Along with massage therapy, herbal treatment is undoubtedly one of the most ancient forms of medicine. By the time written history began, herbal medicine was already in full swing and being used in all parts of the world.

There are several major surviving schools of herbal medicine. Two of the most complex systems are Ayurveda (the traditional herbal medicine of India) and Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine (TCHM). Both Ayurveda and TCHM make use of combinations of herbs. However, the herbal tradition in the West focuses more on individual herbs, sometimes known as simples. That is the form of herbology discussed here.

Originally, herbal medicine in Europe was primarily a women’s art. The classic image of witches boiling herbs in a cauldron stems to a large extent from this period. Beginning in about the 13th century, however, graduates of male-only medical schools and members of barber-surgeon guilds began to displace the traditional female village herbalists. Ultimately, much of the original lore was lost. (So-called traditional herbal compendiums, such as Culpeppers Herbal, are actually of fairly recent vintage.)

Another major change took place in the 19th century, when chemistry had advanced far enough to allow extraction of active ingredients from herbs. The old French word for herb, “drogue,” became the name for chemical “drugs.” Subsequently, these chemical extracts displaced herbs as the standard of care. There were several forces leading to the predominance of chemicals over herbs, but one of the most important remains a major issue today: the problem of reproducibility.