Herbs from around the World
Herbs have not only been used throughout millennia, they have consistently been grown, harvested and used in all regions around the world. The many different habitats and cultures have meant that a huge range of herbs and uses have been developed over time. Botanical discoveries have been transported around the world by explorers for centuries, many herbs now happily introduced to new lands. A thriving export and import trade has developed around herbs , often leading to depletion of wild populations of a number of herbs. In 1973 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna & Flora – CITES was established to ensure that trade in certain wild species does not threaten the survival of that species.
The range of habitats is as vast as the continent itself, from the Mediterranean coast in the north, through the harsh desert environment , to open savannah and tropical rainforests of central Africa. The Mediterranean climate of South Africa supports one of the richest and most diverse floras in the world. It is estimated that some 70-80% of people in Africa rely on plants for their health care. Traditionally herb collection has been on a local scale with minimal damage to wild populations. However, demand for Devils Claw – Harpagophytum procumbens - has meant that it is now traded worldwide.
IMPORTANT AFRICAN HERBS
African Cherry - Prunus africana - bark extracts now used for prostrate conditions
Milk Bush – Euphorbia tirucalli used to remove warts, repel mosquitoes and as a fuel
Rooibos – Aspalathus linearis a popular caffeine free tea
Devils Claw – Harpagophtum procumbens a remedy for arthritis and digestive problems
Buchu – Agathosma spp aromatic herbal tea for minor ailments and insect -repellent
The geological history of Australasia has had a profound impact upon its plant life. Early European settlers found a very different range of plants , many of which had been used by the Aboriginal people for thousands of years. The use of native plants is poorly documented, but it is known that the Eucalypt gum was used extensively to control infections, bleeding and diarrhoea. Research in the 1990’s into the nutritional value of many native plants has given rise to the Bushfood industry, that actively promotes the cultivations and use of native species.
IMPORTANT AUSTRALASIAN HERBS
Mint Bush - Prostanthera spp a popular ornamental rich in antibiotic and fungicidal oils
Tea Tree – Melalueca alternifolia used worldwide as an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal treatment
Old Man Saltbush – Atriplex nummularia a rich source of vitamin C
Wattle – Acacia spp. Floral emblem of Australis used as a remedy for diarrhoea
New Zealand Flax – Phormium tenax used in Maori medicine for battle wounds and a binding for splints
CENTRAL & SOUTH AMERICA
This region is unrivalled in the diversity of its flora. Brazil alone is believed to have some 55,000 species of flowering plants, compared to some 1450 in the UK. The importance of the Amazon rainforest cannot be understated, not just for its importance to the global ecosystem, but for what has yet to be discovered that may lead to drugs to combat many diseases. Conservation of the rainforest is essential and although it would appear to be a losing battle, there is a significant amount of research being carried out by universities, medical institutes, botanical gardens and conservation charities.
IMPORTANT CENTRAL & SOUTH AMERICAN HERBS
Coca - Erythroxylum Coca - leaves chewed to relieve fatigue & hunger. Used as an anaesthetic in surgery and as a now illegal narcotic drug
Lipstick tree - Bixa orellana – a Mexican culinary herb used widely as a colourant in the food and cosmetic industries
Vanilla – Vanilla planifolia – one of the world’s most popular flavourings
Boldo – Peumus boldus – an important Chilean tree used medicinally for liver & gall bladder conditions. Also added to diet formulations
Strychnine – Strychnos nux-vomica - very toxic , used as a poison
The sheer variety of landscapes in China, from the northern tundra, to deserts, grasslands, woodland and tropical rainforest, is reflected in the diversity of its plant life. Some 5000 plants are believed to be used in Chinese medication, many having been used for thousands of years. The best known herb is probably Ginseng, used as a tonic herb for over 3000 years. Ginseng became known in Europe from the 9th Century, although it only became popular after Russian research in 1950’s identified it as an adaptogen ( restorative) herb. Demand for Chinese herbs by western cultures has increased dramatically in recent years, so much so that a number of herbs are under pressure in the wild.
IMPORTANT CHINESE HERBS
Ginseng – Panax ginseng - classic restorative herb
Rhubarb – Rhuem spp. – an important laxative herb
Ginkgo Tree – Ginkgo biloba contains flavonoids to improve circulation to the brain
Chinese Angelica – Angelica polymorpha var.sinensis - important female tonic
Licorice – Glycyrrhiza uralensis – used in almost all chinese formulations a natural sweetener
Although Human activity has changed much of the European landscape, the range of habitats and variety of plants remains diverse. The use of Herbs in Europe is fairly eclectic, having originated from a variety of sources over the centuries. Roman, Greek, Arabic, Ayurvedic and Chinese herbal traditions have all been incorporated into Western Herbalism in one form or another.
IMPORTANT EUROPEAN HERBS
Meadowsweet – Filipendula ulmaria – original source of aspirin
Chamomile – Chamaemelum nobile – a mild sedative and a good digestive tea
Foxglove – Digitalis spp - used for heart failure and irregular heart beat
Lavender – Lavandula spp - used in aromatherapy, as a carmative
Nettle – Urtica dioica – rich in vitamins & minerals, a good detoxifying herb
Mountains dominate the region, providing plant life with a diverse array of habitats . It is believed that there are more medicinal plants under threat in this region than any other, although many are now protected by international legislation. Herbs have been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, some 600 indigenous species being used various formulas. It is the use of the roots of some species that is causing the most problems, such as Saussurea costas and Rauvolfia serpentine - as the plant obviously has to be destroyed. Protection is also given to the Himalayan Yew (Taxus wallichiana) and the Indian Mandrake (Podophyllum hexandrum) both of which provide anti-cancer drugs.
IMPORTANT INDIAN HERBS
Ashwagandha – Withania somnifera - the Indian Ginseng
Daruharidra - Berberis spp – an important remedy for diarrhoea
Indian Mandrake - Podophyllum hexandrum – contains anti-tumour compounds
Cinnamon – Cinnamomum verum – popular culinary spice
Gotu Kola – Centella asiatica – a rejuvenating diuretic herb
A region of extremes, stretching from the Hindu Kush in the north to the Arabian Peninsula in the south. Many of the world’s most important crop plants originated in the Middle East, such as barley, oats, cabbages, olives, onions and grapes, all with medicinal uses. As with many other regions, over collection has put pressure on wild sources of some plant material. Conservation work is undertaken by many organisations in the region, including the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh who are involved in a conservation programme on the island of Socotra.
IMPORTANT MIDDLE EASTERN HERBS
Opium Poppy – Papaver somniferum – the worlds most important painkiller
Damask Rose – Rosa x damascene industries
Toothbrush Tree – Salvadora persica – roots are used to clean teeth
Culinary Herbs – Onion, Garlic, Coriander, Fenugreek,Caraway, used in the perfume, food and cosmetic
NORTH AMERICAN HERBS
Despite having an extensive National Parks network, urbanization continues to threaten many habitats in North America. Native American Indians used a wide range of herbs for medicinal purposes, many of which are woodland species, such as Birch , Sassafras, Pines and Red Cedar. Indigenous use had little impact upon local plant populations, however increasing demand from settler communities caused commercial collection to take place. Although many species are protected by International legislation, the popularity of some herbs has given them an economic value and so cultivation now takes place, further protecting the wild populations of herbs.
IMPORTANT NORTH AMERICAN HERBS
Witch Hazel – Hamamelis virginiana – an astringent useful to reduce bruising
Jojoba – Simmondsia chinesis - cultivated for the cosmetic industry
Saw Palmetto – Serenoa repens - particularly beneficial to the prostate gland
New Jersey Tea – Ceanothus americanus - used by Native American to treat skin-cancers
Passion Flower – Passiflora incarnate - a hardy plant used as a tranqulizer
SOUTH EAST ASIA
Rainforest habitat covered most of South East Asia until recent deforestation by timber companies. The flora is one of the most diverse in the world, numbering over 35,000 species, with many thousands being used medicinally. Governments in Malaysia and Thailand are working with local tribes to try and ensure that the knowledge about indigenous plants and their uses is not lost. Some of the world’s most important culinary herbs and spices originate in the area, as reflected in the aromatic quality of the regional cuisine.
IMPORTANT SOUTH EAST ASIAN HERBS
Nutmeg & Mace – Myristica fragrans – popular spices used worldwide
Galangal – Alpinia galangal - culinary herb similar to ginger
Ylang-ylang – Cananga odorata – used in the perfume industry
Cloves – Syzygium aromaticum – important cure for toothache