If you look in your bathroom or spice cabinet, chances are you’ll find many common household items that derive from medicinal herbal traditions that are hundreds or even thousands of years old. The mouthwash you used this morning? It probably contains thymol, which is naturally produced by scarlet beebalm, a plant in the mint family that many Native Americans used to make an herbal tea for treating mouth and throat infections. That clove of garlic you used to season your steak? It was given to the first Olympic athletes in ancient Greece as a performance-enhancing drug.
The Robert Thrower Medicinal Garden was established at the Mobile Medical Museum in 2017 to educate the public about herbal medicine, the oldest form of medicine in the world, with roots dating back to the dawn of civilization. The garden was named for Robert “Glenn” Thrower Jr. (1961 – 2017), an ethnobotanist who served as Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. Thrower was an adviser to the Mobile Medical Museum in the early stages of the garden project.
The garden features 50 plant species representing civilizations from five continents. Together, they tell a story of acculturation and ingenuity in the human struggle to survive.
The first contact between European explorers and the indigenous peoples of the Americas permanently changed ecosystems across the globe. The encounter, called the Columbian Exchange, was extremely deadly, involving war, conquest and the spread of disease. But out of this tragic conflict came a few promising advances in horticulture.
In the 17th century, colonists introduced the European honeybee to the Americas and taught the Cherokees the art of beekeeping. As a major pollinator, the honeybee increased crop yields and added color and variety to the landscape.
On the other side of the ledger, Native people instructed the colonists in the culinary and medicinal uses of chili peppers, beans and blueberries, enabling them to survive in harsh and unfamiliar climates. These herbs, among others, were then shipped across the Atlantic to Europe and Asia.
“Tobacco was cultivated by Native American people long before becoming a major cash crop for export to European markets,” says Dr. Erin Nelson, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of South Alabama. “It was widely used throughout Mesoamerica and North America at the time of European contact for its psychoactive and painkilling properties.”
In a parallel development, the Transatlantic Slave Trade cut off African slaves from many of the herbs that they had known in their ancestral homelands. But they carried on the rich legacy of African herbalism, developing new folk traditions around herbs that they discovered through contact with whites and Natives in the New World, such as asafetida, sassafras and peach leaves. Decades after the end of slavery, the herbal remedies of black midwives and root doctors were eagerly sought out by clients of all races, particularly in the South and the Caribbean.
Herbal medicine took many physical forms: teas, powders, syrups, aromatic mists, balms and salves. In Europe, Asia and the Middle East, herbal preparations and treatments were carefully transcribed in medical manuals for posterity. Among Native Americans and African-Americans, herbal knowledge was usually transmitted orally between a mentor and an apprentice.
Despite these cultural differences, nearly all herbalists shared a strong belief in the spiritual side of healing. Whatever powers an herb possessed ultimately derived from a divine source.
Native medicine-practicing men and women believed that the correct diagnosis and treatment of an illness would be revealed to them through dreams, animal spirit guides or other prophetic signs. In African-American communities, peppermint was used both to relieve labor and abdominal pains and to bless a house with good fortune.
Olive oil, which has been used for thousands of years as a laxative, lubricant and cleanser, was once associated with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, who gifted the first olive tree to the city of Athens. Jews, Christians and Muslims appropriated olive oil for sacred anointment ceremonies.
Before pharmacology and clinical testing, it was often difficult to pinpoint the potency and effectiveness of any given herb. A dizzying range of healing powers has been attributed to some of the most common herbs such as yarrow, aloe vera and sage.
In many cases, herbs that seemed to be successful in relieving pain or treating one type of illness would be prescribed for other conditions as well, until the herb acquired a reputation as a panacea. Physicians today refer to this phenomenon as “indication creep.” Indeed, clinical testing of traditional herbal remedies has had very mixed results.
Nevertheless, ancient herbalist practices such as traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda still have millions of passionate advocates all around the world. There is even a research team at The University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom called AncientBiotics, which tests herbal remedies recovered from medieval English manuscripts. They see their work taking on more urgency with the rapid spread of antibiotic-resistant microbes. For better or worse, it appears that herbalism, the oldest medicine, may be here to stay.