The Colonization of Plant Medicine

It is the annual celebration of the Thanksgiving myth here in the US. In honor of the day, I would like to talk to you a bit about this. In my herbal practice, I don’t use native herbs, medicinally. I’d like to tell you that’s because I have amazing morals but it is mostly because I learned my herbal remedies from people who didn’t use them. I do not write about the Indigenous uses of medicinal plants. That’s not my story to tell. For me to talk about that is cultural appropriation.

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 a wee bit okay with the way neopagan 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 taken by my great-uncle when he visited our cousins.

Most medicinal plants native to the Americas were introduced in Western Europe over one hundred years before English settlement and when the colonizers used them they incorporated them into their system of medicine. This post is going to be a brief and incomplete history of how that happened. Just so we are all on the same page.

Some people would have you believe that colonizers spent time with Indigenous people and learned about their plants and medicine. That’s a lovely fairytale kind of like the Thanksgiving myth.

It is also not very likely. 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 two hundred years at that point. As Wampanoag author Paula Peters has explained, “The Great Dying — an epidemic from 1616 to 1619 had wiped out tens of thousands of Natives from Maine to Cape Cod.”[i]  

Some knew very well to be wary of the invaders and were actively engaged in attempts to stop them from land grabs. If it were not for a group of Nauset who managed to keep the pilgrims from settling in a spot where they had been robbing graves and food stores near Cape Cod, there would be no Plymouth rock.

Eventually the Pilgrims ended up 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 taken 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 slaves, where he learned English. In 1619 he was interepreting for Captain Thomas Dermer and was taken by the Wampanoag. They took him back to Patuxet to interpret for them, where he discovered most of his village had died due to diseases introduced by European sailors.

Some theorize that the Wampanoag were testing him when they told him to instruct the colonizers how the Indigenous people of the region planted crops. Later the governor of the colony wrote that it made them uncomfortable using heathen methods, so they stuck to row planting, which obviously is still a thing. Every time I see a monoculture field of row crops, I think “This is what colonization looks like.”

There is no reason to believe they would have felt any differently about medicinal practices. I will talk about the books that informed colonial practices in another post.

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 they also introduced new plants and animals to the Americas. 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.

If your history books could be believed (which they cannot) the first exploring expedition to leave Europe was when Prince Henry, the Navigator set sail from Portugal and discovered the Madeira and Azores islands between 1419 and 1427 and subsequent explorers of that era “discovered” the Americas. This is, of course, nonsense because the Indigenous people living here already knew right where they were.

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.

It’s 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] 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.

In Spain, they were smoking tobacco by 1503 and it was being cultivated on the island of Santa Domingo by 1531.  Pumpkin seeds had been 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 gourd.

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. Physicians experimented with the plants in the context of their humoral medicine system. Gardeners who cultivated botanic gardens paid competitively for seeds and starts 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 others with attribution, he did bring in his own personal experience of the plants as well, Doedens himself borrowed heavily from Fuchs’s 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.

There is some mention about indigenous use of plants in these early herbals. I would say there is more written about the “meere Irish or wilde Irish” which were slur terms the English used for the Irish peasantry, than there is from the Americas. They also sometimes talk about uses that “silly Country old women” ascribed to a plant.

There are very few manuscripts, possibly only the Badanius Manuscript written about Aztec medicine, that were written without applying Western European medical theory and terminology to the plants virtues. That’s going to be covered in part two.

It was not until the late 1800s that the US government started sending out the terrible ethnographers who compiled the bulk of the information about Indigenous plant use that gets thrown around these days. Those ethnographies were full of bias and prejudice and should not be used as references.

To extract any truth from those documents would require that people who know both systems would work together on a vast project. I can tell someone if a plant was used in the western European materia medica and in what context, but I don’t know enough to be able to tell you if the uses a text attributes to Indigenous people are genuine, or some nonsense made up by white missionaries and 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. When I do discuss native plants, I focus on how these plants were viewed by that system of medicine. What I will not tolerate is people of colonizer ancestry telling me about how Indigenous people “used” plants either 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 people of colonizer descent should avoid working with native plants that have significant cultural importance such as white sage, 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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: