Updated: Nov 16, 2021
Herbal remedies have existed for a long time in Western civilization. Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, often regarded as the father of medicine, was one of the first men to treat medicinal herbs as a science and helped establish herbal medicine as a legitimate pursuit of Western scholarship. He inspired the prominent 1st-century Roman physician, Galen, who learned herbal remedies through extensive travel and practiced his knowledge as head surgeon of the school of gladiators. After the fall of the Roman empire, herbal remedies went underground and into the domain of pagans.
When the dark ages spread through Europe, the knowledge of how to grow and use herbs was nearly lost. For the most part, herbal traditions survived as folk remedies and Wiccan rituals passed down by generations of mothers and daughters. By the early 17th century, Europe entered a new, golden age of herbal medicine thanks to the advent of the printing press. For the first time, people could publish their knowledge of herbal medicines as well as the findings of ancient Greek scholars like the aforementioned Hippocrates and Galen. The London Pharmacopoeia was published in 1618 and inspired many herbal books afterward.
During the 18th century, herbs became popular with European physicians. Apothecaries with imported herbs from all over the world sprung up to meet the increasing demand for herbal remedies. Unfortunately, the market became saturated with cure-all tonics, some even toxic, which tainted the credibility of the field and created a stigma around plant medicine.
When organic chemistry came into prominence, pharmaceutical medicine quickly gained traction in the West. By 1886, medical licensing was required to practice pharmacy, and as a result, local apothecaries were no longer allowed to prescribe herbal pharmaceutical medicine. Suddenly, for the first time in human history, the practice of medicine was solely in the hands of licensed physicians.
Yet again, the Western world entered a dark period during which plant medicine and herbal traditions were forgotten. The practice of at-home vegetable and herbal gardening fell out of fashion in favor of large, ornamental front lawns that provide no nourishment or healing. As a result, the practice of gardening, once an essential, even spiritual activity, shifted into a past-time for plant ladies past their prime.
As western society opted for convenience with the help of chain grocery stores and prepackaged foods, many people, including farmers, fell out of touch with nature. Soon after, large industrial farms—which rely on monoculture crops (1 crop in mass plantings) and pesticides—seized control of our society's food supply chain. Many of the pesticides they utilize are deadly not only to beetles or mites, but also to butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and you guessed it—human beings.
Eco-activist Bill Mollison founded the philosophy of permaculture in the mid-1970s as a reaction to the worldwide movement of destructive farming practices and chemical pest solutions utilized by large industrial farms. Permaculture is a holistic form of horticulture that works with nature, instead of against it. Many of his principles are based on observing the natural world as it is, and then mimicking those patterns. He was a strong believer in self-reliance and wrote several books on how to build a self-sustaining homestead.
Within recent years, there's been a surge of interest in permaculture and an uptick in herbal apothecaries, most notably centered around hemp. These dispensaries of plant medicine and wellness are bringing hope to a new generation of herbalists, nature lovers, beekeepers and plant ladies alike.