The use of the local flora in Switzerland: a comparison of past and recent medicinal plant knowledge

J Ethnopharmacol. 2014;151(1):253-64. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2013.10.035. Epub 2013 Nov 6.


Ethnopharmacological relevance: This analysis of documented medicinal plants of the Swiss Flora over the last two millennia provides a rich source of knowledge on earlier uses of plants and use patterns of the local flora. We ask which local plant species were used during different time periods of the last 2000 years and how the numbers of species and the use intensity of specific plant families, growth forms and habitats changed over time.

Materials and methods: Totally 25 herbals from the antiquity, monastic medicine, Renaissance, early modern era and the contemporary time as well as five recent ethnobotanical studies were considered. Use patterns were analysed with the Bayesian approach.

Results: A total of 768 species, i.e. 32% of the vascular plants of the Swiss Flora have been documented as medicinal plants. Numbers increase until the monastic period (366 spp.) and the Renaissance (476) and remain relatively stable since then (modern and contemporary era: 477). But, 465 formerly documented species do not occur in the ethnobotanical studies and thus seem not to be used any more. Overall, 104 species are documented through all time periods. Archeophytes, trees and forest plants are generally overrepresented in herbals from all time periods while plants from above the timberline are generally underrepresented. Most widely used are the Lamiaceae and Apiaceae.

Conclusion: A constant body of medicinal plant knowledge in Switzerland exists since ancient time. This knowledge was always influenced by knowledge from neighboring countries and no "typical Swiss specialties" seem to exist. Medicinal plants are not randomly chosen from the available flora. Certain species are deliberately introduced others are neglected. This process, which is still ongoing, can be traced back with the help of herbals to the antiquity.

Keywords: Ethnobotany; Herbals; Medical history; Medicinal plants; Swiss flora.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Ecosystem
  • Ethnobotany
  • History, 15th Century
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • History, Ancient
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Medicine, Traditional / history*
  • Plants, Medicinal / classification*
  • Plants, Medicinal / physiology*
  • Switzerland