History of Herbs

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Herbs and spices have been used for thousands of years to add zest to meals, to help preserve food, and even to cover up the taste and smell of spoiled food. The Sumerians were known to have used laurel (Laurus nobilis), caraway (Carum carvi), and thyme (Thymus vulgaris) more than five thousand years ago. Other early records suggest that onion (Allium cepa) and garlic (Allium sativum) were also used. At least as early as 1000 b.c.e., the Egyptians used garlic and mint (Mentha) along with many other plants, for medicine, in religious ceremonies, or in embalming. The Greeks and Romans greatly expanded the uses of herbs to include their use as symbols, magical charms, cosmetics, dyes, perfumes, and air purifiers.

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Most of the historical information on herbs deals more directly with the medicinal properties of the plants. The first book available to the Europeans was De materia medica written by Pedanius Dios-corides, a Greek physician, in 100 c.E. This work on herbal medicine was so important that it was one of the first books printed after the printing press was developed. De materia medica continued to be the authoritative reference on the use of herbs in medicine for sixteen centuries. Another early work on medicinal herbs is Pen-ts'ao (The Great Herbal), a sixteenth century Chinese pharmacopoeia, attributed to Li Shih-chen, which lists more than eighteen hundred plants and medical preparations. The use of herbs as medicines began to de cline in the seventeenth century as new ways of treating illnesses developed, but herbal remedies continue even today in natural and homeopathic medicines.

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