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Nature’s Plants: Our Treasure Chest

“Through most of man’s history, botany and medicine were, for all practical purposes, synonymous fields of knowledge, and the shaman, or witch-doctor – usually an accomplished botanist – represents probably the oldest professional man in the evolution of human culture.” R.E. Schultes, 1972

Our Earth supplies countless gifts to humanity. Healthy wild ecosystems clean the water we drink and produce the air we breathe, the foods we eat, the medicines that cure and protect us, and the materials that form our shelter and clothing.

Plants have been part of our lives since the beginning of time. On one hand, they provide us with the oxygen we need by means of photosynthesis necessary for us to breathe. Plants have been used for thousands of years to flavour and conserve food, to treat health disorders and to prevent diseases including epidemics. We get numerous products from plants, most of them not only good and beneficial for our health, but also crucial to our existence. The use of plants to heal or combat illness is probably as old as humankind. For centuries, Native peoples of various cultures have used plants as medicine for all sorts of healing. The knowledge of their healing properties have been transmitted over the centuries within and among human communities.

The word ‘herb’ is derived from the Latin word, ‘herba’ and an old French word ‘herbe’. Now a days, herb refers to any part of the plant like fruit, seed, stem, bark, flower, leaf, stigma or a root, as well as a non-woody plant. Earlier, the term ‘herb’ was only applied to non-woody plants, including those that come from trees and shrubs. These medicinal plants are also used as food, flavonoid, medicine or perfume and also in certain spiritual activities.

Medicinal plants grow naturally around us. The use of plants for treating diseases is as old as the human species. But we still know little about the treasure trove inhabiting our wild places. Over centuries, cultures around the world have learned how to use plants to fight illness and maintain health. Man in the pre-historic era was probably not aware about the health hazards associated with irrational therapy. With the onset of research in medicine, it was concluded that plants contain active principles, which are responsible, for curative action of the herbs. It also finds application in pharmaceutical, cosmetic, agricultural and food industry.

The ancient medical science has looked after mankind for centuries. The use of the medicinal herbs for curing disease has been identified and used throughout human history.  Before onset of synthetic era, man was completely dependent on medicinal herbs for prevention and treatment of diseases. The use of plants as medicine predates written human history. Many of the herbs and spices used by humans to season food also yield useful medicinal compounds. The use of herbs and spices in cuisine developed in part as a response to the threat of food-borne pathogens. In all cultures vegetables are spiced less than meat, presumably because they are more resistant to spoilage.

In the written record, the study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who created clay tablets with lists of hundreds of medicinal plants. The ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, a scroll that’s over 100 pages long, details over 850 medicinal herbs and how to use them. The ancient Unani manuscripts, Greek Corpus Hippocraticum also detail the use of herbal medicine. In China, medicinal plant use goes back at least 4,000 years, and healers have used more than 5,000 plant species. In India, Ayurvedic medicine has used many herbs as early as 1900 BC. Evidence exist that Unani Hakims, Indian Vaids and European and Mediterranean cultures were using herbs for over 4000 years as medicine. Indigenous cultures such as Rome, Egypt, Iran, Africa and America used herbs in their healing rituals, while other developed traditional medical systems such as Unani, Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine in which herbal therapies were used systematically. Later, the knowledge of herbal medicine was passed down from one generation to the next. Typically, the woman of the house was well versed in the use of herbs for healing, and would act as the family’s physician not only to treat illnesses but also to prepare various wellness tonics and other remedies made from herbs.

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