The use of herbal and medicinal plants predates written human history. Many of the herbs and spices used by humans to season food also yield useful medicinal compounds. The use of herbs and spices in cuisine developed in part as a response to the threat of food spoiling. Studies show that in tropical climates the recipes are the most highly spiced.

Flowering plants were the original source of most plant medicines. Many of the common weeds that populate human settlements, such as nettle, dandelion and chickweed, have medicinal properties. Some animals such as non-human primates, Monarch butterflies and sheep are also known to ingest medicinal plants to treat illness. Plant samples gathered from prehistoric burial sites are an example of the evidence supporting the claim that Palaeolithic people had knowledge of herbal medicine.

In the written record, the study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who created clay tablets with lists of hundreds of medicinal plants (such as myrrh and opium). In 1500 BC, the Ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, contains information on over 850 plant medicines, including garlic, juniper, cannabis, castor bear, aloe and mandrake. Meanwhile, in India, Ayurveda medicine has used many herbs, such as turmeric, possibly as early as 1900 BC.

Herbal and Medicinal Plants


Basil, also called the “king of herbs” or the “royal herb”, is a culinary herb of the family Lamiaceae (mints). The herb has cultivated in India for more than 5,000 years. Both Italian and South-East Asian cuisines are commonly known to use it as a culinary herb for flavouring. Depending on the species and cultivar, the leaves may taste like anise, with a strong, pungent and often sweet smell. There are a number of different varieties and related species, with sweet basil typically used in Italian cuisine as opposed to Thai basil, lemon basil and holy basil which are used in Asia.

Basil - Herbal and Medicinal Plants

Bay Leaves

Bay leaves – fresh or dry – are used in cooking for their distinctive flavour and fragrance. Fresh leaves are rather mild and do not develop their full flavour until weeks after they are picked and then dried. Once dried, the fragrance is a mixture of herbal and floral, somewhat similar to oregano and thyme.

While bay leaves are commonly used as a feature of cooking in many European, North American and Asian cuisines to flavour soups, meats, stews and sauces, one thing you may not know of is their use in perfumery. Myrcene, a component of many essential oils, can be extracted from bay leaves for their aromatic fragrance.

Bay Leaves - Herbal and Medicinal Plants


Borage, also known as a starflower, is a herb in the flowering plant family Boraginaceae. The plant is self-seeding and can remain in gardens in the UK year-round. While today Borage is mainly cultivated as an oil seed, it was traditionally used for culinary and medicinal purposes.

The leaves of Borage have a cucumber-like taste, and are commonly used in salads or as a garnish. The flowers are used to decorate desserts and cocktails for their honey-like flavour. The plant was once traditionally used as a garnish in the Pimms Cup cocktail, but is now replaced by mint or a sliver of cucumber peel. It is even one of the key “botanical” flavourings in Gilpin’s Westmorland Extra Dry Gin!

Borage - Herbal and Medicinal Plants


As the common name for several daisy-like plants of the Asteraceae family, Camomile is often used to make herb infusions for a number of medicinal purposes. People over the world have used chamomile for the treatment of hay feaver, inflammation, muscle spasms, insomnia and gastrointestinal disorders. Another common feature for chamomile is in tea, where it acts as a digestive relaxant and can even help with a good night’s sleep.

Chamomile - Herbal and Medicinal Plants