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June 2001

Nature’s Way

Herbal remedies—going back to our roots

Since the beginning of human history, healing has been a practical science as well as a philosophy reflecting the natural, supernatural and religious concerns of an individual or group. Despite the influence cultural differences have on methods of healing, all cultures accept the basic concept of a healthy body as a balanced microcosm and of an ailing body as a microcosm out of whack. Healers in all societies have based their approach to their art on the utilization of plants and, in particular, herbs.
In 4000 B.C., in Mesopotamia, the cradle of Western medicine, illness was commonly believed to be caused by malicious gods and curable only by means of exorcism. The earliest surviving document on medicinal plants and their application was found in China, and is thought to have been dictated ca. 2700 B.C. by the Chinese Emperor Shin-nong. It lists 365 medicinal plants, including Ma Huang, a shrub from which the alkaloid ephedrine would later be extracted and used in modern medicine. In ancient Egypt, illnesses were believed to have both supernatural and natural causes. Egyptian physicians, therefore, studied the effects of medicinal herbs on the human body, most notably Imhotep (fl. twenty-seventh century B.C.), who used herbs in religious ceremonies.
Herbs and their cultivation mentioned in the Old Testament include mandrake, vetch and caraway. In the Book of Genesis (1:29), God says: “I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” In ancient Greece, plants were used for medicinal purposes, and as symbols and magical charms, seasonings, cosmetics, dyes, incense and matting. Indeed, the Greek physician Hippocrates (460–370 B.C.), is considered to be the father of medicine. Even today medical students are often required to take the Hippocratic Oath upon graduating from medical school, in which they pledge to protect of life and to practice the “art” of medicine responsibly. The oath begins: “I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Health and All-heal, and all the gods and goddesses...” Later, the alleged role played by the supernatural was questioned by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), who developed a logical view of the human body, according to which it is made up of four juices—blood, mucous, yellow and black bile—which were associated with the elements earth, air, fire and water. Theophrastus (ca. 371–ca. 287 B.C.), a pupil of Aristotle, asserted that health is achieved when a balance of those basic fluids is reached. In his Historia planetarum (History of the Plants), Theophrastus describes over 550 varieties of plant and their medical properties. Not only were temples built in honor of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, but it was also common to give thanks to him after being healed by offering him a clay replica of the body part in question as a votive gift.
Military doctors have also made important contributions to medicine. Dioscorides (ca. A.D. 40–90), a Greek physician who served in the Roman army during the reign of Nero (A.D. 54–68), provided a systematic account of some 600 plants, including belladonna and opium, in the five books of his De materia medica, a botanical treatise that remained an authoritative reference work on the subject well into the seventeenth century. The Greek doctor Galen (ca. A.D. 129–204) discovered that the bodily imbalances causing disease could be treated by administering large doses of complex mixtures of plant, animal and mineral substances.
The use of plants for medicinal purposes changed during the Middle Ages. Preferring faith healing, the early Christian Church discouraged the formal practice of medicine. Despite, or perhaps because of, this many Greek and Roman writings on the subject were preserved by monks, who diligently copied the most important treatises. Benedict (ca. 480–ca. 500), the patriarch of Western monasticism, once preached: “The care of the sick stands before and above all other duties. One should serve them like Christ.” Thus monasteries became centers of medical knowledge and their cruciform herbal gardens, with life-giving fountains in the middle, produced the raw materials needed to treat common disorders.
One remarkable figure in the Middle Ages, who considerably advanced our knowledge of herbs, was the German abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179). Hildegard was a visionary, a prophetess, a preacher, a saint, a composer and a writer. Besides her insightful religious and philosophical texts, she wrote such works of medicine and natural history as Physica and Causa et Curae, which dealt with such ailments as headaches, insanity and giddiness (!) and described the curative properties of plants, minerals and animals. These were deemed to have been put on earth for man’s use—the most supreme of God’s creations. Embracing the ancient Greek notions of physiology, Hildegard believed that a person’s health and temperament were determined by four elements, with their attributes of heat, dryness, moisture and cold, which corresponded to four humors (bodily fluids), choler (yellow bile), blood, phlegm and melancholy (black bile). Like Aristotle, she believed that the human constitution was made up primarily of one or two of these humors. Indeed, the adjectives choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic and melancholic are still used today to describe personality traits. Illness, she believed, resulted from an upset of the delicate balance of the humors, and only the consumption of the proper plant or animal possessing the quality that was lacking could redress the balance. This is why Hildegard’s descriptions of plants, trees, birds, quadrupeds, reptiles and minerals focus on their medicinal properties. Her interest in herbs was not of a merely scientific nature. Influenced by the beliefs of her times, she regarded plants, in particular, as the mirror and the parable of salvation, the victors in a war against evil (illness).
Medical schools based on Galen’s comprehensive system, offering a complete medical philosophy, were founded in the eleventh century. Popular medicine, on the other hand, practiced in homes and villages, became a strange mixture of pagan superstition and Christian beliefs, propagated by numerous wandering herbalists. Among these were the “wise women,” who prescribed ancient, secret herbal potions and who became the targets of much of the witch hysteria of the later Middle Ages.
One of the most colorful doctors of natural medicine lived from 1493 to 1541. The German alchemist and physician Paracelsus—his actual name was Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast of Hohenheim—is considered by many to be the very incarnation of the legendary Faust. Paracelsus posited the Doctrine of Signatures, which states that the appearance of a plant reveals the illness it can cure. Strangely enough, this doctrine often seemed to be true. For example, lady’s mantle was thought to resemble a woman’s cervix and thus deemed useful in childbirth. Any plant yellow in color, like the dandelion, was thought to help liver or choleric conditions. In a modern-day natural health and beauty care catalogue dandelion root is sold to enhance the flow of bile from the liver, which is said to aid digestion. Paracelsus, overwhelmed by nature, once said: “All meadows, all the mountains and hills are apothecaries!” The alchemist also believed that the chemical reactions of the human body, a microcosm, reflect those that occur in the macrocosm of the universe. He often tried to cure illness by prescribing chemicals that, today, are known to be highly poisonous.
The importance of plants as sources of therapeutic treatment began to wane in the seventeenth century. Paracelsus’ introduction of active chemical drugs—such as arsenic, copper, sulphate, iron, mercury and sulphur—was followed by the rapid development of chemistry and other physical sciences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, leading to the dominance of chemotherapy—chemical medicine—in the twentieth. Laboratory-produced drugs often contain natural substances that have been refined and supplemented. One of the most common examples is meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) of which acetylsalicylic acid is a dervative, which is used as the basic ingredient of aspirin.
Before 1900, plants were still the basic ingredients of medicine, dyes and perfumes, as well as of most quack elixirs, pills and other preparations that were in vogue at the time. Many such remedies found their way from Europe to the New World, where they were blended with the lore of the Native Americans to create American folk medicine. Indigenous plants also provided Americans with new tonics and dyes, many of which, in turn, were exported to the Old World.
Since the early nineteenth century, both European and American medicine tended toward a heavy-dosed chemotherapy that has gone more or less unchallenged. In Europe, however, homeopathy was founded in 1810 and successfully practiced by Samuel Hahnemann. Hahnemann believed that symptoms, such as fever boils, are the means by which the body eliminates the cause of the disease. Homeopathic treatment of ailments, therefore, is designed not to eliminate symptoms but to reinforce them by using microscopic doses of herbs which, when given to a healthy person, produce symptoms similar to the ailments themselves. Homeopathy, like naturopathy, also of European origin, was founded on the Hippocratic idea of eliminating disease by supporting the body’s own natural recuperative powers. The German physician and priest Sebastian Kneipp wrote one of the most popular back-to nature remedy books. In the 1890s, he combined herbs with his world-famous natural water cure. Naturopathy relies on simple herbal remedies as well as fasting, exercise, fresh air, sunshine, water and a balanced diet to help the body regain health naturally. Though neither homeopathy nor naturopathy have eclipsed chemotherapy, they have, nonetheless, survived. For many people they offer something that chemotherapy lacks: relative simplicity and treatment that is in harmony with life.
Over the centuries, many definitions of the word “herb” have been proposed. The most widely recognized one states that an herb is a plant that is more than one year old, has grown from seed and is of practical use for humans. The cumulative knowledge of the medicinal properties of herbs acquired by generations of experimentation—which often resulted in illness or death—has granted modern day scientists great insight into how the ingestion and topical application of certain herbs affect specific parts of the human body. It has been discovered that plants, while growing, develop and store certain substances. Some of these ward off bacteria, while others serve to attract bees.
The medicinal effectiveness of an herb depends on many environmental factors—location, the makeup of the soil and even the weather conditions during harvest time. It has been determined that herbs have thirteen active components, of varying concentrations. Of these, the three most medicinally useful are vitamin alkaloids and aroma. Vitamins, most potent in fresh herbs, strengthen the immune system and act as relaxants. Rich in nitrogen, alkaloids bolster the nervous system and lower blood sugar. The stimulating effects of alkaloids are very similar to those of caffeine and nicotine. A derivative of the blueberry plant is an oft-prescribed alkaloid. Aroma is determined by a plant’s essential oils. The scent of these serves to attract bees; the ingestion of them stimulates digestion.
Of the hundreds of herbs deemed to be of medicinal value, several top every good herbalist’s list. One of the most popular of herbal remedies in Germany is arnica (Arnica montana). In May and June, the plant bursts with delicate yellow blossoms. Once harvested, dried and processed, arnica can be used as an anti-inflammatory, an analgesic and an antiseptic. Arnica is also often used to treat sprains, aching muscles and wounds. Amazed by the spectacular sight of a field of sunflowers in full bloom, you may forget that these flowers are not merely grown for the florist industry. Prized for the seeds’ oil or the honey that can be made from its pollen, sunflowers strengthen the immune system, help cure bronchialinfections and even provide substances vital to a child’s growth.
Herrmann-Josef Weidinger, an Austrian monk, considered by many to be the “herb guru” of modern times, calls lavender the “people’s herb.” First mentioned by Hildegard of Bingen in the eleventh century, this plant has been used to treat insomnia, migraines, exhaustion and heart disease. Lavender is one of the most highly valued aromatic herbs and is widely accepted as an antibacterial agent, its oils often an ingredient of organic household cleaning products. Wiping surfaces and cabinets with lavender’s essential oils is also an effective and ecologically friendly method of eliminating Miller moths. Weidinger’s boundless enthusiasm for the lavender plant has as spiritual as well as scientific reasons. “The wondrous color of the blossoms,” he says, “mirrors the blue of the sky and, therefore, has an uplifting effect on man’s spirit.” He also believes that lavender is effective in treating depression.
In Bavaria no fewer than ten herbal gardens are open to visitors. Among them are four pharmaceutical gardens owned by Bavarian universities. The University of Erlangen, for example, has a medicinal plant section in its botanical garden in which all plants relevant to modern homeopathic treatment are cultivated. The plants are classified according to their therapeutic effects. The University’s comprehensive brochure—replete with detailed sketches of each plant—accompanies the herbal exhibition. The Apothekergarten (pharmacy garden) in Oberdieckgarten/Weihenstephan takes a different approach. Beds are arranged according to the diseases that each herb treats, such as rheumatism, blood pressure or metabolic disorders. A highlight of the garden is its “historical path,” which features the plant varieties studied—and hailed for their healing properties—by such herbalists as Hippocrates, Hildegard of Bingen, Hahnemann and Kneipp. The herbal tradition is also very much alive in Bavarian monasteries.
The Benediktbeuren monastery cultivates two gardens. One contains some 150 herbs, all of which are labeled. The other, the monastery’s fascinating new meditation garden, is a replica of the mosaic labyrinth flooring in Chartres Cathedral, France. The labyrinth comprises five circuits. The outer ring contains “Herbs for the Senses”—a display of herbs that stimulate the senses either through their aroma or their sheer beauty. The second circuit pays tribute to the culinary use of herbs. Several varieties of parsley, an herb that has been used to add flavor to European dishes for centuries, are featured here. The third circuit contains herbs associated with healing, with an emphasis on St. John’s wort, an important multipurpose remedy in the Middle Ages. The plantings in the innermost circle of the labyrinth include herbs that have come to symbolize various things. In both the Occident and the Orient, the lily symbolizes purity. Even strawberries have a place in the symbolic circle, for the fruit of this plant is said to symbolize humility and modesty.
As patients tire of synthetic answers to natural maladies, traditional Western medicine is forced to make way for homeopathy and naturopathy. No longer considered “hocus pocus” cures, herbs have been firmly established as scientifically acknowledged forms of treatment. The fact that an increasing number of plant varieties continue to be analyzed for their therapeutic properties and the demand for the retail herb trade has risen shows that herbalism is making a comeback. <<

Botanischer Garten der Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg
Loschgestr. 3, 91054 Erlangen–garten
Open daily 8 am–4 pm
Zentrum für Umwelt und Kultur
Kloster Benediktbeuren, Zeilerweg 2, 83671 Benediktbeuren
Guided herb tours in the Munich area with Sepp Ott
(in German<7i>): Tel./Fax: 69 00 034, Leifstr. 24, 81549 Munich All herb gardens in Bavaria and Germany are listed under