Herbalism is traditional and folk medicine and medical practice, based on the use of plants and plant extracts. The notion of finding healing in plants has a long history. In fact, the roots of modern medicine can be traced back to herbalism. There is even evidence of Neanderthals using herbal remedies to treat ailments.
Over time, through trial and error, a base of knowledge was acquired and past down from generation to generation concerning the healing properties of certain plants. Many of the plants that were used are still used today in modern herbal treatments and many of the same plants have become the basis for modern pharmaceuticals. Many modern drugs have been derived from plants. Opium from the poppy, from which is derived codeine and morphine, digitalis from foxglove, aspirin from willow tree bark and quinine from the cinchona tree are some examples of this.
All plants produce chemical compounds as part of their normal metabolic functions. These can be split into primary and secondary metabolites. The primary metabolites, such as sugars and fats are found in all plants, but the secondary metabolites are found in a much smaller range of plants, some only in a particular genus or species. It is usually these secondary metabolites that can have therapeutic uses in humans. Plants for their own defense or to attract pollinators can produce these secondary metabolites. These compounds can be refined to produce drugs for human use.
Herbalism has gained greatly in popularity in recent years. According to recent polls, about 18% of patients use herbal medicine treatments as a compliment to or a replacement for traditional medicine.