Herbal History: Roots of Western Herbalism (2023)

Herbalism Through The Centuries

As independent organisms, the plants we use in herbalism have been around for a very, very long time—certainly much longer than us humans! While flowering plants have been around for some 125 million years, even the earliest proto-humans didn’t appear on the scene until about 5 million years ago. And plants, of course, have always featured as a keystone in the human diet—our paleolithic ancestors ate lots of plants (Richards, 2009), and seem to have used them medicinally, too.

Herbal History: Roots of Western Herbalism (1)

There is archaeological evidencethat paleolithic hominins ate both raw and cooked plants, and consumed “non-edible” herbs including willow, St. John’s wort, yarrow, chamomile, bupleurum, and more (Hardy, 2012; Melamed et al., 2016). This makes perfect sense! Imagine the life of a paleolithic human: your life literally depended on your immediate environment and a very keen sense of awareness. You and your fellow humans would have learned to recognize how different plants could be used for specific illnesses.

The First Written Records of Herbalism

When considering herbal history, it is important to remember that written records do not represent the full sum of knowledge or even the most valid knowledge, but they do give us a partial roadmap.

The first written record of medicinal plants was created on clay tablets over 5,000 years ago by the Sumerians, in ancient Mesopotamia, which described a dozen herbal recipes calling for the use of over 250 plants (Petrovska, 2012).

Herbal History: Roots of Western Herbalism (2)

Ebers Papyrus

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Around 1500 BCE the Ancient Egyptians wrote the Ebers Papyrus which listed over 850 herbal medicines. This wasn’t the first written document on herbalism and medical practice from the early Egyptians, but it survived intact and contains many different recipes and formulations including many herbs that we recognize and use today, such as cumin, coriander, garlic, willow, frankincense, cedar, aloe, and henna (Abou El-Soud, 2010).

Another early herbal tradition that we have written record of is Ayurveda, a system of medicine from India and surrounding areas. The oral tradition of Ayurveda is at least 5,000 years old (Mukherjee et al., 2016), and several important ayurvedic texts were written down starting at around 400 BCE. The Charaka Samhita, one of these ancient texts, mentions over 300 herbs (Reddy et al., 2007), many of which are still used in contemporary ayurvedic practice. Some, like ashwagandha, shatavari, bacopa, turmeric, and tulsi, have become common in Western herbal practice as well.

Legendary Chinese emperor Chi’en Nung is credited with writing the foundational materia medica of classical Chinese medicine, Pen Ts’ao Ching, which lists over 365 herbs. By some counts it is believed to record some traditional practices that may date back to as early as about 2700 BCE, almost 5,000 years ago, which were passed down through the oral tradition. The earliest version of the text we know today as the Pen Ts’ao Ching was compiled by Tao Hongjing and published around 500 CE (Dharmananda, 2004). Many herbs included in the Pen Ts’ao Ching are widely used in the practice of Chinese medicine today, and quite a few have made their way into the materia medica of Western herbalists, as well. Just a few of the well known and much loved herbs mentioned in this book include astragalus, licorice, reishi, ginger, schisandra, and dong quai.

Roots of the Western Herbal Tradition

When we read about the roots of both modern medicine and contemporary Western herbal practice, we often hear about Hippocrates and other Greek physicians of his era, around 400 BCE. In part that’s because Hippocrates and his fellow thinkers were some of the first to write down a system that separated medicine from religious practice; Hippocrates insisted that sickness originates in the physical body, rather than being caused by spiritual illness or punishment from gods. (This wasn’t a popular view at the time, and Hippocrates was even imprisoned for his views. He used his time well, though, and spent his time in prison writing The Complicated Body, which included many medical theories that are still applied today.)

At this time, and for many centuries to follow, there would not have been a distinct separation between the practice of medicine and the use of herbs—the primary remedies used were diet, plant and animal-derived medicines, and surgery. Medicine then, with the exception of surgery, was largely what today we would consider natural medicine.

While Hippocratic thought is notable for both its written record and its separation of physical and religious treatment of illness, it didn’t arise out of nowhere; Hippocrates, like other Greek physicians, drew on his forerunners in medicine, which almost certainly included knowledge and practice handed down from ancient Chinese, Indian, and Egyptian healing systems (Jackson, 2014).

Unfortunately, the history of medicine is often assumed to be equivalent to the history of medicine in Europe, and we may unconsciously make this mistake in framing herbalism, as well. But just as what we often call Western medicine truly has some very deep roots in traditional healing systems of Asia and Africa, so too does Western herbalism.

Tracing the history of Western herbalism is like following just one long thread in a tapestry, or one small stream as it merges, branches, and diverges—it certainly isn’t the one and only History of Herbalism! And even within what’s generally called Western herbalism, there are many individual threads and pathways; because the use of plants in healing is more or less intrinsic to human cultures, rich individual traditions of herbalism exist in every part of the globe. In the rest of this article we’ll focus on the lineage of Western herbalism, which centers geographically on Europe and, later, North America. But Western herbalism itself has drawn on and incorporated knowledge from all over the globe, including Islamic medicine, traditional healing from First Nations and other Indigenous Peoples, and more.

Medieval Herbalism

One of the earliest European universities was located in Salerno, in Southern Italy. In the 10th century, the Salerno school became a center of medical learning in medieval Europe. One of the keys to the Salerno renaissance was the translation of important Islamic medical texts from Arabic into Latin and French.

At the same time, monasteries throughout Europe also contributed to the development and documentation of herbal and medical practices, both by directly treating the sick and by fostering the translation and copying herbals and books of medical theory. In this era, prior to the development of moveable type and the printing press, the only way to replicate a text was by hand copying it, so written records of herbalism would have been relatively scarce and precious.

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The Herbalism Boom

Herbal History: Roots of Western Herbalism (3)

Title page Grete Herball, 1526, from Wellcome Library (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grete_Herball,_1526_Wellcome_L0000809.jpg) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)]

That changed between the 15th and 17th centuries when the explosion of printing made written accounts of herbal practice much more widely available. In particular, the translation of texts from Greek and Latin in English, French, Dutch, Italian, and other common languages allowed much greater access to herbal recipes and remedies by everyday people, rather than only by highly educated physicians. The first herbal book to be printed in English was known as the Grete Herball, first printed in 1526.

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) was an English herbalist, botanist, apothecary (what we’d now call a pharmacist), physician, and astrologer. He published a most extensive herbal on pharmaceuticals, herbal knowledge, and the practice of astrological medicine. Culpeper spent a great amount of time outdoors and cataloged hundreds of medicinal herbs. He was a passionate and practical advocate of accessible herbalism and medicine, offering free treatment consisting mostly of herbal remedies to anyone in need. Culpeper was committed to making medical information available to all by translating into and writing his own texts in English and distributing his books at very low cost. His dedication to sharing herbal and medical information put him at odds with the powerful College of Physicians, who fought staunchly to keep their monopoly on medical knowledge and prohibit English translations of medical texts; for his pains, Culpeper was twice tried for witchcraft and nearly barred from practice (Tobyn et al., 2011).

Western Herbalism in America

Herbal History: Roots of Western Herbalism (4)

The English Physician from Wellcome Library (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_English_Physician_._._.,_by_Nicholas_Culpeper_Wellcome_L0004047.jpg) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)]

Culpeper’s books made their way to the American colonies in short order; his famous herbal, The English Physician (now typically known as Culpeper’s herbal) was printed in Boston in 1708—making it both the first medical text and the first book on herbalism printed in America.

American medical botanists learned about the native North American flora largely from the Indigenous Peoples who had worked with these plants for centuries. The legacy passed down from Western European herbalism combined with First Nations ethnobotany, the traditional healing knowledge of enslaved Africans, and herb lore from midwives and cottage herbalists to create a uniquely American herbal movement. It’s important to note that this was most often not a consensual collaboration; even when knowledge was shared freely, it occurred in the context of colonization, slavery, and other social forces that created a massive imbalance of power. Thus the “discoveries” published by celebrated physicians, botanists, and herbalists of the day may often have been based on appropriated and uncredited knowledge.

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By the 19th century, the practice of medicine had veered away from the use of simple herbs and emphasized the use of “heroic medicines” including purging, bloodletting, and harsh, even toxic, minerals such as arsenic and mercury. Two groups of unconventional physicians, the Eclectics and the Physio-Medicalists, stood out against the prevailing wisdom of the day, instead focusing on the use of botanical remedies and innovative, less-invasive therapies.

These various factions were often at odds, competing for reputation, prominence, and patients, but managed to co-exist until the ascendance of the Council on Medical Education (CME) of the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1904. The AMA determined to standardize medical education and set very specific standards of operation that were not met by many medical teaching facilities. Schools that could not meet their standards were shut down, which particularly affected many schools that served women and African American students (Wright-Mendoza, 2019). Between 1910 and 1935, more than half of all American medical schools merged with large universities or closed. Homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic, osteopathic medicine, and Eclectic medicine were in strong competition to allopathic medicine. Schools offering training in any of these disciplines were forced to drop these courses from their curricula or lose their accreditation.

Herbal History: Roots of Western Herbalism (5)

Western Herbalism Today

While herbalism may have separated from conventional medicine, it certainly never went away. As folk medicine, traditional healing, or alternative care, many different types of herbal practice have continued to thrive.

Herbalism began a resurgence in America in the 1960s and 1970s, and its acceptance and popularity has slowly gained momentum in the last decades. The use of herbs has now begun to enter conventional medicine as part of the integrative or functional medicine movement, and herbs are often used by licensed practitioners of osteopathic or naturopathic medicine. And, of course, herbs are available all around us, not only on grocery store and apothecary shelves but in our gardens and backyards!

There is also an abundance of books, classes, conferences, and schools available to budding herbalists.

The Herbal Academy is one of those very schools offering high quality, affordable herbal education online with the hope of bringing an herbal education to as many people as possible and helping passionate folks follow their dreams of becoming an herbalist. Please visit our course page to learn about all of our offerings: https://theherbalacademy.com/courses-classes/

Also available is The Herbarium, https://herbarium.theherbalacademy.com,a virtual resource providing high-quality research and reference materials to both herbalists and students. Additionally, there are free articles on many topics on the Herbal Academy blog: https://theherbalacademy.com/blog/.

REFERENCES

Abou El-Soud, N.H. (2010). Herbal medicine in ancient Egypt. Journal of Medicinal Plants Research, 4(2), 082-086.

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Dharmananda, S. (2004). The lessons of Shennong. Retrieved from http://www.itmonline.org/arts/shennong.htm

Hardy, K., Buckley, S., Collins, M.J., Estalrrich, A., Brothwell, D., Copeland, L., … Huguet, R. (2012). Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus. Naturwissenschaften, 99(8), 617-626. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-012-0

Jackson, M. (2014). The history of medicine: A beginner’s guide. London, UK: OneWorld Publications.

Melamed, Y., Kislev, M.E., Geffen, E., Lev-Yadun, S., & Goren-Inbar, N. (2016). The plant component of an Acheulian diet at Gesher Benot Ya ‘aqov, Israel. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(51), 14674-14679. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1607872113

Mukherjee, P.K., Harwansh, R.K., Bahadur, S., Banerjee, S., Kar, A., Chanda, J., … Katiyar, C.K. (2016). Development of Ayurveda: Tradition to trend. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 197, 10-24. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2016.09.024

Petrovska, B. (2012). Historical review of medicinal plants’ usage. Pharmacognosy Reviews, 6(11), 1-5. http://doi.org/10.4103/0973-7847.95849

Reddy, J.K., Bahadur, B., Bhadraiah, B., & Rao, M.L.N. (2007). Advances in medicinal plants. Hyderabad, India: Universities Press.

Richards, M.P. (2009). Stable isotope evidence for European Upper Paleolithic human diets. In: Hublin J.J., Richards M.P. (Eds.) The Evolution of Hominin Diets. Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-9699-0_20

Tobyn, G., Denham, A., & Whitelegg, M. (2016). The Western herbal tradition: 2000 years of medicinal plant knowledge. London, UK: Singing Dragon.

Wright-Mendoza, J. (2019). The 1910 report that disadvantaged minority doctors. JStor Daily. Retrieved from https://daily.jstor.org/the-1910-report-that-unintentionally-disadvantaged-minority-doctors/

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FAQs

Where did Western herbalism originate? ›

The earliest record of herbalism first was recorded in the first-century B.C in western Europe. The importance of herbalism in the middle ages was not only crucial to survival without prescription drugs such as those used today but was the learning base of natural remedies we still use in modern times.

What is Western herbalism? ›

Introduction. Western Herbal Medicine (WHM) is a clinical practice of healing using naturally occurring plant material or plants with little or no industrial processing.

What is history of the herbs? ›

Herbal History

Hundreds of tribal cultures have used wild and cultivated herbs for medicinal and food purposes for thousands of years. Herbs are mentioned in Genesis, the first chapter of the Bible, and throughout its text. As civilizations developed so did the knowledge for the use of herbs.

What is the history of medicinal plants? ›

Medicinal plants, also called medicinal herbs, have been discovered and used in traditional medicine practices since prehistoric times. Plants synthesize hundreds of chemical compounds for functions including defense against insects, fungi, diseases, and herbivorous mammals.

How did herbalism originate? ›

The First Written Records of Herbalism

The first written record of medicinal plants was created on clay tablets over 5,000 years ago by the Sumerians, in ancient Mesopotamia, which described a dozen herbal recipes calling for the use of over 250 plants (Petrovska, 2012).

How did herbal medicine originate? ›

Archaeological evidence indicates that the use of medicinal plants dates back to the Paleolithic age, approximately 60,000 years ago. Written evidence of herbal remedies dates back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who compiled lists of plants.

How old is Western herbal medicine? ›

The use of various herbal formulas is one of the oldest and most widespread forms of medicine. Traditional Western herbal remedies evolved mostly from the ancient Greeks. Well known historical physicians, including Hippocrates (460 BC – 377 BC) and Galen, are believed to have used herbal medicines in their practices.

How long has Western herbal medicine been used? ›

Herbal medicine and its origins can be traced back to various ancient cultures and civilisations. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans were using plants as medicine during the Paleolithic, some 60,000 years ago .

What is the difference between naturopathy and Western herbal medicine? ›

When it comes to plant medicine and understanding how herbs work in the body, Herbalists are THE experts. Naturopaths study botanical medicine, and they also study acupuncture, nutrition, Traditional Asian Medicine (TAM) and homeopathy.

When did herbalism originate? ›

Although written records about medicinal plants dated back at least 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who described well-established medicinal uses for such plants as laurel, caraway, and thyme [4], archeological studies have shown that the practice of herbal medicine dates as far back as 60,000 years ago in Iraq and 8,000 ...

Who was the founder of herbal medicine? ›

Around 65 A.D., Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician serving with the Roman army, wrote “De Materia Medica,” in which he described the medicinal uses of many herbs.

What is the oldest herbal medicine? ›

EPHEDRA, THE OLDEST MEDICINAL PLANT WITH THE HISTORY OF AN UNINTERRUPTED USE.

What roots are used for medicine? ›

A Guide to Common Medicinal Herbs
  • Chamomile. (Flower) Considered by some to be a cure-all, chamomile is commonly used in the U.S. for anxiety and relaxation. ...
  • Echinacea. (Leaf, stalk, root) ...
  • Feverfew. (Leaf) ...
  • Garlic. (Cloves, root) ...
  • Ginger. (Root) ...
  • Gingko. (Leaf) ...
  • Ginseng. (Root) ...
  • Goldenseal. (Root, rhizome)

Who is the father of medicinal plants? ›

Hippocrates, 460-380 BC, known as the “Father of Medicine,” classified herbs into their essential qualities of hot and cold, moist and dry, and developed a system of diagnosis and prognosis using herbs. The number of effective medicinal plants he discussed was between 300 and 400 species.

How does Western doctors discover their medicine? ›

Western medicine uses evidence-based approaches to discovering its medicines. It relies on understanding the cause of disease scientifically, the long-term effects of the disease, and the effect of the medicine. It concentrates to increase the quality of life.

Who is the famous herbalist? ›

The famous herbalist, Johann Künzle, was not only a catholic priest but also a popular healer. A quack doctor with a great deal of psychological skill, he published numerous books and journals on the use of medicinal herbs. Over one million copies of his bestselling book "Chrut and Uchrut" were sold in German alone.

What is the oldest herbalist text? ›

The book The Devine Farmer's Classic of Herbalism was compiled about 2000 years ago in China and is the oldest known herbal text in the world, though the accumulated and methodically collected information on herbs has been developed into various herbal pharmacopoeias and many monographs on individual herbs exist.

How did the ancient and herbalist classify plant? ›

He classified plants by form into trees, shrubs, undershrub's and herbs. He also recognized annuals, biennials, perennials and floral morphology such as superior and inferior ovaries, gross anatomy i.e., whether the calyx and corolla are modified leaves, free and sympetalous corollas, etc.

Who is the best herbalist in the world? ›

Top 35 Herbalists to Follow and Learn From
  • Nicole Apelian. Dr. ...
  • Marysia_Miernowska. ...
  • Tania The Herbalist. ...
  • Brigit Anna McNeill. ...
  • Sophia The Herbalist. ...
  • Anima Mundi Herbals. ...
  • Ayo Herbalist. ...
  • Elder Moon Botanicals.
24 Sept 2020

What is traditional herbal medicine? ›

Herbal medicines are those with active ingredients made from plant parts, such as leaves, roots or flowers. But being "natural" doesn't necessarily mean they're safe for you to take. Just like conventional medicines, herbal medicines will have an effect on the body, and can be potentially harmful if not used correctly.

Who discovered herbs and spices? ›

Arab traders were the first to introduce spices into Europe. Realizing that they controlled a commodity in great demand, the traders kept their sources of supply secret and made up fantastic tales of the dangers involved in obtaining spices.

What is Western medicine called? ›

Also called allopathic medicine, biomedicine, conventional medicine, mainstream medicine, and orthodox medicine.

What is the difference between Western and Eastern medicine? ›

Western medicine refers to a system where medical professionals utilize medical treatments to treat symptoms of diseases. Eastern medicine refers to nonconventional treatments that focus on the person rather than just the symptoms.

Why is Western medicine effective? ›

a. Western medicine typically has rapid or immediate effects, so it is highly effective for life-threatening conditions, such as infectious diseases. However, the major issue associated with these drugs is the potential damage they may have to other parts of body even though it is a life-saving procedure or method.

What is the study of herbs called? ›

From a technical perspective, herbalism is the art and science of applying herbs for promoting health. It is often referred to as, and encompasses concepts of, Herbology, Herbal Medicine, Phytomedicine, Phytotherapy, and Phytopharmacology, among other names.

What is a herbal doctor called? ›

Naturopathic physicians: These are also called naturopathic doctors (ND) or doctors of naturopathic medicine (NMD). They usually attend an accredited four-year, graduate-level school. There they study basic sciences similar to those studied in conventional medical school.

Are herbal cures modern inventions? ›

Ans: No, herbal cures are not modern inventions because the cures are used by our ancestors.

What is the difference between holistic and herbalist? ›

Holistic medicine embraces many types of treatments considered “alternative” by mainstream medicine. Herbal medicine is a philosophy and practice that often falls under the umbrella of services that holistic medicine offers.

Is herbology and herbalism the same thing? ›

Essentially, while both terms represent two sides of the same coin, I believe that herbalism begins where herbology leaves off. While herbalism can encompass herbology (the more scientific aspect of plant study), herbology seems not able to encompass the various diverse aspects of herbalism.

What herbs do naturopaths use? ›

Common Herbs Used and Their Benefits by Mim Beim (Naturopath)
  • Astragalus. ...
  • Bacopa. ...
  • Black cohosh. ...
  • Burdock. ...
  • Calendula. ...
  • Cardamom. ...
  • Cat's claw. ...
  • Celery seed.
12 Jul 2019

Who is the best herbalist in the world? ›

Top 35 Herbalists to Follow and Learn From
  • Nicole Apelian. Dr. ...
  • Marysia_Miernowska. ...
  • Tania The Herbalist. ...
  • Brigit Anna McNeill. ...
  • Sophia The Herbalist. ...
  • Anima Mundi Herbals. ...
  • Ayo Herbalist. ...
  • Elder Moon Botanicals.
24 Sept 2020

What is an herbal monograph? ›

An herbal monograph gives a basic description of the herb used for therapeutic purpose, and it includes nomenclature, part used, constituents, range of application, contraindications, and side effects, incompatibilities with other medications, dosage, use, and action of the herb.

What is herbal medicine? ›

Herbal medicines are those with active ingredients made from plant parts, such as leaves, roots or flowers. But being "natural" doesn't necessarily mean they're safe for you to take. Just like conventional medicines, herbal medicines will have an effect on the body, and can be potentially harmful if not used correctly.

How are dried above ground plant parts processed in order to remove the stalk? ›

After the leaves and stalks are completely dried, one to several stalks are removed by the chelate hand and the leaves stripped with the other hand onto receiving cloth sheets laid out flat. The top 5-6" of each stem is also snapped off and added to the mass of leaves.

What is a herbal doctor called? ›

Naturopathic physicians: These are also called naturopathic doctors (ND) or doctors of naturopathic medicine (NMD). They usually attend an accredited four-year, graduate-level school. There they study basic sciences similar to those studied in conventional medical school.

What is a herb DR called? ›

Simply put, a naturopathic doctor practices primary care, and uses mostly natural agents (food, water, herbs, hands on treatment, physiotherapy etc.) to remove obstacles to healing and support the body's ability to self-heal.

Is a herbalist a Dr? ›

An herbalist is someone who uses plants for healing. These practitioners are not medical doctors, though some practitioners are also referred to as medical herbalists.

What is the purpose of monograph? ›

Monographs are used as reference sources to build bibliographies and discover relevant references. They are also important as syntheses of literature in the field, valued for their comprehensive, in-depth, and definitive perspectives.

Which class of herbs is Rose? ›

Rosaceae
Rosaceae Temporal range:
Kingdom:Plantae
Clade:Tracheophytes
Clade:Angiosperms
Clade:Eudicots
12 more rows

Who invented Herbal medicine? ›

Although written records about medicinal plants dated back at least 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who described well-established medicinal uses for such plants as laurel, caraway, and thyme [4], archeological studies have shown that the practice of herbal medicine dates as far back as 60,000 years ago in Iraq and 8,000 ...

What is the most powerful herb? ›

Turmeric is certainly the most powerful herb on the planet. It is from the ginger family that is primarily grown in India, China and Indonesia. It contains various compounds with medicinal properties. For example, turmeric contains Curcumin which is a powerful antioxidant that boosts the body's own antioxidant enzymes.

What are 10 herbal medicines? ›

A Guide to Common Medicinal Herbs
  • Chamomile. (Flower) Considered by some to be a cure-all, chamomile is commonly used in the U.S. for anxiety and relaxation. ...
  • Echinacea. (Leaf, stalk, root) ...
  • Feverfew. (Leaf) ...
  • Garlic. (Cloves, root) ...
  • Ginger. (Root) ...
  • Gingko. (Leaf) ...
  • Ginseng. (Root) ...
  • Goldenseal. (Root, rhizome)

What herbs should not be dried? ›

Delicate, leafy herbs like parsley, tarragon, and chives are always superior when fresh, and should typically be avoided when dried since they don't add much flavor to a dish.

How long do dried herbs last herbalism? ›

Under appropriate storage conditions, dried herbs can retain their potency for 1-2 years. However, once an herb is powdered, the properties begin to degrade at an even faster rate, cutting shelf life in half (Kress, 1997). For this reason, we recommend using powdered herbs within 6-12 months.

How do you store dried medicinal herbs? ›

Storage. Store your herbs in clean, airtight containers, away from heat and light, and handle them thoughtfully. Amber glass jars with airtight lids are ideal. You might also keep them in a cupboard or drawer, cover the jars with large opaque labels, or use a curtain to cover them when not in use.

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