Among the earliest forms of treatment are herbal remedies. Herbs (nonwoody seed-bearing plants) and other vegetable materials were used medicinally by the ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, and Egyptians, who left lists of plants and their supposed properties. The ancient Greeks followed suit, and the Romans took herbalism to northern Europe.

In earlier times, including during the Middle Ages, supertsition often characterized herbal lore, which was frequently associated with astrology and other folkloric and occult beliefs. By trial and error, however, along with observations of animals' interaction with them, the effects of plants were observed— if not always in a suitably scientific fashion.

The science of herbology is part of the "natural healing" approach of naturopathy, which includes such treatments as auriculotherapy (ear acupuncture), homeopathy, hypnotherapy, iridology, and the like. The herbalist's repertory— according to C. Norman Shealy's The Complete Family Guide to Alternative Medicine (1996)— may also include certain animal materials (such as dried gecko skin used in Chinese herbalism) and minerals. While there is no doubt that some herbal substances have medicinal value (for example, an analgesic found in white willow led to the development of aspirin), not all effects may be beneficial— or even harmless— especially when used nonscientifically.


Sarsaparilla is the name applied to any American plant of the genus Smilax (such as Smilax Medica of Mexico and Smilax officinalis of Central America). Its dried roots have long been used as an herbal medicine for joint pain, skin diseases, and other conditions. Boiled in water it yields an extract that is used for flavoring and as a tonic (an invigorator or stimulant) and as the basis of a carbonated drink similar to root beer (which contains various root extracts, including sassafras).

At left is an embossed bottle for HOOD'S/SARSA/PARILLA" manufactured by C.I. Hood & Co., "Apothecaries," in Lowell, Massachusetts. (The glass bottle— about 87/8" tall— was blown in a bottom-hinged mold and probably dates ca. 1870s, possibly as early as the Civil War era.)

At right is a chromolithographed trade card for Ayer's Sarsaparilla (about 211/16 x 5-3/16") prepared by Dr. J.C. Ayer & Co., Lowell, Mass. who also sold a hair restorer. (This was James Cook Ayer who once worked in an apothecary shop and later obtained a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. About the middle of the nineteenth century he began marketing his own patent medicines.) The text on the reverse states that it is an extract of "the Sarsaparilla root of the tropics" billed as a blood purifier, "a medicine of such concentrated curative power that it is by far the most economical and reliable medicine that can be used...."

More Herbs exhibits:

Botanical Drops
Herbal Remedies