In the eighteenth century, seasoned sailors found that by sucking on lemons they could avoid scurvy, a debilitating disease that often developed during long voyages when fresh fruits and vegetables were scarce. When the lemon’s key nutrient was formally identified in 1928, it was named ascorbic acid for its anti-scurvy, or antiscorbutic, action. Today ascorbic acid is widely known as vitamin C.
This famed vision-enhancing nutrient was isolated in 1930, the first fat-soluble vitamin to be discovered. The body acquires some of its vitamin A through animal fats. The rest it synthesizes in the intestines from the beta-carotene and other carotenoids abundant in many fruits and vegetables.
It was centuries ago that Australian aborigines probably first started plucking leaves from a native tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) to treat skin infections. In 1770, sailors from Captain Cook’s expedition to the South Seas ventured ashore at New South Wales and brewed a tea using the leaves of the same tree. This event engendered the herb’s English name “tea tree”–which is actually something of a misnomer because the Melaleuca species bears no relation to the Camellia species, the usual source of tea leaves.
Recognized around the globe for its fresh and heady fragrance, the lavender plant (Lavendula angustifolia), a flowering evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean region, also boasts a long history in herbal healing.
Romans scented their baths with it (in fact lavare means to wash in Latin), and the Tibetans still make an edible lavender butter to use as part of a traditional treatment for nervous disorders. Today, the essential oil of lavender is widely used across Europe–both topically and internally–for a host of ills, from anxiety to sunburn.
One of the most popular herbal remedies in the world, echinacea contains active ingredients thought to fight colds, flu, and other infections. There are nine species of this herb, commonly called the purple coneflower, but just three (Echinacea angustifolia, E. pallida, and E. purpurea) are used medicinally. Various parts of the plant (flowers, leaves, stems, or roots) from a variety of species appear in literally hundreds of commercial preparations. Depending on the species and plant part used, the herb will stimulate the immune system and combat bacteria, viruses, and other disease-causing microbes.
A succulent perennial plant belonging to the lily family, aloe vera grows wild in Madagascar and large portions of the African continent. Because of its many therapeutic uses, it is now commercially cultivated in the United States, Japan, and countries in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Many individuals also grow aloe as a houseplant.