Herbal History

Culturally and geographically, there are no limits to the uses humans have found for herbs. From the ancient Abyssinians, who stuffed their pillows with fresh celery leaves, to Native Americans who used pennyroyal as an insect repellent, people have always made herbs an essential part of their lives. Today, herbs of all kinds are found in foods and beverages, healing preparations, cosmetics, perfumes, and clothing dyes. They’re found growing in gardens and in the pages of medical texts and history books. There is no part of human culture that herbs have not transformed.

Herbal History

A great deal of the world’s herb lore, and many of its most highly regarded herbs, can be traced to Asia. The world’s largest continent is home to a wide range of plant habitats, from the barren wilderness of Arctic tundra to deserts to lush forests of every type: coniferous, oak, tropical rainforest, and bamboo. With so many people and such a diversity of plants, it’s not surprising that Asia has produced some of the oldest known herbal rituals, recipes, gardens, and systems of medicine. The most influential cultures in the region are two of the most populous countries: China and India. Over the millennia, their ancient herbal beliefs and practices spread throughout Asia, adapting to reflect the local flavor of countries such as Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Tibet.

According to legend, the first emperor of China, a sage named Fu Hsi (ca. 4000 BCE), single-handedly changed his people from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists. The plants they grew became integral to the spiritual beliefs of their early society, which included the I Ching, a system of divination.

The stalk of the yarrow plant (Achillea millefolium) was particularly significant in the I Ching: Fu Hsi instructed wise men to cast sticks of yarrow on the ground and interpret their arrangement in relation to each other in order to predict future events.

Chinese herbs and philosophy have always gone hand in hand, and they mix particularly well in the history of Chinese cooking. The great philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) believed that a good cook must be a skilled herbal matchmaker: Condiments and spices in food must blend harmoniously, or there would be no flavor. He would eat no meal that did not contain a little ginger.

Ancient practitioners of Taoism, another major Chinese philosophy, saw cooking less as the pursuit of beauty and more as the pursuit of health. Leaves, roots, stems, flowers, seeds, bark, and fungi were prepared, tested, and consumed for their health-promoting effects. As a result, most varieties of Chinese cuisine contained plenty of vegetables, grains, and herbs, all cooked in ways that ensured their medicinal value would not be lost.

Tea is an important crop throughout Asia. Above, tea leaves are harvested on a plantation in China.

Tea is an important crop throughout Asia.
Above, tea leaves are harvested on a plantation in China.

Herbal tea has a long history of use in China, dating back more than 4,000 years. According to legend, one of the first Chinese emperors, Yan Di (2852–2737 BCE), discovered the medicinal powers of tea by accident while he was testing the effects of other herbs on himself. After eating a poisonous plant, he fell to the ground on the verge of death. When a drop of water from the leaf of a tea plant fell into his open mouth, he was cured. During the early Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), Chinese people used tea as a religious offering and fresh vegetable. Later, during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), the drinking of tea became a cultural event. Tea shops opened throughout China, and a seminal book, Tea Classics, by Lu Yu, outlined the rules of growing and processing tea, as well as the etiquette of tea tasting. Tea ceremonies grew successively more refined, elaborate, and lengthy.

The first Chinese gardens were cultivated during the Zhou dynasty. Members of the aristocracy sectioned off particularly beautiful parts of the natural world to use for hunting and strolling. During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), wealthy Chinese developed an interest in constructing more personal gardens where they could display rare plants. By the 4th century, the literati of China became associated with scholar gardens—small, enclosed areas containing unusual rocks, water features, and interesting plants that reflected the personalities and knowledge of their owners. Chinese gardens across all eras were meant to be mirrors of the larger natural world, with the random placement of plants encouraged over geometric shapes and lines, and woody trees and green herbs favored over cultivated blossoms and flowerbeds. Chinese gardens, much like Chinese herbal medicines, were designed to create the perfect balance between the two opposing Taoist life energies, yin and yang.