The Osborn Manuscript – Demonstrating the Coldens’ Influence

The earliest evidence that the Coldens were influencing medicine in the Hudson Valley appears in the manuscript penned by Cornelius Osborn, a physician who practiced in the Dutchess County area several miles east of the Coldens’ residence, just across the Hudson River.  During the 1740s, Dr. Osborn served as a physician under the Colonial (or Provincial) Governors for the time.  For the most part, the only evidence we have of Osborn’s official service to the government pertained to miscellaneous activities, such as the delivery of goods such as food and hay to certain communities in need within the region.  On one occasion we know that Dr. Osborn worked along Jewish physician Isaac Marks to provide foot soldier John Lane with much needed medical care, an activity he engaged in one year later, on his own this time.   Osborn also had some influence upon several of the local industries important to the local economy.  Aside from food and medicine, Osborn worked with a local brewer in an attempt to secure barley for the local breweries associated with the local inns and restaurants, all of which were important financial sources that the local government to make use of whenever possible in order to obtain additional sources of income.

As his career progressed, Cornelius Osborn employed some of what he had learned about the local flora.  Exactly how this knowledge was obtained is uncertain, but the options for this education included Cornelius’s interactions with Cadwallader at some professional-personal level, or by meeting with Cadwallader and/or Jane due to similar knowledge about local plants uses, or as a result of Cornelius’s apprenticeship experiences (mid to late 1730s), which took place about the same time Cadwallader was formulating his written documents on the local plants for publication back in Europe.

To demonstrate Colden’s influence upon Dr. Osborn, we need only review the listing of drugs employed by Dr. Osborn for treating his patients during his years of practice.  There are 44 local plants that Osborn employed to treat his patients during this time.  A number of these appear to be related to Colden’s work (for both Cadwallader and Jane).  A few even appear to be derived from the local knowledge of plant use borne out of traditional European teachings, and several borne about due to local Native American teachings.

The following plants are local species, some of which have European similars or equals, whereas others were purely local or American in history and nature.  (T = Traditional, N = Native, CC = Cad Colden, H = Historical)

  1. Barberry    (Berberis sp.)  (T)
  2. Bayberry    (Myrica odorata; M. cerifera; M. gale; M. pennsylvanica)  (T)
  3. Black Snake Root          (Actaea racemosa or Sanicula Europaea)  (CC)
  4. Bloodroot         (Sanguinaria canadensis)  (CC)
  5. Butternut    (Juglans cinerea)  (CC)
  6. Daisy   (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, Bellis perennis?)  (I/N, CC?)
  7. Dogwood  (Cornus spp., esp. Cornus florida)  (CC)
  8. Duck’s Meat        (Lemna minor)  (T)   Noted in the 17th C Parkinson’s and Gerard’s herbals, thereby considered traditional European.
  9. Elder/Elderberry        (Sambucus canadensis; S. niger)  (CC)
  10. Golden Rod  (Solidago species)  (CC, T)
  11. Juniper  (Juniperus communis; J. sabina; J. virginiana)  (T)  The knowledge of the medicinal use of Juniper was already well documented for Savin; therefore, this use of a local species may be a result of supplanted and reapplied knowledge.
  12. Leather Bark        (Dirca spp., esp. D. palustris; Thymelea sp.; Daphne Mezereum; or Chamaedaphne calycuta)  (N)
  13. Maidenhair Fern   (Adiantum spp. esp. A. capillus-venerus; A. pedatum)  (T, N?).  There is a traditional use of Maidenhair that precedes the settlement of North America.  However, the use of a local equivalent is possible, and so included in this discussion.
  14. Mugwort   (Artemisia vulgaris)  (T)  Artemisias are common the worldover.  This use of the local species is not at all unique.  Several other Artemisia spp. are included in the local environment.
  15. Peperidge  (once considered Berberis vulgaris, now Nyssa sylvatica)  (T)  The name is very old-fashioned for the time; this is possibly linked to local Dutch-Hudsonian knowledge regarding this plant use.
  16. Pitch Pine       (Pinus spp.; esp. P. rigida (Pitch Pine);  P. strobus (White Pine)  northern; and P. palustris  (Yellow Pine) southern)  (T)
  17. Pond Lilies        (Nymphaea spp. esp. N. albae, N. odorata)  (T)
  18. Poppel/Poplar  (Populus spp.; in particular Balsam Poplar (P. balsaminifera), or perhaps Trembling Aspen (P. tremuloides))  (T)  There is a folklorish aspect to the name used for this plant, perhaps implying a very local Hudsonian ethnobotany history for this use.
  19. Prickly Ash   (Zanthoxylum (Xanthoxylum) americanum )  (CC)
  20. Virginia Serpentaria (Virginia Snakeroot)    (Aristolochia serpentaria (Linn.)) /Radix Virginae Serpentina/Root of Virginia Snakeroot  (VA)
  21. Rattlesnake (root)  (Prenanthes alba;  Alternatively, Polygala seneka)  (CC)
  22. Rose Willow       (Cornus sericea; local variant–C. stolonifera)  (CC)
  23. “Rushes such as they Scower with”/Scouring Rush  (Equisetum spp.; especially E. arvense)  (T)  Seen as well in Gerard’s and Parkinson’s herbals.
  24. Saint John’s Wort        (Hypericum perforatum)  (JC)  The one example most linked to Jane Colden’s work.
  25. Sarsaparilla  (Traditionally a Smilax spp., esp. S. ornata and S. aristolochiaefolia; but in this case may have been an Aralia nudicaulis as described by Colden)  (CC)
  26. Sassafras  (Sassafras officinalis; S. albidum; and especially the locally-occurring S. variifolium)  (H)  The historical predecessor to the use of sassafras as a medicine was penned in the late 1500s by Physician Nicolas Monardes.  His lengthy discussion on Sassafras appears in his Joyfulle Newes of the New Founde World.
  27. Skunk Cabbage  (Local species: Symplocarpus foetidus, or Dracontium foetidum)  (CC).   This plant has some mixed nomenclature and descriptions which have led to different identifications in Coldens’ and Osborn’s work.    For this particular review, the Skunk Cabbage identification is assumed, but may be in error for other “Dracontium” work.
  28. Sow’s Thistle  (Sonchus spp.; especially S. oleraceus, S. arvensis, S. palustris, and S. alpinus)  (CC)
  29. Spignel (Aralia racemosa; alternatively Meum athamanticum)  (H,CC)  Note:  The identification is from Colden; the popular name is not.
  30. Stink Cedar        (Juniperus sabina (?); Thuja sp.?; Torreya sp.?)  (I/T).  Stink Cedar traditionally is European, but chances for a local plant of similar use or appearance and medical features (“stinkiness”) might have existed in the local Hudson Valley.
  31. Sundew        (Drosera spp., esp. Drosera rotundifolia)  (T, CC?)  This particular example cannot be excluded from Colden’s work; it may be one of the unknown species.
  32. Tamarack         (Larix spp.; locally, Larix americana)  (T)  This tree has both European and traditional local use histories.
  33. Unicorn Root (Aletris farinosa)  (CC)
  34. Water Lilies/Pond Lilies  (Nymphaea spp. esp. N. alba, N. odorata)  (T)
  35. White Ash  (Fraxinus americana; F. excelsior?)  (T)  European and native?
  36. White Hemp (Urtica?)  (T)  White Hemp implies thread or fiber color.  Although there are other plants that produce fairly whitish fibers, Urtica or one of its neighbors seems most likely for the region.
  37. White Lily        (perhaps a Lilium sp.; i.e. L. candidum;  alternatively Nymphaea alba)  (I/N)
  38. White Oak        (Quercus spp. esp. Q. alba)  (T, CC?)  Colden’s description of Quercus is most likely of the White Oak, but Red and Pin Oak are also possible.   The name ‘White Oak’ in this case implies the lighter gray bark Quercus alba abundant throughout the region.  Other non-acorn bearing nut or seed trees are possible; but those considered to be an ‘oak tree’, even in the contemporary slang or common name sense, have not been identified.
  39. White Pine        (Pinus strobus)  (T)
  40. Wild Bramble  (Rubus spp.)  (I/T)  most modern Rubus plants were  introduced.  The Woodlands and Fieldedge Rubus species are the most likely candidates for this plant.  See discussion of these species in the review of Colden’s treatise.
  41. Wild Cherry        (Prunus virginiana; P. serotina)  (I/T)  Like Rubus, a number of fruit bearers are introduced.  This is especially true for “Wild Cherries.”  The local cherry is choke cherry, which is very inedible but perhaps highly medicinal as a tonic or bitter.  Also note, Colden notes a variety of cherries using names not used by Osborn.
  42. Wild Hollyhock        (Malva spp.?; Althaea sp.?; Hibiscus sp.?)  (I/T)  The Althaea and many Malva are introduced.  There is the possibility that a local Mallow family member was called Wild Hollyhock instead.
  43. Rock Polypodium   (Polypodium vulgare)  (I/T).  This fern has traditional herbal representation (Gerard and Parkinson), but the local variety may have been used as a similar.
  44. Solomon’s Seal  (Polygonatum spp., esp. P. multiflorum; P. biflorum;  P. virginianum; sometimes Smilacina stellata, a look-alike.)  (I/T)  The traditional European Polygonatum was perhaps intended for use by the early herbalists and physicians.  However, the local look-alikes–the Smilacina species–stand out as possible options.

What stands out in the above writings are the plants with specific and well-documented local, national and international medical and enthobotanical histories.  These plants, in a fairly rough descending order of historical importance, are:

  1. Black Snake Root (Caulophyllum sp.)
  2. Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes alba, or possibly Polygala senega)
  3. Unicorn Root (Aletris farinosa)
  4. Sarsaparilla (if an Aralia nudicaulis)
  5. Prickly Ash (Xanthoxylum spicata)
  6. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadense)
  7. Dogwood (Cornus florida)
  8. Rose Willow (Cornus sericea)
  9. Spignel (Aralia racemosa?)
  10. Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)
  11. Peperidge (Nyssa sylvatica)

In terms of several other important Colden influences, consider the following:

  • Butternut
  • Leatherbark
  • Hydrastis  

Butternut (Juglans cinerea) was one of the few medicines actually employed regularly in the revolutionary war.  Its mention in the diaries of William Thacher are in part the reason for this use.

Leatherbark (Dirca palustris) is an important local example that was interestingly not covered by Colden as far as I can tell, and is a plant that demonstrates the influences of Native American tradition in combination with local Hudsonians’ traditions.  This plant is typically fairly irritating when applied to the skin, which was its primary use as a medicine for the most part.

Hydrastis is of course important due to its importance in Jane Colden’s work.  Even though Hydrastis is not unique to the region, its history plays an important role in local history.  This is the genus for which Jane tried to define the name Gardenia for, in honor of Virginia botanist Alexander Garden, an associate, colleague and personal friend of Jane.

The Chronological Interpretation

Assigning a Chronology to these medicines also help to develop our understanding of Colden’s writings and influences.  There are a couple of periods in plant medicine history that can be related to the above list of Osborn’s medicinal plants.

Traditional European uses of plants with global distribution and therefore depicting global application for these uses.

  • Traditional European uses of plants, transformed for application to New World similars.
  • Early New World plant uses, later applied to other New World plants found during other expeditions and settlements.
  • Early New World Plant uses, applied to similar or identical plants found in other parts of the New World, so developed due to post-settlement introduction of these otherwise non-native species.

Examples of traditional European uses identified for the above 44 species attributed to Osborn, and perhaps related to the Colden influence, are found for barberry, bayberry, daisy, duck’s meat, and “Rushes such as they scower with.”  The various uses of pine tree resins might also fit into this category.

Early New World uses, transformed into uses for other New World plants discovered later, include the applications for Sassafras and Virginia Snakeroot (both of New Spain).  If Osborn “Sarsaparilla” is in fact a reference to Colden’s sarsaparilla (Aralia sp.), then this too may be added to this short list.

Plants uses attributed to one species in Europe, but another in North America, exist for juniper and tamarack, perhaps Stink Cedar, as well as gentian, poppel, rock polypodium, solomon’s seal (or false solomon’s seal), white ash, white hemp, white lily and wild hollyhock.

The Naturalization Process

A large number of Osborn’s herbal medicine are traditional European medicines.  From his vade mecum, 53 plants could be defined that were manageable within the garden setting.   These are:

  • Agrimony       (Agrimonia eupatoria)
  • Angelica          (Angelica atropurpureum)
  • Anise seed     (Pimpinella anisum)
  • Asparagus         (Asparagus officinalis)
  • Barley        (Hordeum vulgare; H. distichum)
  • Bee Balm; Balm         (Melissa officinalis)
  • Betony         (Betonica officinalis. Stachys officinalis; Stachys Betonica)
  • Bittersweet         (Solanum dulcamara)
  • Black Hellebore   (Helleborus niger)/Tincture of Black Hellebore
  • Borage   (Borago officinalis)
  • Burdock   (Arctium lappa)
  • Burnet   (Sanguisorba sp.)
  • Calamus  (Acorus calamus)
  • Carduus benedictus; Holy (or Blessed) Thistle       (Carduus benedictus)
  • Catnip   (Nepeta cataria)
  • Celandine, Lesser     (Ranunculus ficaria; once known as Chelidonium minor)
  • Chamomile flowers  (Anthemis nobilis)
  • Clown’s Heal-all        (Stachys palustris)
  • Comfrey        (Symphytum officinale)
  • Daisy   (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, Bellis perennis?)
  • Elecampane         (Inula helenium)
  • Featherfew   (Chrysanthemum parthenium)
  • Fennel  (Foeniculum vulgare; F. dulce)
  • Flaxseed  (Linum usitatissimum; L. sativum)
  • Garden Coltsfoot  (Tussilago farfara)
  • Garlic        (Allium sativum)
  • Gentian (Gentiana lutea)
  • Hempseed  (Cannabis sativa)
  • Horehound    (Marrubian vulgare)
  • Horse Radish  (Armoracia rusticana; A. lapathifolia)
  • Hyssop  (Hyssopus officinalis)
  • Lavendar   (Lavendula spp.; especially L. stoechas)
  • Lesser Centaury    (Centaurium minus; C. ramoissimum; C. umbellatum)
  • Licorice Root  (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
  • Maidenhair Fern   (Adiantum spp. esp. A. capillus-venerus; A. pedatum)
  • Marigold        (Calendula officinalis)
  • Marsh Mallows        (Althaea officinalis)
  • Motherwort   (Leonurus cardiaca; L. marrubiastrum)
  • Mustard seed  (Brassica or Sinapsis spp., or close relative(s))
  • Parsley        (Petroselenium vulgaris;  P. macedonium)
  • Plantain  (Plantago major)
  • Radish       (Raphanus sativus)
  • Rhei/Rheum/Rhubarb        (Rheum spp.; esp. R. palmatum)
  • Rock Polypodium   (Polypodium vulgare)
  • Rosemary  (Rosemarinus officinalis)
  • Saffron        (Crocus sativus; C. officinalis)
  • Sage  (Salvia officinalis)
  • Scabious  (Scabiosa arvensis; other species.  Alternatively, Erigeron spp.)
  • Solomon’s Seal  (Polygonatum spp., esp. P. multiflorum; P. biflorum;  P. virginianum; sometimes Smilacina stellata, a look-alike.)
  • Southernwood  (Artemisia abrotanum)
  • Spiderwort  (Tradescantia spp.)
  • Tansy  (Tanacetum vulgare  Linn.)
  • Tormentil        (Potentilla spp., esp. P. tormentilla (Neck.); P. canadensis?)
  • Wormwood        (Artemisia absinthium)
  • Yarrow        (Achillea millefolium)

A few of the above plants in the first list may have also been grown in gardens, such as the traditional herbal plants (T), in particular the artemisia, barberry, bayberry, cherry, and even goldenrod and raspberry.  In the garden list however, there is one plant with a name that stands out an implies knowledge of either the Colden writings or of local knowledge found in the Colden writings.  “Garden Coltsfoot” refers to Tussilago farfara.  This plant is so abundant currently that one’s immediate impression of this common name is that Osborn was simply implying the use of the most common local Tussilago as a garden-grown species rather than as a wildcrafted species. 

A review of Colden’s treatise tells us otherwise.  Colden’s “Coltsfoot” is not Tussilago farfara, but instead is Asarum canadense, known commonly as wild ginger [See part 1 of Colden’s treatise, p. 126].   Therefore, Osborn knew about both.

There are also a number of plants on Osborn’s list of plants that were probably gardened, some of which had similars living locally.  For example the Tormentil has its local Potentilla equivalent, P. canadense and other Potentilla species.   The buttercups, garlic, and gentian may have had their local species at times used in the same manner.   Bee balm, burdock, catnip, chamomile, common daisy, horseradish, plantain, yarrow and the various European mints and mint relatives were probably at first cultivated, but by now are commonly growing in the wild as well. 

When we review earlier records on “native” species, we find early evidence for this introduction of common weeds to North America by European settlers.  The most convincing record of this local environmental impact history is seen with Colden’s Serratula discussion.  This plant, brought in during the Colonial years, remains pretty much isolated to the immediate New Netherlands part of the continent, an indicator of its heritage and limited role in colonial history.  Likewise, the naturalization of the Prickly Pear cactus to certain parts of this country, as a consequence of New Spain related explorations and subsequent travels, also provides us with clues about the local ethnological history, as told by the local plant history.  In a traditional Native American sense, the distribution of Plantago majus (Plantain) is attributed to early New France explorations, with hints to this heritage documented by Micmac indian history writings.  The distribution of Dandelion is possible a result of Dutch settlements, as are the distributions of various fruit bearers in the HudsonValley like various apples and cherries.  Many “wild” mustards and legumes (even clovers) are pretty much European derived for this region, again a consequence of farming and the contamination of imported livestock feed by these seeds.  Each of the above “garden plants” noted by Osborn can be compared with Colden’s review of plants, and any attempts made to more accurately define the contents of a traditional Colden-grown and planted European garden setting.

In exchange, what we obtain from this comparison of Osborn and Colden’s knowledge of local plants tells us that in terms of local history and plant heritage value, the above listing of 11 native plants have to be considered to be representative of Colden’s most important influences on the local plant knowledge and related medical history.  Ongoing review of these species by later writers tells us which of these plants were most important to medical history in general, therefore defining the Coldens’s most important influences on the various fields of medicine, each of these fields in their entirety.

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