What are Botanicals?
Botanicals are ‘all botanical materials (e.g. whole, fragmented or cut plants, plant parts, algae, fungi and lichens).’ ‘Botanicals’ is also the term now commonly used to describe plant materials when used in foods, personal care products and food supplements, thereby differentiating them from plant materials used in herbal medicines which are more usually described as ‘herbs’.
‘Let food be thy medicine, and thy medicine thy food’
(Greek healer Hippocrates. 5th Century BC)
History of Botanicals
Botanicals have been used by mankind since early history. Evidence of the use of plants to help maintain health and well-being has been found in Neanderthal graves dating as far back as 60,000 BC. The Bible contains many references to herbs and plants.
To quote one instance from the Old Testament: ‘The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like water made with honey’. Coriander is still used today to help maintain healthy digestion.
Olive oil has been used throughout the millennia by numerous civilizations and particularly by the peoples of the Mediterranean, for its health-giving properties.
The castles and great houses of the Middle Ages were commonly equipped with a ‘still room’ where soothing drinks of herbs infused in ale, milk, vinegar and honey were prepared, and herbs were pounded with butter to make ointments.
Religious houses throughout Europe were another well-known source of possets, health-promoting draughts and elixirs.
Abbeys and monasteries, large and small, had herb-gardens where many botanicals still well-known and used today were grown – among them feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), used for a variety of indications in relation to inflammation; lavender (Lavandula officinalis), sage (Salvia officinalis) and peppermint (Mentha piperata) for the digestion, and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) for the health of the urinary system.
Interest in the properties of botanicals and their uses continued and became more formalised in the 16th and 17th centuries, when European universities teaching botany and herbalism planted ‘Physic’ or Botanical gardens where a wide variety of species of health-promoting plants were grown.
Many such gardens still exist today in university towns and cities throughout Europe, providing a living history of the health benefits of botanical materials.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) has a centuries-old tradition of use. The English diarist, John Evelyn (1620–1706), wrote ‘Balm is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory and powerfully chasing away melancholy’.
A concoction of spirit of Lemon Balm combined with lemon peel, nutmeg and Angelica root was claimed to be one of the main factors contributing to the longevity of Llewellyn, an 18th century Prince of Glamorgan in Wales, who lived to be 108.
Very similar recipes are still used today and Lemon Balm is a common ingredient of herb teas, tisanes and food supplements for the digestion and to support relaxation and general well-being.
Moving to modern times, herbs were used in both World Wars to treat soldiers wounded on the battlefield. One important treatment involved the use of sphagnum moss and garlic (Allium sativum), both of which have antiseptic properties.
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillis) was used by English soldiers during World War II to help them to see better during night-time bombardments, and is still used today in botanical food supplements for the maintenance of eye-sight.
The common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), considered a weed by most gardeners, is a good example of a botanical with a long history of multi-faceted use, including health promotion, which is still used for the same purposes today.
It has several culinary uses: the leaves can be eaten cooked or raw in soups or salads, the flowers can be used to make wine, and the root is a coffee substitute, which, drunk before meals, stimulates digestive functions and acts as a liver tonic.
The plant has also long been known for its beneficial effect on the urinary tract and is used to help maintain the health of the urinary system, to promote healthy appetite and digestion, and to promote healthy liver function.
Man’s relationship with botanicals is very long-standing. Throughout history, plants and herbs have formed part of the diet not simply because they provide nutrition, but also because of their health-giving properties. This remains the case today.
Nowadays the science of Ethnobotany investigates, by detailed observations and studies of the use society makes of plants, how humans have used and domesticated botanicals for their health properties.
WANT TO WORK TOGETHER?