Definitions

herbal

herbal

[ur-buhl, hur-]
herbal, early botanical book containing descriptions and illustrations of herbs and plants with their properties, chiefly those qualities that made them useful as medicines or condiments. Most of the herbals were written between c.1470 and c.1670; they were especially popular in England and Germany. Among the famous herbalists were Gaspard Bauhin, Otto Brunfels, Hieronymus Bock, and Leonhard Fuchs, all active during the 16th cent. Mingled with illustrations of often painstaking accuracy were fantastic figures and many superstitious descriptions of the magical powers of plants, e.g., the doctrine of signatures. This theory of herbal medicine was based on the superficial resemblance of certain plants or plant parts to specific human organs or parts. The appropriate herb was used for any disorder of its human counterpart. Thus certain heart-shaped leaves were thought to relieve heart disease; the convoluted walnut, brain disease; and the figworts, whose flowers have deep throats, were given for scrofula (hence the figwort family name Scrophulariaceae). The herbal began to disappear as medicine acquired a more scientific approach, but it has enjoyed a revival of interest as more people have turned to self-care and herbal medicine.

See A. R. Arber, Herbals, Their Origin and Evolution (2d ed. 1938); B. C. Harris, The Compleat Herbal (new ed. 1972).

Watercolour illustration from the Badianus Manuscript, an Aztec herbal in Latin by Juan elipsis

Ancient manual of plants used for medicinal purposes. Hundreds or thousands of medicinal plants were known in ancient India, China, and Greece and medieval Europe. In the late 16th century, European herbals began to include plants from the Western Hemisphere. Their accuracy varies widely, but many of the plants in herbals later became sources for drugs (e.g., digitalis).

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A herbal is a book, often illustrated, that describes the appearance, medicinal properties, and other characteristics of plants used in herbal medicine.

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