Herbs are soft-stemmed aromatic plants used fresh or dried to flavor or garnish dishes, and often for medicinal purposes. They are not clearly distinguished from spices, except perhaps that herbs usually refer to leaves and stems, while spices more frequently refer to seeds and roots. Here, the name “herbs” is used exclusively in a medicinal context.
Herbs contain a variety of alkaloids, that is, naturally occurring organic bases, which have significant pharmacological activity in humans and other animals. Some of these, such as atropine, morphine and quinine earlier extracted, are widely used in medicine. Others are less well known, since it is only recently that pharmaceutical companies have started to look into the vast array of plants in the rain forests of this world, and at the same time encourage relevant research. Herbs have also many other compounds.
Humans have used herbs for medicinal purposes from time immemorial. But because “time immemorial” is not only vague but also a cliché, one would be justified to ask, how do we know that? After all, our written records go back only a few thousand years, and archeological excavations are hardly likely to find such soft-stemmed plants preserved for more than a score or two of millennia. How do we know that our earlier ancestors used herbs, and not simply as food but for medicinal purposes at that?
The evidence is striking, but it does not come from humans. It derives from animals. It is common to see a young two-week kitten with diarrhea, particularly after it has lost its mother, search the garden for some herb, which it devours avidly and thus cures itself. To the question, how does the kitten know about the curative properties of this herb, the usual answer is, “instinct.” Which is offered as an explanation, in the absence of Botany 101, Herbology 203, or other similar courses in the kitten’s curriculum vitae. The word “instinct” remains undefined.
But what is instinct, if not the accumulated knowledge of the species, genetically transmitted? If such knowledge is not genetically transmitted, one will have to explain the kitten’s improbable behavior. And if cats, and other animals including snakes, possess such instincts or genetic knowledge, is it possible that we are the exceptions who don’t?
Of course not. Only our genetic knowledge is covered up by a heap of social and academic education, which discourages if not prohibits the exhibition of instinctive knowledge. Yet this knowledge is only a look away, as proven through the use of Bach Flower cards by the most advanced school of German psychiatry. But here is not the place to pursue this fascinating subject.
Standards and active principles
Herbs are used worldwide for medicinal purposes, from the rain forests of Africa and the Americas, to the most sophisticated metropolitan societies. They are the standard medicinal treatments in China and India, and Chinese and Ayurveda herbal practices show that plant medicines knowledgeably used are almost free of serious side effects. In addition, a herb contains a great deal more than “the active principle,” which is what pharmaceutical companies usually extracted and chemically reproduced.
A problem that has dogged the consistent use of herbs is that being natural products, their potency is affected by a number of factors such as soil, rain, temperature, fertilizers used, insect control, harvesting methods, processing, storage, shelf life, etc. Under these varying conditions, it is virtually impossible to know the effective potency of a herb.
European researchers solved this problem by standardizing the amount of the active principle in the final product. This requires knowing most if not all of the active plant ingredients, having an acceptable methodology of measuring these ingredients in both the raw plant and the standardized preparation, and of course, a set of standards. Once these have been settled, the way is open for Guaranteed Potency Herbs, which make the use and administration of herbal preparations consistent with these of other standard preparations like vitamins, minerals, etc.