Without access to extensive libraries and an on-site librarian at every herb company, much of the historical information about how herbs have been used over the centuries is, at best, difficult to obtain. While many herbalists and herb companies have collected a few key historical documents, and a few maintain extensive holdings, most of us find older information more difficult to obtain than recently published works.
Useful Sites for Historical Information on Herbs
Thankfully, a number of individuals and organizations have taken it upon themselves to create websites that have become important repositories of information about herbs that was recorded long before the development of the internet as a communication tool. These include:
Southwest School of Botanical Medicine
Michael Moore has probably done more than anyone else to make the valuable records of the 19th and early 20th century freely accessible on the internet. The home page for this site can be a little overwhelming, and it may be useful to start at the “Master Genus Index” (http://www.swsbm.com/homepage/GenusIndex.html). This index organizes references by species, and provides access to numerous images (including photographs as well as colored and uncolored prints and drawings); to monographs and major papers; and to more succinct abstracts and folios. From the home page links can be found to plant images (not all of which are referenced in the above “Index”) and to Moore’s own publications and the many older texts and scientific journals that he has loaded on this site (some of which are separately identified below). The first time you visit this site make sure your calendar is clear for the rest of the day! The selections are expanded on an ongoing basis, making it worth the effort to check in from time-to-time to review recent postings.
Henriette’s Herbal Home Page
Henriette Kress is an herbalist in Finland who started putting information about herbs on a website in 1995. The site today includes several thousand photos of plants and an extensive list of plant names (including common names in Swedish and Finnish). In addition, several of the classic eclectic texts can be accessed from the site, including King’s American Dispensatory (Felter, H.W. and J.U. Lloyd, 1898 – see link below) and others that are mirrored from Michael Moore’s site but formatted here in HTML rather than PDF formats.
Native American Ethnobotany
An extensive source of succinct information about Native American uses of herbs, this site contains records of the historical uses of over 4,000 species of plants by almost 300 North American aboriginal groups. The site is maintained by the University of Michigan and represents the lifelong commitment of Dan Moerman of that school. The current version is linked to the USDA PLANTS database so that taxonomic and range information can be readily found for most of the listed species.
Historical Herb Books Online
The above sites and some others have loaded quite a number of older texts and journals onto internet accessible websites. Some are formatted as hypertext files and others link to PDF documents. A representative sample includes:
Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physitian. 1652.
Considered by some to be the earliest non-religious English language book in continuous publication, this work by the apothecary Nicholas Culpeper aroused great controversy when it was printed in London over 350 years ago. The established doctors (who were busy with bloodletting and prescribing toxic doses of heavy metals and other poisons) were upset that the public might treat themselves with the information made available in Culpeper’s inexpensive book – sound familiar? Thanks to Yale University’s Medical Historical Library, modern day readers can find a 17th century view of the plants in use at that time and will note that many of these remain in common use. Aside from a description of each plant and its uses, instructions are provided for making common preparations, such as syrups, oils and ointments.
Felter, Harvey Wickes and John Uri Lloyd. King’s American Dispensatory, 18th edition, 3rd revision. 1898.
This text is one of the most important records of the herbal medicines of the eclectic physicians. These doctors practiced extensively in the United States for about a century, beginning in the first half of the 19th century, and a number of contemporary herbalists still value the therapeutic discipline of the eclectics. Revised from the original work by the renowned Professor John King, this edition was described when it was reprinted in 1983 as “one of the most complete compilations of herbs and their clinical uses ever published.” It is located on Henriette’s Herbal Home Page.
Lloyd, John Uri. History of the Vegetable Drugs of the Pharmacopeia of the United States. 1911.
The Lloyd brothers of Cincinnati, Ohio, were among the most prominent of the U.S. manufactures of herbal medicines at the turn of the 20th century, and were also actively engaged in publishing information about herbs and their uses and histories. This text, found on the website of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine, focused on all of the plants listed in the 1900 edition of the United States Pharmacopeia, and is, as the title suggests, more interested in the history of each of the plants listed — where and by whom it was first used — than in its therapeutics, such that this small book has greater value for the historian than for the practitioner.
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal, 2 vol. 1931.
Mrs. Grieve’s volumes have served as a basic introduction to herbs for over seventy years, and have been in continuous publication since they first appeared in 1931. Mrs. Grieve’s work was seen as filling a need for a new herbal, one that is described in the editor’s introduction as including “the traditional lore and properties of plants, and the modern use of properly standardized extracts and tinctures.” The text is organized to provide information on each plant’s habitat and physical description, as well as medicinal action and uses, preparation and dosage, and in some cases cultivation and appropriate substitutes.
Hedrick, UP. Sturtevant’s Notes on Edible Plants. 1919.
As the first director of the New York Agriculture Experiment Station, E. Lewis Sturtevant compiled extensive data on the edible plants of the world. After his retirement in 1887 his manuscript went untouched until U.P. Hedrick “undertook its editing… in order that so valuable a collection of knowledge might become available to botanists and to students of food economics.” This book can be found as a 775 page PDF format document at the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine. Because it is not a facsimile, it should be noted that the extensive references that are cited throughout the text of the original are absent in this electronic version. Nevertheless, this text provides quite useful information for companies that need to substantiate that an ingredient in their herbal product has a confirmed history of food use.
Remington, Joseph P., Horatio C. Wood, et al. The Dispensatory of the United States of America, 20th edition. 1918.
When the first edition of The Dispensatory of the United States of America (familiarly known as USD) was published in 1833 by two members of the faculty of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, they could not have foreseen that their work would survive through twenty-six editions, the last printed in 1967. George B. Wood and Franklin Bache stated in their initial volume their intention to provide “an account of medicinal substances in the state in which they are brought into the shops, and to teach the modes in which they are prepared for use.” And of course most of these “medicinal substances” were botanical in nature. This electronic version of the 20th edition, provided by the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine, contains only the botanical substances listed and so skips over the information that was provided in this volume for non-herbal drugs of that time and all of the general sections. A remarkable resource.
Woodville, William. Medical Botany, 4 vol. 1790-1793.
A digitized version of this important work, including James Sowerby’s beautiful and detailed drawings of 274 herbs, is available through the Missouri Botanical Garden’s website. This text described “all those plants that are directed for medicinal use by the Colleges of London and Edinburgh.” Woodville’s Medical Botany remained the standard illustrated work for British medicinal herbs for nearly a century. Each entry provides a short description of the plant and information about uses and dosage is also included, as well as the preferred form (e.g., infusion; essential oil; etc.). Many also provide discussions of historical records and there are often somewhat extensive references. A classical education is advised (No Ancient Language Left Behind?) to obtain the greatest use of these books, as Woodville engages in the 18th century practice of providing citations in the original Latin, and occasionally in Greek.
Traditional Medicines Congress
The American Herbal Products Association was a member of the Traditional Medicines Congress, which began in the spring of 2004 and ended in early 2008. The Congress was a forum for meetings and communications between various U.S.-based organizations with a common interest in preserving access to traditional medicine products. The Congress developed a Draft Proposed Regulatory Model for Traditional Medicines. A link to the draft and answers to frequently asked questions about the Congress is below.
Draft Proposed Regulatory Model for Traditional Medicines and FAQ