HISTORY OF HERBS
Herbs have been put to a wide variety of uses throughout the ages. They have been used as medicines, to enhance the flavor of foods, as perfumes, insecticides, cyes, and of course, to ward off evil spirits, and sometimes even to evoke them.
One of the earliest known herbalists was the great Chinese Emperor Shen Nung (c.3000BC) who was known as THE DIVINE HEALER.
Written evidence, inthe form of medical texts on papyri, has also revealed that herbs were used in ancient Egypt. Probably the most well known of these is the Ebers papyrus which dates back to at least 1800BC.
The earliest British herbalist was the Saxon monk Bald, who relied on both ritual and magic and produced a work based on local plants called the LEECH BOOK OF BALD.
Probably the best-known herbalist of modern times is Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) who practiced in London's East End. Culpeper subscribed both to the theory of astrological botany (the planetary rulership of plants determining their medicinal use), as well as to the doctrine of signaturess. Culpeper's theories remained the most comprehensive study of herbs until 1931 when Mrs. M. Grieves published A MODERN HERBAL which recorded both the usage and history of herbs.
HERBS IN MEDICINE
Wise women, root gatherers, shamans, and medicine men have known the medicinal properties of many common plants for centuries.
The practical uses of herbs were discovered by trial and error. It was common practice to observe a plant, noting where it grew, its shape, and color. Then the herb would be crushed to release its essential oils and perfume before finally being tasted.
Some would have tasted bitter and unpalatable, others pleasant, while some would seem to cure ailments and give extra vitality, whereas many would have proved fatal!
The herbs used by those ancient people over the centuries have led to the modern array of medicines available over the counter and to physicians. Since these early trials, we have learned that herbs contain complex chemical structures. Their medicinal effects are due to the active principles or secondary plant products that they make, such as alkaloids, glycosides, mucilage, bitters, essential oils, etc.
Herbalists tend to use the whole herb, or the part of the herb with the medicinal effect, in the belief that the fresh or dried plant may contain other substances which may have a balancing effect.
A single herb used to treat a symptom is called a simple. Combinations of herbs are also used now as the understanding of the bodily systems has evolved. The holistic approach takes into account lifestyle, diet, temperament and external influences and aims to recreate the balance of a healthy body, helping the body to heal itself.
Hers are used in many ways and can be ingested or applied to the body directly. they can be taken raw, as decoctions (boiled), infusions, teas, tisanes, syrups, and herbal pills. They can also be made into tinctures (dissolved in alcohol), or essences (pressed and added to alcohol), essential oils, ointments, compresses, or poultices.
HERBS AS FLAVORINGS
During the Middle Ages methods of preserving food were very basic so herbs and spices were widely used, both to improve the flavor of bland food and to disguise the taste of rancid food!
Culinary herbs in the 16th century included sorrel, onions, and parsnips, which were classified as pot herbs. The leaves and roots were both used and were either roasted or boiled and eventually became known as vegetables.
Basil, sweet cecily, savory and so on were known as sweet herbs and were used solely for enhancing the flavor of a particular dish.
It is these sweet herbs which we tend to think of as the culinary herbs. Using them can reduce the need for salt in savory dishes and sugar in sweet dishes.
HERBS AS TEAS AND JISANES
The discovery of tea is attributed to Emperor Shen Nung who was purportedly boiling water to purify it before drinking when a few leaves from an overhanging bush floated down into the water. He drank the resultant brew and found it quite efficacious and hence discovered a new beverage, the tea plant, is now the most widely drunk herbal tea.
Herbal teas, as we think of them, are actually refreshing tisanes which are an integral part of the herbalist's medicine chest. They have been used to soothe, alleviate depression, invigorate, induce sleep, aid digestion, and even in childbirth.
Teas and tisanes are differentiated by their methods of production. Teas are made from herbs that have been harvested, dried or otherwise processed, such as smoked. Tisanes are made by the infusion of fresh herbs, or herbs that have been simply air-dried.
The usual methods for making a herbal tinane is quite simple. It is best to use a glass or china pot, never a metal one. Pick three to six teaspoons of fresh herbs, according to taste, bruise them and pour over half a pint of boiling water. Cover for up to ten minutes and serve using honey as a sweetener if desired. You can substitute one teaspoon of the dried herb, when fresh herbs are available.
The potency of aromatic herbs has been used in various ways over the centuries. Herbs have, in the past, been strewn on floors, in front of processions, and also used in the form of potpourri that we know today.
Around the home, herbs have beenused for herbal sachets, for pomanders in the linen cupboard, for relaxing herbal baths, and also made into oils for massage. The medicinal qualities of aromatic herbs certainly haven't gone unnoticed, and have been used to ward off disease, as disinfectants and deodorizers, to make toilet waters, and burned to cleanse sick rooms.
In ancient Egypt scented oils were used for massage, while the Romans scented their famous baths with herbs.