Phytomedicine (phyto from the Greek word for "plant"), refers to the art and science of using plant substances to stimulate and support the body to restore and maintain health. Also called herbal medicine, medical herbalism, plant medicine, and botanical medicine, the use of plants for medical purposes is oldest form of medicine used by human beings for the purposes of treating both people and animals.  In fact, evidence of the use of herbs has been found at a Neanderthal burial site 60,000 years old.

In reality, the modern medical distinction between herbal and prescription medications, is somewhat artificial, since many prescription medicines are still made from plant substances, and many others are made from chemicals synthesized to mimic the actions of plant constituents.

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Every culture has its own herbal medical tradition.  The fact that only some are recognized as viable alternative and complementary approaches to healing by Western clinicians licensed to practice medicine in the United States today is more indicative of their lack of knowledge of natural medicine than a lack of  therapeutic value for the remedies themselves.    Despite America's multicultural roots, modern medicine's reliance upon evidence-based research funded by a select sector of the society, has resulted in a singularly narrow interpretation of what is "medicine" and what is not.  Our over-reliance upon costly methods of validation before allowing the dispense of a medicine, despite, in many cases, centuries of clinical evidence of treatment efficacy, continues to contribute to the rising cost of health care.

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In all herbal medical traditions, herbs are distinguished by grouping them into categories based upon their medicinal characteristics or properties.  Common categories used to classify herbs include taste, action/function, organs affected, constituents,and attributes/qualities. Different medical traditions vary in the categories they use, and/or in how they define them. So, for example, the Graeco-Roman tradition classifies herbs in terms of the following mutually-exclusive qualities: hot, cold, moist, dry, temperate.  TCM, on the other hand, classified them in terms of a spectrum of qualities, each of which is named by the two opposing poles of each spectrum:  Yang-Yin, full-empty, hot-cold, external-internal.

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While many prescription medications are derived from plants, there is a significant difference between taking a single chemical extracted from a plant and taking the same chemical as part of a complex plant matrix.   Synergy refers to the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Herbal pharmacology posits that isolated chemicals, administered separately, do not affect the body in the same way as they do when they are offered in their original complex mixture.   In fact, synergy is such a key foundational principle in some schools of phytomedicine that plants are usually offered as part of complex formulation, comprised of more than one plant, than as single plant remedies.

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Our partnership with plants

I rest in the shade of your wide embrace. 

I gaze upon your blossoms in wonder.

Your leaves caress me as you whisper: 

'Care for me, and I remain forever with you. 

Eat me, and I strengthen you.

Drink me, and I fill you with life. 

Place me upon your skin, and I protect you. 

Together, we traverse centuries of change and remain whole.

Ani Hawkinson ND, Putney 2012