An herb is defined as 'a non-woody plant that dies down to the ground after flowering'. However, the term is more widely used to describe any plant which is (or has been) used for medical treatment, nutritional value, food seasoning, and for dyeing substances. Throughout history, the use of herbs has been primarily for medicinal purposes. There have been many ways in which man has treated injuries and illnesses, but the use of plants has consistently been the most popular, as well as being the basic source of therapeutic products for professional and folk medicine from the earliest times, right up to the 21st century.

In prehistoric times, men used herbs to treat physical complaints, learning through instinct and by generations of trial and error. In written history, the study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years. The Sumerians recorded medicinal uses for plants such as laurel, caraway and thyme. Dating from around 2700 BC, the first known Chinese herbal (herb book) lists 365 plants and their medicinal uses. Interestingly, this book included ma-huang, the plant which introduced the drug ephedrine to modern medicine. In 1000 BC, the Egyptians used garlic, opium, castor oil, coriander, mint and indigo (among other plants) for medicine, food and dyes. The Old Testament records the use and cultivation of mandrake, vetch, caraway, wheat, barley, rye and several other herbs. Greeks and Romans in ancient times valued plants for various reasons. They used herbs as medicine, symbols and magic charms, food seasonings, cosmetics, dyes, room scent and floor coverings. Ancient Greek and Roman medical practices which are recorded in the works of Hippocrates and Galen, provided the basics for later western medicine. An important work of the 4th century was written by Theophrastus. Historia Plantarum was the Greek book which founded the science of botany. Dioscorides wrote the first European treatise on the medicinal properties and uses of herbs in the 1st century AD. His book, De Materia Medica, compiled information on more than 500 plants, and remained an important reference well into the 17th century.

During the Middle Ages, the use of herbs changed very little. Although the Christian church at the time discouraged the formal practice of medicine, many Greek and Roman records were preserved by monks who painstakingly hand-copied the manuscripts. As a result, monasteries became central hubs of medical knowledge, and their herb gardens contained many plants which the community could use to treat common complaints. Herbs were also recommended for use by people in villages, herbalists, wise-women, and a few physicians who practiced openly. In the 11th century, medical schools were opened in western countries, teaching Galen's system, and instilling a good knowledge of herbalism in many young people.

The importance of herbs continued during the centuries after the Middle Ages. Hundreds of herbals were published after the advent of printing in the 15th century. One of the first books ever to be printed was Theophrastus' Historia Plantarum, followed closely by Dioscorides' De Materia Medica. The first herbal to be published in English was the anonymous Grete Herball in 1526. In the 17th century, the use of herbs for their medicinal properties began to slowly decline. This is generally attributed to the introduction of active chemical drugs. Herbs did remain popular for day-to-day use however, providing basic materials for medicine, dyeing, perfume and for elixirs, pills and other preparations.

In modern times, herbal remedies are used by homeopathic therapists, open-minded medical practitioners, naturopaths, family members who have had recipes handed down through generations, and other interested individuals. Traditional European herbal treatments are now found in their original form, and blended with the native lore of the Americas and eastern countries.

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