A History of Herbalism

A History of Herbalism

A history of herbalism

In the intricacy of human history, the art of herbalism emerges as one of the oldest and most profound traditions across continents and cultures. Through the ages healers have tapped into the power of nature's abundance to facilitate the treatment of ailments and nurture the body, mind, and spirit. I labelled this blog “a history” for good reason - this mesmerising journey through time, delves into some of the many rich and expansively deep traditions of traditional medicine. That being said these tell the stories of a couple pieces of the puzzle - I want to use this story as an opportunity to pay homage the the infinite stories, healers and traditions which have allowed for the evolution of health and healing in this phenomenal kinship with the herbal and fungi world.


Let us take the time to know, learn, listen and honour the stories which have lead us here


The Roots of Traditional Chinese Medicine

The origins of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are deeply entwined with the spiritual beliefs and observations of ancient Chinese sages. As early as 2000 BCE, Chinese healers began studying the natural world, seeking to understand the harmony that exists between the universe, the earth, and humanity. They recognized that everything in existence is interconnected, and this philosophy forms the cornerstone of TCM.

Central to TCM is the concept of Qi (pronounced "chee"), the vital life force that flows through the body along meridians, connecting organs and systems. Any blockage or imbalance in this energy flow is believed to cause illness. Herbalism plays a crucial role in TCM, as certain plants and substances are believed to influence the flow of Qi, restoring balance and promoting health.

The legendary “Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing" (The Classic of Herbal Medicine), dating back to the Han Dynasty, stands as a monumental work within TCM. It is attributed to Emperor Shen Nong, the mythical "Divine Farmer," who tasted hundreds of herbs to understand their medicinal properties as well as their energetics. The "Ben Cao Jing" catalogues over 300 herbs and their uses, classifying them based on their effects on Yin (feminine)/ Yang (masculine) energies, their elemental attributions and if they feed Qi, Jing (primal) or Shen (spiritual) energies. This remarkable text not only describes herbal remedies but also provides insights into preventive medicine and lifestyle practices to maintain health.

Ancient Chinese herbalists also recognized the therapeutic potential of mushrooms.

The "Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing" includes numerous references to mushroom medicines, extolling their abilities to strengthen the body, boost the immune system, and nourish the spirit. Reishi mushrooms, known as the "mushrooms of immortality," and shiitake mushrooms, celebrated for their immune-boosting properties, hold a special place in the hearts of Chinese herbalists.

Some honoured herbals in TCM include Reishi, Liquorice root, Astragalus and Lions mane.


Western Herbalism and the Legacy of Nicholas Culpeper

In the Western world, herbalism has an intricate and intriguing history. The medieval period witnessed a blending of traditional herbal knowledge inherited from ancient civilisations and the integration of Christian beliefs. Monasteries served as repositories of herbal wisdom, and monks often cultivated medicinal gardens to tend to the sick.

One of the most influential figures in the world of Western herbalism is Nicholas Culpeper. Born in 1616 in England, Culpeper defied the elitist medical establishment by advocating for herbal knowledge to be accessible to all. His work, "The English Physician”, published in 1652, was written in the vernacular rather than Latin, making it readable for the common people. Culpepper was deeply attuned to nature's rhythms and the interconnectedness of all living beings. He believed that every plant possessed its own signature, a unique symbol that pointed to its medicinal uses. His reverence for the intelligence of nature led him to write with awe and respect about the gifts of the natural world. Within "The English Physician," Culpepper included detailed descriptions of herbs and their properties, as well as astrological associations, making connections between the movements of celestial bodies and the cycles of nature. He emphasised the importance of using herbs in their whole and unadulterated form to harness their complete healing potential.


Revered herbals in Western herbalism are some of the most well known to this day - including chamomile, Yarrow, Plantain, Mugwort and Nettles.


Ayurvedic Medicine: The Ancient Wisdom of India

Ayurveda, the traditional system of medicine in India, emerged over five millennia ago and continues to thrive today. The word "Ayurveda" translates to "the science of life" or "knowledge of longevity," expressing its holistic approach to health and well-being.

The foundation of Ayurveda is the belief that each individual is a unique combination of three elemental energies or doshas: Vata (air and ether), Pitta (fire and water), and Kapha (earth and water). These doshas govern various bodily functions and aspects of personality, and when they are in balance, health ensues.
Herbalism within Ayurveda enacts itself so as to support the balance of these doshas, ensuring that balance is maintained or restored to the physical body so that spirit may have a safe space in which to express itself. Practitioners use an extensive array of herbs and plants to treat a wide range of conditions and ailments. Herbs are carefully selected based on the individual's constitution and the specific imbalances present.


One of the most revered ancient texts in Ayurveda is the "Charaka Samhita." Attributed to the sage Charaka, it expounds on the medicinal properties of numerous herbs and offers guidance on herbal formulations. The "Sushruta Samhita," another essential Ayurvedic text, focuses on surgical techniques and also includes discussions on herbal remedies.

In Ayurveda, the use of adaptogenic herbs is particularly valued. Adaptogens help the body adapt to stress and restore balance. Ashwagandha, known as the "Indian ginseng," and holy basil are among the cherished adaptogenic herbs used in Ayurvedic practice.

Other Ayurvedic wonders include Triphala, Shatavari, Gokshura and Neem.


The Mystical World of African Herbalism

African herbalism is deeply steeped in spiritual and animistic beliefs, connecting the physical and metaphysical realms. The continent's diverse cultures and regions have allowed for the weaving of a unique, rich and immensely powerful tapestry of healing traditions and herbal lore.

Ancient African healers, play central roles in within their communities. They have always served as intermediaries between the spirit world and the living, relying on their knowledge of herbs and their spiritual practices to heal the sick, protect against malevolent forces, and offer guidance.

Herbal knowledge in Africa has been passed down through generations via oral traditions, songs, and stories - each tribe having their own healing practices and rituals, often involving dance, music, and drumming to invoke the spirits of the plants and ancestors to allow for ultimate healing and the facilitation of such.
African herbalism embraces the use of roots, leaves, barks, and various plant parts to create potent concoctions and decoctions. The Baobab tree, known as the "Tree of Life," holds particular significance, with almost every part of the tree being used for medicinal purposes.
Other herbals such as African Potato, Moringa, Artemisia Afra, Cancerbush and the Artist Conk are all incredible allies which are leaned on throughout the healing of this land. 

The profound reverence and awe that African healers have held for the natural world is evident throughout their rituals and ceremonies, and is something which is to be honoured and revered in itself. The intimate connection between humans, plants, and spirits is at the heart of their herbal practices, instilling a sense of unity and harmony with the land.


Witches as Natural Healers and Herbalists

Throughout history, the term "witch" has carried diverse connotations. While some cultures revered them as wise healers, others demonised and persecuted them. In the context of herbalism, witches were often associated with women who possessed an intimate knowledge of plants and their healing properties. The word ‘witch’ is actually derived from the latin ‘wiċċe’ which means wise - here clarifying the need for the reclamation of this incredible title.


The ancient practice of midwifery was often linked to witchcraft, as women utilised herbal remedies to aid in childbirth and alleviate women's health issues. These practices were considered sacred and were passed down from mother to daughter, reinforcing the connection between women, nature, and healing.


During the witch trials of medieval Europe, many women were accused of practicing witchcraft and using herbs to harm others. However, it's essential to recognise that some of these accusations were rooted in superstitions and misogyny, rather than a genuine understanding of herbalism. Despite the persecution, the wisdom of witches survived through oral traditions and secret societies, preserving their knowledge of herbal medicine. Many modern herbalists and practitioners now honour the legacy of these women and seek to revive their wisdom in a world that is beginning to embrace the healing power of nature once more.



The journey through the history of herbalism and its traditional practices reveals a profound interconnectedness between humans and the natural world. The ancient civilisations of China, the medieval herbalists of the West, the timeless wisdom of Ayurveda, and the mystical herbal traditions of Africa all speak to the enduring awe and reverence that healers have held for the plant kingdom.


The figures of history, such as Emperor Shen Nong, Nicholas Culpeper, and the wise witches, stand as beacons of knowledge, guiding us to appreciate the healing potential of nature and our intrinsic connection to the earth. As we delve deeper into these traditions, let us approach herbalism with the same reverence and awe that our ancestors held, cherishing the timeless wisdom that has been passed down through generations and continues to offer solace and healing in our modern world.

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**Section 1: The Roots of Traditional Chinese Medicine**

1. Unschuld, P. U. (1985). **Medicine in China: A History of Ideas**. University of California Press.
2. Kaptchuk, T. J. (2000). **The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine**. McGraw-Hill.
3. Yang, S. (2004). **The Divine Farmer's Materia Medica: A Translation of the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing**. Blue Poppy Press.

**Section 2: Western Herbalism and the Legacy of Nicholas Culpeper**

1. Culpeper, N. (1652). **Culpeper's Complete Herbal**. Public Domain.
2. Green, J. (2000). **The Herbal Medicine-Maker's Handbook: A Home Manual**. Crossing Press.
3. Wood, M. (2008). **The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants**. North Atlantic Books.

**Section 3: Ayurvedic Medicine: The Ancient Wisdom of India**

1. Frawley, D., & Lad, V. (1986). **The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine**. Lotus Press.
2. Lad, V. (1984). **Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing**. Lotus Press.
3. Sharma, P. V. (1981). **Caraka Samhita**. Chaukhambha Orientalia.
4. Sharma, P. V. (2002). **Susruta Samhita**. Chaukhambha Orientalia.

**Section 4: The Mystical World of African Herbalism**

1. Winkelman, M. (1992). **Shamans and Other "Magico-Religious" Healers: A Cross-Cultural Study of Their Origins, Nature, and Social Transformations**. Ethos, 20(4), 443-470.
2. Ezenwafor, J. I. (2009). **Indigenous Knowledge System in African Herbal Medicine and Pharmacognosy**. Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy, 1(1), 001-014.

**Section 5: Witches as Natural Healers and Herbalists**

1. Davies, O. (2009). **Witchcraft, Gender and Society in Early Modern Germany**. Brill.
2. Kieckhefer, R. (2000). **Magic in the Middle Ages**. Cambridge University Press.
3. Ellwood, R. S. (2006). **Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies**. Rowman Altamira.

Feel free to use these references to further explore the topics covered in the newsletter sections. Remember to properly cite any information you use from these sources.