Egyptians did it. Chinese did it. Even Neanderthals did it. Every culture, as far back as we know, has used herbs and plants for healing.
National Herb Day, the first Saturday of May, celebrates the power of herbs and the influence they’ve had on both traditional and modern medicine. It’s the perfect day to increase your knowledge of herbal history and learn why 80% of the world’s population uses herbs to support their health and wellness.
Herbs Through the Ages
Based on an analysis of skeletal remains in the archeological site El Sidron, in Northern Spain, Neanderthals may have used herbs for healing as far back as 24,000 to 30,000 years ago. REF#1599 Dental plaque from an El Sidrón Neanderthal with a dental abscess and a chronic gastrointestinal pathogen contained traces of medicinal plants such as chamomile and yarrow. REF#1600
According to Karen Hardy, Research Professor professor at the Catalan Institute of Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and lead author of a major research study on that site, “The varied use of plants we identified suggests that the Neanderthal occupants of El Sidrón had a sophisticated knowledge of their natural surroundings, which included the ability to select and use certain plants for their nutritional value and self-medication.”
More recently — but still thousands of years ago — ancient civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, China, and India used medicinal plants as an integral part of their traditional healing practices.
The Use of Herbs in Traditional Medicine Practices
Ayurveda, the traditional medicine system of India, utilizes a variety of herbs in its medicinal practice, which dates back over 6,000 years. Ayurvedic practitioners use herbs to create personalized treatment plans based on the individual's unique health type or dosha.
In the seventh century BC, the Assyrian doctor, Kisir-Ashur, wrote on clay tablets about plant-based medicine he used in ancient Mesopotamia. REF#1601
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), herbs are used in combination with other techniques, such as acupuncture and tai chi, to restore balance and promote healing. For over two thousand years, TCM practitioners have been developing complex herbal formulas with precise dosages for specific conditions.
The Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides recorded an extensive list of herbs and their medicinal properties over 2,000 years ago, and a manuscript of his work was later translated into Latin as the De Materia Medica, a major reference on medicinal plants.
In Western Europe, herbal medicine became a prominent form of healing during the Middle Ages. Monasteries often had gardens dedicated to growing medicinal plants, and the monks were well-versed in herbs for treating various conditions. The Renaissance saw the rise of more formalized herbal medicine, with the publication of herbals: books describing different plants' properties and uses.
Thousands of years before Europeans discovered the Americas, Native Americans were using herbs for healing. Of the 28,000 species of plants recorded in the United States, Native Americans are believed to have used over 2,500 of them for medicinal purposes. REF#1602
The rise of modern Western medicine over the past two centuries led to a decline in the use of herbal medicine in most parts of the world. Given the fact so many major pharmaceutical drugs were derived from medicinal plants, it’s curious that herbal remedies were often dismissed as ineffective or unscientific. If not for herbs, we might not yet have remedies for life-threatening diseases or effective ways to manage pain. Quinine, for example, once the only treatment for malaria, is an alkaloid that comes from the bark of the rare Cinchona tree in South America. Morphine and codeine are derived from the Opium poppy. Penicillin is made from the mold, Penicillium chrysogenum.
While plant-based remedies took a back seat to pharmaceutical drugs in Western medicine, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in herbal medicine as people seek out alternative forms of healing that are less reliant on synthetic drugs and their potential side effects.
A Celebration of Our Most Popular Herbs
Every herbalist has their favorite herbs for maintaining wellness or treating various ailments. In honor of National Herb Day, we want to celebrate a few of the favorite herbs we grow on our South Carolina farm and use in some of our most popular herbal supplements.
Holy Basil (Tulsi)
Believed by certain Indian cultures to be the incarnation of Tulasi, a consort of the Hindu deity, Lord Vishnu, Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) has a history of use as a protective and sacred herb. In most religious Hindu homes, you’ll find a Holy Basil plant growing in the courtyard or a designated place in the house.
Known as Tulsi in India, Holy Basil was included in the “Charaka Samhita,” one of the oldest and most important texts on Ayurveda, believed to have been written around 400 to 200 BC. In Ayurvedic medicine, Holy Basil is thought to cure a wide range of ailments and promote longevity.
In Western herbalism, Holy Basil is considered to be an adaptogen. Adaptogens are herbs that help create homeostasis, or balance, to both body and mood, supporting the function of the adrenal glands, which are responsible for the body's hormonal response to stress.* Gaia Herbs devotes two entire fields to growing Holy Basil, one of our founder’s favorite herbs.
To learn more about this revered plant, read our article, “An Essential Guide to Holy Basil.”
Echinacea is one of North American history's most widely used and storied medicinal plants. Native Americans not only used Echinacea as a medicinal herb, but they also honored it as a spirit. You can see it depicted in their artwork and beadwork.
Gaia Herbs grows Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia throughout our farm to use in a number of supplement blends. Gaia Herbs was awarded a grant by the National Institutes of Health to study the various constituents of the plant. Over the five-year study, we discovered that while polysaccharides and alkylamides, the two most important active constituents in Echinacea, were once thought to be immune-stimulating, alkylamides do not stimulate immunity but support a healthy inflammatory response.*
This research suggests that preparations made from Echinacea root, where alkylamides are concentrated, are best used to help support a healthy inflammatory response at the onset of an immune challenge. Preparations made from Echinacea aerial parts (flowers, stems, and leaves), where polysaccharides gather, are most effective at supporting ongoing immune function.*
We grow Astragalus, one of the most widely used herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), for its potential immune-supportive benefits.* In Traditional Chinese Medicine, astragalus is considered foundational for supporting the healthy flow of “Qi,” or energy, throughout the body, boosting immunity, nourishing the kidneys, improving heart health and circulation, and much more.
Research suggests it may be an effective herb at supporting heart and liver health as well as maintaining healthy immune function.*
Hundreds of research studies, including multiple double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical trials, show that Hawthorn (crataegus) strengthens the heart muscle, increases exercise tolerance, and supports a normal heart rhythm.* Research indicates that various active compounds in Hawthorn work together to support heart health. REF#1603
Most traditional medicine systems have historically used Hawthorn leaves, berries, and flowers to promote a healthy, happy heart. But Hawthorn wasn’t only used for medicinal purposes. It symbolized love for ancient Greeks, where couples wore bridal crowns made from its blossoms. In parts of the British Isles, the tree was known as the May Tree because it is covered with beautiful white flowers in May, the month associated with courtship and lovemaking.
An entire grove of Hawthorn trees grows on the Gaia Herbs farm and provides a significant harvest each spring for our supplements.
The oldest surviving species of tree, the beautiful Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) began growing long before dinosaurs roamed the earth and continues to thrive to this day. It’s such a steadfast tree that it was the first green plant to emerge after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It has endured, with the same physical characteristics, for more than 200 million years. If you’ve ever seen the Ginkgo’s brilliant yellow fan-shaped leaves in the fall, it’s a tree you won’t forget.
Ginkgos are native to China, where the leaves, seeds, and nuts have been used in traditional Chinese Medicine since about 2,800 BC, primarily to support respiratory health. They were first brought to the United States in the 1780s. We have over 300 of them growing at the entrance to our farm. The tree and its constituents are one of the most researched herbal products in the world, with results that suggest its potential to support cognitive health.
Ginkgo supplements are believed to help support mental focus, brain health, and cognitive function.*
Sleep is critical to your overall health and wellness, and when you have occasional insomnia, some herbs can help you relax and get a good night’s rest. One of our favorites is Valerian.
Valerian extract, made from the roots and rhizomes of this flowering plant, was included in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1820-1936 and in the National Formulary from 1888-1946. It is still included in the World Health Organization’s monographs on herbs and the German Comission E Monographs. It is sold in many European countries as an over-the-counter medicine to promote sleep.
In Celebration of Herbs
We’ve mentioned just a few of the hundreds of herbs that have been used historically to support health and wellness. To learn more, turn to our Herb Reference Guide, which provides comprehensive profiles of almost 200 plants and herbs. Additionally, our blog, Seeds of Knowledge, provides herbal education and tips on how to embrace a healthy lifestyle.
We also offer recipes you can make to add herbs and herbal supplements to your diet easily. In fact, there is no better day than National Herb Day to celebrate with a delicious herbal mocktail!
Have a Happy National Herb Day!
- 1. Karen Hardy et al,, "Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus,", Wissenschaften, August 2012. https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/features/el-sidron/ 1 1. Karen Hardy et al,, "Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus,", Wissenschaften, August 2012. https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/features/el-sidron/
- 2. Laura S Weyrich et al, "Neanderthal behaviour, diet, and disease inferred from ancient DNA in dental calculus", Nature, April 20, 2017. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28273061/ 2 2. Laura S Weyrich et al, "Neanderthal behaviour, diet, and disease inferred from ancient DNA in dental calculus", Nature, April 20, 2017. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28273061/
- 3. , "Medical Writings From Ancient Mesopotamia Studied", Archeology, February 12, 2018. https://www.archaeology.org/news/6341-180212-assyrian-medical-tablets 3 3. , "Medical Writings From Ancient Mesopotamia Studied", Archeology, February 12, 2018. https://www.archaeology.org/news/6341-180212-assyrian-medical-tablets
- 4. Daniel E. Moerman, "Ethnobotany in Native North America", 2014. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301948988_Ethnobotany_in_Native_North_America 4 4. Daniel E. Moerman, "Ethnobotany in Native North America", 2014. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301948988_Ethnobotany_in_Native_North_America
- 5. M H Pittler, R Guo, and E Ernst,, "Hawthorn extract for treating chronic heart failure", Cochran Database of Systematic Reviews, January 23, 2008. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18254076/ 5 5. M H Pittler, R Guo, and E Ernst,, "Hawthorn extract for treating chronic heart failure", Cochran Database of Systematic Reviews, January 23, 2008. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18254076/