The Colonization of Plant Medicine: Part 2

In part one, I briefly followed the path of plants stolen from the Americas to being included in herbals published in the 1500’s in Europe.  In this post I am going to talk about how the European system of medicine played a role in devastating the landscape of the Americas.

I want to start thought by saying that I become uneasy when we start assigning a “native” status to plants or ecosystems. I know that there is no such thing as a static ecosystem. There are state ecologists who will tell me that spruce is not native to Iowa, but I know that where I am sitting right was once a deep, cool coniferous forest before the spruces and white pines migrated north to escape warming temperatures.  Plants have migrated due to changing climatic conditions since the beginning of time.  Sometimes they move along on the dirty feet of birds or are carried on a piece of driftwood.

More frequently plants migrate with people. It’s one of the only benefits they get from our relationship. Some plants people believe are native to this continent are African plants that traveled with humans during the very earliest waves of migration. Although native to south and southeast Asia, Trichosanthes cucumerina seeds have been discovered in sites dating back to the Miocene and Pliocene in Africa France, Germany, Italy, and predate known European contact in the Americas.   They have been used very similarly around the world and I find that remarkably interesting.

There has been a lot written about what colonizers took from Indigenous people. I think it’s at least as awful that the colonizers changed the very landscape that these people knew. We introduced new diseases.  We brought new animals, earthworms and even honeybees that started to take over ecosystems. The colonizers brought their food plants and their medicinal plants and in a truly short amount of time, this ecosystem changed dramatically.

I want to be clear though that while the first couple of decades of getting established were hard on the colonists, they weren’t as terrible as television might depict.   Many apothecaries and barber surgeons came to practice medicine where they were free from the restrictions placed on them by the physicians’ guilds in Europe. There were two apothecaries who traveled to Jamestown in 1607. As mentioned below, the Plymouth colonists had perfectly well-trained practitioners though no doubt they got more work than they bargained for, and something I rarely see mentioned is that they had their indentured servants and slaves to do a lot of the dirtiest work for them.[4] The upper class has been rich white peopling since they first set foot on this continent.

We are sure that these herbals I mentioned in the first post informed the medical practice of the colony established at Patuxet. There was a copy of Lyte’s translation of Dodoens’ herbal on the Mayflower that belonged to Elder Brewster and was used by Samuel Fuller who was the colonies physician.[1] His wife Bridget Lee was the midwife for the colony.  She attended three births during the ocean crossing and continued to practice midwifery and take apprentices until her death in 1664.[2]

It is also believed that there was a copy of The Surgeon’s Mate written by John Woodall in circulation belonging to Giles Heale, the barber surgeon of the crew. Heale had just completed his apprenticeship with Edward Blanie on August 3rd of 1619 before embarking on the Mayflower. He spent a couple of years working amongst the colonists before returning to England where he lived to a comfortable old age. [3]

We also know that a letter sent by Dr. Edward Stafford of London to John Winthrop in Boston in 1643 contained several receipts from Gerard’s herbal that he might find useful for a flu outbreak in the colony.[5]  Winthrop was very interested in compounding medicine from plants as well as minerals including saltpeter, antimony, mercury, sulfur and iron as was the practice at the time.[6]   William Davis (yes that family) opened the first medicinal dispensary in Boston in 1646 and Bartholomew Browne was a well-established apothecary in Salem by 1698. 

In 1708, Nathanial Boone of Boston published a reprint of Culpeper’s English Physician. Michael Flannery edited a reprint of this in 2014 with an extensive introduction in which Flannery explained how this publication along with medicinal plants brought from Britain, reshaped the American landscape.[7]

Boone published Culpeper’s Pharmacopoeia Londinensis in 1720 which was even more popular amongst the English women. The Boston Medical Library has copy that was given to one Rachel Martin by her mother when she died in 1765 that has lots of interesting notation. This makes sense to me because I am not sure I would understand early modern practice as well if I hadn’t read an earlier edition of that book.

A very few of the plants Stafford mentioned were native plants such as sassafras and snake root that had been incorporated in the European Materia medica in the 1500’s. What I find even more interesting is how long the preference for English medicinal herbs held on in the colonies. The same few native plants were listed in Tennant’s Every Man His Own Doctor in 1734.[8]

It may have been Culpeper’s popularity in the colonies that led to the English sticking to those studied by botanists and recommended physicians back home. Culpeper was very vocal about the importance of English herbs for English bodies, because he was pushing back against the marketing of exotic spices

Those of us who research domestic medicine know that was only part of the story. The men might have been giving the directions during those early years in the colonies, but they certainly weren’t doing the work. That unpaid labor fell on the women and servants as it had back in Europe. One woman Elizabeth Gookin Greenleaf was known to regularly prepare medicines for her husband’s patients eventually opening her own shop in Boston in 1727 and becoming the first female apothecarist in the colonies.[9]

Another valuable source of information are the manuscript receipt books of the women doing the household labor. There are several manuscripts receipt books that were started in Europe in the late 1600’s or early 1700s 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.

Hannah Huthwaite’s is particularly fun.  It is believed that it was started in England (the stronger hand with lots of embellishments) and ended up in Pennsylvania.  At least four different people have added entries to it. Five if you count what are probably the scribbles of a child. Most of the remedies they recorded contained many of the same ingredients mentioned in the receipt books of their European contemporaries such as mallows, wormwood, sage, rue, and elder flowers.

As time went on the English colonizers undoubtedly gleaned some information from Indigenous people. John Josselyn’s New-England Rarities Discovered published in 1672 used to be thought a definitive source on the subject.  Europeans were grotesquely fascinated by the exotic Indigenous people of the Americas and Josselyn was pandering to that. One example he gave of a native plant used by Indigenous people as medicine was white hellebore — an introduced medicinal plant that is native to Europe and parts of western Asia.  

He fell out of favor before his death, and I have read such derogatory critiques of his work by his contemporaries that I am not inclined to link to it as a serious resource.  His account of Indigenous life cannot be relied upon any more than those terrible ethnographies written by missionaries and government officials in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Peter Kalm who was a student of Linnaeus, wrote a somewhat more balanced accounting in the next century [10] saying that there were some Indigenous cures that colonists had picked up through observation and other times that colonists had reasonable success substituting native plants for those European plants that they could not acquire.  He specifically mentioned the American cranberry as one of these. For those who don’t know there’s a cranberry native to boggy parts of Europe and Asia as well. The Norse made grog that contained both cranberries and lingonberries in 200 BCE.[11] The Irish were using cranberry seeds from the European variety for wound care in the 1300’s[12] and Scottish tarts are something to behold. I will write more about that later.

I don’t entirely fault the people who came here for trying to create a familiar landscape. Sense of place is a comforting thing, and I empathize a bit with women who were pulled away from everything they knew.

I wanted to say more about this because I really feel like it’s something that needs to be addressed. Colonizing Europeans made irreparable changes to this landscape, and there’s no going back. That must be part of the discussion when we talk about reparations. Even if we repatriated land to Indigenous peoples which we absolutely should, we cannot give them back what they lost. That’s a very sobering thought, isn’t it?


[1] Gifford, George. ‘Botanic Remedies in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620–1820’. In Medicine in Colonial Massachusetts. Colonial Society of Massechusetts, 1978.

[2] Varney, Helen, and Joyce Beebe Thompson. ‘The Early Voices of Midwives’. In A History of Midwifery in the United States, 1–20. New York: Springer Publishing Company, n.d.

[3] Woodall, John. The Surgions Mate, or, A Treatise Discouering Faithfully and Plainely the Due Contents of the Surgions …. London: Printed by Edward Griffin for Laurence Lisel, at the Tygers-head in Pauls Church-yard, 1617.

[4] Galle, Jillian. ‘Servants and Masters in the Plymouth Colony’. The Plymouth Colony Archive Project, 2000.

[5] Stafford, Edward. Receipts to Cure Various Disorders for My Worthy Friend Mr. Winthrop, by Edward Stafford, 1643 May 6. Translated by Holmes. O.W. Vol. 1862 Reprint. Boston, MA: John Wilson and Son, 1643. and  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.

[6] Zebroski, Bob. A Brief History of Pharmacy: Humanity’s Search for Wellness. Routledge, 2015. Pp 115.

[7] Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physician. Edited by Michael A. Flannery. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2014.

[8] Tennant, John. Every Man His Own Doctor, Or, The Poor Planter’s Physician. Williamsburg, MD: William Parks, 1734.

[9] Zebroski, Bob. A Brief History of Pharmacy: Humanity’s Search for Wellness. Routledge, 2015. Pp 115.

[10] Kalm, Pehr. Travels Into North America: Containing Its Natural History … with the Civil, Ecclesiastical and Commercial State of the Country .. Eyres, 1771.

[11] McGovern, Patrick E., Gretchen R. Hall, and Armen Mirzoian. ‘A Biomolecular Archaeological Approach to “Nordic Grog”’. Danish Journal of Archaeology 2, no. 2 (1 November 2013): 112–31.

[12] Anon. ‘On Wounds’. Translated by Wulff,Winifred, 1352. MS 23 F 19. Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

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