Plants have long been recognized for their therapeutic properties. For centuries, indigenous cultures around the world have used traditional herbal medicine to treat a myriad of maladies. By contrast, the rise of the modern pharmaceutical industry in the past century has been based on exploiting individual active compounds with precise modes of action. This surge has yielded highly effective drugs that are widely used in the clinic, including many plant natural products and analogues derived from these products, but has fallen short of delivering effective cures for complex human diseases with complicated causes, such as cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disorders and degenerative diseases. While the plant kingdom continues to serve as an important source for chemical entities supporting drug discovery, the rich traditions of herbal medicine developed by trial and error on human subjects over thousands of years contain invaluable biomedical information just waiting to be uncovered using modern scientific approaches. Here we provide an evolutionary and historical perspective on why plants are of particular significance as medicines for humans. We highlight several plant natural products that are either in the clinic or currently under active research and clinical development, with particular emphasis on their mechanisms of action. Recent efforts in developing modern multi-herb prescriptions through rigorous molecular-level investigations and standardized clinical trials are also discussed. Emerging technologies, such as genomics and synthetic biology, are enabling new ways for discovering and utilizing the medicinal properties of plants. We are entering an exciting era where the ancient wisdom distilled into the world's traditional herbal medicines can be reinterpreted and exploited through the lens of modern science.