History of Medicinal Plants

The history of medicinal plants can trace itself back 4,000 years ago. In ancient Sumeria, plant remedies for common illnesses where discovered on clay tablets. (Plants & Society, p. 325) The ancient Sumerians found that certain plants had medicinal qualities and when processed correctly, they could heal illness and injuries. The ancient Egyptians collected remedies and medicinal plants and compiled recipes and the process necessary on the Ebers papyrus, so that physicians could reference it to treat patients. (Plants & Society, p. 325) Other parts of the world, besides the birthplace of civilization, also compiled lists of natural remedies that come from plants.

In India, the Rig-Veda a sacred Hindu text lists herbal medicines and created the Ayurvedic health care system in this Asia country. Ancient China has its own list of herbal medicines compiled in the Pun-tsao text, written in the 1600s. In the New World, the Aztecs wrote texts on herbal medicines derived from their knowledge of plants they had discovered to have medicinal qualities. The Badianus Manuscripts were written in 1592 by the Aztec Martinus de la Cruz for King Charles I of Spain. (Plants & Society, p. 325)

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In ancient Greece, Hippocrates sought herbal remedies as cures for illness and disease. Another Greek named Dioscorides collected plants during his travels with the Roman army and investigated whether they had any medicinal value. His work De Materia Medica listed 600 species of plants that had some sort of medicinal quality. The Age of Herbals, which began in 1450, brought about a revival in using plants for medicinal purposes. Authors such as John Gerard and John Parkinson wrote about the benefits of plants for medicinal purposes. Nicholas Culpepper wrote about the Doctrine of Signatures which stated that the designs or colors of a plants corresponds to human anatomy. (Plants & Society, p. 326)

Today, many rural populations in the world use plants for medicinal purposes. Medicinal plants offer poorer populations the ability to combat diseases at low costs. Countries like China and India continue to teach their medical students how to use plants in order to make proven and effective medicines for their patients.

Medicinal Plants in Contemporary Societies

Today, the traditional use of herbs to prevent, treat, and even cure various illnesses and conditions has largely been replaced (especially in the West) by modern medicine. Despite this, however, the World Health Organization has found that 80% of the populations in some Asian and African countries depend on traditional medicine for their most basic health care needs. In the developed world, the WHO has found that between 70-80% of the populations in these countries have used such traditional medicinal practices in some form. Of these forms, herbal treatments have proven the most sought after, and thus, the most profitable: in Western Europe, revenues total around $5 billion; in Brazil, $160 million; and in China, a whopping $14 billion.
Herbal Medicine Shop
Herbal Medicine Shop
As the use of herbal therapies has spread far beyond the indigenous populations where they originated, a number of challenges have arisen. The WHO and its member states have identified the following problems in the current culture of traditional medicine: international diversity; national policy and regulation; safety, effectiveness, and quality; knowledge and sustainability; and patient safety and use. ( ) In response to the lack of data across the boards, the WHO has compiled three volumes (to date) which establish a list of the most widely-used plants, their proper preparations and uses, and adverse effects/precautions to be taken.

Among these 90+ plants, the WHO has counted 119 pharmaceutical products, 74% of which are used (in modern medicine) in ways that are linked to their original uses in indigenous cultures. The trend today, however, is for medicinal plants to be used not in whole form, but in terms of their individual components. With over 750,000 known plants in the world, the relative number of medicinal herbs that have been scientifically studied is very small. And until the value of many medicinal plants has been confirmed in major industrialized nations, traditional herbal medicine will not be deemed as important as chemically manufactured drugs. (

Plants of Known Medicinal Value

Common Name
Scientific Name
Medicinal Use
Burn Plant
Aloe vera
skin injuries
Chinese Happy Tree
Camptotheca acuminata
cancer therapy
Common Yarrow
Achillea millefolium
hay fever; influenza; asthma
Eucalyptus globulus
cough suppressant
Fever Bark Tree
Cinchona spp.
Ginko Biloba
alzheimer's disease
Madagascar Periwinkle
Catharanthus roseus
leukemia; lymphoma
Purple Coneflower
Echinacea purpurea
common cold; infections
Purple Foxglove
Digitalis purpurea
congestive heart failure
Rauwolfia serpentina
St. John's Wort
Hypericum perforatum
White Willow
Salix Alba
pain; fever; inflammation

Aloe Vera Plant
Aloe Vera Plant
Common Yarrow
Common Yarrow

Echinacea Purpurea
Echinacea Purpurea

St. John's Wort
St. John's Wort