The use of complementary medicines, such as plant extracts, in dementia therapy varies according to the different cultural traditions. In orthodox Western medicine, contrasting with that in China and the Far East for example, pharmacological properties of traditional cognitive- or memory-enhancing plants have not been widely investigated in the context of current models of Alzheimer's disease. An exception is Gingko biloba in which the gingkolides have antioxidant, neuroprotective and cholinergic activities relevant to Alzheimer's disease mechanisms. The therapeutic efficacy of Ginkgo extracts in Alzheimer's disease in placebo controlled clinical trials is reportedly similar to currently prescribed drugs such as tacrine or donepezil and, importantly, undesirable side effects of Gingko are minimal. Old European reference books, such as those on medicinal herbs, document a variety of other plants such as Salvia officinalis (sage) and Melissa officinalis (balm) with memory-improving properties, and cholinergic activities have recently been identified in extracts of these plants. Precedents for modern discovery of clinically relevant pharmacological activity in plants with long-established medicinal use include, for example, the interaction of alkaloid opioids in Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) with endogenous opiate receptors in the brain. With recent major advances in understanding the neurobiology of Alzheimer's disease, and as yet limited efficacy of so-called rationally designed therapies, it may be timely to re-explore historical archives for new directions in drug development. This article considers not only the value of an integrative traditional and modern scientific approach to developing new treatments for dementia, but also in the understanding of disease mechanisms. Long before the current biologically-based hypothesis of cholinergic derangement in Alzheimer' s disease emerged, plants now known to contain cholinergic antagonists were recorded for their amnesia- and dementia-inducing properties.