The Colonization of Plant Medicine

It is the annual celebration of the thanksgiving myth here in the US, which is a controversial topic. In honor of the day, I would like to discuss with you my personal comfort level around talking about native plants or Indigenous plant medicine. In my herbal practice, I don’t use native herbs often, nor do I write about the Indigenous uses of those plants. That’s not my story to tell.

Because I am a member of the Irish diaspora on several sides of my family, I have strong feelings about cultural appropriation. I am not even just a little okay with the way new age groups have co-opted the names and practices of the Gaelic agricultural holidays, so I don’t have to jump very high to get on the anti-appropriation bandwagon.

This is a picture of one of my ancestral homes in the UK taken by my great-uncle in the 1960’s when he visited our cousins.

When I do discuss native plants, I focus on how these plants were incorporated into the early modern healthcare culture of Britain and Ireland and that system of medicine. That’s going to be covered in part two.

Some people would have you believe that English colonizer women spent time with Indigenous people and learned about their plants and medicine by cooperation. That’s not really how it happened. By the time the English got to the Americas, Indigenous inhabitants were pretty fed up with people from across the pond having put up with European sailors pillaging their land and spreading disease for close to 200 of years at that point.  As Wampanoag author Paula Peters has explained, “The Great Dying — an epidemic from 1616 to 1619 that wiped out tens of thousands of Natives from Maine to Cape Cod.”[i]  

A group of Nauset of Cape Cod managed to keep the pilgrims from settling in one spot where the newcomers had been robbing graves and food stores. Eventually the Pilgrims ended up at stumbling into the ghost-town that was Patuxet (renamed Plymouth) and saw the deceased Indigenous population as a sign from God that this was the place they should settle. Pilgrim elder Thomas Morton spoke of being happy that illness had killed so many of the Indigenous community in Massachusetts saying it had become “much the more fit for the English Nation to inhabit in and erect in it Temples to the glory of God.”[ii]  

Even when Indigenous people did try to share information the English usually stubbornly stuck to their ways.  Tisquantum was part of a group of young men who had been kidnapped and taken back to England as a slave. That’s why he knew English. Somehow, he escaped and made it back to Patuxet where he discovered most of his village had died due to diseases introduced by European sailors. He tried to share the way Indigenous people planted corn, bean, and squash but the governor of the colony wrote that it made them uncomfortable, so they went back to row planting, which obviously is still a thing.

The idea that there was enough of a peaceful co-existence that the Patuxet colonizers would be into learning about Indigenous people’s heathen ways, is the same kind of fairytale they teach school children about Thanksgiving.

The truth of the matter is that many plants native to the Americas were introduced in Western Europe over one hundred years before a single English person permanently moved in. This post is going to be a brief and incomplete history of how that happened. Just so we are all on the same page.

Trying to puzzle out when Europeans made first contact with the Americas does help us to theorize about when plant exchange began to take place, but there’s not much information. The manuscript Navigatio Sancti Brendani states that St. Brenden of Ireland sailed to Newfoundland from Ireland sometime around 600 CE. We don’t have archaeological proof of that journey, but in the 1970’s an Oxford Scholar sailed a handmade currach from Ireland to Newfoundland using the manuscript as a guide to prove that it was possible.[iii] We have archeological proof that the Vikings settled Newfoundland for a brief time around 1000 CE and some plant exchange took place then.

If your history books could be believed (which they obviously cannot) 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 and that subsequent explorers of that era “discovered” the Americas. Which is of course, nonsense because the Indigenous people living here already knew right where they were.

It’s also not true that Columbus did anything remarkable in that regard.  Italian sailors were aware of the Americas some 150 years before he came on the scene.[iv] While we don’t have much documentation, I think we can surmise that some exchange took place then. There are people who will tell you that the marina die chioggia pumpkin is native to Italy because it appeared in cookbooks before 1492, but it has been genetically documented as being native to South America.

Europeans had other vine ripened gourds that they cooked with including calabash and snake gourd which were native to Africa and southern Asia respectively. There is a native squash called the kiffy squash that is popular in native Libyan cuisine, the flesh of which looks very much like that of a pumpkin, also. [vi] Here is a particularly good recipe for gourd that they believed used young calabash (Lagenaria siceraria) from an Italian cookbook that was popular around 1400 as translated by Ariane Helou.

[19] Another preparation.  Also take young gourds, and wash and press them thoroughly, with cooked eggs, and with onions, and cheese minced very thoroughly, and throw them in boiling water, with pepper and with saffron, and enough oil, and salt.  And from this you can make ravioli with mixed minced meats, and also pies.[v]

There are also sauces from this cookbook and others that use the innards of these squash when they are really (almost overly) ripe. I haven’t had them, but I have been told they taste very much like tomato sauce.

Back to the point, the period just prior to the colonization of the Americas has been termed the Columbian interchange. New species were introduced in both Western Europe and the Americas. 13th and 14th century sailors took plants and seeds back to Europe where it had become all the rage to grow them and introduced new plants and animals to the Americas.

In Spain they were smoking tobacco by 1503 and it was being cultivated on the island of Santa Domingo by 1531.  Pumpkin seeds had brought back to Italy by early explorers and were already being grown and depicted in art by 1503.[vii] When they were used for food and medicine, they were used just like any other vine ripened squash.

Janick, Jules, and Harry S. Paris. “The Cucurbit Images (1515–1518) of the Villa Farnesina, Rome.” Annals of Botany 97, no. 2 (February 2006): 165–7

In 1542, botany professor Luca Ghini established the first of Europe’s giant botanic gardens in Pisa, for the purposes of experimentation and education. In 1576, Ferdinando I purchased and restored the gardens of Lucullus in Rome. Similar gardens popped up all over Europe in the next one hundred years.

Botanists grew the plants and categorized them, and physicians experimented with the plants in the context of their humoral medicine system. Gardeners who cultivated botanic gardens paid competitively for them because they wanted the prestige of being the first to grow the plant in Europe. The medical schools with the most unique gardens drew the most students.

The Spanish colonizers were a century ahead of 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. The Spanish 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.[viii]

El Colegio de Santa Cruz was established in 1536 in Tlatelolco, Mexico. The Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis [Badanius manuscript] was written there in 1552 by an Aztec physician who had been “trained” as a priest at that college This manuscript was translated into Latin by another young Aztec 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.

Rembert Dodoens who was born in the Spanish Netherlands wrote his herbal Cruydeboeck in 1554, incorporating many of the new plants the Spanish and Italians had been working with. It was translated into English by Henry Lyte in 1578. I used to accuse Gerard of plagiarizing this herbal in 1597, which is perhaps… not a fair assessment. After reading many more herbals of that era, I am beginning to believe that they were more like modern college textbooks in the way that each new edition adds current information to that which is already known.  

While Gerard borrowed from Dodoens with attribution, he did bring in his own personal experience of the plants as well, Doedens himself borrowed heavily from Fuchs herbal written in 1543. He even used the woodcuts Fuchs used for illustrations. This went on for some time. 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.

It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the government started sending out the terrible ethnographers who compiled the bulk of the information about Indigenous plant use that white anthropologists cite these days, which coincides with when a lot of these plants entered the American pharmacopeia as well.

The truth of the matter is that we will never know how much knowledge taken from the Indigenous people of the Americas and those who colonized their land. To do that people who know both systems would have to sort it all out. I can pick a European herb that has been incorrectly cited out of a text, but I don’t know enough to be able to tell you if the uses a text attribute to Indigenous knowledge are genuine, or some nonsense made up by anthropologists. A Meskwaki friend and I started this project once, but we gave up, it’s too big for two people.

Everyone must work out their own comfort level working with and discussing native plants. If a person whose ancestors were colonizers wants to talk about how they work with a native plant in the context of their culture’s system of medicine, I am okay with that even though I choose not to do it often.

What I will not tolerate is people of colonizer ancestry telling me about how Indigenous people use plant medicinally or in a spiritual context. We don’t know and we shouldn’t be talking about it. That is someone else’s intellectual property and their story to tell. I also think we should avoid native plants that have significant cultural importance such as white sage, just because it’s respectful to Indigenous people.

[i] Peters, Paula. ‘A Man without a Tribe: The True Story of Squanto’. Cape Cod Times, 19 November 2020.
[ii] Morton, Thomas. ‘Description of the Indians in New England’. In New English Canaan, 1637.
[iii] Briton to Sail Atlantic to Show Irish Could Have Discovered America’. The New York Times, 25 January 1976, sec. Archives.
[iv] Chiesa, Paolo. ‘Marckalada: The First Mention of America in the Mediterranean Area (c. 1340)’. Terrae Incognitae 53, no. 2 (4 May 2021): 88–106.
[v] Helou, Ariane. ‘An Anonymous Tuscan Cookery Book’, 26 June 2013.
[vi] Anderson, Sade. ‘African Squashes and Gourds Galore’. Oldways (blog). Accessed 4 February 2022.
[vii] Janick, Jules, Harry S. Paris, and David C. Parrish. ‘The Cucurbits of Mediterranean Antiquity: Identification of Taxa from Ancient Images and Descriptions.’ Annals of Botany 100, no. 7 (December 2007): 1441–57.
[viii] Monardes, Nicolás. Ioyfull Nevves out of the Newe Founde Worlde …Translated by John Frampton. London, England: Imprinted at London: In Poules Churche-yarde, by Willyam Norton. 1577.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website

4 thoughts on “The Colonization of Plant Medicine

      1. I see that now. So I did look into at some websites I link to our digitized online collections held in museums and you are probably going to have to access those from a computer browser. They just don’t work on phones. I will have to mention that somewhere else, also.

        Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: