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Herbs & Spices Section

The Herbalist - Lost Lore

With the move to a more metropolitan lifestyle, the age old tradition of gathering herbs in the wild has become a thing of the past. The knowledge our ancestors gained over millennia of experimentation has been lost to all but a few eccentrics in todays society. These are often elder people, sometimes regarded with derision by the younger generation and modern pharmaceutical companies, who lobby politicians to make laws to limit the use of their skills.

Millions of dollars every year are poured into debunking old remedies while billions of dollars are spent promoting the merits of modern drugs. Often these drugs produce severe side effects that require other drugs to treat those side effects. All this treatment and counter treatment, of course funnels more profits to the pharmaceutical giants.

Add to this, the clearing of land for high intensity farming of products like beef and palm oil and you start to appreciate the magnitude of the threat facing conservationists.

Clearing rainforest in Indonesia to grow palms for palm oil
Indonesia - Clearing rainforest for growing oil palms.

We hear sad accounts of animals facing extinction - that's newsworthy and sells papers and TV advertising. Put a Panda on your logo and people automatically assume your product is related to some form of conservation. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Species Survival Commission concluded that 13% of the world's plant species are under the threat of extinction. That's not endangered - that's under threat of extinction!

Stop and think about the ramifications of that. The plants are at the start of the food chain. If 13% vanish, that's going to have a domino effect right up the whole food chain.

Today to overcome the undesirable side effects of modern western medicine's drugs, pharmaceutical companies are now "cocktailing" drugs - mixing the primary treatment and the side effect treatment drug all in the one tablet.

We seem to forget that the vast majority of our pharmaceuticals were discovered in herbs. Ancient herbalists used willow bark for headaches, as an analgesic pain treatment and to reduce a fever. The ingredient was isolated from Willow bark in the 1830s and identified as salicylic acid. The German company Bayer produced a modified version of it and called the white powder, Aspirin, from the Greek work for White - Aspro.

Malaria was treated effectively by the Peruvian Indians by chewing bark. Analytical tests revealed the drug Quinine, a drug used to treat malaria.

When one of the first herbal researchers to analyse herbal remedies, Dr. William Withering, heard stories of a "wise woman" in a nearby village who successfully treated dropsy with a herbal tea, he collected samples of the herb she used - foxglove. In the second half of the 18th century, he discovered it contained a glycoside, what we call today - digitalis. This is a common cardiac treatment today, called Digoxin.

In 1803, morphine was isolated from the Opium poppy and the list goes on.

Opium poppy farming,  Afghanistan
Opium poppy farming in Afghanistan

While modern pharmacology has made vast improvements in medicines it has also created vast wealth for some organisations and we need to be wary of the multi-million pharmaceutical corporations making a grab for patents that restrict further developments of even better drugs.

Perhaps it is time that these billion dollar corporations who made their fortunes from the compounds they isolated from the plant and animal kingdom, were made to put something back to help preserve the wilds that could yield their next great discovery. In the Amazon Basin alone, less than 1% of the forest has been categorised for potential pharmacological compounds. At the current rate of deforestation, it will be gone before we can analyse the chemical compounds in 10% of the forest flora and fauna.

Wild American Ginseng (Panax unique) has been so over harvested in the eastern North America, that it's exploitation in international trade is regulated under CITES (the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

American ginseng - Panax Unique
American Ginseng (Panax unique) is listed as an endangered species in the wild.

Echinacea is another example. There are three varieties, only one, Echinacea purpurea is commercially grown because it's seed germinates the best. The other two varieties are more difficult to cultivate thus wild stocks of Echinacea augustifolia and Echinacea pallida are under threat.

Here in Australia we face an additional threat to the USA - ignorance. Our European culture ignored the fact that the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia had any knowledge of the medicinal value of our plants. We cleared scrub and forest for farming and only recently have come to realise the uniqueness of our plant life that has evolved it's own species, isolated from the rest of the world. Now there is a mad rush on, to quickly categorize these species.

Separator bar with green apple

Science proves it.

Today, Modern Western culture makes a distinction between medicine, cuisine, botany and agriculture but for thousands of years the herbalist made no such distinctions.

Garlic fresh from the garden

Garlic, for flavouring foods was grown for pest control for leafy crops, as a companion planting. Harvested, it was peeled and minced with pork and stuffed into animal intestines then hung on hooks beneath the roof of their hut, above their smoky fires. Over the winter with the continuous fire, they were smoked or cured. The result was what we call today, salami. It wasn't restricted to Italian peasants either. All over Europe they have some type of smoke cured sausage with garlic. The same garlic crop was also administered as a remedy for stomach upsets and applied to wounds as an antiseptic and insect repellent. It wasn't medicine, cuisine or intelligent crop husbandry. It was simply called survival.

Ironically it wasn't until the 1980s that mainstream science acknowledged that garlic has any antiseptic qualities. It was 'discovered' that garlic is rich in sulphur compounds that had both anti bacterial and anti fungal properties. (Meanwhile we never stopped buying salami and never stopped to wonder why the meat was magically transformed from fatty pork into long lasting salami and we never died of food poisoning!).

Salami curing on a rack

Dried salamis on a smoking rack.

We will never know when ancient man started adding garlic to his repertoire of herbs but we do know it was used in Ancient Egypt, before 2500 BC. It is mentioned in the oldest known writings on the use of herbs in Assyria. Amongst the Ebers Papyrus from Egypt, garlic is mentioned as one of 700 herbs used by the Egyptians. It was introduced to Britain by the Romans both as a medicine and a food preservative.

When the Roman Empire fell, the masters of medicine were the Arabic people. They translated the Greek texts and had the added advantage of trade with then East and thus access to their remedies. for the next 300 years Arab texts were translated into Latin, which had become the common written language of Europe now. The Arabs had perfected the skill of extracting essential oils from herbs, increasing the potency of the herbs in medicine.

One of the limitations faced by herbal practitioners was that herbs had to be dried and stored in a cool dry dark place, to be useable during the winter, when little would grow in the snows. Drying herbs reduces their potency. The Arabian technique meant many herbs could be used at their full strength in winter now.

Arabic Herbalist
With the fall of the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire became the leaders in knowledge and they perfected the art of essential oils extraction.

Wise folk were the herbal doctors in most villages in the middle ages but they were viewed with superstition and ran the risk of being proclaimed as a witch. If bought to the attention of the Church, they would be dragged from their home and tortured into a confession of witchcraft or "tested" by the church.

Testing was usually a no-win situation where a person's death during the 'testing', proved their innocence and their survival confirmed they were in league with the devil. Those who confessed to heresy or witchcraft were told that they would be able to find spiritual salvation through confession and were then summarily executed for their crimes against the church. The favoured execution method was a public burning at the stake - the ideal deterrent for anyone thinking of challenging the authority of the church. For a more comprehensive account of these times go to's account of life in the middle ages in Europe.

Monasteries, as well as being places for religious training, were also the medical schools and hospitals of the time. They grew many of their own herbs in "physic" herb gardens.

Medieval monastry garden
Illustration of a Monastery herb garden from the Roman De La Rosa (circa 1400)

These were usually walled gardens within the monasteries, similar to what the Romans used. Paths would divide the walled enclosure into small intensively cultivated beds. Today many European monasteries still have their Roman style Physic Gardens.

Herb garden in a modern day monastry
The physic garden in a contemporary monastery.


During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church became the law of most of Europe. Any study, not devoted to prayer or worship, was perceived as heresy. Science stood still for almost 1500 years but one of the few areas that was allowed to continue to grow, was healing. It was seen to be doing the work of God by keeping poor souls on earth longer so the Church could convert them so they would find salvation. We see many records of herbal remedies from this time. Excavations of ancient monasteries have revealed shards from pottery stills, used to extract essential oils from herbs, as far back as the 9th Century in Switzerland.

The Crusades and the expansion of the Christian world, trade routes brought new spices and herbs to the Apothecaries. New seasonings became available too. This was important since there was no refrigeration and food had to be kept over winter, when nothing grew in the snows. Food kept this way was often rotting or at best had lost it's flavour. Often food was in the early stages of decomposition and spices helped hide the rancid taste.

Herbalism was never an exact science. The quantities of active ingredients varied depending on the soil that the herbs were grown in, the climate, the freshness of the herbs and the way they were administered. As an infusion or tea, some herbs worked better than a poulse (a paste applied directly to the skin, held in place by a bandage), others were boiled and the vapours inhaled. Some were even smoked, like tobacco. With the Arabian technique of extracting essential oils, herbalists were able to control the concentration of the essential ingredients and the dosages.

Through experimentation, optimum dosages were discovered for the various herbs and recorded in herbalist's recipe books, known as herbals. Because this was often done in monasteries, where they had access to scribes, the task of making herbals was used as basic training work for young scribes. Today there are many examples of herbals from the middle ages, many are elaborately ornamented.

Illiminated page from a 13th Century Herbal
An illustrated page from an Italian 13th Century Herbal. The practitioner is applying a poulse of herbs to a patient's head for the treatment of headaches.

Coconut Palms

Radioactive food?

Did you know that bananas are so rich in potassium and because a common isotope of potassium is radioactive, they are actually radioactive enough to set off a geiger counter? Don't panic though, the glow in the dark numbers on your watch are more radioactive than a bunch of bananas.








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Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple


The Essential Oils Industry

The pleasant smell from herbs and spices is the result of aromatic oils, produced by the plant. These oils may reduce water loss in the plant, discourage grazing animals form feeding on the leaves or in very cold climates, resist freezing. The oils evaporate easily and it is their evaporation that creates the characteristic aroma therefore we refer to them as aromatic oils or if extracted, essential oils.

Essential oils extracted from herbs
Examples of essential oils

Today essential oils have become an industry in their own right. We have whole farms that grow hectares of herbs solely for oil extraction. Below is a Lavender farm in Tasmania, Australia. The lavender will be cut and steamed. The resulting steam coming off the lavender will be rich in lavender oil. This is condensed by cooling the steam back into water. The lavender oil will float on top on top of the water, where it is scooped off and bottled.

Lavender Farm
A lavender farm in Tasmania, in full bloom.

Peppermint and spearmint oil is extracted the same way and used in confectionery but the majority of essential oils are sold for aromatherapy.

Aromatherapy Oil basics

This is not an Aromatherapy site but for those who are curious, there are a few basic facts you should be aware of:

  • Essential oils are very expensive so they are often diluted with another oil (referred to as a carrier oil). This is to make them affordable. For example, Camomile oil is a very effective relaxant. It is a pale blue colour and has a strong fresh-cut hay aroma but you probably will never get to see it because gram for gram it is worth as more than gold. To make it affordable, it is diluted to around 5% concentration for aromatherapy use.

  • If sold as pure undiluted oils, they can be labelled as "Aromatherapy Essential Oils". If diluted with a carrier oil, this should appear on the label and they can only be sold as "Aromatherapy Oils". They are also required to display the amount of dilution.

  • If diluted below 5% concentration, they should be labelled as such and sold as "fragrant oils". These oils will not yield results like aromatherapy oils.

You should know the properties of the oils you are using. Some oils can raise blood pressure and must not be used either as a vapour or massage oil on cardiac patients. Some like Rosemary oil are uterine stimulants and if massaged onto a pregnant woman, could induce premature labour. Be aware that many essential oils react much stronger than the herb from which they were extracted because the active ingredients are far more concentrated.


Essences are very similar to essential oils except they are extracted using alcohol. The plant material is steeped in alcohol and then the resulting liquor is drained off and warmed to remove some of the alcohol (which is recycled) and concentrate the remaining ingredients. Food essences are extracted using ethyl alcohol distilled from yeast fermentation - the same alcohol that is present in beer and wine. Essences for the perfume industry (cosmetics, cleaning agents, soaps and perfumes) are extracted with methyl alcohol, which is toxic.

Real and Imitation Vanilla Essence
A bottle of real and Imitation Vanilla Essence.(The real one is on the left)

Because of the high production costs, chemists have synthesized most essences today and we usually use "Imitation" essences. A typical example is vanilla essence. The cost of beans to make vanilla essence is so high that most people today use imitation vanilla essence, synthesized in a factory, not from true vanilla beans. If you want to make your own vanilla essence (and it's not hard to do), try our Real Vanilla Essence recipe in the recipe section.

 A bundle of dried vanilla beans.

A bundle of vanilla beans.

See also our section on Drying Herbs for additional information.

Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

Basket of Fresh herbs

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