History and Traditions in Herbal Healing

The use of medicinal herbs is probably as old as humankind. When humans first appeared on this earth, the planet was already covered by an infinite variety of plant life.

History and Origins of Herbalism

The use of medicinal herbs is probably as old as humankind. When humans first appeared on this earth, the planet was already covered by an infinite variety of plant life. It is natural to assume that plants were not only eaten for food but were also used as a source of medicine. Although written and pictorial records of herbalism cover no more than the past 5,000 to 6,000 years, archeological records clearly show that the knowledge and practice of herbal medicine was highly developed long before the earliest written accounts known to us were made. The most ancient records come from Asia where advanced cultures flourished early on

Chinese Herbalism

The origins of Chinese medicine are obscured in mythology. It is said that about 3,000 years ago Emperor Shen Nong, the “divine cultivator,” invented agriculture and left an oral or written account of 239 medicinal herbs.The real founding father of Chinese medicine is the Yellow Emperor. Although he is thought to have lived around 2500 BC, the Nei Jing, his famous herbal, is dated to only 1000 BC; the reason for this may be that the Emperor’s original text was copied at a later date. The Nei Jing is still used and studied by practitioners today and although much has been added, very little has been removed. By the nineteenth century, Western missionary hospitals started to provide a strong alternative to the traditional practice of Chinese medicine. Traditional medicine endured, but did not become a national standard system until the 1960s when Mao Zedong opened five colleges of traditional Chinese medicine. In today’s China, modern medicine and traditional Chinese medicine are practiced side by side. Western-trained and traditional physicians often examine the same patient, consult with each other and agree on a total course of treatment.

In Chinese medicine, illness implies that the balance within the whole system has been disturbed. Healing always means restoring balance and harmony to the body, allowing it to heal itself. Herbs are central to Chinese medicine, supported by acupuncture and massage.

Chinese medicines are classified and divided into three categories: superior, middle and inferior. Interestingly, inferior medicines are those that are considered most valuable in orthodox Western medicine: they are the drugs which affect a single complaint or disease. Western medicine is always looking for exactly this type of medicine, the “magic bullet,” to cure singular conditions such as cancer, diabetes or arthritis. Middle medicines in Chinese practice are those that strengthen broad body systems and functions. Superior medicines, finally, are those that work for anything, strengthening all body systems and making them immune to assault. In contrast, Western medicine usually distrusts drugs with such universal applications and tends to relegate them as quackery.

One of the most basic principles in Chinese medicine is the idea of yin and yang, the philosophy of opposites and balance. According to this philosophy, everything in the universe is balanced by its own polar opposite. Yin is seen as female, dark and cold, while yang is male, light and hot. In Chinese practice, many illnesses can be explained by an imbalance of yin and yang, which are also related to different parts of the body.

Another fundamental concept is the philosophy of the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water, also called the Five Phase Theory. Each of the five elements is closely related to two (yin and yang) body organs. Yin organs are the more solid ones, like the kidneys, and yang organs are the hollow ones with substances merely passing through, like the bladder. Here is a list of the five elements and their relationship to body organs:

Fire: heart (yin) and small intestine (yang)
Earth: spleen (yin) and stomach (yang)
Metal: lungs (yin) and large intestine (yang)
Water: kidneys (yin) and bladder (yang)
Wood: liver (yin) and gall-bladder (yang)

Central to the Five Phase Theory is the idea that the five elements either help or hinder one another and that, accordingly, the organs also support or obstruct each other. Thus, wood encourages fire, fire resolves to earth, earth yields up metal, metal produces water (i.e., condensation on a cold metal surface) and water gives birth to wood (by encouraging plant growth). Chinese practitioners often look at related elements to determine the origins of an illness. Following the principle that water encourages wood, a weak liver (wood), for example, could be due to problems with the kidneys (water).

Besides the connection with body organs, each of the five elements has a whole range of additional associations, from emotions to colors, tastes, the seasons, body parts and, of course, herbs. Wood, for example is related to spring, the color green, a sour taste, angry emotions, the liver and gall-bladder, and the tendons and eyes. Sour herbs include Cornus officinalis (shan zhu yu) and Schisandra chinensis (wu wei zi). Similar associations apply to the other four elements.

Another basic principle is the idea that herbs are either hot or cold (heating or cooling). The five tastes associated with the five elements can be categorized as either hot or cold. Pungent and sweet tastes are heating, while sour, bitter and salty tastes are cooling. Some herbs combine all five tastes. Schisandra berries for example, translates as “five-taste fruit.” Hot herbs affect the upper and exterior parts of the body, since heat rises or floats. Cool herbs are more effective for the lower parts and the interior of the body. To treat arthritis, for example, qiang huo, a hot herb, is added to the mixture if the pain is in the shoulders and arms, while the cold herb du huo is used when the pain affects the hips and knees. If the whole body is involved, both herbs are used together. When herbs are described in Chinese herbals, the description always includes taste, temperature and affected organs.

Qi (pronounced “chee”) is the vital energy in the body, the central healing life force. It is the foundation of all traditional Chinese treatments, including acupuncture. It is important for a person’s health that Qi should flow freely through the body via the so-called meridians.

The meridians are pathways along the body’s surface and through the internal organs. Each meridian is named after the organ it flows through: liver meridian, heart meridian and so on. If a meridian is blocked, illness may soon result, affecting the corresponding organ. Conversely, an organ can be treated by treating and unblocking its meridian. Proper flow of Qi is stimulated through the use of certain herbs and through acupuncture, massage and special exercises, such as Tai Chi. Restoring the free flow of energy is synonymous with restoring the body’s balance and health. Meridians have been studied scientifically in the United States (US). When Richard Nixon returned from his trip to China, he asked the National Institute of Health (NIH) to fund some studies on Chinese medicine. A study on meridians was conducted by orthopedic surgeon and bio-medical electronics expert Robert Becker. Becker was surprised to find that all the meridian lines he looked at moved electrical current much more smoothly than other body pathways. Becker’s results were published in the Journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the most prestigious journal of its kind.

When Chinese herbs are prescribed, they are usually given in standard combinations or formulas. Experienced herbalists can slightly adjust and individualize any of the thousands of traditional formulas. Formulas might include as few as two herbs or as many as twenty. As in traditional Western herbalism, the interaction between herbs is thought to be as important as their individual effect. Herbs are prescribed in the form of pills, powders or teas. There is also a type of herbal soup the patient cooks at home in a special earthenware pot. Herbs are sometimes cooked with rice to produce a therapeutic meal.

Western medicine has adopted the use of many medicinal plants from China, including rhubarb, camphor, ephedra, licorice and ginseng.

Did You Know?

The expression “gung-ho” comes from Chinese medicine: Gang meaning liver, and Ho, meaning fire.

Egyptian Herbalism

Western medicine owes much to the ancient civilization of Egypt. In 1874, in the Valley of the Tombs near Luxor, the world’s oldest surviving medical record was found. The sixty-five-page Ebers Papyrus (named after its discoverer, German Egyptologist Georg Ebers) dates from 1500 BC and records more than one thousand years of medical knowledge. The Papyrus lists 876 herbal remedies derived from over five hundred different plants. Of these plants, one-third are used in herbal medicine to this day. One of its recommendations was to bandage moldy bread over wounds to prevent infection. Modern antibiotics like penicillin are, of course, based on mould.

Two of the most frequently used plants in Egyptian medicine were onions and garlic. Egyptians believed that these plants prevented disease and strengthened the body’s systems. Because of their liberal consumption of onions and garlic, Egyptians were called “the stinking ones” by the Greek historian Herodotus. Garlic was deemed so important that cloves of it were buried with the kings inside the ancient tombs.

Around 500 BC, Egyptian herbalism reached its zenith. Egyptian medicine was so respected that the rulers of Rome and Babylon invited Egyptian healers to their courts. Aspiring healers from Greece and Rome, among them Galen, went to Egypt to study with the masters. Thus, Egyptian herbal healing exerted considerable influence on the traditions of Western medicine.
The onion, one of the oldest known healing plants, has been used in Asia and the Mediterranean since the dawn of history. Modern herbology has since then confirmed over thirty active components including vitamins, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, iron, iodine, selenium, essential oils, etc. All of these have a very specific
medicinal effect.

Greek Herbalism

Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine, represents the mystic side of healing, which is found in medical traditions all over the world. The divine healer is usually pictured as a bearded man, dressed in a coat, leaning on a staff with a snake curling around it. This staff is still used as a symbol in modern medicine and pharmacology. The worship of Aesculapius signifies that medicine is more than a science and that healing depends as much on belief and the mobilizing of inner powers as on the treatment being administered.

Hippocrates (460-377 BC) is known as the founding father of medicine. Graduating doctors at many medical schools today still take the Hippocratic oath. Hippocrates is revered for the way he combined scientific thinking, close observation, genuine caring for his patients and high ethical standards. He had a detailed knowledge of herbs, describing 236 of them, all of which he personally tested and found effective. He also gave precise instructions for herb collecting, pointing out the importance of growing area and weather. He categorized all foods and herbs by four basic qualities:

  • hot (including sweet grapes, mustard and watercress);
  • cold (including sour wine, vinegar and flax seed);
  • damp (including hemp);
  • dry (including sage).

The qualities were also related to the four body fluids of phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile. Good health was achieved by keeping the system in balance and by getting plenty of fresh air and exercise. Like Chinese practitioners, Hippocrates believed that the body will cure itself when balance is restored. Hippocrates’ theories were later extensively developed by the Roman physician Galen.

Did You Know?

Pliny stated that if bee hives were rubbed with balm leaves the scent would cause the bees to keep together; they would always find their way home and others would join them.

Roman Herbalism

Greek medical theories reached Rome about 100 BC. Most Roman herbology is founded on ideas taken from Greece.

Around AD 70, Pedanius Dioscorides, who is thought to have been physician to Antony and Cleopatra, wrote his influential five-volume treatise De Materia Medica, which became a classic. Dioscorides was a Greek born in Turkey who chose to serve the Roman Empire, where he rose to considerable fame. Dioscorides’ work retained its enormous influence for over 1,500 years; after the invention of the printing press, it was one of the first books printed. All medieval European herbology, in one way or another, goes back to Dioscorides. His writings described six hundred medicinal plants, grouping them by character, such as “aromatic” or “pungent,” and by appearance or part, such as “roots” or “herbs.” His instructions for collecting herbs were even more detailed than those of Hippocrates. He described in detail when to collect blossoms, leaves, stems and roots, and when to prepare herbal remedies, such as plant juices. Of the plants he discussed, ninety are still in use today.

Over time, Roman theories of healing became more mechanistic, viewing the body as a machine to be repaired rather than a balanced organism capable of healing itself. In Rome, medicine became a flourishing business with a lucrative system of complex and expensive remedies.

This practice was opposed by Galenus (AD 131-199), court physician to Marcus Aurelius. Galen reworked many of Hippocrates’ theories and formalized the principle of humors. His writings soon became the standard for physicians, just as the writings of Dioscorides became the standard texts for pharmacists. Galen’s theories survived more than a century, not only with Roman but also with Arab and medieval European physicians. Galen’s teachings still survive in East Indian Unani medicine and Galenic pharmacy today. The expression “galenic preparation,” meaning pure preparation, is derived from his name.

Galen wrote extensively about the relationship between the four elements (water, air, fire and earth); the four humors (phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile); Hippocrates’ qualities of damp, dry, hot and cold; and the four temperaments or personalities (phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric and melancholic). All these theories had been touched upon by Hippocrates, but were systematized and made more accessible by Galen.

Of the elements, water is related to phlegm, a phlegmatic temperament, the winter season and the qualities of cold and damp. Typical illnesses include phlegm and chest problems. Warm, dry herbs such as thyme and hyssop are used to restore balance and clear up phlegm. The element of air is related to blood, a sanguine temperament, the spring season and the qualities of hot and damp. Galen thinks of the sanguine temperament as the ideal personality, good-humored and amusing. However, due to overindulgence, gout and diarrhea can be frequent illnesses. Cool dry herbs such as figwort and burdock are required to restore balance. The element of fire is related to yellow bile, a choleric temperament, the summer season and the qualities of hot and dry. The choleric temperament is associated with a bad temper and liver disorders. Cool, moist plants such as rhubarb, violets and dandelion are required to clear up yellow bile. The element of earth is related to black bile, a melancholic temperament, the fall season and the qualities of cold and dry. Typical complaints include constipation, depression and gloom. Hot, damp herbs such as senna and hellebore are used to clear the black bile and restore balance.

Islamic Herbalism

When Rome fell in the fifth century, the center of classical learning moved east, and Arab countries absorbed the massive body of Rome’s accumulated knowledge. Learning was now centered in Persia and Constantinople. Galenic medicine was enthusiastically adopted and merged with both folk medicine and Egyptian traditions. This mixture of practices, interwoven with ideas of alchemistry, was then imported back into Europe by traders and invading armies. The most famous Arab physician was Ibn Sina, also called Avicenna (AD 980-1037). He was especially knowledgeable in tropical medicinal herbs. His influential work Kitah al-Qanun (Canon of Medicine) was firmly based on Galen’s principles. By the twelfth century, the canon had been translated into Latin and brought back to the West, where it became one of the leading text books in the early medical schools

East Indian Herbalism

India’s herbal tradition is almost as old as that of China. India developed its own practice of medicine, called the Ayurveda (meaning science of life). This practice was developed from the Vedas, India’s four books of ancient wisdom. The oldest book, the Rig Veda, dating back to around 2500 BC, contains amazingly detailed descriptions of amputations and eye surgery. There are also herbal formulas derived from sixty-seven different healing herbs, among them senna, ginger and cinnamon. One of the herbs described in the Rig Veda, snakeroot (Rauwolfia serpentina), contains an active ingredient, reserpine, which is still used in modern medicine to control high blood pressure.

Throughout the centuries, successive invaders added new herbal practices to Indian medicine. Major influences came from the Persians in 500 BC and from the Mongols in the fourteenth century. The latter carried with them the medical knowledge of Galen and Avicenna (which became known as Unani). In the nineteenth century, the British brought Western medicine to India with a vengeance, closing all Ayurvedic schools in 1833. Luckily, the ancient knowledge survived. Today, an estimated seventy percent of Indians and Pakistani still consult Ayurvedic physicians and use the healing herbs prescribed by them.

Ayurvedic medicine emphasizes that good health is the responsibility of each individual. As in Greek, Chinese and Galenic medicine, illness is believed to arise from an imbalance. Ayurvedic medicine emphasizes holistic treatment, combining appropriate remedies for the body, mind and spirit. This can include diet, herbs, light, fresh air, physical exercises, sensual pleasures and meditation.

As in Greek and Chinese medicine, the individual is linked to the cosmos. At the centre of Ayurvedic belief are three primal forces: prana, the breath of life; agni, the spirit of fire and light; and soma, the spirit of harmony and love. There are also five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether (a nebulous nothingness that fills all spaces. Ether was also known in ancient Greece).

The five elements are converted by agni, the digestive fire, into three waste products, or humors, which influence health and temperament. The first humor, vata (wind), is produced by air and ether. The second humor, pitta (bile), results from fire. The third and final humor, kapha (phlegm), is produced by earth and water. Humors also control the three temperaments. Vata resembles Galen’s melancholic personality; pitta is close to the choleric temperament; and kapha matches the phlegmatic type.

Tastes are also extremely important. Foods can be categorized according to six tastes. These act on the body to increase or decrease the three humors. If food intake overemphasizes any of the three humors, the body will become imbalanced and illness may follow. A good diet should contain a mixture of all six tastes. In case of an illness, one or the other taste can temporarily be stressed to restore balance. The correct combination of tastes is considered so important for proper growth and development that herbal formulas or pills containing the six tastes are given to children on a regular basis.

A sweet taste (sweet potato, cashew nuts, rice) increases body fluids, especially milk and semen, and reduces toxins related to pitta. Sweet tastes should be avoided if there is an excess of kapha as in colds and certain rheumatic complaints. A sour taste (spinach, lemon, cranberry) reduces vata and increases kapha and pitta. Sour foods stimulate the digestion. Overemphasis results in muscle weakness and ailments related to excess pitta, such as ulcers and liver disorders. A salty taste (seaweed, mineral salts) increases pitta and kapha. Salty foods help retain fluids and clean the body’s ducts, loosening toxins by attracting water. Salty foods are used as expectorants. Overemphasis can result in premature aging, impotence or skin problems. A pungent taste (basil, horseradish, cloves) increases vata and pitta and reduces kapha. Pungent foods are stimulating and warming, relieving colds, lethargy, depression and obesity. An excess can lead to burning sensations, thirst, and nervous exhaustion. A bitter taste (turmeric, artichoke, Belgian endive) increases vata, while reducing pitta and kapha. Bitter foods stimulate the digestion, absorb phlegm and cleanse digestive toxins; they are useful for fevers and skin disease. An astringent taste (dried strawberry leaves, sage, bilberries) increases vata and decreases pitta and kapha. Astringent foods are drying; they are used for heavy menstruation and diarrhea. An excess of astringent foods is overdrying, leading to constipation and stiff joints.

An example of Ayurvedic treatment could be a health problem associated with kapha, or excess phlegm (i.e., mucus, edema or water retention). It would be treated by taking foods that are considered warm, light and dry; by fasting; and by avoiding cold drinks. Herbal medicines for phlegm include hot spices, such as cayenne and cinnamon; pungent herbs, such as saffron; bitters, such as aloe and turmeric; and stimulating, astringent herbs, such as gotu kola and myrrh. All of these are believed to dry excess water or mucus. Phlegm is treated with pungent and bitter tastes, while sweet, salty and sour flavors are avoided. A complete treatment might also include a massage with warm herbal oil, such as eucalyptus, and the burning of pungent incense. The affected person is encouraged to wear bright colors of red and yellow.

In addition to elements and humors, Ayurvedic medicine stresses the importance of chakras (energy centers) in the body. The chakras follow a straight line down the center of the body from the crown of the head to the base of the torso. Ayurvedic practitioners link the chakras to various organs and glands. Chakras can be stimulated by using associated herbs externally or internally.

European Herbalism

Archeological digs of ancient European graves have yielded such finds as poppy seeds, flax seeds, juniper berries and fern, showing that these plants and herbs were held in high regard.
First records date from the court of Charlemagne (AD 742-814) whose Capitulare de Villis detailed seventy medicinal herbs he wished to have planted by his own gardeners, every monastery and, in fact, all his subjects “for the benefit of the nation.” Around AD 820, at the St. Gallen monastery in Switzerland, sixteen beds of medicinal plants were prepared according to Charlemagne’s instructions. Favorite herbs were summer savory, sweet clover, mint, lilies, roses, rosemary, fennel, caraway and sage, all known for their medicinal properties. Around the same time, Walafried Strabo (AD 809-849), abbot of the Reichenau monastery in Germany, wrote a gardening book Liber de cultura hortorum which included a description of twenty-three medicinal herbs.

Europe’s oldest surviving book dedicated completely to herbs is the Anglo-Saxon The Leech Book of Bald, dating from the early tenth century and including remedies sent by the Patriarch of Jerusalem to King Alfred. The herbal contains a mixture of facts and myths. Many diseases, especially sudden wasting illnesses, are said to be caused by “flying venom” or “elfshot.” Favorite herbs, such as wood betony, vervain, mugwort, plantain and yarrow, were taken internally but were even more often worn as amulets to ward off the “evil eye.”

Although medical schools spread throughout Europe (with the most famous one founded in Salerno, Italy, in the early part of the tenth century), healing and herbalism remained largely in the hands of the monasteries. Throughout the Middle Ages, monasteries cultivated ever-expanding herb gardens and considered tending to the sick to be a part of their Christian duty. Prayer was as much included in healing as the use of herbal medicine.

One of the greatest healers in early Europe was Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), abbess of the Benedictine convent in Bingen, Germany. She has been declared a saint by the Catholic church. The writings and music of this remarkable healer have recently become popular in North America. Von Bingen was a learned woman who left three major works, one of which was her De Causae et Curae (Causes and Cures), which includes descriptions of healing plants, combining her own experience as a healer with German herbal folklore. Von Bingen was unique in her day because she wrote her own herbal books when everyone else was content to simply copy from the masters. Her recommended treatments, mostly of plant origin, include sixty-two fever remedies, seventy-nine heart remedies and ninety-nine remedies for arthritis.

If von Bingen had practiced and taught between 1300 and 1650 instead of the twelfth century, she would probably have been burnt as a witch. Three hundred and fifty years of witch hunts in Europe and North America have been explained by some modern historians as the outcome of a power struggle. Medicine had emerged from the monasteries and had become secularized, with men dominating the field. Accusing women of witchcraft served to eliminate the competition of the “wise women” whose knowledge of healing had given them positions of power. If this explanation sounds too much like twentieth century thinking, consider the power struggle of orthodox physicians at the time of Henry VIII who attempted to gain total control over medicine by pushing out all herbal practitioners.

Towards the fifteenth century, herbalism became increasingly popular through the advancement of scientific thought and the advent of new inventions and discoveries. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, Master Ion Gardener of England wrote his practical text The Feate of Gardening, a set of instructions on the cultivation and grafting of herbs. His work went beyond folklore, providing a scientific base for the serious herb gardener.

The invention of the Gutenberg press in 1440 opened a floodgate of writings about medicinal herbs. Around 1500, German physician and ex-monk Otto Brunfels (circa 1484-1534) created the first pictorial herbal by adding life-sized woodcuts to his work of three volumes.

In 1543, Italian physician Petrus Andreas Mattioli (1501-1577) published the most successful herbal of his day. Written in the vernacular rather than in Latin, the work became vastly popular. It was translated into four languages and reissued sixty times. Like many less known contemporaries, Mattioli tried to restore medicine to its origins. Due to the Arabic influence with its alchemist component, many of the old texts had become distorted. Mattioli’s book was a commentary on Dioscorides’ Materia Medica. Mattioli removed all falsifications and brought the work up to date, adding rich detail from his own vast knowledge of healing herbs. He enlarged the Materia Medica by four hundred plants (mostly from the Alpine region) which had never been described before. Mattioli’s work influenced medicine and botany for centuries and formed the foundation for many other herbals.

The leading medical personality at the threshold from the Middle Ages to modern times was the great Swiss physician Philippus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, who became famous under the name of Paracelsus (1493-1541). He revolutionized European attitudes toward healthcare, lecturing in German rather than in Latin. Paracelsus thought of most apothecaries and physicians as crooked quacks, intent on fleecing the public. He condemned the complex and often lethal purgatives and emetics commonly prescribed by contemporary doctors and advocated a return to simpler medicine. Paracelsus looked for the “spirit and soul” in everything and saw healing in a holistic context, as part of a unified cosmos. He stressed the use of local herbs, believing that “for every illness, there grows an herb.” Paracelsus is also known for his doctrine of signatures, which is part science, part mysticism. The doctrine teaches that the outward appearance of a plant provides clues to its medicinal usefulness. Thus, heart ailments are helped by plants with heart-shaped leaves, while jaundice and other liver ailments benefit from plants with yellow juices. Walnuts and nutmeg, shaped like tiny brains, are said to be useful for mental function. This doctrine was vastly popular with the common people because it seemed to reveal to them the healing secrets of nature. Even today, the doctrine may be encountered with some healers. While the theory is surprisingly accurate for some plants, modern pharmacology has never been able to substantiate others. On the whole, Paracelsus was a true reformer who tried to free medicine from fraudulent and dangerous practices and make its “spirit” accessible again to the common people.

In England, physician and herbalist William Turner was the first to follow in Paracelsus’ footsteps and write in the English vernacular, so that “apothecaries and old wives that gather herbs” could understand the Latin names in doctors’ prescriptions and would not put “many a good man by ignorance in jeopardy of his life.”

Most herbals written during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries contained less mysticism than the earlier ones and paid more attention to the botanical characteristics of plants. Within a period of about fifty years, three major herbals were published in England, by Gerard (1597), Parkinson (1640) and Culpeper (1652). Herbals were now profusely illustrated. Gerard, for example, described and pictured ten different types of medicinal calendula alone. Unfortunately, Gerard’s Great Herbal or History of Plants had problems with accuracy, confusing the reader by misplacing illustrations. It was remarkable, however, that all these herbals were written in English, which made herbal knowledge accessible to the common people, while physicians were trying to take over the whole of medicine.

In 1629 and 1640 respectively, John Parkinson published a set of books that changed the entire face of herbalism. Paradisi Sole Paradisus Terrestris and Theatrum Botanicum are often considered the greatest English books on herbs ever written. The author describes more than three thousand plants. Unlike earlier texts, his works combine history, horticulture, botany and pharmacology all in one place. Parkinson is also the first writer to make a serious attempt at botanical classification, dividing plants into families and classes.

Although not as all-encompassing in his writings as John Parkinson, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) was the most popular English herbalist of all time. Culpeper was an aristocrat who had attended medical courses at Cambridge and had studied Greek and Latin. Annoyed by the snobbery of his former classmates, he translated the College of Physicians’ Latin manual, the Pharmacopeia Londinensis, into English, incurring the wrath of that newly formed physician’s society. The translation, called London Dispensatory and Physical Directory, al

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