On the History of Herbals

Some time ago I began working on what I’ve dubbed a working herbal. Er, maybe just a notebook of plant information…either way, I have a 18″ by 30″ monster of a moleskine notebook (my unrivaled favorite notebook). Each page is dedicated to an herb. At first I freaked out because the paper was unlined. I wanted all my information to be neat and easily accessible, unmerciful Virgo that I am.

But as I toyed with the layout, I found that it would be much more useful and authentic to not have the information embedded in this working herbal to be linear. I could divide up the page in strange and dorky ways, write in circles, use symbols, codes and pictures. I could have the most lavish illustrations and have the actual plants and tinctures on the page.  Information is transmitted in many ways. Plants, especially medicinal plants, and their interaction with the human being is a complex phenomenon. So, why in the dickens am I just using words? Rich and varied materials create a more rich and varied experience.

All of this musing about design of herbals has brought me deep into the history of herbals. In case someone reading were interested in similar topics, I wanted to provide some information and resources. I love old herbals, not only for their unique perspective of bodily processes, but also for their design and illustrations.

In the Western world, herbals can be traced by to two branches or lineages. The Greek/Arabic tradition was realized through the publication of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica. The Latin tradition began with Pseudo-Apuleius. To share some classic antiquated herbals:

  • Pen Tsao Kang-Mu (2700 bc) by Chinese Emperor Shennung, China
  • De Materia Medica (1st cent.) by Dioscorides, Mediterranean region
  • Pseudo-Apuleius Herbal (5th cent.) by Pseudo-Apuleius
  • Physica (12th cent.) by St. Hildegaard von Bingen, German Benedictine abbess and Christian mystic, present-day Germany
  • Herbarius Latinus (1486) by Johann Petri, present-day Germany
  • Bancke’s Herball (1525) by Richard Banckes, England
  • The Aztec Codex (1552), authors unknown, present-day Mexico
  • Generall History of Plantes (1597) by John Gerard, England
  • A New Herbal, Or Historie of Plants (1619) by Henry Lyte, England
  • Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1653) by Nicholas Culpeper, England

Some books on the history of herbals include Medieval Herbals: The Illustrative Traditions by Minta Collins, An Illustrated History of the Herbals by Frank J. Anderson, The Illustrated Herbal by Wilfrid Blunt and Sandra Raphael.

Isn’t it interesting to consider the design of herbals, and how to convey information about the plants! These texts can give us a context and inspiration to envision a new and better way to record and share our knowledge.

About Author

Renée A. Davis MA RH is a designer and educator in botanical and mycological medicine. Her training began at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in New York City and concluded in biomedical sciences at the University of Washington. She currently directs research and development for a nutraceutical mushroom company in the Pacific Northwest.


  • Cynthia Koons
    November 3, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    Just stumbled/ambled onto your fabulous, fantastic, unbelievable website…and have only just scratched the surface. It is firmly bookmarked in my macbook and I shall return soon and often! THank you so much, it’s an incredible resource!

    • Renée A.D.
      November 15, 2011 at 9:53 am

      That’s fantastic! Welcome!
      I took a hiatus from writing but excited to get back to it. Thanks for reading!

  • rebecca
    January 6, 2012 at 11:36 am

    Wow. I’m so glad someone linked this on FB :).

    I totally agree. When I was in TCM school, I’d take these massive Muji notebooks and transfer all my notes to a non-linear design that fit my brain a bit more. So I’d have diagrams and drawings and little side notes and not only did it help me remember everything much more easily, it was much more aesthetically pleasing too (which to me is a big deal).

    Were we FB friends last Xmas? Jam found me a 1st colour edition of Culpepper’s Herbal. I cried for a full 20 mins :). I have to show you sometime…

  • Renée A.D.
    January 6, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    Yes…my way of learning about/writing & communicating about herbs is always changing. It’s because my feelings about how we know other life keeps shifting. I mean, these beings are complex, and I like to be aware of the lens through which I know them.

  • Renée A.D.
    January 6, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    And I TOTALLY want to see that book! 1st ed. of Culpepper?!?!

  • alyssa cavin
    January 25, 2012 at 10:52 am

    I love your site! What a wonderful compilation of yumminess!

    Do you have any idea where someone might get prints of these drawings?

    • Renée A.D.
      January 25, 2012 at 10:57 am

      Hey Alyssa! Thanks for coming by. Glad you’re enjoying the posts.
      You know, I don’t know where these prints could be obtained. I’ll look into it and see if I can find out anything.


Leave a Reply