Introduction to Traditional Colonial Herbalism

Colonial herbalism is very much a popular topic of study pertaining to Hudson Valley medicine.  This topic typically results in studies in which the conclusions drawn are often based on partial or mismatched assocations drawn between plants and their medicinal effects.  To improve upon our understanding of Colonial herbal medicine philosophy and develop a much more accurate rendering of this important part in local history, we have to take the classics into account, focus on the local pre-Revolutionary war period of thinking, come to a better understanding of the role of women in society within the Dutch and English community settings, and then come to a better understanding of the different cultural types that existed in this region.  This type of study required that either we first learn the history of  the Valley in the most complete way possible and then related this to just ther herbalism of the time, without prejudicing our reasoning with modern knowledge of herbs and medicine, or we can simply learn each of these fields over a fairly long period of time until a more personal understanding of the various traditions of the valley became a part of our innermost self. 

To take this kind of route certainly requires a considerable amount of patience, forethought and innumerable afterthoughts.  The patience is required in order to allow for the next two required series of activities to take place in the best way possible.  The forethought consists of the expectations or lack of surprise expected when you finally realize the meaning of a particular plant use and its philosophical makings, to only then realize accept the different types of mistakes you may have made when interpreting the local and domestic plants and their uses.  The afterthought requires many of the same actions to take place, but in addition, afterthought allows one to draw conclusions that are by then more strongly rooted into the personal philosophy and a great deal more arguable than if the same claims were made several stages earlier.  

The thing about Hudson Valley herbalism and its history is that it is most rewarding to learn about the cultural heritage of this herbal medicine, not just her herbal medicine itself.  This means we have to understand the nuances that differentiate the wicca and Trinitarian from the Protestant, Dutch philosophy and training from English philosophy and training, French Huguenot perception and behaviors from Moravian perception and behaviors, Mohican views and interpretations of the valley and its various life forms from the medical practices of the Iroquois.   It is these small differences that often define the differences between the use of a particular plant between different cultural groups. 

I first learned this was an important concept to be aware of, and to later be better trained in, when I was reviewing the French Jesuit writings about upstate New York published as part of the large 71 volume New France series.   The interpretation of a Sassafras leaf is different for each of the different explorers and travellers learning about its use for the first time during the 16th and 17th centuries.  The French assign religious reasonings to their interpretation of its role in the local ecosystem, the Dutch take a a different slightly more mystical point of view, and the English take yet a third point of view based on its symbolism of the King.  We can tell this dierctly from the statements that are published in these early colonial writings.   This tells me that knowing these culturally defined differences between valley cultures allows us to learn more about the historical experiences early settlers had within the local valley setting. 

The best example I have to relate to at this point pertains to the use of the local Dogwood tree (Cornus florida).  It is only the Mohicans that prized the northern side of the Dogwood tree when producing their medicines.   Why just the northside?  There is in fact a very meaningful reason for this philosophy, one which only comes to you by understanding the traditional ways of thinking about these traditional uses of plants. 

This is the purpose of this section on Colonial herbalism.  There will of course be some basic reviews of traditional knowledge about the Colonial herbalism practices in the Hudson valley and general colonial setting.  But I think it very important to include some review of information that takes a long time to understand and develop.  This way, we have a better understanding on how and why certain herbal remedies became common in the valley whereas others did not.

The following are topics worthy of review:

First Impressions–the naturalistic and natural philosophical interpretations early explorers and immigrants were provided with once they arrived in the New World.

Jane Colden–an early Colonial America female herbalist

Four Directions–Mohegan perspectives on plants and medicine.

Native American spirituality–based on the 17th century and transcendental movement perspectives.

Sassafras albidum–multiple interpretations made by multiple cultures.  The New France, New England, New Netherlands and New Spain perspectives.

Colonial Christian Phytognomics–the perspectives noted by immigrants about the unique pastoral way they interpreted the plants that are seen in the New World.  One of the more important examples of this perspective about plants and medicines is the focus on “God’s messages” being taught by the plants.

Transformation of Common Belief–the ways in which different cultural perspectives about plant use change due to underlying philosophical changes regarding health, disease and the use of plant medicines.