The general answer you’ll get if you ask people is that it was probably through trial and error or just sheer luck. But this is a very unlikely theory. It would probably take millions of years to find all those plants that cured every kind of illness. Most likely humanity would have given up as soon as they saw that this experimentation killed more people than it healed. Our ancestors had a very different view of the natural world, their relationship with nature was as intimate as a child to her mother. Their senses were sharper and their knowledge and memory vast, compared to those who now rely on money for food and google instead of memory. They would have the knowledge of every smell and taste of each plant and the effect they have on the human mind and body. They would recognise the qualities of a newly discovered plant by comparing its qualities with what they already knew of other plants. But this does not explain how they found specific medical properties of plants in the first place. One simple answer may be that they gained this knowledge through shamanistic techniques, by journeying and communicating with the spirits of the plants the shaman can discover the properties of plants. As they most probably had a much stronger connection to the spiritworld, the world where all organisms and all things can communicate.
You can even try it your self, if you have just a bit of training in shamanistic journeying techniques. There are many ways to do this, here is one that I have discovered my self. You should go somewhere you will not be disturbed and where you of course will find naturally growing plants. Firstly just walk slowly while you let your eyes glide slowly back and forth over the ground, looking at the plants that grows there. When you see a plant that tickles your mind a bit or that gives you a slight sensation, sit down besides it. Carefully examine it. Smell it, study its shape and colours. Do not taste it, as it can very well be poisonous. Close your eyes and start your journey in what ever fashion that suits you best, with the plant fixed in your mind. Your intention should be to meet the spirit of that very plant and when you do, try to learn as much as you can of its properties. My personal favourite for journeys like this is to visualise, after a short relaxing meditation, that I am sitting at the very same spot. I try to tune in as best I can, feeling the ground i sit on, the air around me, the life-forces of the area. Below me I see another version of my self, sitting upside down, there in the underworld. This is my spirit-self, naked and a part of the spirit world one with nature. You might see this spirit-self as a power-animal or like I do, as a naked version of me. The spirit-self sits next to the plant. When I feel the time is right I shift my perspective, from my physical self, to my spirit-self. Sometimes I see the spirit of the plant at once, some times I have to ask it kindly to reveal it self. Some times it does, some times not. Don’t force it if it does not, simply end the session by thanking the plant and try again some other day. The spirit of a plant can take many forms and shapes. As an insect, as an animal, as a shapeless entity or just as the plant it self. You might see it clearly or you might just hear or feel its communication, this varies from person to person. Ask it what qualities it has. What can the plant do for you? What can it do for others? Is it medicine? An entheogen? Food? Good for making cordage or colouring cloth? What does the plant want you to use it for? How should you treat and process the plant before it is usable? What dosages should be used for different effects? Should it or should it not be mixed with other plants or substances? Or does it simply want to be left alone? One good tip is to ask only one question for each time you meet the spirit. In my experience, if you ask too many questions at once you might get some confusing answers and it might be hard to understand what questions that are being answered. If you have some experience of communicating with spirits, you probably know this already. When done you should make sure to thank the spirit for the knowledge you have gained. Sincere gratitude goes a long way, but some times you might want to actually give the plant something in return, either something of the spirit world or by simply pouring some water around it. Ask the plant-spirit what it needs. When you are done, take a photo of the plant, draw it or write down as many details you can.When you get back home you can try to figure out what plant this is through either a book or the internet and then you can find what the rest of the world knows of this plant. Does it coincide with what you learned from the plant spirit?
You might need many tries before you get it right, but this method is sure to work with practice and persistence. Though even if the answers you get does not help you much, this is for sure a good way to learn how to tune in to the energies of plants and the whole of nature. Feel free to adapt and change this technique, so it better suits your style of things. Another approach might be to journey into the spirit-world in search of a plant-spirit with certain properties, but that will be something for a future article.