What is a herb? The dictionary says: “a plant whose stem is not woody, which dies down to the ground after flowering; a plant whose leaves etc are used for food, medicine, scent or flavor.”
Herbs have been used since the dawn of the human race. Even before people began to cook on fires, herbs were probably being harvested and used raw for food or medicinal purposes.
The Origin of Herbs With the Supernatural
Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians and many other peoples following an undeveloped way of life all use herbs extensively. There was a herb for almost every ailment or need. Sometimes they were used in witchcraft too, although the dividing line between witchcraft and medicine was often blurred, as in the example of the ‘witch doctor’.
Originally, people had no understanding of the causes of disease such as bacteria, viruses, etc. They believed sickness was caused by supernatural forces, either evil spirits or spells placed by other people. Therefore, a person who knew how to cure sickness was believed to be dealing with evil spirits and practicing magic. This association persisted even after people began to understand the biological causes of disease.
In Europe many people who were branded as witches were probably simple herbal medicine practitioners. Herbal medicine was outlawed in many of these countries by governments influenced by the new ‘scientific’ and male-dominated form of medicine.
The Trading of Herbs
Herbs, along with spices, were valuable commodities in trade in former times. From around 114 BC until 1400 AD, the ‘silk road’ was used to trade herbs and spices between Europe and Asia.
Europeans imported ginger, cinnamon and other spices, and exported herbs like sage that were much in demand in Asia for their aromatic and medicinal properties. This kind of trading led to communication between civilizations that could be said to form the basis of the ‘world culture’ of today.
The Resurgence of Herbal Remedies
Chinese traditional medicine is still today based mainly on the use of herbs, but in Western culture they did not start to make a serious comeback for any purpose other than cooking until the 1960s and 1970s, when cultural and ecological movements started to consider adopting the best features of pre-industrial society in our post-industrial age.
Herbs Can Be Grown at Home
Most of the well known herbs can easily be grown in a garden. Because they are mostly small plants, even a very small garden such as a roof garden is sufficient. Herbs are ancient, natural plants that grew wild, so they are hardy and resistant to disease when grown in a soil and climate that is similar to their native region. Many of them can also be grown indoors.
Of course they are also used to flavor dishes in cooking. Some dishes and sauces such as pesto and mint sauce are based around one particular herb. Others, like pumpkin pie and sausages, get most of their individual flavoring from the blend of herbs that is used.
Herbs have been in our lives, our homes, our gardens and especially in our kitchens, forever!
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