We owe man's extensive knowledge of medicinal herbs to our prehistoric ancestors. As hunter-gatherers, they sought out plants that healed various sicknesses. They may have been inspired by animals, which also employed various plants as healing agents. This 'earth wisdom' was passed down orally from generation to generation and was weaved into the fabric of a people's traditional culture and civilisation.
Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) is known as a holy plant among Hindus, and is traditionally used used to treat flu, diabetes and stress. (Photo credit: Marshall Cavendish)
During olden times, illnesses were considered curses, and herbs were sacred because they drove out the 'evil spirits' that caused sickness and pain. Medicinal herbs were therefore associated with protective magic, and usage was accompanied by religious rituals. For example, Ocimum tenuiflorum, also known as the holy basil, remains highly revered in India as the most sacred plant in Hinduism and is planted in Indian temple grounds and homes.
Other examples of the historical use of medicinal plants are 2500 BC Sumerian drawings depicting opium poppy capsules, and the 1770 BC Babylonic carved tablets of the code of Hammurabi, in which a number of medicinal herbs are detailed. Early records, dating back as far as 3000 BC, show that medicinal plants were used in traditional Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine.
Usage of herbs in other parts of Asia was proven by Egyptian records on papyrus on illnesses and their herbal remedies. Herbs were also used as incense during religious ceremonies and funerals. Egyptian rade with China flourished due to the high demand for different varieties of herbs, via the silk trade route.
The Europeans caught up a while later, when the Greek physician Hippocrates (460 to 377 BC), now acknowledged as the father of modern medicine, did away with the superstitious belief that illnesses are curses by evil spirits. He diagnosed illnesses as dysfunctions in a person's physiology and prescribed around 300 to 400 herbal medicines. Dioscorides (20 to 90 AD) compiled the De Materia Medica, which served as reference to the preparation of around 1000 drugs. The Romans used oriental herbs in many areas of their lives, from temple rituals, incense and perfumes to medicines and food and wine additives.
Aromatic oils derived from herbs have various uses in aromatherapy. (Photo copyright: Marshall Cavendish)
The golden age of the European herb trade came to an end with the fall of the Roman Empire, with herbs grown in enclaves in Christian monasteries. Knowledge of, and interest in herbs returned to Europe during the Crusades (1100 to 1300 AD), which ran into another roadblock when the Turks prevented Europe from accessing the overland trade routes to the East, forcing the Europeans to explore routes by sea. Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, which introduced the herbs of a new continent to the Western world and beyond. In 1498, Vasco da Gama sailed around the coast of Africa en route to India, which established sea routes from Europe to the spice islands of the Far East.
Knowledge on medicinal herbs stalled during the time of Paracelcus (1493 to 1541), a Swiss German physician who popularised the doctrine of signatures, whereby the resemblance of plants to human anatomy and physiology corresponded to their usefulness. A plant that exuded red-coloured sap would be used for blood ailments, heart-shaped leaves were effective in heart-related illnesses, and lobed leaves indicated efficacy in the treatment of liver-related illnesses. Nevertheless, his theories were abandoned and the medical sciences were greatly advanced in the 17th to 20th centuries.
This map shows the Spice Islands, or the Moluccas, and the spice trade route circa the 15th century. (Photo credit: ABC News Australia)
Malaysia has also been indelibly influenced by the tussle between the European powers over the spice trade in the Malay Archipelago, which was first controlled by the Portuguese, who were defeated by the Dutch, who then ceded control to the English. Yet even before the arrival of the Western colonialists, Indian, Arab and Chinese merchants actively traded with the coastal and riverine Malays for rainforest products as well as natural deposits of tin and gold.
A large number of herbs that are naturalised in Malaysia, and are commonly used today, were first introduced by merchants. Mint (Mentha arvensis) originated in Sri Lanka and Indonesia and Thai Basil (Ocimum basilicum) from India. Most of the herbs that originated from India were introduced when the Early Hindu kingdoms were established in Indonesia. Herbs from Latin America, such as the ubiquitous ulam raja (Cosmos caudatus), were introduced by Spanish sailors who used it as fresh greens during their long voyages at sea.
The Indian Pennywort (Centella asiatica) is used as ulam in Malaysian cuisine, in curries in Indian cuisine, and as a traditional remedy for skin ailments. (Photo copyright: Marshall Cavendish)
When migrant labour was brought in by the Dutch and British colonialists, trade crops such as pepper and coffee were introduced from Indonesia, while the Indians brought in sacred herbs that were planted in temples and home gardens.
Excerpted from Herbs of Malaysia, written by Joseph Samy, M. Sugumaran, K.L.W. Lee and edited by K.M. Wong; published by Marshall Cavendish.