Sunday, 27 December 2015

Historical review of medicinal plants’ usage

Pharmacogn Rev. 2012 Jan-Jun; 6(11): 1–5.
PMCID: PMC3358962

Department of Pharmacognosy, Faculty of Pharmacy, SS Cyril and Methodius University, Vodnjanska 17, 1000 Skopje, The Republic of Macedonia
Address for correspondence: Prof. Biljana Bauer Petrovska, Department of Pharmacognosy, Faculty of Pharmacy, SS Cyril and Methodius University, Vodnjanska 17, 1000 Skopje, The Republic of Macedonia. E-mail: km.ude.miku.ff@abib


Healing with medicinal plants is as old as mankind itself. The connection between man and his search for drugs in nature dates from the far past, of which there is ample evidence from various sources: written documents, preserved monuments, and even original plant medicines. Awareness of medicinal plants usage is a result of the many years of struggles against illnesses due to which man learned to pursue drugs in barks, seeds, fruit bodies, and other parts of the plants. Contemporary science has acknowledged their active action, and it has included in modern pharmacotherapy a range of drugs of plant origin, known by ancient civilizations and used throughout the millennia. The knowledge of the development of ideas related to the usage of medicinal plants as well as the evolution of awareness has increased the ability of pharmacists and physicians to respond to the challenges that have emerged with the spreading of professional services in facilitation of man's life.
Keywords: History, medicinal plants, plant drugs, usage


Ever since ancient times, in search for rescue for their disease, the people looked for drugs in nature. The beginnings of the medicinal plants’ use were instinctive, as is the case with animals.[1] In view of the fact that at the time there was not sufficient information either concerning the reasons for the illnesses or concerning which plant and how it could be utilized as a cure, everything was based on experience. In time, the reasons for the usage of specific medicinal plants for treatment of certain diseases were being discovered; thus, the medicinal plants’ usage gradually abandoned the empiric framework and became founded on explicatory facts. Until the advent of iatrochemistry in 16th century, plants had been the source of treatment and prophylaxis.[2] Nonetheless, the decreasing efficacy of synthetic drugs and the increasing contraindications of their usage make the usage of natural drugs topical again.


The oldest written evidence of medicinal plants’ usage for preparation of drugs has been found on a Sumerian clay slab from Nagpur, approximately 5000 years old. It comprised 12 recipes for drug preparation referring to over 250 various plants, some of them alkaloid such as poppy, henbane, and mandrake.[2]
The Chinese book on roots and grasses “Pen T’Sao,” written by Emperor Shen Nung circa 2500 BC, treats 365 drugs (dried parts of medicinal plants), many of which are used even nowadays such as the following: Rhei rhisoma, camphor, Theae folium, Podophyllum, the great yellow gentian, ginseng, jimson weed, cinnamon bark, and ephedra.[3,4]
The Indian holy books Vedas mention treatment with plants, which are abundant in that country. Numerous spice plants used even today originate from India: nutmeg, pepper, clove, etc.[5]
The Ebers Papyrus, written circa 1550 BC, represents a collection of 800 proscriptions referring to 700 plant species and drugs used for therapy such as pomegranate, castor oil plant, aloe, senna, garlic, onion, fig, willow, coriander, juniper, common centaury, etc.[6,7]
According to data from the Bible and the holy Jewish book the Talmud, during various rituals accompanying a treatment, aromatic plants were utilized such as myrtle and incense.[8]
In Homer's epics The Iliad and The Odysseys, created circa 800 BC, 63 plant species from the Minoan, Mycenaean, and Egyptian Assyrian pharmacotherapy were referred to. Some of them were given the names after mythological characters from these epics; for instance, Elecampane (Inula helenium L. Asteraceae) was named in honor of Elena, who was the centre of the Trojan War. As regards the plants from the genus Artemisia, which were believed to restore strength and protect health, their name was derived from the Greek word artemis, meaning “healthy.”[9] Herodotus (500 BC) referred to castor oil plant, Orpheus to the fragrant hellebore and garlic, and Pythagoras to the sea onion (Scilla maritima), mustard, and cabbage. The works of Hippocrates (459–370 BC) contain 300 medicinal plants classified by physiological action: Wormwood and common centaury (Centaurium umbellatum Gilib) were applied against fever; garlic against intestine parasites; opium, henbane, deadly nightshade, and mandrake were used as narcotics; fragrant hellebore and haselwort as emetics; sea onion, celery, parsley, asparagus, and garlic as diuretics; oak and pomegranate as adstringents.[10,11]