One of the earliest recorded uses of herbal medicines dates back to the Egyptians, but it is more than likely that plants were used long before this, probably by the Chinese. The use of medicinal plants is also documented by the Babylonians (around 750 BC) and by the Mesopotamians. Enough details were included in the materia medica (a textbook detailing plant and their medicinal properties and formulae for patent mixtures) of the time, to be utilised later by the Greeks, Romans and Arabs.

It was the Greek physician Hippocrates (who lived around 400 BC), who was the first to take a rational view of medicine and to look seriously how herbs might be applied to instigate healing. His model of health was based on a balance of four main principles, earth, fire, water and air and their bodily representations, the cardinal humours, blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. For a state of health to exist, the humours must be in balance that is in a state of harmonious equilibrium for the animal or person to be healthy. If the balance of the humours was disturbed, then symptoms of ill-health would appear in the patient. These signs were then treated by using plant-based medicines to correct imbalances in the humours, with the prescription based on the known medicinal properties of the medicinal plants available at the time.

The era of Hippocrates was also the time which saw the emergence of the Doctrine of Signatures which held the belief that the appearance of plants bore some resemblance to the conditions that they could possibly be used to treat. The cut surface of a nutmeg, for example, bears some similarities to the appearance of the brain and was said to help with disorders of the brain. The patchy leaves of Lungwort were used to treat chest conditions based on the fact that they resembled diseased lungs and the bright yellow flowers of Dandelion suggested its use in treating liver disorders such as jaundice.

Further advances in plant based healing occurred around 150 AD, when Galen, the personal physician to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, made extensive studies based on the work of Hippocrates. He published several books which became classics, detailing and classifying plant based medicines and their individual preparation. Galen was also the founder of the Galenic pharmacy which centred around the science of preparing medicines. Some plant preparations, referred to as Galenicals, as still in use today. Another Greek, Dioscorides, served as military physician to the Roman emperor Nero. He set about collecting medicinal plants from the Mediterranean area and published his work, De Materia Medica, around AD 78. Over the years, the vast store of knowledge collected by the Romans and Greeks, formed the foundation for the medicinal practices of the Arabs. Through conquest, their knowledge spread to Spain and then on to the rest of Europe.

In Great Britain, the use of herbal medicine pre-dates the arrival of the Romans by some considerable time. The druids were skilled in the use of herbal remedies which included many sacred herbs such as Henbane, Mistletoe, Monkshood and Primrose. After the Romans left Britain, their knowledge, based on the works of Hippocrates and Dioscorides, remained. It is likely therefore, that the medicinal knowledge of the Anglo-Saxons, far exceeded those of their European neighbours in relation to the use of medicinal and healing plants.

Some of the most famous healers were those working in Myddfai in Wales, in the 6th century. These were doctors rather than druids, but it was the monks that passed on healing traditions through the abbeys and monasteries. Many of their libraries contained extracts from Roman and Greek texts on herbal remedies. The monks duties included caring for the sick so that each monastery would have a physic garden to grow healing herbs. It was also customary for many manor houses to grow herbs for use in treating the workers of the house and estate.

Around this time, the increase in the availability of printed books resulted in the appearance of some of the most popular books on herbal medicine. A New Herball was produced by William Turner, the physician and father of English botany, in 1551. Master surgeon John Gerard published his now famous book on herbal medicine, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes in 1597. A much later herbal, The English Physitian published in 1652 by Nicholas Culpepper, promoted herbal medicine at a time when orthodox medicine was increasingly turning to the use of toxic metals and physical means to fight disease. Despite this, herbal remedies still formed a large part of the apothecaries stock as plant based medicines were the mainstay of treatment for most of the general population of the time.

The 17th century saw the establishment of some of the most famous of the physic gardens including the Chelsea physic garden created for the society of apothecaries in 1673. Others were created in Oxford and Edinburgh. The publication of The Complete Herbal of Physical Plants by John Pechey published in 1694 earmarked the end of the 17th century. The following century saw the establishment of better laboratory techniques and the development of chemistry as a science. This in turn led to the isolation of some of the active constituents within plant based medicines. Despite this fact, during the 19th century, the use of herbal medicines declined a trend which continued well into the 20th century with the advent of pharmacology and modern drug based medicine.

Over the past 10-15 years however, we have seen an increasing interest in alternative therapies, herbalism included. Along with this fact, scientific advances have been made in isolating many of the active ingredients in plants, explaining rationally how and why many plant based remedies work. Consequently many of the old wives tales and the folk lore related to some of the more common herbal remedies, information which has been handed down from one generation to another, can be explained scientifically. Commercial interest in plant medicines has also increased in the never ending search to isolate new compounds on which to base new drugs. This concept is not new, many of the drugs we take for granted now where originally based on plant compounds. In this list we can include Foxglove on which digitalis and related drugs are based, Wild yam from which steroids were synthesised and Meadowsweet from which salicylic acid, the forerunner of aspirin, was first discovered in 1839.

Most herbalists would support the fact though, that single isolated compounds do not always work as well or as effectively as those present naturally in the whole plant. Each individual herbal remedy contains a multitude of different compounds which augment and balance each other. It is mainly because of this reason, that most herbal remedies have few side effects as the individual ingredients tend to work in harmony together and with the body.

As such, herbal medicine is holistic in its approach. Since plants are an integral part of this planet, their use in healing means taking part in the planet's ecological cycle, putting us in more direct contact with nature.  It is important to remember that we share a common biological ancestry with many of the basic elements found in plant cells.  Herbalism can account for the patient as a whole, understanding that many factors combine to cause illness, for example stress, diet and environment.  Where necessary, we can combine remedies to suit the patient. In fact, many herbs combine together to achieve a more profound healing effect.  They act in a slow and subtle way, helping redress the balance even in instances where there is a deep seated nutritional or biochemical problem.

At one time herbal remedies were used regularly in veterinary medicine, especially in the early 1900’s when most veterinary work involved treating horses and to as lesser extent dogs. Many of the patent mixtures used, contained plant remedies, as the textbooks of the time will testify. By the early 1980’s few herbal products remained in practice. Nux vomica was still included in cattle stomach powders as a tonic and Chelidonium was used to help treat liver and urinary problems in dogs and cats. The following years saw the demise of these products at a time when general interest in herbal remedies was growing. Although a few herbal based medicines have reappeared lately in general veterinary practice, proprietary herbal products have existed for some time.


From a scientific viewpoint, it is the chemical constituents of plants that produce physiological effects on the body and influence organ systems. Understanding plant pharmacology is not altogether vital in terms of using herbal remedies in practice, but is important in understanding the nature of how plants work and how they interact with the body. The majority of plants contain a huge range of compounds which perform specific functions or have specific properties. Chemists have categorised these into definitive groups to simplify how they are able to interact with the body.


These appear in different forms, including as the components of volatile oils. Menthol, which is a constituent of Peppermint, is a good example.


These are potent compounds with wide-ranging effects on the body and on organ systems, particularly the circulatory and nervous systems. Their structures are often complex and most are poisonous to varying degrees.


This group includes plants that have purgative effects, the most familiar of which is Rhubarb.

Bitter principles

As their name suggests, this group contains constituents which have a bitter taste. Their main benefit is in stimulation of the digestive system and the liver by a reflex action through the taste buds. Gentian is included within this group.


Both the sugars and starches found in plants are classed as carbohydrates and act as energy sources. More highly complex carbohydrates form the basis of many of the demulcent, soothing components in herbs such as Marshmallow and in gums such as those in Seaweed.


Some compounds in this group have the characteristic smell of new mown hay and some, such as Horse Chestnut Bark, have the ability to strengthen capillary walls.

Flavones and flavonoid glycosides

This is an important group with wide-ranging effects, covering diuretics, anti-spasmodics and compounds that offer hepatic and cardiac support. A specific group, known as bioflavonoides, includes the compound rutin, which is present in Buckwheat and can increase the strength and permeability of blood vessel walls.


Cardiac glycosides have well known effects on the heart and have been used extensively in medicine. The most famous is foxglove, which became the forerunner of many of the modern heart drugs we use today.

Phenolic compounds

These have a wide range of chemical structures and are an important component of many plant constituents. One of the best known is salicylic acid which is found in combination with sugar in herbs such as Meadowsweet and Willow Bark.

Plant acids

Many plants contain acids, some of which will be very familiar. Nettles contain formic acid, which is responsible for the irritating sting. Citric acid will be even more familiar as a constituent of oranges, lemons and the like.

Compounds in this category bear some structural similarities to cortisone and have been the subject of considerable research, particularly in relation to the sex hormones.


Tannins have a binding, protective effect on mucus membranes and the skin, allowing healing. They can be useful in arresting diarrhoea, stopping bleeding and in drying up discharges. Tea contains tannins and hence the use of cold tea in treating conjunctivitis.

Volatile oils

Oils extracted from plants form the basis of aromatherapy and are responsible for many of the familiar herbal odours. Many aromatic plants contain complex mixtures of oils with varied properties, which include antiseptic, stimulatory and calming actions.


Although knowledge of plant chemistry is clearly useful, it is more practical to classify herbs into different groups according to their medicinal actions. This enables herbalists to make full use of their properties and to make synergistic combinations to fulfil a specific requirement. Most herbs have a multitude of actions and will be included in several groups. Conversely any one individual herb, can similarly be used to treat a variety of conditions.


Herbs in this group were once known as blood cleansers and are still widely used to slowly restore well being and general vitality. Examples include Burdock, Garlic, Nettles and Cleavers.


These help to eliminate worms from the digestive tract but are not often used these days as they are likely to cause side effects in the quantities needed to be effective. Some such as Garlic can, however, be safely used as a deterrent to ward off infection by parasites.


As the name suggests, remedies in this category help remove excess mucus and catarrh. As such they are particularly useful in treating rhinitis, sinusitis and coughs. Useful examples include Sage, Thyme, Golden Rod and Garlic.


Herbs such as Peppermint, Agrimony, Cranesbill and Meadowsweet can help resolve diarrhoea through a number of different actions. Some help soothe the intestine such as Peppermint, whilst herbs such as Agrimony have an astringent (binding) action.


Remedies in this category help reduce inflammation and pain and have a wide number of applications ranging from helping with arthritis, soothing sore skin and healing the lining of the bowel. Examples include Chamomile, Meadowsweet and Marigold.




This important group help prevent the formation of stones and gravel in the urinary system and can assist with their removal. Useful examples include Buchu, Bearberry, Parsley Piert and Stone Root.


Herbs in this group act by fighting off infection, either by helping to destroy invading organisms or by supporting or strengthening the immune system. Examples include Garlic, Echinacea, Peppermint, Rosemary and Thyme.


Herbs which relieve spasm are termed anti-spasmodics and are utilised to help relieve cramping pains and the discomfort associated with colic and indigestion. Skullcap and Valerian are good examples.


Tannins are the major component of most of the herbs in this category and act to tone or firm up tissue. They can also help by reducing discharges and secretions and will help limit bleeding where this is a problem. Examples include Agrimony, Raspberry, Yarrow, Slippery Elm Bark and Bearberry.


Bitters have a bitter taste and stimulate the appetite, digestion and flow of digestive juices via a reflex action through the taste buds. Barberry and Gentian are good examples.


These are heart or cardiac tonics that help to support the heart and the circulation. Some of the herbs in this group such as Foxglove are very potent and very toxic if not used under supervision. Others such as Hawthorn are much less so, yet are still useful medicinally.


Herbs in this category help prevent colic and the associated abdominal pain. They contain volatile oils which stimulate the digestive system, relax the muscles of the stomach and encourage peristalsis. Aniseed, Peppermint, Dill, Valerian and Garlic are included in this list.

Cholagogues and choleretics

Herbs in this category stimulate the production of bile from the liver (choleretics) or release of bile from the gall bladder (cholagogues). Bile helps stimulate the digestive process and is also a natural laxative. Herbs which have these properties include Gentian, Dandelion, Barberry, Fringetree, Milk Thistle and Peppermint.




The main action of demulcents is to protect and soothe mucous membranes. This action is especially useful where mucous membranes are sore or inflamed and will, in effect, allow healing to occur. Familiar examples include Marshmallow, Liquorice, Parsley piert, Oats, Slippery Elm bark and Couchgrass.


Diuretics increase the elimination of water from the body and consequently increase the output of urine. Their most familiar role is that of helping in the treatment of heart failure but from the herbalists viewpoint they are of most use in treating urinary tract disorders including kidney disease and bladder problems. Herbs with diuretic actions include Buchu, Bearberry, Cleavers, Dandelion, Juniper, Parsley Piert, Golden Rod, Yarrow and Burdock.


Emollients are similar to demulcents except used externally to soothe and protect skin. Many of the herbs in this category are also used internally as demulcents. Examples of herbs with emollient properties include Comfrey, Liquorice, Mallow, Marshmallow and Slippery Elm.


This familiar group helps loosen and remove excess mucous from the airways. They work in a variety of ways. Some irritate the airways helping to expel mucous, while others loosen up any mucous so that it can be removed with less effort. Some also help destroy viruses and bacteria, as they have an antiseptic action. Examples include Aniseed, Garlic, Coltfoot, Peppermint, Liquorice and Thyme.


The herbs in this category assist and support the liver and are useful in treating a variety of liver conditions. Most will also help increase either the production or flow of bile. Barberry, Milk Thistle, Dandelion, Cleavers and Cascara are included within this group.


Herbs with this property can help lower blood sugar and are sometimes prescribed to help in the treatment of diabetes. Garlic, Fenugreek, Chicory and Nettles can be included under this category.



Included within this category are a number of herbs which can help relieve constipation. Some act to help stimulate and evacuate the bowel, others help to soften the stool. Examples include Dandelion, Barberry, Cascara, Rhubarb Root and Cleavers.


The main action of this group is on the nervous system. Some act as stimulants, others strengthen the nervous system generally and some tone it down. Ginseng, Oats, Hops, Valerian, Skullcap and Rosemary are good examples.


Herbs such as Valerian, Skullcap, Chamomile and Hops have actions that can help calm the nervous system and help reduce stress. They are particularly useful in treating nervous animals or those with behavioural problems.


As the name suggests, remedies in this category can help stimulate the body, acting through supporting some of basic physiological functions. Examples include Cayenne, Garlic, Ginseng, Peppermint, Mustard and Rosemary.


There are a great many herbs which have properties as tonics. They act across the spectrum of body systems helping to strengthen and maintain specific organs and body functions. Examples include Agrimony, Bearberry (also known as Uva ursi), Cleavers, Garlic, Parsley, Raspberry and Skullcap.


Vulneraries assist in the healing of minor wounds, sores and cuts and are applied externally. Some of the best known remedies include Calendula (Marigold), Aloe vera, Arnica, Comfrey, Garlic and Yarrow.




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