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Plant collecting

The introduction of herbal medicines from the East Indies, c. 1700s.

The introduction of herbal medicines from the East Indies, c. 1700s.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Drugs were not only used by doctors trained at universities. In every culture, plants and herbs have been used as medicines. Plant collectors have to be able to identify medicinal herbs correctly, and know where to find them. This type of knowledge was often passed down from person to person, or recorded in ‘herbals’, books of herbs which described their features and medicinal properties.

In Europe medical practitioners increasingly included medicinal plants from abroad in their treatments. However, the importation of foreign plants was not an easy task. It was very difficult to keep plants alive during long sea journeys - when the British ship Bounty tried to bring breadfruit plants back to England in 1789, the sailors rebelled because the plants were treated better than they were! Even if the plants reached Europe alive, famous botanists including Linnaeus (1707-78) struggled to grow them successfully in the new climate. Thus, European apothecaries had to rely on renewable supplies of dried herbs as substitutes for many plants, but routes of trade could be interrupted by weather conditions and wars.

Despite the advances in synthetic chemistry, pharmaceutical companies still explore the medicinal properties of plants, for instance herbs, used in various healing traditions around the world. This bioprospecting can be controversial when companies commercialise plant-based products without compensation for indigenous groups.


Related links

External links:


L Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, Mass.: London: Harvard University Press, 2004)