The Colonization of Plant Medicine

So it’s the annual celebration of the thanksgiving myth here in the US, which is a controversial topic.   I have opinions about capitalism and colonialism shaped by my own family history and the fact that I grew up in poverty.   Anyone in my childhood home who tried to play cowboys and Indians was told to stop because before the English were killing Native Americans, they were killing Irish, Scottish and Cornish people. My mom made me read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 3rd grade which was around the same time I was reading Canterbury Tales. 

On the other hand my people take advantage of almost any holiday to have a gathering.  
 We get together about once a month for a big family dinner and to celebrate the birthdays that were that month.  So for us it’s just another excuse to hang out and eat too much, but we have pie instead of  birthday cake.  I have struck a balance my making sure that my children have a firm grasp on the non-whitewashed version of history while still allowing them to enjoy our family traditions.  

In honor of all that I would discuss with you my personal comfort level around talking about native plants and plant medicine.  In my herbal practice, I don’t use native herbs, nor do I write about the indigenous uses of those plants.  That’s not my story to tell.

More to the point, I don't need them.  I’ve a perfectly lovely cottage garden full of all the plants I know how to use because my people brought the knowledge with them from across the pond.   This is a picture of the home my great-grandfather was born in Cornwall. Isn’t the garden darling?  I wish I could grow castor plants in Iowa but it's too cold here. 

If  I do mention a native herb, I tend to talk about how it was incorporated into the early modern heathcare culture and that system of medicine.  My focus is often on women practitioners. The second-wave "they burned all the women who used herbs as witches myth" is very strong in the herbal community and I want to provide examples of how that is not the truth to lift up the voices of women who practiced domestic medicine.

Another myth that is perpetuated is that the colonizers of New England learned how to use native medicinals from their indigenous neighbors because they didn't have a system.  I mean even if you just apply some common sense to the idea it quickly unravels.   Early colonial medicine was prepared with ingredients unknown to indigenous cultures here such as sugar and alcohol.  But to really clear the air I am going to lay out a very brief and incomplete history of how native plants made it into English herbals printed before a single English person lived in the US.

Please don't take this as me saying that I believe that native knowledge was not appropriated. We know that it was.  The Badanius manuscript I mention is an example of that.  People just seem to be confused as to when and how it happened. There's a lot of talk of  19th century  physicians bringing these plants into the materia medica and that's just not the case.  The truth of the matter is that many of the them were already being grown and written about in Europe before an English person ever set foot in Jamestown. 

If your history books could be believed (they can't)  the first exploring expedition to leave from Europe was when Prince Henry the Navigator set sail from Portugal and discovered the Madeira and Azores islands between 1419 and 1427.  But of course we know the Vikings settled Newfoundland for a few years around 1000 CE and it's possible some plant exchange took place then.  There's an even older manuscript Navigatio Sancti Brendani that states  that St. Brenden of Ireland sailed to Newfoundland from Ireland sometime around 600 CE. (We don't have archeological proof of that journey, but in the 1970's an Oxford Scholar sailed a hand made currach from Ireland to Newfoundland using the manuscript as a guide.  So at least we have put the idea that it's not possible to rest.)

We do know that the 13th and 14th century explorers took seeds back to Europe where it had become all the rage to grow these novelty plants, and they quickly became incorporated into their food and medicine.  It was actually a way for sailors to make a bit of extra money.  Scholars  who cultivated botanic gardens paid competitively for them because they wanted the prestige of being the first to grow the plant in Europe.

Pumpkin seeds for example, had brought back to  Italy by early explorers and were already being grown and depicted in art by 1503. When they were used for food and medicine, they were used just like any other vine ripened winter squash.  And yes, they had vine ripened gourds.  Many of the Cucurbitaceous gourd plant family that you think are native to Americas are actually native to Africa. 

Image Source:  Janick, Jules, and Harry S. Paris. “The Cucurbit Images (1515–1518) of the Villa Farnesina, Rome.” Annals of Botany 97, no. 2 (February 2006): 165–76. 

The  English were late bloomers in terms of colonizing the New World. In fact, the Spanish owned the English in terms of encountering most plants for the first time.  Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdes wrote  La Natural hystoria de las Indias in 1526.  El Colegio de Santa Cruz was established in 1536.  The Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis was written in 1552 by an Aztec physician who had been "trained" as a priest at that college in Tlatelolco, Mexico. The manuscript was translated into Latin by another young Aztec trained at the school and it presented as a gift to Charles V to be used by his physician.   In 1990, the Vatican finally returned it to Mexico to be housed in Mexico City in the archives of the National Institute of Anthropology and History.  They compiled so much information that Monardes had already written a three volume herbal and natural history account of the plants found in the Americas  by 1574 that was then translated to English in 1577. 

In 1542 Botany professor Luca Ghini established the first of Europe's giant botanic gardens in Pisa. He he began growing potatoes, tomatoes, passionflower and other seeds brought back by sailors. Physicians and botanists worked with them in the context of their humoral medicine system and wrote about them in 16th century herbals. In 1576 Ferdinando I de' Medici purchased and restored the gardens of Lucullus in Rome.  Similar gardens popped up all over Europe in the next 100 years.

Rembert Dodoens' who was born in the Spanish Netherlands wrote his herbal Cruydeboeck in 1554 and it was translated into English by Henry Lyte in 1578.  This is the herbal that I used to accuse Gerard of plagerizing in 1597, which is perhaps not a fair assessement. Herbals of that era  remind me of college textbooks in the way that each new edition adds new information to that which is already known.   So while Gerard borrowed heavily with attribution from Dodoens, he did bring in his own personal experience of the plants as well.  That's just kind of the way acadamia worked back then. Doedoens himself borrowed pretty heavily from Fuchs herbal written in 1543, using hundreds of the woodcuts Fuchs used for illustrations.   Even William Salmon's Botanologia, the English herbal printed in 1710  is basically an updated version of Botanologia the Brittish physician, or, the nature and vertues of English plants written by Robert Turner in 1665.

This a woodcut that Frankfurt physician Adam Lonicerus commissioned for his herbal printed in 1578. It does a fair job of showing the whole early modern system of healthcare in one image.  In the upper left hand corner you have male and females tending an ill patient. The gardener is tending both indigenous and foreign plants.  On the lower left people are working on processing the plants into medicines. The odd contraptions with the spouts are stills.  The men in robes presumedly represent the scholars who are theorizing about the uses of the plants growing in the garden. 

Those 16th century herbals informed the medicine of the Plymouth Colony.  We know there was a copy of Lyte’s translation of  on the Mayflower  that belonged to Elder Brewster and was used by Samuel Fuller the “physician” of the  colony as well as possibly a copy of  The Surgeon’s Mate written by John Woodall in 1617 belonging to Giles Heale, the barber surgeon of the crew.  Dr. Fuller’s wife Bridget was one midwife of the colony. 

Male dominated history books would have you believe that the governors of a colony provided the healthcare for during the colonizers first 100 years in the United States, and of course that was partially the case.  They often support this with a letter sent by Dr. Edward Stafford of London to Governor John Winthrop in Boston, 6 May 1643 contained several receipts from Gerard’s herbal that he might find useful for a flu outbreak in the colony.  Some of the plants Stafford mentioned were indigenous to North America but had been in the European materia medica for 60-50 years by that time,  such as sassafras and snake root. What's even more interesting is that those are  some of the only native herbs mentioned in Every Man his Own Doctor written in 1734, besides Indian Physick.  Mr Tennant was all about the purging.

Those of us who research domestic medicine know that was only part of the picture. Winthrop might have been giving the directions but he wasn't doing the work.   That still fell on the women. There are several extent manuscripts that were started in Europe in the late 1600's and finished in the colonies documenting that some women did bring their family receipt books with them and continued to add medicinal receipts to them here in the US.  

As time went on the English colonizers undoubtedly gleaned some information from indigenous healers. John Josselyn's New-England Rarities Discovered published in 1672, is full of examples.  However it's important to note that this is a time when  Europeans were fascinated by the exotic indigenous people of the Americas and Josselyn was  pandering to that.  His accounts are undoubtedly no more accurate that those of the terrible ethnographies written by missionaries in the late 1800's  amd early 1900's. 

He was not an American and he really spent a very short time visiting New England. It's wild to me how much historians relied on that one book to document colonial medicine.  If  you look at the receipt books written by women later in 1700's, most of the remedies they recorded  contained  many of the same ingredients written in European receipt books of the same era including mallows, wormwood, sage, rue, and elder bark. Take a look at some of the receipts in this small collection and you will even find a receipt for cowslip wine in one of the American manuscripts. 

Unfortunately women's contributions to healthcare were all but ignored.  In 2015 when I presented on early modern domestic medicine at the AHG conference not a person in the room had heard of the domestic medicine manuscripts  written by women from that period. 

The other aspect of this issue has to do with assigning a native status to plants.  I believe plants belong to themselves.  Plants have migrated with people for millennia.  Sometimes they even do it on the dirty feet of birds or on a piece of driftwood. The idea of a static native ecosystem isn't very realistic. 

Many plants people believe are native  to the Americas are actually African plants that came to the Americas in the very earliest waves of migration.  Trichosanthes cucumerina seeds have been discovered in sites dating back to the Miocene and Pliocene in France, Germany, Italy and Poland. Some plants are so old that they existed before the continents split.  Eucalyptus for example seems to have grown in both Australia and South America.  

There are also European varieties of a lot of plants that people here don't know anything about.  Most people know about elder, but the Southern uses of black walnut are awfully similar to the way that Europeans used walnut.  There's a  Northern European cranberry as well. The Norse made grog with it in 1300 BCE.  Irish were using cranberry seeds from the European variety in wound care in the 1300's.  And the Scots are kind of famous for their cranberry tarts.  I think one of the most interesting aspects of ethnobotany is learning about how people from different places use similar plants.   

So that's why I draw the line I draw.  If a person wants to talk about how they work with a plant in the context of their own system, I am okay with that.   Once someone start talking about how another culture uses a plant medicinally or in a spiritual context, I lose respect. 


Boer, Hugo J. de, Hanno Schaefer, Mats Thulin, and Susanne S. Renner. “Evolution and Loss of Long-Fringed Petals: A Case Study Using a Dated Phylogeny of the Snake Gourds, Trichosanthes (Cucurbitaceae).” BMC Evolutionary Biology 12, no. 1 (July 3, 2012): 108.

Kremers, E. “American Pharmaceutical Documents, 1643 to 1780,” Badger Pharmacist, no. 15 (1937). The original 1643 letter of Dr. Stafford is in the Boston Medical Library Collections, Countway Library