Herbs and Health through the Centuries
Through the tour “Herbs and Health through the Centuries”, the museum rediscovers and communicates the age-old relationship between humans and medicinal plants.
A fascinating trip back in time through the precious historical finds and ancient workshops.
Medicinal herbs and their use
Over the course of our thousand year history, himans have always made use of medicinal plans to cure their diseases.
To explain how we get from the cultivation of the plant to the finished herbal medicine, we must first study the use of medicinal herbs in ancient popular tradition, and then come to analyse the different transformation processes the herbs undergo in order to become real medicinal preparations.
This tour aims to highlight the various historical, cultural and technological changes that have characterised the knowledge and use of medicinal plants.
Questo itinerario mira ad evidenziare i diversi mutamenti storici, culturali e tecnologici che hanno caratterizzato la conoscenza e l'impiego delle piante medicinali.
Transformation processes of the herbal product
Despite centuries of history, the transformation processes of medicinal plants into herbal products have remained largely unchanged.
However, science and technology have greatly contributed to improving the quality of these products.
At one time, all plants that were gathered grew spontaneously. Today most are cultivated and the drying, selection and conservation phases make use of advanced technological processes, able to ensure the quality and effectiveness of the product.
Plants are always harvested at a time of the year called the balsamic period. After harvesting, the most aromatic part of the plant or the plant richest in active ingredients is selected (leaf, fruit, seed, bark, etc., sometimes the whole of a plant), i.e. the substances responsible for a beneficial effect on the body. The selected product can be used fresh or, as happens more often, dried.
The drying process is necessary to avoid the fermentation of the harvested parts and to preserve them, especially when they are transported over long distances or are used in the season when the plants are at rest. At one time, for example, spices such as pepper, cinnamon, camphor and coffee could only be transported for months in the holds of ships in their dry state without deteriorating.
The term “drug”, which in Dutch means dry, derives from the practice of drying the goods. Even today, in fact, the US term “drug store” indicates the place to buy medicines.
Drugs, therefore, in the original meaning of the term, indicate the parts of the plant that have undergone the drying process, for example the cinnamon bark or the fruit of the pepper, in which the active ingredients are accumulated and concentrated.
The drying of the plants can be done naturally in the air, but it is even better indoors, in a dry and ventilated area protected from direct light or, more recently, in high-tech furnaces. Once dried, the drugs can be used as they are, for example, in the kitchen, or in herbal preparations.
Through advanced technologies, Aboca, a worldwide market leader in the herbal sector, carries out the following transformation processes of medicinal plants into health remedies.
The starting point of all production is the cultivation of medicinal herbs grown on several hundred hectares, using organic farming methods and based on the natural rhythms of plant growth as well as according to European regulations in this field. The harvest is mechanised and takes place with the help of machines designed for this purpose. The crop is then beaten, a mechanical operation that allows the various parts of the plant to be separated.
The drying is carried out in kilns by means of a dehydrated air flow, at a temperature ranging from 32 to 40 °C. The length of the process depends on the consistency of the part to be dried, for example it is longer for the roots and shorter for the flowers.
The cut consists in reducing the dried product to the right calibration (herbal tea, powder, etc.) according to whether it will be used directly or mixed. This operation allows for the creation of mixtures of more drugs, focusing on the synergy of their therapeutic properties.
The packaging of single drugs or mixtures takes place exclusively under vacuum in order to guarantee the stability of the product for long periods, due to the absence of oxidising agents and pollutants.
One part of the product is used in the extraction of the complex of active ingredients (phytocomplex) by means of hydroalcoholic solutions, carefully observing the proportion between drugs and solvent. The products obtained are in liquid form and are called hydroalcoholic extracts.
The dried vegetable extracts, on the other hand, are obtained by freeze-drying, a process Aboca was the first to use in the processing of medicinal plants. The method consists in the dehydration of the liquid extract without the use of heat, but instead through a rapid freezing of the product and the subsequent elimination of the liquid component by its direct passage from a frozen state to that of steam. The process allows preparations with a high concentration of active ingredients to be obtained, free of excipients and very soluble.
During all phases of the transformation process, raw materials, semi-finished and finished products are subject to strict Quality Control, which determines the quality and quantity of the active ingredients, the purity of the products, or the absence from pollutants such as heavy metals, radioactive substances, and bacterial load.
Medicinal herbs and popular tradition
An ancient legend says that Asclepius, mythological god of medicine, learned the art of healing after seeing that a sheep, near to death, had tried to eat a wild grass, and afterwards, his vigour and strength were restored.
Man began to treat his illnesses using herbs that grew spontaneously, probably observing the animals that did it instinctively, just like the sheep of Asclepius.
The use of natural plant remedies continued for millennia until it became a science of medicinal herbs or phytotherapy.
Nowadays, man still has recourse to herbs even though the development of chemistry and pharmaceutical science seem to have supplanted this ancient art.
The use of drugs that are easy to take and rapidly effective has only seemingly made the slow but effective “old wives' remedies" fall into disuse, the wealth of knowledge on medicinal plants has always remained alive in popular tradition, passed down orally from generation to generation. Despite all the historical and technological changes, the medicinal herbs cultivated in the Middle Ages, such as sage, rosemary, chicory, mallow etc ..., are still used today.
Currently the traditional use of herbs is relegated to the memory of older people, custodians of an ancient wisdom that is dying out little by little. However, it is true that most of their knowledge has been transcribed and recorded.
Each individual territory has a specific wealth of knowledge related to the plants available in their area, how they are used and how to gather them.
The procedures by which the plants were transformed and then used in the preparation of medicinal remedies were and still are fundamental to their effectiveness.
The same preparation and application techniques of teas, decoctions and ointments were very simple but effective and are essentially the same as those used today.
Traditional medicine survived the advent of official medicine, which begun at the beginning of 1200 (when the first universities were established). In fact, the lower classes who were linked to the agricultural economy continued to practice self-medication through the use of medicinal herbs or thanks to the mediation of healers.
In traditional medicine, the magic component worked to ward off evil forces, which were considered to be the causes of disease, while plant properties were entrusted to treat symptoms. In some cases even official medicine resorted to popular herbal remedies before and after the advent of chemistry.
Prayers in medicinal herbs
Table of Balsamic period
When we refer to the balsamic harvest period, we mean the period in which the plant offers a greater quantity of active principles, the substances necessary to use the plant for healing purposes.
Each plant species has its own balsamic period, during which there is a greater production and concentration of active substances in the various parts of the plant.
In ancient times, the harvest time was based on experience and tradition, transmitted orally or transcribed in medical botanical texts. Propitiatory rituals were often associated with the activity of the plant, which also included the incantation of prayers.
In fact, since plants were attributed a soul called psyche, it was believed that this could be influenced by external elements such as man, the seasons or the stars.
The plants of Winter
Sweet bay - Bitter orange - Cypress - Buckthorn - Elm
The plants of Spring
Hawthorn - Chamomile - Artichoke - Chestnut - Cherry - Ginkgo - Manna plant - Nettle - Passiflora - Peach - Poplar - Parsley - Plum - Oak - Rosehip - Dandelion - Valerian
The plants of Summer
Achillea - Marshmallow - Artemisia - Oats - Burdock - Borage - Calendula – Yellow bugle - Honeysuckle - Coriander - Cumin - Ivy - Horsetail - Euphrasia - Fenugreek - Fennel - Wheat - Gumweed - Hypericum - Lavender - Privet - Mallow - Hoarhound - Melissa - Mint - Yarrow - Blueberry - Currant - Rosemary - Rue - Sage - Linden - Thyme
The plants of Autumn
Arnica - Chicory - Juniper - Liquorice - Oak - Valerian – Saffron