Medicinal plants in Prehistoric Times
Medicinal and aromatic plants already thrived in many of the planet’s habitats some millions of years ago. Conifers are known to have been one of the earliest trees growing in the cold regions of the northern hemisphere and included the junipers, firs, pines, yew, spruces, cedars and cypresses. Further south, in the temperate regions grew most of the vast deciduous forests much of which has disappeared today and also many wild aromatic plants amongst which were angelica, caper, dill, parsley, coriander, cumin and garlic-mustard and in the most southerly temperate regions grew aromatic plants such as dictamnus, lavender, oregano, thyme and rosemary.
Use of Aromatics in Prehistoric Times
Stone Age (2.5 million years ago) – In that period, our early ancestors led a nomadic life and subsisted by hunting and plant-gathering. At nightfall, they gathered around the red embers of the fire and burnt aromatic wood and resins to bring on auspicious dreams of catching a prey or finding plenty of food. Near the end of the Stone Age, people began to engage in spiritual worship and rituals and buried their dead with food plants and medicinal herbs as a symbolic gesture to making provisions for their passage in the afterlife. They also gradually became more sedentary, food farming became widespread and also included cultivation many wild medicinal plants. As distinct civilizations emerged, religious rituals became more sophisticated, people burnt resinous balls on hot charcoals and carved symbolic objects which they used in ceremonies to contact the spirit of the dead and worship the gods.
The Ancient Worlds
The early civilizations of the Indus Valley, India, China, Egypt and the Mediterranean have bequeathed us a legacy of written knowledge of aromatic plants and their uses, some of which are still in use. The Sumerians (4000 BC) used aromatic plants such as Fennel, Galbanum and Pine and this was found confirmed in the written clay tablets discovered In Syria (in 1973), which also held the first written formula for plant remedies. An ancient Mesopotamian tablet mentions an aromatic oil that was used to combat epidemics. In India, the Rig Veda (Brahma's sacred book on plants) cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, nutmeg, pepper and myrrh are mentioned. Further East in China, the famous Emperor Shen Nung 2500 BC mentions camphor, yellow gentian, ginseng, cinnamon bark, aniseed, ginger and ephedra.
The Ebers Papyrus, dating 1550BC, describes around 800 prescriptions naming 700 plant species such as - aloe, galbanum, therebinth, aniseed, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, cumin, frankincense, garlic, mastic, bay, mint, willow and myrrh, etc... Queen Cleopatra, the legendary Cleopatra (65-30BC) was famous for her beauty which is said to have been mostly result of the vast amount of aromatic plants, milk, lotions and perfumes she used.
King Solomon 970-931 received from the Queen of Sheba, some seven tons of gold and vast quantities of aromatic plants and incense.
Hippocrates is said to have saved Athens from the plague by ordering its inhabitants to burn large urns of aromatic plants throughout the streets, effectively fumigating the whole city. Theophrastus 371-287 BC, made a systematic classification of more than 500 medicinal plants known in his time in his books ‘De Causis Plantarium’ and ‘De Historia Plantarium ‘, e.g. cinnamon, iris, mint, pomegranate, cardamom and fragrant hellebore. He also wrote a whole treatise on the classification of odours and fragrant plants. He is said to be the 'Father of Botany'. Dioscorides, 40 to 90AD was the most prominent writer on plant drugs and is also considered to be ‘The Father of Pharmacy’. Because he was an army physician who travelled to many places with the Roman Army, he was able to study countless medicinal plants wherever he happened to be. He wrote ‘De Materia Medica’, the textbook for medicinal plants from his time to the late Middle-Ages and the Renaissance. Pline, the Elder, 23-79 AD, in his Natural history mentions 22 different types of perfume oils concocted with Marjoram, Cypress, Cistus, Iris, Nard, Myrtle, Laurel, Lemon and Rose. He expounded the merits of incense (frankincense) from Arabia Felix, henna from Egypt and labdanum from Cyprus. Galen established the rules and guidance that allowed other physicians to formulate precisely the same remedies again and again. His advice is still in use today by herbalists and plant-based remedies are called ‘Galenic remedies’ or ‘simples’.
Ancient Rome & the Romans
The Ancient Romans were fanatical about hygiene and had pools and spas all over the place; they were also very fond of massage with herbs and fragrance and used vast amount of aromatic incense and plants throughout their days.
The Bible & the Christian World
When Jesus was born, the Magi (three wise men) came to visit him and when they saw him and felt his holy presence, they fell in awe and gave him gifts of Frankincense (burned to honour God), Myrrh ( to honour humankind) and Gold to honour his greatness and his direct connection God.
The German Abbess and Saint, Hildegard de Bingen (12th century) wrote theological, botanical and medicinal texts, her most famous texts are Physica, a text on the natural sciences, and Causae et Curae in which she describes the natural world around her including the cosmos, animals, plants, stones, and minerals. Hildegard of Bingen was well known for her mystical visions and healing powers and her ministering of sick included use of tinctures, herbs, and precious stones.
Middle Ages – the Crusades
The Renaissance period came as a direct result of the crusades in the Middle East as there, culture and medicine flourished. The crusaders returning from the Holy land brought back many treasures, along with new ideas and inventions and most importantly, they brought back a scientific knowledge that helped Western European medicine make a great leap forward.
Arabic Medicine & Avicenna (Ibn Sina)
Avicenna (Ibn Sina 980-1137) a famous Physician, Philosopher, Astrologer and Alchemist, contributed much to medicine by writing his famous 'Cannon of Medicine'. He established himself as an authority on medical matters at the age of 18 and his work was treated like the Bible up until the 18th century. He is credited with the invention of a still with its alembic which made it possible to obtain purer forms of essential oils (11/12th century).
Paracelsus & Alchemy
Paracelsus (1493- 1541) a Renaissance physician, astrologer, surgeon and (al)-chemist was himself also in search for the `Philosophical Stone', the metaphysical transformation of lead into gold through chemical processes of reduction. Alchemy is the ancestor of modern chemistry, and many physicians sought to extract the cosmic essence from raw materials and capture the pure energy inherent within it. Alchemy reached further heights with Paracelsus and he was the first to achieve and record the dissociation of active chemical agents in plants, something regularly performed today in modern pharmaceutical procedures.
Tudor England (1485-1603), went through a period of excessive use of aromatic perfumes and plants. People perfumed everything, the use of pomanders which ladies attached to their garments, burners, scented gloves & hankies and even aromatic moth repellents became commonplace. Perfumes were used a lot to cover up unpleasant bodily odours resulting from lack of hygiene. The word “pomander” is from the French (meaning amber apple) and it refers to either - a mixture of aromatic plants in a perforated bag or box and used to scent a room, clothes and linens in a drawer or to a spherical silver box filled with aromatic plants attached on cord to the waist of a lady and hanging down the side of her dress to prevent infections e.g. an orange or an apple with cloves pricked in their skin. Lavender was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I who used it as a tea for her migraines and many of her court ladies used it in their household; lavender was often planted near the laundry room and clothes were laid on the plants to dry so that they would smelled of lavender later on. The wife of King Charles used lavender in perfumed soaps as well as for washing and bathing. In Victorian times, Mitcham, a suburb of South London, was once the centre for Lavender cultivation and English Lavender is famous all over the world.
Culpepper (1616 -1654) was an English botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer. His published ‘The English Physician’ and the ‘Complete Herbal’ which included a large number of medicinal and aromatic plants and many formulation and comments from his experience working as a physician. He used Decumbiture charts to make an astrological judgement of a disease and when or if the person may recover or die as well as to choose the best plants and remedies. His legacy became the foundation of modern medical astrology as practiced in early Modern Europe and is still in use today.
Industrial Revolution in England
The industrial revolution took place between 1716 and 1840. In that period, a German chemist working in industry invented a still which could produce essential oils on a bigger scale than ever produced before. Essential oils became more readily available and it became an established fact that essential oils had definite antiseptic properties and their antiseptic, antibacterial powers were classified in relation to phenols, another powerful antiseptic much in use at the time.
Twentieth Century – Birth of Aromatherapy
The turn of the last century marks the birth of Aromatherapy as we know it now with the research and publication of the work of R. H. Gattefossé, a French perfumer chemist, into the activities of essential oils. His research took a boost when he accidentally burnt his hand in his laboratory and quickly immersed it in a tank of essential oil – this oil was of course Lavender! He was surprised to see that it immediately soothed the pain and that his wound healed more rapidly than expected. He established that some of the therapeutic properties of essential oils through his research and more particularly noted that many of them had antiseptic and antibiotic properties. Aromatherapy was made more widely known when Jean Valnet, a doctor, scientist and professor at ‘La Faculte de la Sorbonne’ in Paris, began to use essential oils to treat his patients. During his life, Dr Jean Valnet lectured at many international conferences and universities and wrote countless articles on plants and on the efficacy of essential oils on certain ailments in scientific journals. He also has written a number of books, one of which is ‘The Practice of Aromatherapy’ which seems to have inspired many people and has contributed more than a fair deal to the expansion of the Aromatherapy profession. In the fifties, another pioneer of Aromatherapy, Marguerite Maury brought the therapy to England and added physical therapy such as lymph drainage massage to her treatments. She had her own view of health and spirituality and included this in her approach to illness. She was successfully in treating many ailments and people with stress-related health problems.
The Resurgence of Natural Cures & Essential oils
Essential oils potential for the prevention of illness and for helping in the treatment of certain disorders is gaining more recognition by the medical world although lack of scientific evidence has often dmisish their credibility as medcinal remedies. Essential oils should not be looked at solely from a scientific or chemical viewpoint as they have many other unquatifiable subtle benefits on the Mind and on hormone balance. Many explanations have been put forward but none have so far convincingly explained all the benefits derived from them.