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Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

Virtues and Pleasures of Herbs through History

Physic, Flavor, Fragrance and Dye


The ancient medicinal traditions of China, India, Egypt, and Greece held that herbs contained virtuous properties that could alleviate any health imbalance with herbal medicinal systems that involved opposing forces or a balancing of humors. The herbal remedies of many cultures reflected which plants were native to the region, and oral traditions kept alive the most effective treatments. One can only imagine the trial and error involved and how often toxic doses were administered. In fact the Greek physician Dioscorides (ca.40–ca.90) in his Materia Medica described several antidotes for poisoning.

The earliest recorded uses of plants were mostly medicinal, and with the invention of printing such information was more easily disseminated to a wider population. Herbs were cultivated in monastery and physic gardens for use and study, and later apothecaries became dispensaries of simples (or combinations of herbs) to treat particular ailments. Still the home was often the source of many herbal remedies that had been passed down through generations.

From the 16th to 18th centuries many people referred to publications, such as Thomas Tusser's Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1557), John Gerard's The Herball (1633), and Nicholas Culpeper's The English Physician (1725), that were often filled with folklore and superstitions that had been written about herbal remedies since antiquity, sometimes tying in such ideas as the astrologically timed collection of herbs. European colonists carried these publications along with the seeds of familiar herbs to America but also learned of new medicinal uses of herbs from the native populations.

The important role of women in providing for many of the medicinal needs of a household is well illustrated by a selection from a "physicke" poem about "The Good Housewifelie" that appeared in Tusser (1557):

Good huswives provides, ere an sickness doo come,
of sundrie good things in hir house to have some.
Cold herbs in hir garden for agues that burne,
that over strong heat to good temper may turne.

Patent medicines made with herbs were first produced and sold by the Shakers, but soon there were 19th-century charlatans producing tonics touting a miracle cure that often had ingredients that did more harm than good. Oral traditions of therapeutic herbal remedies continue to this day, but herbal medicine is used throughout most of the world in a "supportive rather than curative" role (van Wyk and Wink 2004), being strongest in the least developed countries. Herbal medicines are regulated in many parts of the industrial world, but in the United States herbs are mostly sold in "dietary supplements" and do not come under the restrictions of the FDA.

WARNING: We do not advocate the use of or guarantee the efficacy of medicinal herbs. In a very real sense many plant species manufacture toxins as well as therapeutic components. Therefore, plants should be considered both potentially harmful and curative. Many herbs can be dangerous at certain concentrations and can potentially produce adverse reactions with conventional medications. Before considering any herbal remedy, please consult a physician.


This ancient herb and its many species were considered a symbol of life energy to ancient Greeks and an effective antiseptic and preservative (Fig. 1). Pliny noted its use for treating headaches and intestinal complaints. In John Gerard's The Herball of 1633 he noted that "Actius writeth that serpillum infused well in vinegar, and then sodden and mingled with rose water is a right singular remedie to cure them that have a long phrensie or lethargie," and that Galen "prescribeth one dram of the juice to be given in vinegar against the vomiting and helpeth such as are grieved with the spleen." Gerard himself wrote that "it bringeth down the desired sickness, provoketh urine, applied in baths and fomentations it procureth sweat." Similar virtuous properties were noted in the 11th-century poem Macer Floridus.

Macer Floridus De Viribus Herbarum, the famous medieval Latin poem on the virtues of herbs, was written in hexameter and consisted of 2,269 lines, in which 77 healing plants were discussed. It is considered to be one of the earliest Western documents showing a revival of interest in botany following the Dark Ages in Europe. The original title of this text was probably De Viribus Herbarum. The general theory concerning the addition of Macer to the title is that the author wanted to evoke the name of a Latin author, Aemilius Macer, who died in 15 B.C. The author is now thought to be Odo de Meung (Odo Magdunensis), this name having been found added to a Macer Floridus manuscript at Dresden. Odo was a French physician from Meung on the Loire who lived during the first half of the 11th century.

Sources for Macer Floridus De Viribus Herbarum (On the properties of plants) included the writings of Hippocrates (ca.460–ca.370 B.C.), Dioscorides, Pliny (A.D. 23–79) and Galen (A.D. 131–201). This leaf is one of two manuscript parchment leaves in our collection dating from the 12th century (Fig. 2). The Macer Floridus, as it is often referred to today, was popular and influential during the Middle Ages. The poem included information on the medicinal uses of herbs, and its poetic form may have been a mnemonic device for physicians. The poem has been called an herbal and includes information on the medicinal uses of wild thyme, Thymus serpyllum Linnaeus, as shown in a Modern English translation by Institute staff based on a Middle English translation (Frisk 1949, pp. 137–138).

Modern English Translation

Wild thyme [Thymus serpyllum Linnaeus].
Wild thyme is called serpillum in Latin because, as is commonly said, it creeps forth near the ground. Wild thyme is hot and dry.
—First strength. For the headache.
Grind wild thyme with vinegar and oil of roses and with this ointment anoint the forehead that ache, and this will destroy the headache.
—For venomous beasts.
The smoke of wild thyme drives away all serpents and all other beasts that cast venom out of her mouth, and therefore it is the manner to Reap-men for to mix wild thyme in their meats [or food], for this reason that such venomous beasts should flee from them and do them no harm if it happened them to fall asleep when they were weary.
—III. For bitings.
Wild thyme drunk help deadly bitings if it be also layed to in [into] plaster.
Wild thyme provokes urine and soothes the fretting [swelling or torment] of the belly.
—V. For the spleen.
Wild thyme drunk often with vinegar will help the spleen.
—VI. For them that spit blood.
Wild thyme drunk with vinegar and honey will help them wonderfully that spit blood.
—VII. For the liver.
Wild thyme drunk with wine will staunch the ache of the liver and deliver a woman of some of her menses.

Today, thyme (Thymus Linnaeus) has a "generally recognized as safe" status by the FDA. Thymol, a constituent of thyme essential oil, is an active ingredient in gargles, toothpastes and mouthwashes (check the label of Listerine). Thyme's antibacterial and antifungal properties have a variety of current uses including a tea made from the leaves for upper respiratory infections. Topical uses include baldness and nail infections. Currently there is no body of scientific research to either confirm or deny the medicinal uses of thyme.


Several Native American tribes used Mentha arvensis Linnaeus for similar medicinal purposes as those recorded in the Nevada Indian Medicine Project including the Bella Coola, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Cree, Dakota, Gosiute, Iroquois, Kawaiisu, Keresan, Mahuna, Menominee, Micmac, Mohegan, Navaho, Ojibwa, Okanagan, Omaha, Paiute, Pawnee, Ponca Potawatomi, Sanpoil, Shoshone, Washoe and the Winnebago (Fig. 3).

Pah-guanna: Whole plant boiled slightly, tea taken as a beverage and considered a blood purifier, and used as such in the spring ... (Agnes Train's translation, HI Archives William Andrew Archer collection no. 3).

When Percy and Agnes Train interviewed Tim Hooper "a well-known and reliable Shoshone rancher and stock man" from Monitor Valley, Nevada, their interview was compromised by other local tribes who were present for the annual pine nut harvest. Despite the herbal secrets usually kept within Native American tribes, which allowed tribes to sell minced and ground herbal cures to each other, they learned that this Shoshone tribe used Mentha occidentalis Rydberg [= M. arvensis] as a spring tonic, as noted above. A catalogue of uses across tribes finds mint treating colic, diarrhea, fever, gas pains, headache, stomachache and indigestion, stomach cramps, sweating, swelling, and sore throat.

The U.S. government had been "rescuing" starving cattle in the Dust Bowl by transferring them to Nevada and issuing them to natives on tribal land. The cattle ate every plant in sight and died! In 1935 the Carson Indian Agency realized that they had a plant emergency on their hands. At the same time, the National Emergency Relief Administration was planning a Native American survey project in response to medical plant inquiries that had come into the University of Nevada from doctors around the country.

The Works Progress Administration, sponsored by the Carson Indian Agency and in conjunction with the University of Nevada, funded the 1937–1940 Nevada Indian Medicine Project. The project spawned research into such areas as wartime food preservation, birth control and cold remedies. The Trains worked as a team. Percy interviewed chiefs or medicine men about medicinal plants. Agnes learned the tribal languages, acted as transcriptionist and documented all their plants and expenses for the government. They sent 4,660 plants back in four years—usually a dozen dried herbarium specimens of each—with a total of 6,500 pounds of plant material going to pharmacological testing (Fig. 4).

The leaves of Mentha arvensis contain 60% menthol, which is used for flavoring and tea. Its flavor is similar to peppermint, Mentha ×piperita Linnaeus, which is in today's U.S. Pharmacopeia; both peppermint leaf and peppermint oil are in the U.S. National Formulary; and the FDA status is "generally recognized as safe" for human consumption as a seasoning and flavoring (Fig. 5). Warm peppermint leaf tea aids in digestion. Some recent clinical studies include peppermint oil used internally for irritable bowel syndrome and externally for headaches.

Warning: Symptoms of heartburn, hiatal hernia and stomach ulcers may be exacerbated by peppermint.


Salvia comes from the Latin salvere, which means to be in good health. Sage (Salvia Linnaeus) was one of the most important medicinal herbs in antiquity. Sage is included in the materia medica of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Galen and was widely used for the brain, the stomach, and the female organs. The Benedictine monk Walahfrid Strabo (?807–849) rated it first among the healthful herbs in the garden in his Hortulus, "Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden? / For it is rich in virtue and good to mix in a potion, a proven use for many a human ailment" (1966, p. 31). Medieval literature references its use for "soothed nerves, quieted shaking palsy, and improved digestion." Sage leaves had a wide variety of recorded uses to reduce sweating and lactation, to treat colds, coughs, nervous conditions and digestive disorders. Sage tea was used for weak stomachs, nervous headaches, fevers and colds through the 19th century.

The Gart der Gesundheit was the German translation of the Herbarius Latinus, originally published by Peter Schoeffer in 1484. He followed with a German edition in 1485, and it was one of the first European printed books on a scientific subject written in vernacular instead of in Latin, going through several more editions, such as this one from 1521. The Gart provided a compendium of the whole pharmacy of that time in that part of the world, and included as many as 65 woodcuts (out of 379) that appear to have been drawn from living plants rather than copied from books (Fig. 6). Medicinal uses of sage in early-16th-century herbals included such applications (made from the leaves and/or flowers) as applying it to ease the sinews; drinking wine mixed with sage for falling sickness; and mixing sage with parsley, vinegar and pepper to strengthen an appetite made feeble by cold humors in the stomach.

Thomas Short (?1690–1772) practiced medicine at Sheffield and wrote a number of medical works, including some speculative treatises. His spirit of independent inquiry was reflected in his interest in mineral waters and in his dissertation on tea, which included an appendix focusing on sage tea and also on water (Fig. 7). Of sage, he wrote that in "The grateful, aromatick Smell and Taste of Sage, discover at once its aromatick and penetrating Parts, which make it useful in all nervous Disorders, as Palsies, Convulsions, sleepy Diseases, uterine Affections, or any Relaxation and Obstructions of the Nerves ...." He gave a number of prescriptions "whereof Sage is either the Basis, or a very considerable Ingredient suited to a greater number of Disorders, both internal and external, to which the human Body is subject." Short's text was experimental in tone and balanced the presentation with some disadvantages of using sage medicinally.

So what happened? Although approved for food use in the United States, sage contains thujone, which is toxic in large doses. There is a warning regarding long-term use; however, there are recent clinical studies for use in Alzheimer's disease, anxiety and memory enhancement. Pharmacological studies show antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory activity.


Common comfrey (Symphytum Linnaeus) has been used internally and externally in herbal medicine for more than 2,000 years. Country people cultivated comfrey in their gardens for its wound healing reputation, hence its common name of knitbone. In the Middle Ages it was a famous remedy for broken bones. Both the roots and the leaves are used medicinally, the roots having higher concentrations of active ingredients.

Johann Wilhelm Weinmann (1683–1741) was a Regensburg apothecary who also produced one of the earliest botanical works to use color-printed mezzotint. Despite a certain amount of turbulence in his professional life, he accumulated some wealth and established a small botanical garden in Regensburg. In 1723 he began to produce botanical publications. Phytanthoza Iconographia was a monumental work of 8 volumes and 1,025 color plates and contained the first published botanical illustrations (unsigned) by famed botanical artist Georg Dionys Ehret (1708–1770). The work also included hand-colored etchings by unknown artists, such as this one of Symphytum officinale Linnaeus (Fig. 8).

Modern chemistry has isolated the active ingredient allantoin, a known healing agent, from comfrey. Recent scientifically valid studies on the external use of comfrey root extract ointment for ankle distortions have shown comfrey to be superior in healing compared to both placebo and an aspirin-like gel.

WARNING TOXIC—Is Russian comfrey or prickly comfrey the culprit?

However, in 2001 the FDA released an advisory recommending that products containing comfrey be removed from the market. FTC prohibited the marketing of comfrey-containing products for internal use or use on open wounds, requiring a warning on comfrey products intended for external use. Comfrey products are banned in Canada and limited to external use in Germany and England.

Botanically Russian comfrey is Symphytum ×uplandicum Nyman (a hybrid between Symphytum officinale Linnaeus and Symphytum asperum Lepech, known as prickly comfrey). Russian comfrey has become a very popular source for the commercial herb. Prickly comfrey was introduced into England in 1811 as a fodder plant. Some products labeled common comfrey actually contain the more toxic prickly comfrey or Russian comfrey species. Common comfrey does not contain appreciable levels of the likely most toxic pryrrolizidine alkaloid, echimidine. The incidence of echimidine in commercial comfrey indicates the likelihood that much of what passes for common comfrey is probably Russian comfrey. Specifically "about one quarter of S. officinale samples were in fact found to contain echimidine, albeit in generally very small quantity." Discussions continue in the professional literature.


References to the medicinal use of ginger (Zingiber Miller) are found in Chinese pharmacopeias, the Sesruta scriptures of Ayurvedic medicine as well as Sanskrit writings. Ginger has been cultivated in China and India for over 2,500 years, and they remain the world's largest producers. In China the medicinal uses of fresh ginger are for treating fever, coughs and nausea; while dried ginger is used against stomach pain and diarrhea, as shown in the translation of a Chinese herbal (ca.1800). Once its culinary properties were discovered in the 13th century, use of this herb became widespread throughout Europe. In the Middle Ages, it held a firm place in apothecaries for travel sickness, nausea, hangovers and flatulence (Fig. 9).

We currently know little about Account of 814 Plants & Insects, Most of Which Are Reckoned Medicinal by the Chinese (ca.1800), a manuscript Chinese herbal in our Library. The bookseller from whom it was acquired guessed its date of creation to be around 1800. There are several full-color frontispieces, and the rest of the folio volume consists of 216 leaves showing plants and (to a lesser extent) animals used therapeutically in the Chinese pharmacopeia. The 814 colored images are lifelike, and the brief text is written in both Chinese and English (see translation below; Fig. 10).


Ginger grows everywhere. Take the mother ginger to plant it in April and the seedling will come out in May, which looks like arrow shaft bamboo. The leaves of the seedling grow in pairs that taste pungent in flavor and smell. When picked up in the fall, it is called young ginger. After frost falls, it becomes old ginger which takes a pungent flavor. The ginger is moderate in nature, able to relieve symptoms caused by cold and flu and help in build up energy in the human body (Translated courtesy of Yueming Yu, Ph.D., Associate Teaching Professor and Chinese Program Coordinator, Department of Modern Languages, Carnegie Mellon University).

Otto Karl Berg (1815–1866) taught at Berlin University, where he was professor of pharmaceutical botany. His Handbuch der Pharmazeutischen Botanik went through three editions. Darstellung und Beschreibung Sämmtlicher in der Pharmacopoea Borussica was a four-volume survey of plants used in the Prussian pharmacopoeia. C. F. Schmidt drew and lithographed the plates, producing the clearly and accurately drawn images with added anatomical details that characterize this work (Fig. 11).

In 2000 ginger sales ranked 17th of all herbal supplements sold in the United States. There is a very active current body of medical research on the properties of ginger. Ginger is a widely accepted treatment or prophylaxis for all types of nausea. Some of the current studies include the pain and inflammation of osteoarthritis, motion sickness in children, migraines, Alzheimer's disease, all types of nausea and digestive disorders. Although postulated, recent studies reported a lack of adverse drug herb interactions. There are no reports of severe toxicity in ginger use in humans.

Warning: Ginger has purported blood-thinning properties. If taking blood-thinning medications, please consult a physician before use.

View Images

Sage of Virtue [Salvia Linnaeus, Lamiaceae alt. Labiatae], hand-colored engraving by Cornelius Heinrich Hemmerich after an original by Timothy Sheldrake (fl.1734–1759) for his Botanicum Medicinale: An Herbal of Medicinal Plants on the College of Physicians' List ... Most Beautifully Engraved on 120 Large Folio Copper-Plates (London, Printed for J. Millan, [?1759], pl. 94), HI Library call no. DF5 S544B.