The Linnaean Advantage
Linnaeus had the advantage over other botanists when it came to making the best of one’s understanding of plant medicines. His work took place in Sweden, with the support of a major medical school. This work began with most of his interest in–employing contemporary jargon for this–natural history and ethnobotany. After touring the country several times, at the request of a local community leader and of course to make a living, he began to settle down as a professor in medicine specializing in medical botany at the local medical school. During this time, he became familiar with a number of classic European herbalists and early botanists, managed to review the writings of some of the earliest explorers of other countries who noted medicinal plants in their books, and began to see several common themes that existed regardless political and cultural boundaries.
One major feature of one of the most common themes found across all cultural settings was the way in which phytognomics was developed. Phytogonomics is essentially the definition of a use for a plant based uipon its appearances. Culture played a role in this tradition by defining how we humanized and made an thenic or cultural judgement about the symbols on the plant. It was as if each cultural setting had its own language being used to translate the meaning of the plant in terms of meeting the needs of mankind. Some of the interpretations of plant features manage to cross all cultural boundaries, such as the use of plants colored red to treat blood related problems. Others, like the interpretation of the trilobal leaf of Sassafras as a symbol of the fleur-de-lis of a King, fits only for the culture ruled by that king.
Linnaeus was not only a physician, but also religious minded. His interpretation of the phytognomics was heavily Christian-like, interpreting parts in threes as a sign of trinity, and particular structures on leaves as symbols of God’s message to explorers concerning the Paradise you are being introduced to. One peculiar phytognomic common to plants was the symbol of a plant serving as the cure for snakebites. This philosophy existed in early Indian and European plant medicine pertaining to the treatment of the Asp or Cobra bite. Linnaeus was seeing it present itself again in South, Middle and North American folklore about the various plant medicines. The most amazing part of this important piece of American botanical medicine history was the variety of snakebite remedies found to exist within the American landscapes. Not only was the widespread nature of this particular belief system about plants fascinating to Linnaeus, equally fascinating was the diversity of these various plants, few of which appeared like one anotehr or could even be considered somewhat related according to Linnaeus new classification system.
Moreover, these plants used to treat snakebites were selected for use in treating particular bites with particular sets of signs brought on by the bite. Some of the snakebites meant to be treated were of the venomous type, others were not. Some of the snakes that caused severe illness by their bite, were capable of gaining the attention of the animal about to be bitten, appearing as though they had plaed it in a trance or suspended state just before the bite. Still other snakes had distinct colors like the copperhead or coral snake, whereas others seemed fairly plain looking like the black snake, the snake which Cadwallader Colden had a recipe for.
Today we know the Black Snake is venomless, and everyone perhaps knew the same about the black snake during the mid to late colonial years. The Black Snake lacked the rattle typical of the Rattlesnake. It didn’t even behave much like the rattle, as would a Hog-nosed Snake with similar diamondback patterns. Nevertheless, this snake like others, it was felt, was able to put its prey into a trance and then strike for the kill. Such a talent made it a threat to people as well. It is possible that people were concerned, or even convinced of the fact that the Black Snake could mesmerize them like it does the squirrel or vole. But it is also possible that the major reason this belief was passed on during the mid to late 1700s was it was locally bred, a symbol of the cultures from which it came. Such a belief was not only of Native American origin in terms of beliefs, claims and philosophy, it was also European enough to be accepted to some extent by New World settlers. With time, even though these new settlers no longer beliefs in the imaginative reasoning that was given for why and how the medicine worked, they restated the methods of it working in such a way, so as to continue the use of the Snakeroot plant, but instead for another problem–one with symptoms linked to the consequences of a snakebite.
Linnaeus had the advantage of seeing all of this cultural reasoning and transformation of beliefs occur before his eyes as botanists from the New World sent him medicines with their own local tales on how a particular plant was called a snakeroot or snakebite remedy. Even more amazing to Linnaeus perhaps was the diversity of these plants in color, shape and form, for all of its parts. It required as much imagination as it took the Native or Colonist herbalist to decide that this plant was an actual cure for a snakebite as it took Linnaeus to look into the flower and plant form and come up with a philosophical reason as to why this plant was felt to possess such animal spirit powers.
Due to his fascination with this aspect of American medical botany tradition, Linnaeus probably encouraged one of his students, Jonas Kiernander, to produce what would become an exceptional writing on North American snakebite remedies. Kiernander defended this dissertation on April 8, 1749. Kiernander’s dissertation, along with a number of others, was bound in 1787 to form the compilation Amoenitates Academicae.
The following several pages are the first pages of this dissertation (again in Latin). Included on pages 134 and 135 are three such plants documented as such by Cadwallader Colden for the bite , and charms, of the Black Snake: Actaea racemosa, Sanicula canadensis, and Uvularia perfoliata. Two others, also known as Snakeroots, were noted in Colden’s work as well, but not indicated by Colden for use in treating Snakebites; these are: Asarum sp. (wild ginger), and Prenanthes alba. It is possible Colden also included identical if not related varieties of four other snakeroot species: Veratrum, Osmunda, Cunila and Aletris; however, Colden’s work again lacks mention of their use as snakebite remedies.
[Notes: 1. The remaining part of this dissertation is not included in this section; it is a lengthy discourse on the plant form and species identification features for multiple species, followed by an organ by organ, ailment by ailment assessment in which the potential uses for these plants are reviewed, each originally professed to be snakebite remedies. 2. Snakebite remedies are reviewed in considerably more detail in a later section, tbd. 3) This document was located using GoogleBooks]