Every field of study employs its own language, words, and phrases that become an integral part of engaging with the discipline. In herbalism, one such phrase is “materia medica,” which comes from Latin and literally means “healing materials.” More specifically, a materia medica is a body of knowledge that describes how plants have been used therapeutically throughout the ages. These published works span from ancient times all the way to our modern texts.
These materia medica serve an important role in herbalism. The oldest ones give us insight into how plants were used in the time periods in which they were published. At first, some of the language is puzzling, and it often takes a willingness to study the historical context of the writing before the older materia medicas begin to make sense. But once they do, we can begin to discern the common threads from history that have woven their way into our modern uses and that inspire modern clinical trials and scientific research. Some of our modern herbalists have also written brilliant materia medica, and the patterns they discuss and connections they describe can help us build our own herbal skills in significant ways.
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