Science and Cross-Pollination

In the 18th century, colonists traveling to the New World carried with them European plants, herbal books, and gardening styles. In return, traders carried back New World herbs such as tobacco, tomatoes, and corn. The European public quickly found domestic uses for these plants, while the scientific community explored the medicinal possibilities of herbs such as Jesuits’ bark (several species in the genus Cinchona), the source of antimalarial quinine, and sassafras (Sassafras albidum), which was believed at the time to cure venereal diseases.

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The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes by botanist and herbalist John Gerard, first published in 1597, was one of the most well known of the English herbals. It discussed the therapeutic application and folklore of healing plants.

In Europe, as the Age of Reason led to the Industrial Revolution, scientists became ever more disciplined in their approach to herbal medicine. They learned how to distill the active ingredients in plants and, eventually, were able to chemically synthesize beneficial molecules and oils. The science of botany continued to develop, with writers and artists creating highly accurate textbooks on the plant world that supplanted the sometimes highly subjective herbals.

In gardening, the formal gardens of the French chateaux gave way to a deliberately informal approach. Symmetry was discarded in favor of the creation of natural landscapes. Yet simple cottage and kitchen gardens never went out of style. In urban centers, the limitations of space led to the invention of the window box, and more and more people moved their plants indoors to grow in pots. Even as scientific advances moved Europeans further from nature, they still found ways to connect with the textures, scents, and flavors of their favorite herbs.

Africa hosts a large variety of herbs that are the result of its many climatic regions. The range spans from the culinary herbs of the fertile Mediterranean coast to the cosmetic herbs of the northeastern regions to the medicinal plants found in the desert oases, dry savannas, mountainous woodlands, and lush rain-forests of the central and southern parts of the continent.