Herbs from around the World

INTRODUCTION

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.

AFRICA

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

AUSTRALASIA

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

CHINA

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

EUROPE

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

INDIAN SUBCONTINENT

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

MIDDLE EAST

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

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