Part One: Noteworthy Herbs of Yesterday – and Today


By David Osborn, Master Herbalist, Medical Astrologer, Holistic Health Educator


Introduction: Who Was Galen?
Claudius Galenus, better known as Galen, is generally acknowledged to be the greatest doctor of the Roman Empire, and was personal physician to the emperor Marcus Aurelius.  He was born in Pergamum in Asia Minor (modern day Bergma, Turkey), and wrote a great number of medical treatises, on a wide variety of subjects.  Greek Medicine, which is the world’s third great traditional healing system, and the one from which modern medicine grew and evolved, was originally founded and codified by Hippocrates, but for some five hundred years after him medicine in the West floundered, falling prey to a wide variety of competing theories and speculations, and differing schools of thought.  Galen was somewhat of a revivalist who reaffirmed the validity of Hippocrates’ original humoral system of medicine, but he wasn’t content to do just that; he also made pioneering discoveries and advances in many areas of medicine and medical knowledge, like anatomy and physiology, psychology and neurology, surgery and orthopedics, and pharmacology, etc…  You might say that Galen represented the climax or zenith of the medical art and profession in ancient Rome.

I happen to have a few volumes of Galen’s Method of Medicine in my library, and in the first volume, which covers books I to IV of the original text, there is a listing of some of the main medicines in Galen’s medicine cabinet.  In a number of different installments, I will reveal and discuss what some of these medicines were, and how they were used in Galen’s medical practice.  This first installment will deal with some of the most noteworthy herbs in Galen’s pharmacopeia, many of which are still used by herbalists today – hey, if something works, why not stick with it?  Although some of these herbs are still used by Western herbalists, others have now fallen out of use, or their use has survived in other herbal healing traditions, like Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, or Mexican herbal medicine.  I start with herbs, or medicinal substances of botanical origin, because these shrubs and grasses were, and still are, the main substances used by modern herbalists all over the globe.  So, without any further ado, let’s get started!

Absinthe (Artemisia absinthum, Artemisia spp.) – Absinthe is best known as the herb that flavors the liqueur of the same name; its common English name is Wormwood, which comes from its use as a vermifuge to expel worms and parasites from the intestines.  There are a wide variety of different species of Wormwood out there, ranging from those that are more bitter and/or astringent in nature to those that are milder and more aromatic.  In addition to being a vermifuge, Absinthe or Wormwood has beneficial healing effects on the stomach and digestion, the hepatobiliary system and the bile flow, and also on vitality and immunity in general.  Absinthe is a controversial herb nowadays, especially due to the fact that many medical experts believe it to have a deleterious effect on the nervous system – so, to be on the safe side, it may be best to use it under medical supervision.  Wormwood is also the herb used to flavor Vermouth, which is a bitter wine used in mixed drinks today; in Galen’s day it was used to treat generalized weakness and digestive debility, and to break deep seated fevers.

Aromatic Reed (Acorus calamus, Acorus spp.) – Commonly known as Calamus root or Sweet Flag in Western herbal medicine, and as Vacha in Ayurveda and Shi Chang Pu in Chinese herbal medicine, Calamus root is a versatile herb with a wide variety of uses, both medicinally and as an aromatic fixative in perfumery.  Botanically, Calamus is related to the Irises, and is the root of a kind of reedy, rush-like plant that is commonly found growing on the banks of lakes and streams.  Although the root or rhizome is the main part used in herbal medicine and perfumery, other parts of the plant may also be used.  Calamus root has a beneficial effect on the brain, mind and nervous system, and is said to calm the mind and spirit; it also has great effects as an antispasmodic and anticonvulsant, on both the nervous system and gastrointestinal tract, as well as good detoxifying effects on these systems, and on the whole body.  Personally, I feel that there is no better herb to treat acid reflux and acid indigestion, as well as the spasms and colic that so often accompanies these conditions – even to the point that I often call it the “herbal purple pill”.  Just chew a piece of the root when you have stomach problems, and you will see what I mean.  Calamus root is a bit controversial because it can provoke vomiting in sensitive individuals, particularly in excess, so use it with caution and respect.

Barley (Hordeum vulgare) – Barley is a grain, and one that is very easy to digest, as well as being of considerable nutritive value.  It is also quite versatile in terms of the various forms and preparations you can take it in – groats, meal, cake, or water / soup / broth.  Galen would feed convalescing patients a Barley soup or gruel that he called Ptisan; in classical Greek Medicine, this Ptisan filled pretty much the same role as Kitcharee, or a gruel made of Basmati rice and Mung beans, does in Ayurveda, or that various preparations of Rice Congee do in Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM.  Based on the patient’s needs, as well as the capacity of their digestive system, Ptisan could be made in a wide variety of textures and consistencies, and with a wide variety of auxiliary ingredients as well. 

Centaury (Erythrea centaurium) – Also called European Centaury to distinguish it from other varieties, this herb is a botanical relative of Gentian root, and is noted for its beneficial effects on the digestion, as well as its ability to clear bilious fevers.  It is one of the best herbs to treat a chronically tired and delicate digestion, with weakness of the stomach and liver, as well as a loss of appetite.  It combines very well with pungent and aromatic stomachic and digestive herbs as a bitter tonic. 

Chaste Tree Berries (Vitex agnus-castus) – The introduction to Galen’s Method of Medicine says that Galen used this herb as a purgative to treat headaches, but today it is known as a major herb for treating PCOS, or PolyCystic Ovarian Syndrome, as well as a wide variety of menstrual disorders caused by an imbalance or disequilibrium between the two main female hormones, estrogen and progesterone.  Maybe you can make sense of all this when the wife says to you, “Not tonight, honey – I have a headache.”  Digestive upset and appetite swings are another part of premenstrual syndrome, as well as indigestion in general, and Chaste Tree Berries are helpful here as well to balance out the liver, stomach and spleen – a job that it does very well, especially in combination with Juniper berries – and you don’t have to be a woman at “that time of the month” to suffer from these symptoms, and respond favorably to Chaste Tree Berries.   

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia, Cinnamomum zeylanicum) – There were two main varieties of Cinnamon used in Galen’s day – Chinese Cinnamon, or Cinnamomum cassia, which is known by its thicker and heavier bark, and Ceylon Cinnamon, also known as Spanish Cinnamon or Canela, which is Cinnamomum zeylanicum, which is lighter, and has very thin bark.  Of the two, Chinese Cinnamon is hotter and more powerful in its nature and temperament; Chinese Medicine classifies it as an herb to warm the interior. Canela or Spanish Cinnamon is milder and gentler, and works mainly on the digestive tract as well as the surface immune shield of the body – a hot tea of Canela is given in Mexican herbal medicine to treat colds.  Cinnamon – both kinds – has been studied extensively today for its effects as a metabolic stimulant to help the body regulate blood sugar levels in Type Two Diabetes.  Jawarish Jalinoos, or Galen’s Tonic Electuary, utilizes both types of Cinnamon, and a main condition it treats is Type Two Diabetes.

Colocynth (Lagenaria vulgaris) – Colocynth is a fruit that looks like a miniature watermelon or gourd in appearance; it was the main herb used by Hippocrates and Galen as a vigorous, drastic purgative for severe and systemic congestion of phlegm in the body.  Since it is such a radical and drastic purgative, it should be used under qualified medical supervision only.  Don’t use it at home, folks! 

Cretan Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) – The name of this herb really intrigued me, so I just had to look it up online.  It seems like this is an herb of the Apiceae or Celery family of Umbelliferous plants, related to Parsley and Angelica; in fact, its common English name is Horse Parsley, and it is native to the island of Crete.  I believe that this might actually be the Rock Parsley that was cited as an ingredient of Galen’s famous Diacalaminth stimulant electuary.  According to the article on it that I found online, Cretan Alexanders or Horse Parsley was used medicinally for asthma, menstrual disorders and the treatment of wounds, but is not much used today.  According to the article, the whole plant has a unique flavor reminiscent of Celery but also somewhat like Myrrh; if this is indeed the same Rock Parsley that was an ingredient of Diacalaminth, the herb probably has a spicy and stimulating character to it.  The roots, says the article, can be roasted like Parsnips.  Source:  https://www.wildfooduk.com/edible-wild-plants/alexanders/    

Cyperus (Cyperus rotundus) – Sometimes called Nutgrass rhizome, Cyperus is the tuberous, aromatic root or rhizome of a plant, a kind of grass, that is a close botanical relative of Egyptian papyrus.  It is very aromatic and has a musky fragrance that is quite similar to that of Valerian, but sweeter and more pleasant; needless to say, it has uses in incenses and perfumery.  In Chinese herbal medicine, Cyperus, called Xiang Fu, is a great herb to regulate the Qi or vital energy of the liver and spleen, and harmonize the stomach; it also has applications in gynecological and menstrual disorders.  In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, it is called Mustaka, and is used a lot to treat candida or yeast infections and intestinal dysbiosis. 

Epithymium (Cuscuta epithymium, Cuscuta spp.) – Dodder, or Cuscuta in botanical terms, is commonly called Dodder in English; it is a parasitic plant that is an orange vine that grows on various other plants.  Different varieties of Dodder can grow on many different types of plants, but the most prized in Galen’s day was Dodder that grew on Thyme – hence the name, Epithymium.  Tu Si Zi, or Chinese Dodder seed, is a nutritive and Yang tonic that is used in Chinese medicine to strengthen the body, tonify the Yin of the liver and kidneys, and brighten the eyes and vision.  In Greek Medicine, Dodder seed is used as a nutritive tonic to treat aggravations and imbalances of Black Bile, or the Melancholic humor. 

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum – graecum) – Fenugreek, or Greek hay seed, was probably a major herb in Galen’s therapeutic arsenal; Hippocrates used it as a nutritive tonic to help those who were convalescing from a prolonged respiratory illness, as, besides being rich in vital nutrients, it is an expectorant that helps the lungs and respiratory tract to expel excess phlegm.  In addition to this, Fenugreek seed powder is taken in large and frequent doses to treat type two Diabetes, and to help nursing mothers produce more and richer milk.  Fenugreek herb, called Kasoori Methi in Indian Ayurvedic Medicine, has many of the same health benefits as Fenugreek seed, but is also an herbal green superfood and a bitter digestive tonic. 

Hazelwort (Asarum europaeum) – This hot, spicy herb is called Wild Ginger; it will numb the tongue if tasted, and can be used topically to deaden the pain of a toothache, in addition to Cloves.  In Chinese herbal medicine, this herb, called Xi Xin, is used as a powerful stimulant to warm the interior and disperse chills, as well as to treat rheumatic aches and pains.

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) – This bitter, aromatic herb has been around for a long, long time, and is a popular ingredient in Riccola and various other herbal cough drops and cough syrups; Galen probably used it for the same thing, basically.  It is also a bitter tonic for the stomach and digestion, and improves the functioning of the spleen and pancreas. 

Indian Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) – Called Jatamansi in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, this herb is also commonly known as Indian Valerian, since it has a musky odor that is quite similar to that of Valerian, but slightly more agreeable.  Commonly used in unguents and perfumery as well, this is the herb that was the basis for the famous Spikenard Oil that was used to anoint the feet of Jesus.  Like Valerian, Indian Spikenard calms and soothes the nerves, and eases neuromuscular and rheumatic aches and pains. 

Mandrake (Mandragora officinalis) – The fabled European Mandrake root is the stuff of so much magical lore, myth and legend, but here as well, it is important to get the identity of the herb right, and not mix up your Mandrakes.  You see, there is an American Mandrake, with the same common name, but a different botanical name and identity – Podophyllum peltatum – and vastly differing medicinal effects and uses.  The former herb, European Mandrake, is a soporific, or sleep inducing and sedative herb; the latter herb, American Mandrake, is a drastic purgative.  Neither of these two Mandrakes are anything to be toyed around with.  I have only encountered the European Mandrake, which was in Galen’s medicine cabinet, once in my life, in an herb store in Greece; I tasted a bit of it, but respectfully kept my distance, since I was basically totally unfamiliar with the herb and how to use it properly. 

Mustard Seed (Brassica nigra, Sinapis alba) – There are basically two types of Mustard seed, the Black (Brassica nigra) and the White (Sinapis alba).  Of the two, the latter, White Mustard, is by far the stronger and the hotter in temperament, although both are used to flavor various Mustard sauces and condiments, as well as pickles and many other things in the culinary art.  But here, preparation and dosage is all important.  Used full strength, powdered White Mustard seed, when topically applied in plasters, is so hot that it can be caustic to the skin; it is commonly used as a counterirritant to provoke the eruption of latent pustules and blisters.  Here again, don’t try this at home folks, unless you really know what you’re doing. 

Myrtle (Myrtus communis) – The European Myrtle, or the Common Myrtle – Myrtus communis – is commonly confused with a species of California Bay Laurel – Umbellularia californica – so here again, it’s important to get your identities straight.  Both the European and the American Myrtle are fragrant and stimulating in nature, so I suppose that is how the two got confused.  The European Myrtle that Galen used is a digestive and stomach stimulant, and is quite useful in treating type two diabetes, as well as bladder infections.  The American Myrtle, or California Bay Laurel, is virtually identical and interchangeable with its Greek cousin and namesake, or Laurus nobilis – the Noble Laurel, since it was used for the wreaths of poets and champions.

Oak Gall (Galla spp. ) – Astringents are very useful, and have a multitude of medicinal properties and uses; and one of the astringents that Galen used the most were Oak Galls.  What is an Oak Gall?  They are created by a certain kind of insect commonly called a Gall Fly, that burrows into the branches of an Oak tree, creating a swollen area.  The Galls are then cut from the branches and used as medicine.  Galen may have used a lot of Oak Galls in his day, but today, they are used mainly in Chinese herbal medicine, where they are called Wu Bei Zi.  The Oak Gall is prepared by being cooked and dried.  Although the main functions of Oak Galls, according to Chinese Medicine, are to bind and contain the Lung Qi and dry dampness, it seems like Oak Galls have a wide range of applications, since they can also be used to stop bleeding and diarrhea, stop excess sweating, and so on.  I recently took a course in Chinese herbal medicine for COVID 19, and Wu Bei Zi, or Oak Galls, were cited as having special medicinal constituents that were of particular value in combating the COVID virus.  Source: Chinese gall 

Peppers – There were basically three different kinds of Peppers in Galen’s medicine cabinet.  First of all there was Black Pepper, or Piper nigrum, which is the same as the Black Pepper on dining room tables today.  Secondly, there was White Pepper, which is simply a fully matured and ripened form of Black Pepper, or Piper nigrum; it is also a lot hotter in temperament, and much more potent than Black Pepper.  And finally, there was Long Pepper, or Piper longum, which resembles a miniature ear of corn in appearance; it is sweeter and milder than the other two, and has certain antispasmodic and expectorant properties of its own.  In Indian Ayurvedic Medicine, Long Pepper is called Pippali.  In Galen’s day, these were the only Peppers that were known or in use; Chili Peppers, or Red Peppers, which are of the Solanaceae or Nightshade family, did not come along until the discovery of the New World with Columbus; once they were discovered, of course, they caught on like wildfire.  The use of hot Peppers and other herbs with strongly heating properties to stimulate the circulation and metabolism, and help the organism drive off pathogenic factors that were causing imbalance or infirmity was an important therapeutic strategy used by Galen; this strategy was also important in the early American folk herbalism of Samuel Thomson and his followers.     

Poppies – There were basically three different kinds of Poppies in Galen’s medicine cabinet.  The first was the Opium Poppy, or Papaver somniferum – literally the Sleep Inducing Poppy, due to its soporific, narcotic properties.  Galen used it sparingly, and with discretion, because he was fully aware of its addictive nature.  The next kind of Poppy was a close botanical relative of the Opium Poppy, Papaver rhoeas, which is a wild poppy with bright red petals; it can also be used to induce sleep in cases of insomnia, but is much gentler and safer, and also non-addictive.  The third kind of Poppy Galen used was the Prickly Poppy, also called Papaver argemone; it was used in classical medicine to treat jaundice, as well as cataracts.  My source on this last Poppy was the Wikipedia article:  Argemone mexicana

Rue (Ruta graveolens) – In Galen’s day, and throughout antiquity, the Garden Rue was much esteemed for a whole wide variety of medical uses, as an emmenagogue for gynecological disorders, as a diuretic against edema or dropsy, as an antidote to various poisons, and as an antirheumatic.  Even today, it has an esteemed place in Mexican folk herbalism.

Safflower / Saffron (Carthamus tinctoris / Crocus sativus) – These are two flowers with reddish orange stamens and/or petals.  Safflower is used to improve blood circulation and the flow of a woman’s menses, and to disperse stagnant blood.  Saffron is more potent, and more expensive, than Safflower; it is also known as a heart, circulatory and energy tonic.

Scammony (Convolulus scammonia) – Scammony is a vigorous laxative / purgative of the Bindweed family.   

Sorrel (Rumex crispus / Rumex acetallosa) – In contemporary American herbal medicine, the root of the Sorrel plant is known as Yellow Dock; it is a gentle laxative, a blood tonic and purifier, and is useful in treating various skin disorders linked to chronic dyscrasias of the blood.  Sorrel, or the above ground, herbaceous part of the plant, has similar healing virtues as a blood tonic and purifier, and can also be cooked and eaten as a vegetable, similar to spinach.

Thapsia (Thapsia garganica) – This was a strong counterirritant used to ripen pustules and blisters, which was used in plasters in a manner similar to White Mustard seed – but stronger. 

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris, Thymbria capitata – Cretan Thyme) – Thyme was used as a digestive stimulant and disinfectant, and was also used to disperse chills in colds and flu. 
Wormwood – See Absinthe.



Source:  Galen Method of Medicine, Vol. I – Books 1 – 4  Edited and Translated by Ian Johnston and G.H.R. Horsley – Loeb Classical Library  Published in 2011 by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA, and London England  


DISCLAIMER: The information in this article is for educational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or medical condition.  The reader assumes full liability and responsibility for the application of the information contained herein, and is advised to consult with a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his or her condition or symptoms persist or worsen.