Plant medicine has been used throughout human history within all cultures.
While the ancient Greeks and Romans learned about the healing properties of medicinal plants from even earlier civilisations, their first written records on the pharmacological uses of plants as drugs are from over 2500 years ago dating back to the Hippocratic treatises on medicine.
Hippocrates, the Greek physician known as "the father of modern medicine", laid the foundation for a medical paradigm that supported the self-healing capacity of the body by using foods, medicinal plants and lifestyle advice to heal his patients.
All traditional medical systems, apart from biomedicine, still adhere to these principles. Thus Rongoa Maori, Traditional European Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and Ayurveda have a lot in common.
If the history of Homo sapiens was represented by one hour, for the first 59 minutes humans would have used almost exclusively plant medicine to treat and heal themselves. Even in New Zealand, traditional plant medicine was taught at medical schools well into the middle of the 20th century.
Due to the long co-evolution of plants and humans, we have unique metabolic pathways to safely process medicinal plants. This is lacking with the new synthetic compounds invented since the 19th century that usually have a high side-effect profile.
A variety of factors including the industrial revolution, technological advances, economic and political shifts resulted in the declining use of traditional plant medicine in many Western societies throughout the 20th century despite their proven value for human healthcare.
New discoveries of powerful synthetic medicines such as antibiotics, and different ways of measuring the effectiveness of medicines such as randomised control trials (RCTs), resulted in the marginalisation of traditional knowledge that had been passed down through generations of healthcare practitioners.
It was not until after World War II that the pharmaceutical model of healthcare took over. The ability to mass-produce Penicillin was a breakthrough that shifted the manufacture of medicines into the pharmaceutical laboratory. However, many modern drugs have been modelled off their plant medicine counterparts.
A good example of this is acetylsalicylic acid (best known under the brand name Aspirin®), which was derived from the plant Meadowsweet and later Willow bark, and then synthesised as a single compound with pain-killing properties. Similarly, in 1804 morphine was isolated from the opium poppy.
Because of the rise in degenerative and chronic illnesses and the increase of antibiotic resistance for common infections, traditional plant medicine is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance, with scientific research into the healing properties of plants growing exponentially.
Many conscious consumers are becoming acutely aware of what they are putting into their bodies and actively search for natural alternatives, including in healthcare, that don't contain detrimental synthetic or artificial compounds.
Traditional medicine has a longstanding track record to heal many common health complaints. It is actively supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which encourages member states to integrate traditional plant medicine back into primary healthcare due to its efficacy and high safety profile.
New Zealand is a signed-up member of the WHO but is lagging behind the implementation of the WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy.
My own PhD thesis is part of the work being done globally to validate the evidence base of traditional medical knowledge.
There is very little new information about medicinal plants that we've discovered through the newly developed natural science methods that the ancient physicians didn't already know, however, we are now tasked with the job of integrating this knowledge into the modern, scientific system.
It humbling to know that even as my company Artemis celebrates its 20th birthday this year, the formulas have remained unchanged and plant medicine is still a key element of many New Zealanders' lives.