Important Herbs Of Asia

East and Southeast Asia

Historically, many of China’s neighbors borrowed heavily from China’s herbal traditions to create their medicinal systems. Over the years, however, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam also developed their own unique uses for herbs.

In Japan, the herbal medicine system of kampo traces its roots to the 7th century, when the empress Suiko sent emissaries to China to study and bring back theories of herbalism. Kampo takes its name from kan, meaning “ancient China,” and po, meaning “medicine.” The early practitioners of kampo were Buddhist monks who adhered to a strict vegetarian diet and rejected all Chinese remedies that contained animal products. This—along with the Buddhist ideals of simplicity, safety, and prevention—led the monks to reduce the tens of thousands of Chinese remedies to several hundred essential herbal treatments that are used in kampo.

In 20th-century Japan, as in China, the use of traditional medicinal methods declined in favor of Western medicine, only to return in recent decades as an integral part of the national health plan. Today, most Japanese physicians use a combination of Western and kampo medicine to treat patients.

Zen Buddhists in the 9th century also carried Chinese tea (Camellia sinensis) into Japan, beginning with traditional black tea and evolving into matcha, a powdered green tea. By the 13th century, Japanese samurai warriors had laid the foundations of the formal Japanese tea ceremony, characterized by wabi, or quiet, sober refinement.

In Korea and Vietnam, the most important contributions to herbal history were medicinal. Korean healers adapted many of the tenets of Chinese medicine for their own use. Published in 1433, the Hyangyakjibsongbang presents more than 10,000 uniquely Korean prescriptions and describes the collection and preparation methods for 700 Korean herbs. The Uibangryuchi, a 365-volume medical encyclopedia published a decade later, outlines methods for preventing 95 diseases.

Vietnam’s earliest pharmacopoeia is the 14th-century Thuoc nam, which describes 650 indigenous herbs and their medicinal uses. The practices described continued even as Western medical techniques and pharmaceuticals were adopted. During World War II, when supplies of antimalarial quinine were cut off, Vietnamese malaria patients were treated using extracts of chang shan (Dichroa febrifuga), also referred to in English as Chinese quinine, a shrub found in parts of temperate and tropical Asia.

Western Asia

The civilizations of Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq and Syria, were the first to develop irrigated agriculture. Sometime between 4500 and 3000 BCE, the Sumerians who settled in this fertile area began harvesting crops of barley, growing orchards, and inscribing on stone or clay tablets the medicinal uses of herbs. Their herbal healers were experts at mixing plant resins and animal fat to apply to wounds.

In this same region, from 3000 to 400 BCE, the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians established cities with wondrous gardens. The most famous were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, said to have been built around 600 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar II as a gift to his favorite wife, Amyitis. He built a mountain of massive stone buildings with terraces so that trees, flowering plants, and herbs could be grown on the rooftops and terraces. Written descriptions of other gardens of the time suggest that the Babylonians grew such herbs as saffron, mandrake, anise, and thyme. One tablet from an Assyrian library, dated ca. 660 BCE, identifies more than 250 plant-based drugs made from opium poppies, myrrh, crocus, cannabis, hellebore, and other herbs.

After Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) conquered most of the lands between Greece and Persia, both Greek herbal medicine and the gardening styles of Mesopotamia spread throughout the known world. By late Biblical times (300 BCE–100 CE), cumin, bay, garlic, grapes, marjoram, mustard, pomegranates, and many other herbs were being cultivated in the area. Herbs mentioned in the New Testament include mint and dill (flavorings), spikenard and frankincense (perfumes), and aloe (used to anoint the body of Christ).

Important Herbs Of Asia

Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora) Muscle and joint pain reliever
Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) Flavoring for baked goods and curries
Chinese licorice (Glycyrrhiza uralensis) Treatment for lung conditions and coughs
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) Digestive aid
Ephedra (Ephedra sinica) Bronchial congestion reliever
Forsythia (Forsythia suspensa) Treatment for acute infection
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) Blood circulation stimulant to the brain
Ginseng (Panax ginseng) Chinese culinary ingredient, healthful tonic
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) Circulatory stimulant
Guggul (Commiphora wightii) Cholesterol reducer
Jasmine (Jasminum sambac) Tea flavoring, used in perfumery
Myrobalan (Terminalia chebula) Considered a cure-all in Ayurvedic medicine
Peony (Paeonia lactiflora) Treatment for gout and osteoarthritis, regulates menses
Pepper (Piper nigrum) Treatment for abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea
Qing hao (Artemisia annua) Treatment for fevers, including those from malaria
Rhubarb (Rheum spp.) Purgative
Sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) Treatment for blood in the urine
Sandalwood (Santalum album) Pain reliever, used in perfumery
Serpentwood (Rauvolfia serpentina) Sedative and tranquilizer, treatment for hypertension
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) Wound healer, antiseptic