More Information About Medicinal Plants
Although physic gardens were recorded as early as the 1330's the most famous medicinal plant garden was the Chelsea Physic Garden, started in 1673 in London. The most famous botanists of the era, whose names today are echoed in countless garden plants, worked at these gardens with their primary goal being the collection of medicinal plants used by apothecaries of the time. People such as Joseph Banks (Banksia), John Bartram (US explorer), Mark Catesby (as in Sarracenia x catesbaei), Samuel Doody (Doodia), William Forsyth (Forsythia), Carl Linnaeus (creator of modern plant taxonomy), William Houston (who discovered Buddleia and had Houstonia named for him) and John Miller (author of "The Gardener's Dictionary") all studied medicinal plants at the European physic gardens.
On the other side of the world from the European physic gardens, traditional Chinese herbalists also used local plant species as medicinal plants. Plants were used to balance yin and yang and to manipulate the five cardinal functions of the qi. Today, in the Far East, there is a branch of medicine called "traditional Chinese medicine" (TCM) that uses oriental herbs to heal, revive and restore balance. There are 50 fundamental medicinal plants in TCM, and thousands of minor ones. Many of these plants are wonderful ornamental garden plants that can be used strictly for their looks or as part of a traditional Chinese medicine gardenan oriental physic garden if you will. Similar herbal histories developed throughout Asia, Japan, India, and other exotic locales.
At the same time in history, across the Pacific, Native Americans used many North American native plants to heal various new world maladies, and when the Europeans first arrived, the Indians shared their medicinal plants with them. Some of these plants were sent back to the European physic gardens, completing the global circuit. Wherever humans have lived, they have employed local medicinal plants to treat illnesses.
In the era before modern science, controlled experiments, hypotheses, statistical analysis, etc., humans often used the physical appearance of a plant to determine its medicinal use...whether it actually worked or not. Primitive cultures assumed that the "creator" imbued plants with signs or clues as to how humans should use them. For example, a plant with spotted, lung-shaped leaves was used to treat tuberculosis and was given the name Lungwort (Pulmonaria). Aristolochia was often called birthwort because the oddly shaped flowers reminded some medieval apothecary of a birth canal...unfortunately this plant is quite toxic and poisoned countless pregnant women. This philosophy is called the "Doctrine of Signatures" and many historical medicinal plants were given names based on the heavenly "signs" in them. Many plant names today still bear these doctrinal names...Hepatica (Liverleaf). Sanguinaria (Bloodroot), Eupatorium (Boneset), Dicentra (Bleeding Heart). However, the doctrine of signatures is nothing more than the wishful thinking of medieval cultures. Many traditional "medicinal plants" actually have no effect or are extraordinarily toxic (Sanguinaria, Digitalis, Aconitum, Convallaria).
Today there are thousands of species of plants that are popular in ornamental gardens that unbeknownst to their owners also have a history of use as medicinal plants. We have culled through our enormous plant catalog to gather a list of the medicinal plants for sale here at Plant Delights. Some of these plants are no longer used for medicinal purposes, having been supplanted by less expensive synthetic medicines or less toxic compounds. Our advice regarding how to use medicinal plants is to plant two and call us in the morning.