Within contemporary Western herbal medicine, traditional knowledge and modern science are combined to provide a unique meeting of patient, practitioner and plant. In the Australian context, herbalists have based their practice on knowledge which originates from the traditions of Europe, and has more recently been influenced by traditional medicine from Asia. The combination of these diverse ways of knowing - traditional and modern, Eastern and Western - means herbal practitioners are influenced by ancient philosophy alongside phytochemistry and biomedical sciences. The challenge for herbal medicine today is that faced by all living (as opposed to ossified) traditions: how is a practice forged which retains what is valuable from the past while establishing relevance to the 21st century? We illustrate these issues in the context of the conference theme of ‘food for thought’ and consider medicinal plants which are used for the improvement of cognition. We focus on the therapeutic use of common herbs from the Eastern and Western traditions and present the scientific research which shows their ability to facilitate cognitive function and the laying down of memory. We also tell their traditional stories which indicate that these actions have been recognised and utilised for centuries. We go on to demonstrate, via case studies, the clinical application of this knowledge and in particular the importance of ancient practice of synergistic prescribing which occurs when a number of herbs are prescribed together in a formula. Scientific understanding of the basis of this practice is being developed which further complements and validates traditional herbal wisdom.