumac (Rhus glabra) and applied the liquid as an external wash to stop bleeding after birth. To ease labor pain, the Alabama and Koasati tribes made a tea of cotton roots (Gossypium herbaceum).

To prevent pregnancy, the women of many tribes consumed a tea made of ragged leaf bahia (Bahia dissecta) or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). Hopi women drank Indian paintbrush (Castilleja mutis) tea to stop their menstrual flow. Mendocino tribes drank an American mistletoe tea (Phoradendron leucarpum) to induce abortion, and in the Shoshoni tribe of present-day Nevada, women drank cold-water infusions of stoneseed roots (Lithospermum ruderale) in a quest for permanent sterility.

Native Americans also used herbs in spiritual ceremonies. Many of these occurred in sweat lodges—special huts or teepees where tribesmen and women would heighten their spiritual consciousness, mentally prepare for important events like war or a hunt, and physically “sweat out” toxins or illness. To create a saunalike atmosphere inside, rocks were heated over fires and then placed in a depression in the middle of the lodge floor. Water—often mixed with healing herbs such as cedar (Thuja spp.), sage (Salvia and Artemisia spp.), and sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata)—was poured onto the rocks to create steam. Participants would sit inside for hours on freshly cut flat cedar boughs, smoking a ceremonial pipe filled with exactly four pinches of tobacco.

Another herb-based ritual was the peyote ceremony, first documented in 1560 but practiced by Plains Indians such as the Osage, Ute, Navajo, and Mescalero Apache tribes for centuries before that. Participants sat around a fire and an altar inside a teepee, smoking pipes, as everyone was invited to speak about an illness or problem. After purifying their bodies with sprigs of sagebrush, each person chewed four buttons of hallucinatory peyote (Lophophora williamsii), then sat silently in prayer as they experienced plant-induced visions.

Tribes who settled in the far northern regions of present-day Canada and Alaska used herbal teas to provide essential vitamins during long winters when no crops could be grown. The Anishinabeg people of Ontario drank tea made from dried leaves, flowers, and twigs of chokeberry, wintergreen, pine, slippery elm, mint, clover, and goldenrod. Many natives of the North drank swamp tea, also known as Labrador tea (Ledum glandulosum). This plant grew year-round, even in cold, wet conditions. Rich in caffeine and tannins, it provided them with a coffeelike drink to help ward off the cold. Interestingly, it contains a toxic compound and must be prepared and consumed in a specific way to avoid poisoning.

The Arrival of Europeans

European settlers exchanged herbs and knowledge of their uses with Native Americans. They introduced native people to thyme, caraway, basil, rosemary, chamomile, licorice, and plantain, the latter also known as “white man’s foot” to the natives because it seemed to appear wherever the settlers lived. In return, Native Americans offered crop plants such as corn, beans, squash, and tobacco, as well as medicinal plants such as American ginseng, goldenseal, sassafras, purple coneflower, pleurisy root, and witch hazel.

Early French explorers noted the prominence of tribal shamans and called them “medicine men.” The medicine men taught colonists how to heal wounds and diseases, and they were often better educated than the settlers themselves in safe childbirth practices, surgical procedures, and the herbal treatment of infections.

Soon, the bounty of botanicals led to the publication of New World herbal texts. In 1565, a Spanish physician and botanist, Nicolas Monardes (1493–1588), published the first-ever illustrations of tobacco, coca, sunflowers, and sarsaparilla in an herbal translated by the English merchant John Frampton as Joyfull Newes Out of the Newe Founde Worlde. More than a century later, Englishman John Josselyn (1610–1675) published New England’s Rarities, Discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, and Plants of that Country in 1671. Following Josselyn’s guidelines, the colonists were able to grow a wide variety of herbs. For preparing sallets (salads of greens sometimes mixed with bacon fat) and potages (hearty stews made of meat, poultry, game, and fruit), they grew sorrel, burnet, and purslane; for general flavoring, they grew chervil, mint, fennel, dill, and savory; and for dyeing clothes, they grew saffron, woad, alkanet, and calendula.

Exploration and Industrialization

In the early 1700s, cash crops of tobacco, cotton, sassafras, and ginseng were grown on the abundant farmlands of North America and Canada and then exported to Europe. A Pennsylvania Quaker farmer, John Bartram (1699–1777), sent hundreds of drawings, seeds, and specimens to England for cultivation and study. Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus (see this page) described Bartram as the “greatest natural botanist in the world” and relied heavily on the specimens for his classifications of American plants. In 1728, Bartram founded North America’s first botanical garden near Philadelphia. He also treated the sick with herbal medicines, called simples, made from licorice, green figs, spearmint, pennyroyal, or marshmallow.

Samuel Thomson (1769–1843) transformed Native American herbalism and simple colonial remedies into a national movement known as phys-iomedicalism. He used natural healing practices such as herbal treatments, mineral baths, and body heating to create “Thomson’s Improved System of Botanic Practice of Medicine,” a kit for self-diagnosis and treatment. Thomson classified herbs as stimulating, sedating, relaxing, or astringent, and he prescribed a balanced regimen of these four types for each illness. Many of the herbs he promoted, such as black root, black and blue cohosh, agrimony, cayenne, and true unicorn root, were already familiar to Native Americans. By the mid-1830s, three million Americans owned one of his kits.

Around the same time, the Shakers, an offshoot of the Quaker religious sect, created large “physick” gardens stocked with as many as 200 herbs, such as bayberry, feverfew, sage, calendula, and rue. They harvested the herbs and either pressed the dried, chopped plant materials into bricks or mixed them into tonics, which they labeled and sold. In the mid-1800s, the Shakers even established a mail-order business, offering several hundred medicinal herbs and extracts.

By the 1840s, a more scientific approach to herbal healing emerged, called Eclecticism. The Eclectics established a medical school in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they analyzed the chemical composition of herbs, isolated many active ingredients, and created liquid extractions for medical use. Though the American pharmaceutical industry can trace its roots directly to the Eclectic movement, its influence waned early in the 1900s, when philanthropists such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie began to support “orthodox” medical schools.

In the first half of the 20th century, America’s reliance on scientific medicine and synthesized drugs grew, and popular interest in herbs declined. In the United States, a rebirth of interest in herbal remedies began around the 1960s, when groups of Americans—motivated by political, philosophical, or spiritual beliefs—began to feel distrust for clinical medicine and started to explore herbal therapies. Shops selling herbs opened all across the nation, people began to visit herbal practitioners in record numbers, and popular interest in this topic began to grow exponentially.

Along with his colleagues, Dr. Andrew Weil, a medical doctor who championed the concept of incorporating evidence-based so-called “alternative” medical practices into conventional medical care, developed the concept of integrative medicine, a holistic approach to health care and wellness now widely practiced in the United States and internationally. Today, the herbal, vitamin, and supplement industry is flourishing—these products fill the shelves of our supermarkets, drug stores, and health food shops—as people seek ways to optimize wellness and improve their quality of life. This has led to a renewed interest in herbal cuisine and organic foods, which today has driven unprecedented growth in the demand for a wide variety of herbs all over North America.




American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

All-purpose medicine and tea

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Insect repellent, treatment for ulcers and sores, emetic

Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

Beverage, treatment for urinary tract infections

Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)

Treatment for colds and flu

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

Treatment for infection, dye

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Topical treatment for warts, chemotherapy

Pokeberry (Phytolacca americana)

Antiviral and pesticide

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

Tea and cure-all

Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens)

Prostate treatment

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)



In 1735, members of a Protestant sect known as the Unity of the Brethren, or Moravians, began arriving in North America from central Europe to evangelize to Native Americans and fellow European immigrants. Because they were expected to sustain themselves and build strong, self-sufficient settlements, the Moravian missionaries were well versed in healing practices and in the identification, cultivation, and use of local flora and fauna.

In 1741, Moravians purchased land that would become the community of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and by 1742, the village’s first physician had arrived. Dr. Johann Adolph Meyer, trained in Germany, deputized a group of 15 men and women as assistants and caretakers. They had brought some plants with them from Europe, but now they scoured forest and field for indigenous specimens for use in medicines. The resulting botanical preparations were dispensed from one of the earliest apothecaries in the country, located in the communal dwelling house, or Gemeinhaus. By fall of 1742, they established separate hospitals for men and women—among the first, if not the first, hospitals in America. They recognized the contributions of women to treating the sick by compiling a collection of their most valuable household remedies. And by 1747, they laid out an extensive garden that included medicinal plants.

Moravian evangelists traversed the Eastern seaboard on foot and on horseback; one missionary alone covered more than 30,000 miles. En route, they recorded the habits and customs of Native Americans, including their curative practices, and they often returned to base villages like Bethlehem carrying botanical specimens for further study and propagation. They maintained meticulous notes both for themselves and for the home church in Germany.

Thanks to this attention to detail, we know that Moravians at what is now Winston-Salem, North Carolina, also established early physic gardens. Detailed garden plans show the plants cultivated, and other community records document their medicinal applications. The records demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of herbal cures employing a broad range of plants—including tropical species such as those in the genus Citrus; naturalized European herbs such as borage, caraway, and catnip; angelica, native to Scandinavia but naturalized in Europe; and marshmallow, originally from Africa.

Today, the medicinal garden of the defunct Moravian settlement of Bethabara, known as the Hortus Medicus, has been carefully restored on its original 1761 site in Historic Bethabara Park in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Gemeinhaus and the Old Apothecary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, are available for tours through Historic Bethlehem, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.—Nancy Rutman

Central America and the Caribbean

The warm, tropical climate of vast areas of Central America and the Caribbean, along with its great diversity of plant and animal life, promoted human settlement beginning at least 15,000 years ago, and perhaps even earlier in some areas. In the millennia that followed, a number of major civilizations arose, each developing a multitude of uses for the herbs that grew around them or were obtained through travel and trade.

The first of Central America’s ancient civilizations was the Olmecs who, from 1500 BCE, grew to prominence in present-day Veracruz. Little is known of how they used the richness of the Mexican rainforest in their daily lives, but it is clear that cacao, or chocolate (Theobroma cacao), was valued as a food, flavoring, and diuretic, as well as for use as a skin balm.

By the 3rd century CE, the Maya people had established a civilization that spanned most of Central America. They built underground reservoirs to store rainwater for irrigation and cleared large sections of rainforest to grow corn, manioc, sunflowers, cacao, chile peppers, and squash, sometimes in raised gardens or on terraced mountainsides. They also gathered wild avocado, coconut, mamey (Pouteria sapota), and breadnut (Brosimum alicastrum). Their spiritual healers, both men and women, were highly trained, and some of their remedies were innovative, such as the practice of blistering the leaves of hierba santa (Piper umbellatum) over an open flame before wrapping them around a wrist or ankle to reduce inflammation. Yucca was given to patients who suffered from joint pain. The boiled stems of cliffrose (Purshia mexicana) were used to cleanse wounds and suppress coughs. The Mayas also developed a variety of aromatic facial astringents and antibacterial topical tonics that incorporated local herbs such as creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and cat-claw acacia (Acacia greggii).

By the 12th and 13th centuries, the Aztec civilization had become established in the area now known as the Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs instituted a remarkable system of landfilling the swampy area. They covered floating rectangular log rafts with mud and planted certain trees at the corners to help secure the rafts and create root systems and soil. Before long, a network of artificial islands, or chinampas, had been formed. On top of these they cultivated food crops: beans, squash, cacao, chiles, vanilla, a wide variety of corn (maize), amaranth (for its protein-rich seeds), and maguey, or century plant. They developed a unique system of traditional medicine using nearly 3,000 herbs gathered from the wild and grown on extensive medicinal chinampas. The rest of the world knew nothing of their herbal cures until the mid-16th century, when Spanish scholars and priests began to translate written Aztec works.

Invasion and Slavery

The Arawak tribe, also known as the Tainos, dominated the islands of the Caribbean when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. Arawak herbal healers, known as butuous, gathered herbs from the lush island forests and grew healing plants and fruits in raised-bed gardens known as conucos. These healers prescribed treatments for a variety of illnesses, including teas made from large-leaf thoroughwort (Hebeclinium macrophyllum) and aloe for the common chest cold; sucking on the bark of Unonopsis glaucopetala, a tree in the custard apple family, to treat snakebite; and burning the foul-smelling leaves of huamansamana (Jacaranda copaia) under the hammock of a person with an “illness caused by spirit attack.”

The era of two-way commerce between the Eastern and Western hemispheres began with the arrival of Columbus on the islands of the Bahamas, Cuba, Hispaniola, and Dominica. A system of agriculture called encomienda,established by the Spanish, subjected the indigenous people to a form of slavery that required them to labor in fields to produce cotton, sugar, and tobacco for export. The conditions of slave labor—compounded by malnutrition and introduced diseases such as smallpox—nearly wiped out the Arawaks within 30 years.

One New World plant quickly exported to Europe was the chile pepper (Capsicum spp.). Rum—fermented molasses syrup mixed with cinnamon, rosemary, or caramel—also became a popular export, which spurred the establishment of sugarcane plantations and importing of slaves. Although slavery was finally abolished in the 19th century, the religious beliefs of Santeria (a New World hybrid of Yoruba and Christianity) had become rooted within the former slave populations of many islands, as well as in parts of Central America and the United States. Practitioners used hundreds of different plants and flowers in magic rituals to obtain the power, or ashe, of the saints to live their arduous lives. Even today, it is not uncommon for practitioners to use basil to drive away the evil eye, marigold to produce lucky number dreams, juniper berries to increase virility in men, and oregano to keep away annoying in-laws.

Vanilla pods, which produce the popular flavoring, are the fruit of a South American vine.

South America

The continent of South America is unparalleled for the richness of its flora; Brazil alone is home to 55,000 species of flowering plants. But much of the indigenous peoples’ traditional uses for these plants remained largely unknown to the outside world until recent centuries, when ethnological and ethnobotanical studies were begun of these sophisticated peoples and their plants. The Yanomami people of Brazil and Venezuela, for example, are believed to have moved to the region nearly 8,000 years ago and have lived very much the same way ever since (although this is rapidly changing). The Amazon forest has provided them (and many other tribes) with berries of urucú, also known as annatto (Bixa orellana), for red dye to decorate their bodies and loincloths, and with fibers of the kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) to make deadly poison-tipped blowgun darts for hunting.

In the Siona tribe of Colombia, shamans collected stems of yage (Banisteriopsis caapi) and leaves of chagropanga (Diplopterys cabrerana) to make a ritual drink that produced hallucinatory visions of the spirit world, through which they could offer healing to their patients. In the western Amazon region, shamans made a medicine by combining the same vine, there called ayahuasca (B. caapi), or “vine of the soul,” with the leaves of chacruna (Psychotria viridis) to cure a wide range of physical, psychological, and spiritual illnesses.

Interestingly, the psychoactive effect results from the potent chemicals released by the combination of the two plants used together—either plant used alone will not produce the same results. The discovery of the synergistic effects of different plant species from two different plant families, first reported more than 150 years ago by the botanist Richard Spruce, is a most remarkable feat of indigenous technology. This level of sophistication, also seen in the preparation of food plants to remove toxic compounds and make them palatable, can be found repeatedly among indigenous cultures.

The Andean highlands of Peru are home to several plants with a long history of use—potato, maca root (Lepidium meyenii), and coca (Erythroxylum coca and E. novogranatense). Maca is said to enhance physical strength and endurance, as well as sexual prowess. In its leaf form, the coca plant was used to energize the body and stave off the fatigue and hunger associated with living in the rugged mountains or remote rainforest. Andean and Amazon civilizations chewed coca leaves (the source of the purified drug cocaine) as early as 2,000 BCE—some references even suggest that its use began 8,000 years ago. Known as soroche in the Andean region, coca leaf tea has long been recognized as an effective cure for altitude sickness. Because of its importance in sacred rituals, coca was highly valued in early societies, and today this plant remains a revered species within its native region.

Around 1450 BCE, the Incas rose to power in the Andean mountain region, and in less than a century, they developed a civilization nearly as sophisticated as that of the ancient Romans. The Incas built reliable irrigation systems by diverting rivers, building aqueducts, and digging canals along terraces on which they produced maize, cotton, quinoa, peanuts, coca, potatoes, and tomatoes. They also produced medicinal herbs such as vilcacora or cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa), an anti-inflammatory; manayupa (Desmodium adscendens), a detoxicant and blood purifier; and sangre de drago, or dragon’s blood (Croton lechleri), a treatment for wounds.

From the time of the Spanish conquest to the present day, thousands of important herbal medicines have been “discovered” by Europeans in South America—of course, the true discoverers were the local people in the region who taught the early explorers. Legend has it that an Andean Indian with a terrible fever drank bitter-tasting water from a pond that was contaminated by the stems and leaves of the quinine trees that grew around it. Miraculously, his fever disappeared and word about the power of this tree spread. The bark was later found to contain the alkaloid quinine, a drug that reduces fevers and helps prevent malaria. Quinine remained the world’s most effective antimalarial agent until the invention of a synthetic equivalent several hundred years later.

Curare, extracted from the stem of Chondrodendron tomentosum, was the basis for a deadly poison used to coat the tips of arrows and blowgun darts. Hunters could use this poison to kill large or distant animals simply by shooting an arrow or dart at their quarry and penetrating the skin. Curare would paralyze the skeletal muscles and cause asphyxiation, leading to death. Curare later became useful as a surgical anesthetic and treatment for chronic muscle spasms.




Allspice (Pimenta dioica)

Pungent culinary flavoring

Annatto (Bixa orellana)

Cosmetic colorant, culinary flavoring

Epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides)

Mexican cooking herb

Ipecac (Carapichea ipecacuanha)

Potent emetic, expectorant

Lignum vitae (Guaiacum officinale)

Mild laxative, diuretic

Mexican yam (Dioscorea macrostachya)

Source of raw material for steroids

Papaya (Carica papaya)

Insect sting remedy, digestive aid, culinary uses

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)

Popular flavoring, perfume

Yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis)

Stimulating tea

Oceania is a 3.5 million-square-mile region, mostly ocean, containing within it thousands of tropical Pacific islands. This includes the island groups of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and other areas. In this part of the world, the use of herbs for food, medicine, and spiritual practices originated with indigenous peoples whose cultures date back thousands of years. Antiseptic tea tree oil, for example, was first prepared by Australian Aboriginals from the leaves of the melaleuca tree (Melaleuca spp.). Australian forests also hold the promise of new medicines, such as from the black bean (Castanospermum australe), which produces the powerful antiviral compound castanospermine, a substance of interest to medical researchers.

Indonesia’s dense tropical rainforests have been home to some of the world’s most important spice plants, such as nutmeg, cloves, and mace, as well as important plant families, such as Apocynaceae, a source of cardiac and tranquilizing alkaloids. From the Pacific islands come the noni plant (Morinda citrifolia), which some consider a panacea, and the starchy taro (Colocasia esculenta), a food plant that’s also used to treat complaints from boils to heart conditions.


Northern Australia has a tropical climate, while the southern coast is relatively cool and moist. A vast, arid desert covers the interior. Much of the continent is subject to brush fires, and many native plants, such as eucalyptus, have oils and resins in their aerial parts that encourage a rapid burning that leaves woody tissues and underground parts unharmed.

The early Aboriginal people of Australia were hunters and gatherers who traveled vast distances on foot. They are believed to have used more than 150 different herb species just for the treatment of inflamed wounds and eyes. To alleviate the hunger and fatigue of long journeys, they commonly chewed pituri, a substance made from nicotine-containing plants of the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Gum from Eucalyptus species, produced by wounding the tree, was used to control infections, bleeding, and diarrhea. The native people also mixed herbal medicines to treat burns, headaches, digestive upsets, jellyfish and insect stings, and snakebites.

According to the Aboriginal belief system, many ailments and accidents were caused by spirits. Spiritual healers, both men and women, performed sacred rites using herbs to counteract the sorcery. Treatments included steam inhalation, sleeping pillows, and infusions. Many remedies were applied topically: A patient could be rubbed with crushed seed paste, fruit pulp, or sap. Newborn babies and new mothers were exposed to steam or rubbed with oils to give them strength.

Bush medicine focused on commonly found plants, such as the fuchsia bush (Eremophila spp.), the bloodwood tree (Corymbia terminalis), and lemongrass (Cymbopogon spp.). Some medicines varied in strength with the seasons—for a toothache, the wet season growth of green plum leaves (Buchanania obovata) was considered a stronger remedy than the plant’s dry season growth.

In 1770, Captain James Cook (1728–1779) arrived and claimed Australia for the British crown. The land was established as a British penal colony, and for the next 80 years nearly 160,000 men and women were transported from England to Australia as convicts. The new arrivals brought with them a host of nonnative crops, from cereal grains to potatoes, onions, sugarcane, tobacco, and grapevines. The Europeans also named native plants after species the plants resembled in their homeland. Today, native or “bush” potatoes, bananas, cherries, pears, and plums unrelated to their European namesakes are found throughout Australia. These plants—intertwined with exotic imports and edible and medicinal plants cultivated by settlers—spread into the wild.

In all, at least 2,700 new plants were introduced in Australia, where they have now established populations. Some, such as arum lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica), fleabane (Conyza spp.), and the ubiquitous lantana (Lantana camara), have become invasive weeds, spreading throughout the country and edging out indigenous species. Others, such as wild tobacco (Nicotiana glauca), were simply integrated by Aboriginal people into traditional medical practices.

New Zealand

The plant life of northern New Zealand resembles that of tropical southeastern Asia, while the country’s central regions have a temperate climate, and the southern zone is cool and wet. New Zealand’s first inhabitants were the Maori people, who are believed to have arrived from southeastern Asia around 1000 CE. They had an intricate healing system that centered on the tohunga, who was both doctor and spiritual leader. The tohunga administered herbal remedies, known as rongoa, that prevented and cured illnesses as well as spiritual rituals and vapor baths. Native species such as New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) and manuka (Leptospermum scoparium), now familiar as ornamental plants, were used to treat a wide range of ailments, including topical wounds.

The Pacific Islands

The islands in the Pacific are home to hundreds of interesting herbs: Fiji has 2,000 native plant species, Papua New Guinea has 15,000, and Samoa has 550. Much of the collective history of the Pacific Islands is fundamentally linked to the use of these plants, which include kava (Piper methysticum) and noni (Morinda citrifolia).

Kava contains compounds known as kavalactones, which have analgesic, anesthetic, and tranquilizing effects. The herb has gained worldwide popularity as a stress and anxiety reliever. Noni, or Indian mulberry, is the fruit of a shrubby, evergreen tree. Fermented noni juice is consumed throughout the Pacific as a traditional prophylactic against illness, and the fruit is traditionally believed to cure sore throats and the sting of the poisonous stonefish. Noni fruit and juice contain compounds that are locally believed to help treat a variety of ailments, including high blood pressure, arthritis, and cancer. The vanilla bean is also grown and exported from some Pacific islands. A climbing vine of the orchid family, vanilla produces seedpods—known in commerce as beans—used for manufacturing extracts, oleo-resins, and alcoholic tinctures, as well as flavorings for ice creams, baked goods, chocolates, liquors, soft drinks, tobaccos, and perfumes.

The leaves of the Australian Eucalyptus globulus contain eucalyptol, the active ingredient in many over-the-counter chest rubs.

The screwpine, or pandanus (Pandanus tectorius), is one of the South Pacific’s most useful plants. In Samoa, fragrant pandanus flowers are used to make wreaths called lei, which are worn by chiefs. In Tahiti, juice from pandanus root tips is used to treat skin inflammation. In Tonga, the juice is mixed with turmeric (Curcuma longa) and grated coconut and is applied to topical sores. The skin of ripe pandanus fruit is used to treat urinary tract problems, and in Fiji, a tea made from pandanus leaves is consumed as a remedy for diarrhea. Numerous other medicinal uses for the herb include the treatment of asthma, back pain, heart conditions, and internal fractures.

These few examples, from among the tens of thousands of plants recorded to date with medicinal or related uses around the world, show just how strongly plants have influenced the trajectory of human civilization. Despite the advent of virtual living through the extraordinarily sophisticated array of technology available today, it’s clear that plants will continue to play a central role in our lives and remain key to our survival as a species.

Quite often in the Pacific, as well as elsewhere, common foods are also used as medicines. Colocasia esculenta, known as taro and by other names in the Pacific region, is a staple food crop, providing starch, essential minerals, vitamins, and fiber to the people who prepare and eat the root. The leaves, after being properly prepared to eliminate the irritating calcium oxalate crystals they contain, are cooked, mashed, often mixed with coconut milk, and eaten as a delicious green vegetable. People on each island can recognize a dozen or more cultivars of taro, each with a distinctive appearance, taste, or other trait. Taro leaves are often rolled into cups for drinking beverages and medicinal teas, and on Fiji a boiled extract of the macerated leaves is used to promote menstruation. The leaves, mixed with other herbs, are used to treat conditions ranging from stomach disorders and cysts to wounds and boils. A multiherb mix containing the scraped stem of taro is administered to children to build their appetites. However, no matter what the use, all parts of this plant must be thoroughly cooked to eliminate the chance of oxalate toxicity.




Corkwood (Duboisia spp.)


Gum tree (Eucalyptus spp.)

Astringent, cough medicine

Jequirity (Abrus precatorius)

Aboriginal body ornament

Kava (Piper methysticum)

Anxiety reliever

Mint bush (Prostanthera spp.)

Antibiotic, fungicide

Mountain pepperberry (Tasmannia lanceolata)

Hot, pepperlike spice

Myrtle (Backhousia spp.)


Old man saltbush (Atriplex nummurlaria)

Treatment for scurvy

Sticky hop bush (Dodonaea viscosa)

Toothache and insect sting remedy

Taro (Colocasia esculenta)

Staple food, all-purpose medicine


I first visited Micronesia in 1997, traveling to Pohnpei and Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia, and then on to the Republic of Palau. The goal of my monthlong trip was to find the setting for the next chapter of my career as an ethnobotanist at The New York Botanical Garden: an island whose people, faced with the pressures of globalization, wanted to inventory their natural resources and record their plant-based traditions before Westernization replaced them with a modern perspective and lifestyle. For a variety of reasons detailed in our 2009 book, Ethnobotany of Pohnpei: Plants, People, and Island Culture, the 138-square-mile volcanic island of Pohnpei, situated in the Western Caroline Islands, was to be the next stop on my ethnobotanical journey.

I was fascinated from the moment I landed on the island, as I noted in the introduction to our book: “Pohnpei is a special part of the world. It is a small island where people are openly friendly, extremely helpful, and genuinely interested in the welfare of others. . . . What is most lacking in many Westerner’s lives—a sense of community—is omnipresent in Pohnpei.”

From my earliest visits, and continuing through dozens of intensive collecting trips to explore the most remote areas of the island, people were eager to discuss and record the uses of plants. Their traditional leaders were particularly devoted to preserving knowledge of their traditional uses of plants and the sustainable management of their natural resources.

The most important plant on Pohnpei is Piper methysticum, locally known as sakau and elsewhere in the Pacific called kava. Here the roots of sakau are placed on a stone ready for pounding that will allow their processing into a beverage. Leaves of a local taro species, Alocasia macrorrhizos, surround the base of the stone to keep the roots clean and pure should they fall.

We recruited teams of local people to survey and record how plants provide food, medicine, and construction materials, as well as how they are used for fishing, canoe building, and in the spiritual beliefs of this culture. The people I was so privileged to work with prioritized their most important and endangered traditional skills, and they worked hard to gather information about ancient plant-based practices such as making houses, clothing, fishing nets, and baskets; preparing local medicines; and cultivating crops as their ancestors had done for generations.

More than 150 local experts on the traditional uses of plants participated in this 10-year program. They recorded information on the local names and uses of more than 350 different species—on an island with fewer than 1,000 species of plants. Currently, a group of Micronesians have expanded this effort to record plant diversity, distribution, use, sustainable management, and conservation to islands such as Kosrae and Palau. This information can help the people of these remote parts of the world become more self-sufficient and promote the sustainable use of their natural resources.