Cadwallader Colden’s dissertation on the plants of Coldenham, or “Coldenghamia” as it is spelled in the Linneaus document, was produced in two parts. His original study of Coldenhamia was completed in 1743, at which time he submitted his dissertation to the Swedish Royal Society of Scientists. The first part of this work was published in the 1749 edition of Acta Societatis Regiae Scientiarum Upsaliensis, the second part was published 2 years later in 1751.
Colden penned this work at a time when botany was undergoing significant change due to the efforts of Carl von Linne of Sweden. Colden is the only botanist of the 18th century to adequately document the botany of the New York colonial portion of the Mid-Atlantic region. Colden’s work adds to more commonly cited works of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Canadian botanists.
To better understand Colden’s work, it was necessary to learn more about Linne’s influences upon the plant taxonomic system in general, and develop a better understanding of those plants in the New York region that were truly native to this part of the Hudson Valley setting during Colden’s residency in Coldenham. As a result, quite a few taxonomic references, including Latin and English name dictionaries, were reviewed over the years, in particular references to common and Latin names use published during the nineteenth century, well before the current system of nomenclature was developed. This made reading and interpreting Colden’s Latin and applying it to possible identifications more productive and perhaps more exact in the identification of those plant located on his property that were truly native to the 1700s Orange County ecological settings. In the long run, the most reliable way to identify any species discussed in such older references is to learn the scientific Latin about plant descriptions and to have a very detailed understanding of local plant ecology and appearances. What Colden’s work provides us with is an amazing amount of unique insights and local knowledge about local plants and escaped plants growing in and around the Hudson valley during his years.
Attempts have been made to cite unusual references used on occasion in the text at the point of their review. For the most part, the primary references are as follows.
- Colden, C. (1749, 1751). Plantae Coldenhamiae in provincia noveboracensi americes sponte crescentes. Acta Societatis Regiae Scientiarum Upsaliensis, 1743: 81-136 (1749 ed.); 1744-50: 47-82 (1751 ed.).
- Britton and Brown, 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. (3Vols.)
- USDA plants identification website
- House, Homer D. Wild Flowers in New York. 1918. Accessed at
During the mid-18th century, the members of the Royal Society of Science, Upsal, Sweden, included such famous scientists and scholars as Albrecht von Haller, Emanuel Swedenborg, Carl von Linne, Johannes Gesnerus, and Johannes Gmelin. A famous botanist with the Society was Dr. Friderich Gronovius, Cadwallader Colden’s connection to the Royal Society and ultimately to taxonomist Carl von Linne. A number of other members in this society deserve mention as well, including physician Hasselqvist, whose writings in this society’s Acta provided important links we might otherwise miss between the philosophy of natural sciences and health at ths time. The works of Professor Klingenstierna typically related to the popular philosophy then brewing about electricity, physiology, disease and health, but was heavily published as a highly skill mathematician for his time. Petrus Wargentin was a skilled astronomer, who published details about the various cycles demonstrated by such events as the predictable planetary lunar orbits, and who strengthened much of the philosophy Isaac Newton’s work was resulting in during the 18th century. Georg Wallin, in his series entitled “Runographia Gothlandica“, documented the important history and his translations of the various Runes writings found on various tombstones throughout Scandinavia. The publication of ”Conwallader” Colden’s work as a part of these writings placed his work alongside of the best studies every done in science during this important period in science history.
It is important to note here that it was with this introduction that Colden’s use of the binomial system of naming plants was first noted. Rationalism is one term used by Linnaeans to refer to this method of defining plant names at the time. And even though throughout Colden’s two parts of this work, binomialism isn’t really fully employed, although there was an emphasis on this way in which he discussed his plants throughout this treatise. This method of referring to plants would attributed to Colden at a later time in the Linnean writings about plants by Linnaeus himself. This is most like what gave many authors for the time including the author who wrote the preface to this work the idea that a genus-species system had in fact been put in place as an important plant taxonomist skill.
Also note in the above preface to Colden’s work, the preface author’s phrase “quas nullae ratione ad genera & species manadare potuit . . . Hac ratione Plantarum Coldenhamensium collectio nata est”. Roughly translated: ’and so this new naming [system/art] for plants–genus and species–as part of this study of the Coldenham plant collection–is born.’ The roles of Gronovius and Linnaeus within this process are referred to in the preface and appear throughout the taxonomic work in fairly standard format for this topic of writing for the time.
Scientists identifying a plant with a lengthy Latin name refer to the creator of that name immediately afterwards. This remains a standard for the more professional taxonomy work published to this day. In Colden’s work we see him refer to the other scientists who ascribed a particular name to this plant as well. Often, the different perspectives these specialists took to naming the plant resulted in considerably different identifications penned in Latin. Such is the case for many of the plants of Coldenham. In such cases, Colden provides you with his name for the plant followed by previously published alternative names given to the plant. In the end, it was up to Linnaeus and his associates to identify the first authentic discovery of the plant and mounting of the pressed specimens. Usually, it was this first discoverer who is associated with the most official name given to each plant, to this day. Currently, Colden is associated with important discoveries about plants and their ethnobotany and medicinal uses, but not necessarily to the original or first discovery of the plant itself. As noted elsewhere several times, there are several plants almost recognized as “an original Colden discovery.”
Veronica sp. 
Veronica sp.  Early Indian Doctors. In the Flora Virginica written by Gronovius, this is commonly known as “Indian Physick”, a name which refers to its emetic effects when consumed. In the Observations section, Colden notes the use of a root decoction as a purgative by “Indigenis docti” (Indian doctors). This is the earliest use of this specific phrase “Indian Doctor” that is noted in the local Hudson Valley writings. Although it is likely that the term ‘Indian Doctor’ is a popular, vulgar, or colloquial term of common origin, this is important to note due to the later development of a popular form of medicine with a similar name. For this reason, it can be speculated that ”Indian Medicine,” in the common popular culture sense for the time, most likely began in or near Western New York. Canadian Hudson’s Bay Fur Trade documents demonstrate trapper behaviors and activities very much like those which the later “Indian Doctors” of European decent would have engaged in. Likewise early Colonial medical documents (see Aesculapius Comes to the Colonies) suggest some local rural physicians may have taken on Indian practices, at least with the herbs. What we can say for certain is that some time during the very early 1800s, the “Indian Doctor” fad became popular in Ohio, some of the more rural parts of Virginia, and several parts of rural Indiana. Colden’s work played an important role in educating the people about an important part of early American history important to the development of this profession.
A more pragmatic take on the development of the Indian medicine belief system is that is was developed due to changes in lifestyle. The earliest example of these practice appear in the writings about the Canada-Ohio/New York border during the 1790s. Once again, a number of Hudson Bay Company and Fur Trade writings can be linked to this historical change in events. These stories often involved storekeepers or traders, trappers, scouts, and company agents living day to day in association with native American groups, enough to find a spouse and later bear the first metis or “halfbreed” children. More often than not, these true Indian Doctors were of non-Anglican descent. Most of the richest accounts of these “physicians” tend to be non-Anglican, and certainly less literature and rarely published, except in the form of republished diaries, ledgers, logs and notebooks. Colden of course had limited access to any such documents (most were not published for quite some time), so much of what he and his daughter Jane have to say about Indigenous medicine came as a direct result of personal experiences, local stories, conversations and tales that were told by the locals of the Hudson.
Physicians versus Shamans. Colden’s use of the term “Docti” may or may not include anything to do with shamanics, another medical practiced documented fairly well by the Valley’s first physician to ascend the Hudson River during the very early 1600s and document for the first time an Iroquois shamanic process taking place within a traditional shelter (Dr. Harmenz Van Den Bogaert.) Thus there was a distinction made between the practice of shamanism and Indian herbalism. In most literature of the time published about the Missions and explorations, doctor is reserved for healers practicing physical medicine. This probably relates to Colden’s use of the expression ‘Docti.’
Why the need to distinguish? This use of emetics does match later recounts of native herbalism. The use of emetics was common to native practices, although with a philosophy very different from that of the European settlers. Aside from snake root remedies, emetics was perhaps one of the more common types of herbal medicines defined for the time. Other popular forms of medicines for the time would be tonics (ginseng and non-ginseng or Sarsaparilla equivalents), diaphoretics (plants that cause a sweat to cool a fever), and strong laxatives.
Monarda sp. The common name “Red-Mint” suggests the species with the red flower Monarda didyma, as noted by House in Wild Flowers in New York, this is Monarda Fistulosa, var. Crimson Monarda, locally known also as Oswego Tea or American Bee Balm. According to William Curtis (1794) in the periodical The Botanical Magazine; Or, Flower-Garden Displayed, Linne referred to this as: MONARDA fistulosa capitulis terminalibus, caule obtusangulo (Linn. Syst. Vegetab. p. 68. ed. 14. Murr. Hort. Kew. v. 1. p. 36), and Canadian explorer Cornet as ORIGANUM fistulosum Canadense. (Corn. Canad. 13. t. 14.)
Note the phrase “Incolis Nova Anglia Assyrean-Baulm” which roughly translates to ‘to inhabitants of New England, Assyrian Balm’. The Assyrian balm referred to is the Balm of Gilead in the Old Testament, a biblical herb symbolic of the discovery of the “Garden of Eden” to earlier settlers (see Adrian Van der Donck’s listing of plants for example for other Garden of Eden plant symbols). This represents a very common practice during this period in American history, one that continued in later periods of explorations of the New World. Other examples of Biblical herbs with some sort of religious-minded “Doctrine” in Nature produced by God include Sassafras and the Wild Iris, each a sign of the trinity and the latter also a sign of British royalty. Van der Donck, Colden and others tended to behave in such a way as to document their satisfaction with understanding the symbolism that nature (God) put forth for them to see and document. The early identifications for some of these plants would later be found to be wrong due to this behavior on behalf of the new taxonomists. Colden’s Waltheria for example may have been the original southern species then escaped from colonial gardens of from livestock coats and imported feed storage, but may have also just been the result of Colden drawing parallels between a plant seen locally and one he was already well aware of due to his training. The same can be said for Paris (of Europe), Colden’s name for Trillium (of NY), and several of the legumes and mustard species reviewed later.
Collinsonia. Commonly known as Horseweed, this genus is named for the famous British Botanist Peter Collinson. There is an interesting relationship between Collinson, who had a plant named after him, and Cadwallader Colden, who, at the time, had yet to have a plant named in his honor. Even following the publications of his works on Coldenhamia flora, a while would pass before Coldenia was recommended for use as a Genus name, decades after Cadwallader’s death. The lack of British support for Colden’s work in botany continued to be ‘a thorn in his side’ so to speak, which lasted for decades following his death in 1776. Whereas Colden obtained global support and respect for his work by his colleagues in most of the major non-anglican universities and associations well distanced from Great Britain, he received minimal respect back home. This lack of interest in Colden’s work lasted until about 1810, when his successes through the Linnean Society were finally acquired by a British Botanist Sir Hans Sloane. Of course, this respect and recognition of the name Collinson by Colden occured decades before he began feeling the consequences professionally of some of the British attitudes about his work in government and somewhat anti-Newtonian character as a natural philosopher and physicist.
Observations on this plant (next page) include mention of a similarity this plant has with Melissa essential oil extracts (‘spirat.’ of Lemon Balm). The root is used to treat women post-partum (following the delivery of a child). The sentence “Solo gaudet nigro & fertili” perhaps translates as ‘grows best or very well in soil that is black and fertile.”
Alsine (Stellaria spp. – Chickweeds). Colden’s latin phrase ‘foliis ellipticis’ refers to the leaf form, which helps to distinguish this species from other Stellarias (also known as Alsine species in past Botany books). Probably Stellaria alsine, as above, not to be confused with plants with similar structures that fit the Latin description such as other Stellaria or Portulaca oleraceae. Differentiation of the many Stellaria species may have not been perfected by local botanists.
Public Domain Photos by Leo Michels
Iris. According to House, the locally common Iris is Larger Blue Flag – Iris versicolor Linnaeus (see House). There is also the Narrow Blue Flag Iris or Poison Flagroot (Iris prismatica Pursh) (ibid). Iris virginica may also have been noted by Colden. According to Colden, then young plants tend to resemble corn. Colden’s description makes an absolute identification of this plant difficult. In terms of distribution, I. virginica is favored. In terms of habitat, in particular fields in which Corn is grown, perhaps I. versicolor. Unfortunately, no color pattern for the flower is provided and the flower form is too generic is nature.
Cephalanthus. Only one species of Cephalanthus native to the New York area is noted at the US Department of Agriculture website. Colden notes two forms: one with an erect flower at the end of a branch, the second with a pendulous flower. These are probably the same plant, different variety or different genetic or genotypic/phenotypic character. This plant is also noted in Clayton’s review of Flora of the Virginia area.
Cephalanthus (see above).
Aparine vulgaris. Galium species or bedstraw. The latin term “marginibus hispidus” is give away for identification–referring to the prickly, hairy leaf edges that cause this plant to adhere to animals and fabrics. “Caulis quadratis, angulus acutis” is the second give away, referring to the square stem, posessed by few other plant families. (This is Rubiaceae, many of which bear square stems; the more commonly known family with square stems is Mint or Menthaceae/Lamiaceae).
There are number Galium species native to New York. Based on shared features in the name (Latin and common) for several of these species, the two species above appear to be the most likely candidates. However, the more common Galium aparine is perhaps more likely noted by Colden due to its local growth behaviors.
Plantago latifolia quinquenervia vulgaris.
Plantago angustifolia trinervia.
These are very common plants, and there is a possibility that Plantago lanceolata is an early colonial introduction to the local ecology; this is also noted by Colden in his discussion of the angustifolia (thin- or narrow-leaved) species (he noted that the seed was possibly introduced via the grass seed). Colden notes two species, differentiating them primarily by the numbers of veins found in their leaves. In the following illustrations of 3 species, notice how the first (P. major, the most common and possibly a native species) has both features depending upon the leaf drawing that is reviewed.
Line drawing sources for Plantago species: USDA NRCS. Wetland flora: Field office illustrated guide to plant species. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service; Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Vol. 3: 245.
Cornus involucro maximo. According to Colden a common name for this is Yser-hout; Yser is a river at the north end of France, ‘hout’ is Belgian for wood. This name was used for a tree which was given the Genus name Carpinus. (Gronovius was the expert in Belgian plants.) Although this could be a Carpinus, since Colden has it listed as a Cornus, we will review it as such. (See figures below of Carpinus.)
Cornus Faemina D. Clayton. According to local legend, the cruciform flower petals of this Common Flowering Dogwood bear a Christian rendering of the Doctrine of Signature or phytognomics for this plant. Phytognomics was very popular during the first half of Colden’s professional life. Linne and other taxonomists/botanists interpreted the signs in nature often as some form of religious symbolism. Solomon’s Seal for example earned its name due to the shape of the scar that forms on its rhizomes, resembling the symbol used by King Solomon on many of his legal documents. The Flowering Dogwood has several features of its flower that relate to this form of symbolic message: the four petals (well actually modified leaves, note the veins) represent the cross, the red spotting at the tips of these “petals” represent the blood of Christ, the center of the flower, due to its spiny touch, the thorns of the crown that was worn. Clayton’s name for this plant refers to Mother Mary–notice how Cornus Faemina, has ‘Faemina’ capitalized, referring to this term as if it were a proper name. A unique attribute of the plant as a medicine, in Mohecan philosophy, pertains to the varying color of its gray bark at the base of the tree. In an 1830s to 1840 recipe published by the Dutchess County Historical Society in one of its yearbooks, there is mention of the use of the bark on the north side of this tree for medicine. [Underlying philosophical reasoning for this recipe reviewed elsewhere.]
Carpinus photgraph from
Hamamelis. Witchhazel. The history of Witchhazel is a classic in herbalism. Considered to be the traditional wood used to produce the shaft of the famous “witches’ broom”, this source for wood had numerous uses traditionally associated with everyday household items in need of a strong branch or twig. The most important medical chemistry of Witchhazel pertains to its tannin content, a class of chemicals in plants that have very strong styptic or drying qualities when applied to wounds, swellings and small irritations. Cadwallader Colden makes no mention of this traditional use for Hamamaelis, but must have been familiar with it due to the long history of this plant’s usefulness in medicine.
Azalea . The common name ‘Pinxter-bloem’ is of Dutch origin and relates back to earlier works on Valley flora, in particular the listing of valley flora provided by Adrian van der Donck. Note the presence of this plant as well in ‘Belgis Nov-eboracensibus’ back in the Old World. This is a yet another indicator of the influences of local natural history on the settlement process for the Hudson valley. Resemblances to the Dutch-controlled United Netherlands were significant, with the symbolism of this importance provided in the form of recognizable plants and their philosophical insignata.
Azalea . Identification cannot be established based on Colden’s description.
Lonicera. Identification cannot be established based on Colden’s description. The contemporary Lonicera is a Wild Honeysuckle vine noted to be very common to the region.
Anonyma. Identification cannot be established based on Colden’s description.
Claytonia. This is most likely the local Claytonia still prevalent in local woods, flowering in the early spring. House’s identification of a plant that appears most like that of Colden’s work is Carolina Or Wide-Leaved Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana Michaux) [Plate 69a].
Verbascum . Based on leaf description (lanceolate), this is the Moth Mullein (Verbascum blattaria L.). According to most plant references, this was introduced to the continent from Europe and Northern Asia and has since naturalized.
Verbascum . Based on leaf description, this is the more common Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus L.), also known as Aaron’s Rod or Aaron’s Club. A traditional European use for this plant as a medicine is for the treatment of mucosal membrane inflammation, in particular problems leading to coughs and sore throats. This use was mostly due to the mucilaginous, demulcent characters of the leaves and their mash produced by pounding.
Solanum. The Potato plant (Solanum tuberosum L.), (“radix esculenta” = edible root, for Irish Potato). Obviously an introduced species, this may have escaped from the gardens locally or as a by-product of local compost heaps.
Physalis. This is one of the few members of Solanaceae (Nightshade Family) native to North America. Its identity is most likely Physalis philadelphica Lam., or Philadelphia Ground Cherry. Two other members of this family, Solanum niger L. and Solanum dulcamara L. (Bittersweet Nightshade) are introduced, and are highly invasive locally. The primary North American Solanum species for the New York region, Solanum carolinense L. (Horse Nettle or Apple of Sodom) was distributed from Ontario down along the eastern Colonies of North America during Colden’s lifetime. Other species of Physalis developed a reputation due to their discovery in New Spain, such as the P. viscosa L. (Stellate Ground Cherry) noted to the far south in 1753, and later reconfirmed as a unique species distinct from the New York-Philadelphia specimens in 1763.
Ceanothus. Redroot. Ceanothus americanus L. 1753/1741. A number of early Colonial explorer’s writings refer to “Red-Root” and its possible uses.
Vitis. Parthenocissus quinquefolium. Although Colden’s name suggest some sort of grape vine, the alternative Latin name Colden provided–Hedera quinquefolia Cornuti--determines its identity.
Ribes . Currant. From ‘Ribes fructo albo and fructo nigro’ is implied White and Black Currants. Perhaps this is Ribes rubrum L.
Ribes . Colden’s name implies this species is more typical of forested settings (“sylvestre”). Probably Black Currant. Ribes nigrum D. (Grossularia nigra Mill.)
Ribes . White Gooseberry. ‘Grossularia fructu albo.’ More than likely cultivated.
Ribes . Red Gooseberry. ‘Grossularia sylvestris, fructu rubro.’ More than likely cultivated.
Asclepias . Asclepius incanum L.
Apocynum . Apocynum androsaemifolium L. (Bitterroot, Colic root, Dogbane, Wild Ipecac). Primarily medicinal, for which see next species description.
Apocynum . According to Colden-Indian Hemp. Apocynum cannabinum L. There were two major uses for this plant. As the common names implies, the stem served as a fiber source used by Native American to produce cordage, netting, and fine twine or string. The medicinal use for this plant was as an emetic (thus the name Wild Ipecac) and a diaphoretic. The common name Rheumatism-weed implies another use, which may have not been known at the time of Colden’s work.
Ulmus americana. Elm. Ulmus americana L. From Canada, into the Colonies, this plant had a well documented history of use as a medicine by Natives during the years prior to and immediately after Colden’s writings. This plant in fact became one of the most symbolic plants of Native American medicine by 1800. Its use was related mostly to the very mucilaginous nature of its inner bark, once the grayer outbark is removed. Elm inner bark was the traditional ingredient for many cough lozenges or lozenge-like preparations and syrups for the time, and was even added to teas for the same. The close relative Ulmus fulva Michx. (slippery elm) had an even strong history of use for medicine, but was discovered after the Colden era by Michaux. This species in fact became the more popular plant for such uses by the mid-1800s, and several decades later becaome the official medicine source.
Anonyma. Mitella affinis.
Panax. Panax quinquefolium L. (Wild Ginseng). Several plants captured the attention of entrepreneurs of American flora industries during the 17th and 18th centuries. Panax was one of these. A number of these industries came to fruition due to the strong trade relationships colonies were developing with the Orient, in particular the region later known as China. China’s primary medicinal plant was the traditional Ginseng (Panax ginsenga L., documented with this name in 1753), a medicine linked to longevity and vitality. Panax quinquefolium L. was marketed as a substitute for this medicine to China. We see evidence for this important market in the newspapers of the time (see New York Packet for example), in which small advertisements appear throughout the issues asking for the public to harvest these plants for subsequent trade purposes. The Chinese were not so fast to take advantage of this market however. Perhaps this market was successful for a few years or decades in early colonial history, but by the 1800s this use of panax quinquefolium L. became more an American phenomenon. Incidentally, several other plants bear a similar international trade and market industry, namely the starchy rootstock of Smilax pseudo-china L, a relative of the Chinese starch-bearing root produced by a plant the same genus (Smilax china, or China-root) marketed soon after the establishment of a settlement near the Carolinas by Sir Walter Raleigh.
Sanicula. Black Snake Root. With a similar common name to the Caulophyllum Black Snake Root , the folklore behind this plant is similar to that of Colden’s famous Snakeroot remedy. This plant bears a similar history as the Caulophyllum, with preference to Canadian folktales and ecological settings. Colden gives no medical history for this plant in his treatise, or in any related writings.
Photo by William S. Justice. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, Dept. of Systematic Biology, Botany. At
Sium americanum. Sium suave L. is the water parsnip of Europe. The question becomes: which local umbel did Colden consider to be similar to the water parsnip? The peririparian, aquatic-wetlands setting of the plant provides some insight into the identification. However, the most common plants residing in the area that fit this description are the wild hemlock (Cicuta sp.) and water hemlock (Conium sp.). The USDA notes Sium cicutifolium (Sium suave Walter) as a possibility; the problem is this is an introduced species. So what native umbel species resemble Sium? Sium carsonii Durand ex A. Gray is a possibility, but was not differentiated from the European Sium until much later, and it too may have been introduced. Zizia aurea (L.) W.D.J. Koch is a possible identifcation as well. Its leaves are pinnate and lanceolate, as Colden notes for this plant.
Apium. Apium graveolens L is the traditional Latin name for the edible garden crop Celery. This however is most likely one of two species native to North America–Spermolepis or Apiastrum. Spermolepis was first documented officially by Raffineque in 1825 (and again by Nuttall in 1827, but who instead called it Leptocaulis), is first identified probably by Otto Kuntze in 1763 who referred to this plant as “Celeri” (and so noted in Michel Adanson’s writings about this time). Spermolepis is more a southern species, which may not have fully penetrated Colden’s place of stay. Apiastrum or “false celery” was also not officially documented as a species until about 1840, when Nuttall described it in more detail in association with Apium and Leptocaulis. Whether or not Colden saw Apiastrum is uncertain. It is possible that like other plants discussed by Colden, this Apium was simply and escapee. Reviewing his Latin description of this plant, the cordate leaves (broad, barely lobulating or palmate) and light yellow flowers, in combination with an Apium-like appearance suggest another local Umbelliferae species–perhaps the Golden Alexanders of Godlen Meadow Parsnip (Zizea aurea (L.) Koch), documented as such by Koch 1824, but referred to as Sium aureum much earlier by Linne. Supporting this hypothesis is the inclusion of the same in Adrian Van der Donck’s listing of plants published a few years earlier.
Opulus. Viburnum opulus L. This European, Asian, and North American plant extended as far south as New Jersey on the North American continent during the colonial years. Known to some as High Bush Cranberry, and to others as Red, Rose, Marsh or Water Elder, this plant’s uses became most popular post-Colden when it was documented as a medicine for reducing uterine cramps in women (thus the other common name Cramp bark).
Anonyma foliis ternatis.
Staphylea foliis ternatis. Rattlebox or Bladder-Nut tree. Staphylea trifoliata. This is an obvious identification, with important local history of which few Hudsonians are aware. The Rattlebox is so named for the sound of its hollow seed container bearing seeds that appear much like rounded kernels of corn. In the wind, these trees make a rattling sound, and were often associated with the local legends involving spirits, ghosts and the like. This feature of the plant had popular uses durign the mid-19th century, when it became a common addition to areas where seances became popular practice, such as just downhill from the Fowler Octagon house (ca. late 1850s). Colden of course had little impact on the development of this curious part of local history, a local legend passed on more by word of mouth by members of local families than by any written means.
Rhus foliis pinnatis serratis.
Rhus foliis pinnatis integerrimis. Poison Ivy or Poison Sumac? The poisonous nature is discussed. “Vapores & Perspiratio” can cause ”pustulas” to develop, leading to “dolores & tumores ersipelatosos.” Dolores refers to discomfort, often pain, but severe itch may suffice as well for this term. ‘Tumores’ is a word used to refer to formations that consist of a swelling during Colden’s life time. There are two pieces of philosophy of disease this descrip[tion provides insights into. First, we cannot relate tumores to cancer. The descriptions of cancer and tumor duiring this time are far from what we think of today. A simple swelling in this case constitutes a tumor in Colden's line of reasoning, with cancer being more aggressive in form and appearance than the simple tumor. Many physicians felt simple tumors could lead to cancer over time. Second, "erysipelatosos" is traditionally considered the bacterial infection Erysipelas. The distinction between true Erysipelas and ailments resembling Erysipelas, in which a severe reddening of the skin with belmishing, rashes and raise areas ensues, was far from perfect during Colden's years of practice. In later and related writings by Colden, we find one disease related to another. The Erysipelas may even lead to measles and small pox in parts of this philosophy for disease. The transition of one illness to the next, associated with changes in organs and parts of the body under duress and becoming sick, is a common theme throughout most of the late 17th and most of the 18th century in American medicine. The only major theory to replace this notion was the evolution of a theory of disease based on the environment, with a focus on such things as climate, weather, wind direction, temperatures, humidity, ability to acclimate, etc. In contemporary terms, we know that the rash from this plant is caused by an oil. To Colden, this oil found glistening on the shiny leaf surface may be considered an expulsion or perspiration of vapours (humours) from the plant, thereby making it a pathogen.
Rhus late scandens.
Aralia . This is one of Colden’s two most important additions to local American flora folklore history. Aralia was considered a local substitute for the imported Sarsaparilla, a plant that was discovered and grew in New Spain and had to be imported. New York has three species of Aralia, of which Colden noted two. The three NY species are Aralia nudicaulis L., Aralia racemosa L., and Aralia spinosa L. Of these three the first two (American sarsaparilla, and American spikenard) are more New York in nature, although the much larger A. spinosa (hercules club) is a southern species noted to be growing in the wild as far north as New York. Another species common to the New York area is Aralia hispida Vent. (bristly-stem sarsaparilla), but notice this was not included in the early Linnean listing of this genus. The first Aralia species were officially documented around 1737, with 1753 as the year in which their identification was solidified by Linnaeans. It is suspected that Colden’s third Aralia species may be a Xanthoxylum (Prickly Ash), but A. spinosa remains a possibility due to his like correspondence with botanists to the south like Alexander Garden. The Xanthoxylum identifcation is based on Colden’s description of the use of this plant for medicine, but may be in error.
Aralia . See above.
Aralia . Xanthoxylum spicata. (Zanthoxylum spicata). Known by Colden as Prickly-Ash or Tooth-Ach tree, the inner bark is used to produce a bitter flaored beverage or tonic. A decoction of the same was used by Natives to treat ‘Hydropem’ or hydropsy, edematous like medical states and was a popular treatment for rheumatism. Some of these uses are attributed by Colden to its sudorific qualities or ability to cause a sweat.
Pontederia floribus spicatis. The Genus name is derived from Professor G. Pontedera of Padua, who died in 1757. Linneans included this plant on their list in 1753; it is noted as early as 1737 by them. An alternative spelling of this name was preferred by Kuntze–Pontidereae. Adanson referred to it as Unisema in 1763, a name repeated by Raffinesque in 1808. This plant is easily seen and recognized in its aquatic habitat due to its brillantly colored blue flower spikes that stand on a stem an inch or more above the water surface. There are about 8 species in North America. One of the contemporary names for this plant is pickerel weed. This plant is possibly the “pondweed” referred to in Dr. Osborn’s writings of local plant recipes (ca. 1760).
Lilium f. martagon.
Erythronium. Two species are of local origin: E. albidum nut. and E. americanum Ker. (E. augustatum Raf.). The first bears a white flower, the second a yellow flower. The “nigro-maculatis” nature of the leaf (black spotted) suggests the common E. americanum species. Since this plant has a 1737/1753 history, it has a Linnean connection.
Uvularia . Uvularia caule perfoliato. Pounded or pulverized root with water was used to treat contusions and worsening snakebites. According to Colden, this is the reason for one of its common names or “Nostrates”. The snakeroot phytognomonica for this plant is best interpreted as its fairly thin rhizome, although young flower spikes may also have been considered a resemblance.
Leontice. This is the Christophoriana baccifera noted elsewhere in Colden’s writings (see Actaea racemis longissimus). A medicinal plant, the Latin Genus name suggests some Biblical-based philosophy for it use (St. Christopher=?).
Ornithogalum. The Ornithogalum pyreniacum L. and/or England and the O. umbellatum L. of the Mediterranean, both naturalized to North America. The former produced shoots eaten like asparagus, the latter grown for its edible bulb and as a decorative is called star of bethlehem. The Biblical history of the second species is significant. It is suspected to be the “dove’s dung” of the scriptures.
Convallaria . True Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis L.) or False Lily of the Valley. (Maianthemum canadense Desf.). Convallaria is noted to grow in the wild, in particular within the Allegheny region; but this may be a consequence of local settlement followed by an introduction of Convallaria into the wild. The plant description closely matches Convallaria due to the two or three peduncular flowers. The flowers of Maianthemum are in an erect spike. The second Convallaria has this terminal spike of flowers noted, but more importantly has alternating leaves borne on the stem.
Convallaria . False Lily of the Valley (Maianthemum canadense Desf.). This plant, also referred to as a Unifolium and Bifolium species due to its one-blade and two-blade appearances (Adanson, 1763), was first referred to as Valentinia by Heister-Fabricius in 1759 and its current genus name Maianthemum by Friedrich H. Wiggers in 1780. Rene L. Desfontaines’ identification came later.
Veratrum . Common name: Unicorn’s Horn. According to Colden, the root of this plant is used again ‘Colicam’ (Colic or Colicky contractions). [Caution: very toxic!]
Paris foliis ternis. A Trilium species; most likely Trillium erectum L. (T. sessile) due to the red-purple coloration noted. (“rubro-purpureus”). Colden equated this with the European member of the Herb Paris genus Paris quadrifolia L. (ternis refers to 3 leaves, quadrifolia refers to 4). Of course, he was off due to his association of form over count. The triphyllum nature of this plant is emphasized in his description of the perianthum. Indigenous people thought this plant was noxious and capable of causing illness as well as changes in the flesh. No specific use was suggested however by Colden.
Rumex calycis. This is what modern botanists might call a red or broad-leaved dock. The leave is large and ovoid.
Rumex aquatica (1). The two Rumex aquatica are differentiated by their rootstock. This first bears a taproot radix that is yellow throughout, the second a taproot with black on the exterior and yellow on the interior. These may in fact be the same species, with different colors due to age or environmental differences. Leaf form is not described in significant detail, but the radix color suggests Rumex crispus or curly leaved dock.
Rumex aquatica (2). Description is same as for the first species. According to Colden, this plant is a secret remedy known to Indians, for treating ulcers. The meaning of “Christianus revelandum”: A Christian doctrine of signatures is implied as well, the darker color of the radix may in fact be due to a red pigment (a flavotannin-complex) produce when the plant is under stress. This could be considered symbolic of the blood of Christ. (Colden’s Rumex calicys would also behave the same.)
Acer. The juice from this tree is used by Natives due to its sweet flavor. Large amounts of this fluid are harvested each year and are gathered through wounds made in the tree, from which they flow.
Helxine . In previous attempts to identify this genus, the true Helxine genus was indetified as a possibility, which of course was off due to the aquatic natCoure of Helxine and its related latin Counter-name. Colden’s description of the seed helped to confirm another suspicion, that this is a buckwheat or Fagopyrum species. Ch. G. Ludwig first described and assigned a name to this plant in 1737. The Fagopyrum name would not become official until 1791 by Joseph Gaertner, years after Colden’s work was completed. Linne took on Ludwig’s name in 1737, which he changed to Fagotriticum in 1744. This history was essential to uncovering the identification of Colden’s two Helxine species. The traditional domestic Fagopyrum is Buckwheat (F. esculentum), a plant brought over from western Asia, for cultivation in Europe followed by North America. The sagittate leaf and smooth stem described for this plant match the traditional Fagopyrum escaped from gardens.
Helxine . The leaves of the above species differs from the leaves of the second species which are alternating, heart-shaped, smooth, and bear a stem. Note the seed description on the second species has the typical one-seeded, three-sided, black-colored seed of traditional buckwheats (“unicum, triquetrum, nigrum”).
Laurus. This is the traditional Sassafras albidum. Colden does not mention its characteristic odor, or its long history. Even during Colden’s time, this plant was highly values for use as a medicine and tonic, so Colden was probably not unaware of this history for this plant. Perhaps he felt it was not necessary to discuss due to its existence as common knowledge. Still, this does not fully explain lack of mention of the use of this plant as a medicine. The introduction of Sassafras to medicine is pretty much attributable to New Spain and the writings of physician Nicolas Monardes (of the Monardes plant). The popularization of it as an important New World product was pretty much under the control of Spain until scouts working in Florida were able to teach the British how to find and recognize this plant. With the support of the Queen during the late 1590s, Britain was finally able to develop a market for this medicine, which ultimately led to the heavy harvesting of this plant all along the Massachusetts shorelines, especially around its main islands. So, by the time Colden came upon this plant, its uses were old news to the medical world, much less the New York area.
Laurus. Lindera benzoin. Contemporary common name: Spicebush; to Colden, Wild All Spice or Wild Pimento. This plant probably had uses much like its aromatic relative Sassafras, but Colden does not mention any of these.
The above photos are from
. Photograph Copyright by William S. Justice. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, Dept. of Systematic Biology, Botany.
Anonyma foliis ternis.
Anonyma pedunculis arcuatis.
Pyrola novaboracensis. A species with radical, circular leaves and a long stem–probably Pyrola (Moneses) uniflora.
Vaccinium  Common name: Wortleberry.
Arbutus. Common name: Bearberry. Also called Uva ursi, used to cure lithonotriptus (kidney stones), according to Linnaeus.
Drypis foliis quaternis.
Asarum. Even though Colden ascribed the common name Coltsfoot to this plant, it is the Wild Ginger commonly found growing on cool woodlands floors. The name Coltsfoot is attributed mostly to leafform, which for this plant does mimic the traditional Coltsfoot common to the region–Tussilago farfara. Based on the flower description, we can tell this is Asarum due to the short stem and single flower described by Colden. The rhizome or stolon of this plant is stringly ginger-like in smell, yet Colden makes no mention of this.
Filipendula foliis ternatis. Important to local ethnobotany history, this plant retained limited amonts of use as a medicine by the late 19th century. Colden’s observations section of the description detail the bitter root, with its nauseating taste resembling that of the famous South American Ipecac. The deep red color of its root added to this interest in its potential as a medicine. Like the South American Ipecac, a small amount of root is needed for this plant to work (2 drams).
Actaea racemis longissimis. (Cimicifuga racemosa. Black Cohosh) Colden’s Latin name for this plant translates to “long raceme (root-stem-rhizome structure) Actaea.” It’s common name ‘Black Snakeroot’ relates to what is perhaps its most important contribution to local ethnobotany. Numerous articles would be published about this plant in the decades followign Colden’s passing. Most of these writings contained the important folklore and legends told and retold about this unique form of Snakeroot. A number of these writings even included nice illustrations on the snakeroot’s “powers” upon animal as prey and upon people. Colden’s Observations about this plant as a medicine include mention of the use of its root for treating “tumores scirrhosos” (hardened skin or flesh) through the application of a cataplasm. A tincture of the root is recommended to help restore vitality and health in the ailing body, and to aid in one’s recovery from a severe malady or disease. Used with Root of St. Christopher (see Leonitis above).
Sanguinaria. Common name: Blood-root. Note the description of the rhizomatic root: “carnosa, fragilis, succo rubescent abundans.” This essentially states that “The meaty rootstock produces abundant amounts of red fluid.” Colden states is was commonly used again “Icterum” (abscesses) for which it was an effective remedy. This use is transformed into the use of Sanguinaria latex or root-paste for the treatment of “cancer” by the 1800s. Such a use for Sanguinaria mimics a recipe popularized by German families during the very early 19th century as well–the use of Rhubarb mash to treat “cancer” and similar swellings, in which the mash due to its strong acidity essentially dissolves or removes the flesh from beneath. A similar recipe can be noted for Oxalis spp., Rumex acetosa and Rumex acetosella in the historical documents, due to its oxalic acid. In the case of Sanguinaria, the reason for the dissolution of abcesses is not so much the acidity of the latex or root-mash, as it is the chemical content of the root, which is rich in sanguinarine and other highly effective antibiotic, anti-cancer agents.
Liriodendrum. (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Hepatica. Although Colden does not mention any medical virtues of this plant, its name and history popular since the Renaissance Period must have been a part of his understanding of this plant. As the name implies, this plant is associated with the liver (hepar), and liver-related illnesses. The shape of the leaf is the primary reason for this, although the mottling that appears on the leaves may also have some resemblances to certain liver diseases, not to mention a pathologic liver itself.
Thalictrum praecox. The two major species are illustrated above. ‘Flores in umbels’ suggests T. dioicum.
Thalictrum alterum. By default T. pubescens.