A Field Trip

It helps to see the plants that Jane identified in the field before she produced her manuscript.  During a single field trip it is very easy to happen upon two or three dozen of these plants in an afternoon.  The hardest thing to do at times is recognize them when you pass by them.  A number of Jane’s plants are extremely common–so common we often refer to them as “weeds”, for those of us into gardening and yard maintenance.  There is another group of plants that are exceptionally hard to find, or once you find them exceptionally hard to confirm an identity for.  Some plants, like one or more of the mustard family members Jane identified, the Penstemons, and perhaps the orchids, require the botanist or  naturalist to be there at the right place, at the right time due to their short growing period.

The following are pages with pictures of plants that are harder to find or identify, are less common for the Hudson Valley region, or simply well demonstrated due to the nature of the photography.


New England or New York Aster

In Coldengham, the climate, ecology, topography and plant life aren’t what they used to be.  This is certainly true for Cadwallader and Jane and any descendents of the Colden family.  But there are still some species I could find near Coldengham that stood out as locally important in terms of history and such.  One of these is the New England Aster and its close relative New York Aster, both identified by the Coldens.  The New England Aster and New York Aster are so alike, that until you see them side by side for the first time, you are always uncertain as to which one you are looking at in the field.  One rule for telling the two apart when they are flowering, and which does not always hold its own but is a good way to start, is to look at the disk of the flower–that yellow part in the middle full of the flower used to produce the seeds.  In New York Asters, this portion has a few stragglers hanging out of a different color than the base flowers in the disk.  The base flowers tend to be brown, the stragglers yellow–the same yellow as the New England Aster.  The New England Aster is easy to identify once you are certain the disk is flat and lacks stragglers hanging and pointing out from the head.  The disk of the New England Aster is smooth and flat, and completely yellow when fresh.  So whether or not the Aster is nova-belgii or nova-angliae seems to be mostly a matter of interpretation, at least from a naturalists’ point of view.  Both are a part of the local heritage.



A large community of Buttonbush was found in Pine Plains next to the hiking area near Thompson Pond.  These plants were found growing at the edge of the cattails, along a road traversing two adjacent lake shores in this area.  This particular area I tend to feel some favoritism for due to its more “northern” ecological nature.   The woods are rich in sweet birch (Betula lenta), hemlock  (Tsuga) and a scattering or white birch (Betula alba).  There is that old local tale that mountain lions still reside in the nearby highlands forested region; I heard it as a kid, I still hear it as an adult 50 years later.   A nearby trail accessible from another road is the trail leading to the top of this this peak, where an old fire tower gazes across the horizon.  The forest floor down below is rich in a number of other Coldengham species, especially the New York (nova-boracensis) fern, various pyrolas, two wild geranium species, wintergreen, trillium, some laurels and berry producers, and aralia.  About a half mile into the forest, you begin to see a forest floor that would be expected for 18th century Coldengham in some parts.  Wintergreen shows its face, along with trillium, lycopodium, starflower, wild ginger, lilies, and the ever-evasive orchids.


Joe Pye Weed

One can travel just about anywhere in the Hudson valley, so long as it is next to a swampy area or marshy lake edge, and find an abundant supply of Joe Pye weed growing fairly close to the road.  In August, the size of the plant and its flowering tops make it pretty much unmistakeable, even from a distance.  Joe Pye weed deserves mention because its historical value as a medicine has a unique Hudson Valley twist to the story.  The use of this plant as a medicine is attributed mostly to Native American-European history.  But finding the original source for this local tale has not been an easy task.  The best that I have been able to learn about this plant is that it was used successfully by a local Indian or Indian-trained herbalist, possibly for the treatment of fever or some sort of chest or cough related condition, but most likely for the yellow fever that often struck this region as repeated epidemic events.  One story (possibly from a patent medicine pamphlet) states that the name of this individual who passed on this knowledge was known as “Jopi” or “Jo-pi” for short, thus the anglicized version of this name now in use.   The fact that the Coldens were aware of this plant suggests that local knowledge of its medicinal use was developed decades before these uses were made popular during the early 1800s.



One local tale is that Spicebush served as a substitute for tea at the time the Stamp Tax act was passed.  The leaves and branches of this plant are very aromatic, with an odor that slightly resembles cinnamon, as well as a little allspice, cardamom, and nutmeg.  Both have been used to make a beverage.  The berries of this tree make it unmistakeable in the wild, otherwise, one has to depend upon leaf form and odor to make the identification.  Also, upon close inspection, the bark of this shrub is very unique, consisting of innumerable small spots slightly raised that are about the size of pin-pricks.  Most of the branches have these raised spots.   Were it not for these, the smooth, greyish bark itself is not really a dead give-away for this plant.  Currently, this plant is still native to Coldenham.



Enchanter’s Nightshade

The Enchanter’s Nightshade is hard to take a picture of.  The fine stems and branches make it difficult to capture the colors and shapes of the flower and fruit.  This clump was found growing in the Pine Plains hiking area, right next to the sign depicting the entrance for this trail.  There is something to the shape of the seed/fruit of this plant, formed along the spike, that possibly has something to do with the wicca-like tales related to this plant.  This is otherwise one of those plants that you would easily pass by during a hike.  It is found pretty much everywhere in the region, but due to its simple color and form not usually noticed except by plant enthusiasts like myself.



There are several phytognomic (Doctrine of Signatures) features of Sassafras to note, which may have made this plant quite a curiosity for Jane.  The first, most obvious feature is the multiple forms the leaf will take for this plant.  Typically the sassafras produced three leaf, one-, two- and three-lobed.  The latter is most representative of two important parts of Anglican and perhaps to some slight extent, Scottish culture.  The three lobes of this leaf is some ways represent the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of British royalty.  Secondly, there is a feature that I have noted elsewhere in my writings, the three-lobed leaf, on a plant bearing three leaf forms, a sign of trinity. 

Another feature of sassafras that came into play with its medicinal uses pertains to the color of the inner bark of its root–which tends to be a deep red due to tannin-like phenols formed by this part of the plant.   The would have represented blood to some herbalists and physicians, and was an important feature of this plant that resulted in its major popularity by the 1800s as a blood tonic.  In later years, this would become an important flavor added to certain “root beer” recipes.  

Prior to root beers as we know them, the Coldens had a neighbor who they probably knew fairly well, who specialized in the making of root beers on his own.  Dr. Cornelius Osborn of Fishkill termed these beverages “diet drinks”, meaning they were intended to be consumed, as if they were a meal or major part of the diet, in order to help the body recover from its sick and weakened state.   In one of his Native American recipes, Osborn includes sassafras as one of numerous ingredients needed to produce a blood tonic for all decay.

Interestingly, in spite of its fame in many of the published writings of New Spain, and even the history of the Masschusetts Colony, the Coldens fail to make any mention of the local popularity of Sassafras in general.  It is possible that the popularity it acquired between 1595 and 1620 had since become a part of the distant past.   It is also possible that this history and use of sassafras seemed so well known to Jane and Cadwallader, that neither of them added it to their text due to the lack of novelty, and common sense nature of this locally historic ethnopharmacological use.  In either case, we are left with a sense of uncertainty as to how much about sassafras and its long history did the Colden’s really know.  Cadwallader suggests they must have known something, for many other plants he mentions in his treatise, had names and ethnobotanical legends drawn primarily from New Spain writings and history, like his use of the names of more southern plants such as Indigo, Poinciana, Sophora, and Waltheria.



Blood Root

This is another herbal medicine with a strong connection to the production of blood tonics and herbal panaceas (cure-alls).  The most unique features of blood root are its variable leaf form with multilobular edging or trim, its very simple but sizeable white flower, and its unmistakable rootmass form–rhizomes that appear fairly jointed and irregular, with a rough blackish surface consisting or hairs and paper like root bark, and when broken, capable of exuding large amounts of a fairly deep red colored latex.   This latex is due to the relationship of this plant with the most important international plant medicine species worldwide–Papaver somniferum or Opium Poppy.  (Opium latex is pure white when first exuded, but later turns black upon drying.)

In early colonial cultures, bloodroot or sanguinaria served as a remedy for the blood and all disorders with any sign of sanguine or blood instability and/or illness causing effects.   There is possibly a Native American link to this philosophy that precedes the knowledge of this plant’s medicinal value in local history.  But there is stronger evidence in writing that suggests many of the uses of sanguinaria are in fact European-derived, with little to do with traditional Native American philosophy.  This is argued mostly due to the sudden richness in knowledge about the uses of bloodroot after the Revolutionary War had passed and the post-war depression had subsided.  We find most of the interest in local plants like sanguinaria again peaking by the time Indian Root doctoring and trapper medicine came to be methods of maintaining health, which began just prior to and peaked during the Jacksonian Era.



The history of witchhazel in the folklore of plants pertains to its mystical powers.  The traditional way in which water was found underground was by using a witchhazel branch or form as a divining rod.  Related to this sense of “energy” or “power” related to Witchhazel wood and branches was the notion that this wood, due to its strength, made not only for good broom handles and such, but also good “broom sticks”  to ride upon, according to some of the local beliefs heavily popularized by Washington Irving.

One of the most distinct features of witchhazel to most taxonomists is the tendency for male and female flowers to be produced at different times, with the female flowers appearing more colorful, typically a bright yellow at a time when most of the branches of this tree appear black due to continuous dampness.  In American medicine, the uses for witchhazel had yet to be developed and then strongly popularized.  Nevertheless, it had some uses, though none of these appear in the Coldens’ writings.


Wild Sarsaparilla

One of the genera the Coldens paid the most attention to, in terms of local history, was Aralia.    This included the Wild or False Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) pictured below.  There are several plants pictured at the base of the tree.  Note, again, the tendency for the branches of this plant to divide into a threesome.  Both Jane and her father provide us with a rich local history of this plant as an important species for Hudsonian history.  This photograph was taken at the Pine Plains site.


Groundnut/Hog Peanut

The Garden Society’s review of Jane Colden’s manuscript has this plant identified as “Glyeine” a misinterpretation of her rendering of the most common genus name for this plant–Glycine.   The groundnut and hog-peanut are often treated as cousins or “similars” –plants which are related and which have similar ethnobotanical features.  In this case, the two Glycines expected in the Coldenham area are Amphicarpus (Falcata) bractata and Apios tuberosa Moench. (originally Glycine apios L.)  Jane’s manuscript reviews “Apios gronovius” (officially Apios gronovius Gronovius? before Linne’s name became the standard.).  So, for the time being, the assumption here is that Apios is being described.  According to Jane, the Apios gronovius species has its leaflets in 5’s. and bears dark red flowers.  The following photos focus on Jane’s plant, with a picture of the “similar”, in some botanists’ eyes, added at the end. 



Pokeweed deserves special attention due to its inclusion in American medical botany history as one of the first local “cancer” cures identified by colonists.  The use of pokeweed for treating “cancer” was written up in an essay by Cadwallader Colden and later submitted for publication.  The general understanding that physicians and the public had about “cancer” at this time was fairly poor, and the term “cancer” was often loosely applied to abnormal growths and swelling of the body which in a modern sense are not at all related to true cancer.  To those who understood “cancer” the least during the colonial and early post-colonial periods, simple deep-seated abcesses might pass for cancer, as well as infections of the lung cavity once they started to erupt through the surface of the chest, such as a pleurisy with a pus cavity formed due to an ongoing infection or malingering consumption (tuberculosis).  During Colden’s time it was not unusual for physicians to believe that diseases could travel from one part of the body to the next, manifesting themselves in different ways, in different parts of the body.  In this way the swelling of feet (heart failure or infection) could become a disease of the intestines, resulting is ascites and kidney problems, then making its way into the chest to form some sort of consumption, followed by “cancer” as this blackish exudate from a “tumor” was coughed up, ultimately taking a life.  For this reason it was not at all difficult to understand how some plants came to be considered unique “cancer” cures, even though they had little to no true effect upon cancer as we know it today.

At the time the Coldens did their work in botany, rhubarb was one of the more common remedies for “cancer”, as were the oxalis and rumex acetosa (sour dock).  Each of these plants had considerable acidity attributed to them, due to which, when applied to the surface of the skin, were capable of “dissolving” the swelling, tumor or “cancer” below.  Pokeweed was used in very much the same way.  One major difference between pokeweed and the others though was the unique toxicity of pokeweed due to its lectins.  Pokeweed mitogen in particular was a lectin that did have an effect on true cancer and could effectively kill any active cancer cells that were producing the tumor to be treated.  For this reason, the Coldens are responsible in part for actually bringing our attention to the potential value of plants like pokeweed for use in cancer treatment, even though the meaning and understanding of cancer at the time was incorrect much of the time.

Other local uses for pokeweed include the edibility of its shoots or youngest parts, and the use of its berries to produce a fairly effective dye that is difficult to remove from some materials once applied.


Convallaria or Solomon’s Seal

Jane’s discussion of C’onvallaria or S’alomon’s Seal represents one of the typicals problem we have with reviewing old botanical work.  With the novelty of discovery of a new plant comes the need felt to assign an official Latin name to it, even before the total taxonomy of the plant and its complete identity put into place relative to others it may be closely linked to.  This common method of naming plants for the time is not at all Jane’s fault or the fault of the other botanists who engaged in this practice as well.  It is more a consequence of normal human behavior, the desire to make sense of the world around you whether it be man-made or creatively “designed.”  There are several plants that the Coldens engaged in this naming behavior with, including several false dye plants growing locally, with similarities in use to more traditional dye plants, and local look-alikes such as the three-leaved Trillium mistaken for its similar, the four-leaved Paris native to Europe. 

To the Coldens, Smilacina (not yet known by this genus name), appeared so close to the common Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis), that it was given this genus name.  The same was true for the local False Lily of theValley residing locally as well (Maianthemum canadensis).  But in this case, the native “False Solomon’s Seal” (sometimes called Smilacina racemosa) appeared very much like the European biblical herb by the same name–Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum officinale and P. multiflorum).  The two Smilacina species in New York were once considered species of Polygonatum as well–P. biflorum (the smaller species with paired flowers) and P. commutatum (the species with a flower spike). 

One major difference between Polygonatum and Smilacina is in the root rhizome.  The true Solomon’s Seal has the mark of King Solomon found whereever the stems have detached from the rhizome–the rhizome is fairly think, mealy, and light colored within.  The False Solomon’s Seal bears a rhizone that is dark brown, thin, and when you try to cut it open, very fibery.  There are no leaf scars on the surface, much less scars with vascular marks resembling any sort of sealed wax instrument.   But also, the leaves (actually leaflets) of Polygonatum are perfectly paired along the stem, and the plant produces well defined flowers in pairs alongside the leaflet pairs.  Smilacina has its leaflets alternating, with flowers usually near the tip.  From this observation alone we can tell whether or not the “Convallaria” is a true or false soloman’s seal.


Wild Lily of the Valley

In terms of commonality and expression, the recognition of local plants that resembled those from home had an important effect upon the effects of migration to the New World.  These familiar plants could be taken as symbols put there for personal recognition by the Creator, or they might just be there as a result of happenstance, the result of somebody previously discarding the same from a ship making its way through the region.  When we review the writings of the earliest explorers and travellers, we find that this recognition of local plants obviously related to those back home to be calming.  At times, these recognitions of “identicals”–local plants considered to be the same as those back home–were actually mistaken identities or “similars”.  They resembled something from the Old World but weren’t exactly the same.

The identification of the false lily-of-the-valley is an example of this.  Both Cadwallader and Jane followed the recommendations of Linne, placing these in the same genus as the traditional lily-of-the-valley Convallaria majus.  In this case, the difference was significant in terms of overall appearances.  But in terms of medicine and such, this only made a difference in that the strongly toxic effects of European lily-of-the-valley would not be seen were the North American species Maianthemum canadense Desf. (alt. name Unifolium canadense Ait.) more carefully reviewed.  It ends up the single-leaf structure of Maianthemum should have been a give-away to the Coldens and Linne, but it was not.  As a result, we have Smilacina and Maianthemum both classified as Convallaria species.  Not that this really matters in the long run, were it not for a similar mistake made for False Solomon’s Seal or Smilacina. 

In the end this had little impact on the local botany and ethnobotany as a whole.  What’s important to note here however is the fact that a number of plants being identified by Jane and her father were evidently some of the first attempts made at establishing names for these plants.  For some reason, Maianthemum was not properly described and identified, and so did not result in the recognition of the Coldens as their initial identifiers.  

During this time, a number of botanists were essentially fighting for recognition and discovery with regard to this plant.  Linne had noted it in part as early as 1737, but it did not receive any official notations until around 1763 due to the work of Adanson.  Meanwhile, in 1759, botanists Lorenz Heister and P. C. Fabricius made an attempt to be recognized for its discovery when they named its genus Valentinia.   In 1799, botanists Gaertner, Meyer and Scherbius for a brief period assigned it the name Bifolium, which of course had its limits if it was to be considered a replacement for the genus name Unifolium.  Both of these features could in fact be true.  As a result, it wasn’t until 1780 when Freidrich H Wiggers gave it the genus name Maianthemum that this name officially took hold.  In this case, the Colden’s work serve as an initiator in some ways, but not as some final say with regard to providing the official plant name. 



Smilax is important to note due to its unique place in North American ethnobotany history.  This history of Smilax began with the exploration and settlement of the mid-Atlantic area by Sir Walter Raleigh during the late 1500s.  The establishment of a settlement in the Roanoke area was short lived, but the report back to Royalty that followed due to Raleigh’s explorations resulted in the rapid development of a new trade relationship with the Orient.  People of the Orient paid much for a clean, pure white starch from plants, using this to produce various foods, in much the same way as food stuffs from rice were produced.  In addition to food uses, the starch from a Smilax in the Orient had important medicinal uses due to its purity in form and color.  This is the way in which attempts were made to market Smilax roots as an equivalent to this valuable Oriental trade commodity.

In much the same way as the American Ginseng market, there was a moderate amount of success trading this commodity with the Orient.  But unlike the Ginseng market, this starch trade route couldn’t hold its own for very long.  One of the major problems with Smilax is finding the rootstock.  The vine itself is very thin and fragile, and one can rapidly lose track of just where the vine one is following towards to ground actually goes as its weaves through the various limbs and numerous other vines like wild grape and dodder.  Secondly, once one reaches the ground and successfully discovers exactly where the vine has arisen from the soil, the problem becomes trailing the thin, fragile, extension of the vine, now a root, through the stone-ridden rock-hard soil.  In fact, one of the best ways to find such a tuber, which can actually be pretty massive at times (up to 2′ long and 4-6″ around), one has to essentially dig up the entire area and pray for a discovery.  This root could be just a few inches beneath the soil where the stem has arisen, or 15 feet away and 2 or more feet underground.  If one were to chose this for their profession during Colonial times, making any sort of economic headway work- and time-wise would not be an easy task.  Due to this, we never really hear much more about the early Colonial Smilax root industry following the initial attempts made to market this plant in Virginia and the Carolinas.

By the time New Netherlands was being settled, attempts may have been made to collect and barter local Smilax root crops, although no evidence has really been found to reveal the establishment of this as a stable local trade industry.  By the time the Coldens have settled in what is now New York Province, the Smilax trade is essentially non-existent, and perhaps even the knowledge of the past markets others had try to establish.  By the time the Coldens settled in the Valley, the more important Oriental trade commodity both of the Colden botanists knew about very well–Panax americana L. or American Ginseng.  We find substantial evidence in the Newspapers published during the Colonial years in the New York area about such an on-going wild-crafting (for use of a contemporary term) industry involving Ginseng.  Loudon’s packet noted the annual announcements to citizens that interest in collecting the local ginseng for trade with China was once again commenced. 

Still, the Coldens also failed to mention much about this important trade industry involving the plants that resided on or near their land.  Now, we know that such a market must have existed in the immediately local Hudson Valley-Shawangunks-Catskills-Appalachia region.  This is perhaps why the American Ginseng is in fact rare and even endangered.  This became one of the first wild plants to be overharvested in this country due to economic potential, along with the large evergreens that made up the mixed conifer-deciduous forests that once populated the Hudson River shoreline up near Livingston’s piece of land, used to produce buildings and ships, and the one or two common orchids of times passed.  But due to its own unique growing patterns and behaviors, Smilax itself was never at risk of extinction due to overharvesting.   



There is something about the Eupatorium perforatum or Boneset that is rarely told as a piece of local history.  Closely related to Joe Pye weed, this plant was very popular for use as a medicine by the early 1800s.  The primary reason for this popularity was two-fold.  First, native plants were finally a rage in medicine, publically and professionally, due in large part to the nationalism that developed following the revolution and the skirmishes of 1812-15 with the British.  Intermingled with the military history of this country during this time was the rising popularity of the use of local plants versus imports, and the need to find local equivalents for many of the greatly more expensive imported medicines.  Patent medicines sold in bottles were popular then, and even these seemed to have a hold on United States citizens as one of the chief consumers.  Local plants and local patent medicines were the means by which the United States, would in fact be loyal to its own businesses and its own people.

Throughout this period of political and economic change in this country’s history, imports and immigration continued, although with lulls at times and other periods when shipping seemed overly successful.  These ships, as they came in, also brought with them contagion and miasma–one of the reasons many felt that epidemics often ensued once the ship had docked and its people disembarked.  Another reason people felt these ships were a menace to local public health was the conditions of the ports, due to the dumping of ballast used to weigh down the boat as it came into port, and the release of human and animal waste into the harbors.  At one point, this even led onw famous writer–Thomas Paine–to deviate from his tendency to engage in political essays, in order to write his own synopsis on this threat to the local populations.

Throughout this period of economic growth, increased international trade activities, and the issuance of new public health rules by the new “police” just formed in the city settings like New York, there was this ongoing interest in national medicines, instead of British and European medicines.  Thus came the popular herbal medicine movements of the early 19th century in Hudson Valley history, such as Thomsonianism and Indian Root Doctoring.  During one of the yellow fever epidemics that struck the New York and Hudson Valley area, one or more local physicians considered using the local Boneset herb to treat this major life-threatening illness.  There was already knowledge of the three types of fever epidemics that struck the region, namely breakbone fever (makes your muscle ache, and feel tight and cramped, as if to break your bones), spotted fever (resulted in “spotting of the skin” as a key symptom), and yellow fever.  All of these were being discussed in the local medical journals published around this time (i.e. Medical Repository of NYC). These epidemics made such local physicians as Benjamin Rush, Valentine Seaman, David Hosack, and others who were locally famous for years to come.

Not that Cadwallader or Jane Colden are solely responsible for this sudden surge in interest in the use of Boneset, or the use of any local plants with Native American history for use in treating local illnesses.  But it is important to note that the Coldens’ work is an important part of this history of Valley changes from 1795 to 1825 due to their work on the local ethnopharmacology.  The Coldens learned about this plant and were two fo the several botanists who introduced it to the world long before it became a staple in the early American medical profession by about 1825/1832, with the establishment of Eclectic medical practice in the New York City area about this time. 



In general, there are two types or classes of oak trees that need to be recognized.  These types or classes are by no means a direct result of their Latin classification or method of defining plant tribes or sub-families.  Instead, these classes are defined due to the unique effects the attributes used to define these classes have on the utility of the oak tree at hand.  An important question for the time, pertaining to Jane Colden and her father’s familiarity with botany, is — ‘did the knowledge of this distinction between the different types of oak exist during their lifetime?’  Since they do not provide us with much ethnobotany text pertaining to the oak or Quercus that is covered, the answer to this question remains uncertain. 

One interesting thing about the Hudson Valley oaks to notice–and the related question that needs to be asked is–which of the two types of oaks was more common to the valley during the Coldens’ life?  White or “Black”?  I put “Black” in quotes because black oaks aren’t really given that common name for most of local species, and so I use this term essentially to differentiate the two types of oaks from each other.

To be more specific about these differences, I should start by explaining that the term “black” oak refers to the overall richness in tannins that these oaks have when it comes to their uses.  Whereas all oaks serve in some way, shape or form as valuable wood and fuel sources, only the tannin poor oaks can be used to produce some sort of edible substance–namely, the starch that can be drawn from the acorn assuming it is leached enough to pull out what relatively small amount of tannins it has in the acorn.  Although substantial amounts of leaching could be done to the tannin rich acorns, in order to remove the tannins, once a common Native American practice, this process also tended to involve smaller acorn producers and so the effort may not always be worth it with the tannin-rich oaks.  Since the White Oak does produce sizeable acorns that are low in tannins relatively speaking, this is the desired food source when it comes for starch production.

Now, it is also important to note that it is possible that the Coldens either saw the “black” oaks growing about the area, but did not do too much to review them taxonomically, perhaps due to the difficulty with distinguishing one from the other, or they simply did not see many of them due to a predominance of white oak species in the region.  If this were the case it would suggest that since the 1700s, like the evergreens, there was an overharvesting of white oaks which has resulted in the diminishment of this strong species, leading to their replacement by more adventitious “black oaks”  species.

To be more specific about this white oak and black oak difference at the exact Genus species level, the following oaks are to be noted as locals, according to Edith Adelaide Roberts and Helen Wilkinson Reynolds’ “The Role of Plant Life in the History of Dutchess County” (1938).

Oak Association Forest:

  • Quercus alba L. (white oak)
  • Quercus coccinea Muench. (scarlet oak)
  • Quercus muhlenbergii Englem.  (yellow oak)
  • Quercus prinus L. (chestnut oak )
  • Quercus rubra L. (red oak)
  • Quercus stellata L (post oak)
  • Quercus velutina L. (black oak)

Another oak more common to adventitious settings is Quercus ilicifolia Wang. (scrub or holly-leaved oak)

Only the White oak above is the true low-tannin oak of the region.  The majority of others are “black oaks”, only with different common names. 

All of the above non-‘alba’ oaks, with the exception of chestnut oak, had important wood-related uses.  Chestnut oak was very important for use as a tannin source, which became most popular once the fur trade industry began making heavy use of natural tannins for their hide-curing process (for example, regarding the valley’s local Tannersville history). 

In the following two pictures, the major difference between “black” and white oaks in terms of leaf-form can be seen.  The “black” oak leaf is pinnate and has extensions of the leaf veins protruding from sharp lobes or lobules.  The white oak has rounded lobules, and lacks the sharp tips produced by extended veins.

Since the Coldens did seem to emphasize white oak in their description of Quercus, it is easy to surmise that they were probably familiar with the one or more “black” oaks also abundent in the region, but said little about their taxonomy or Latin naming due to the lack of information on this for the local species by Linne.  Linne had identified the red oak and chestnut oak in North America about this time, but it is possible that the local species the Coldens found may not have fit well with Linne’s descriptions.  Nevertheless, we can still safely conclude that by the time Jane and Cadwallader had documented their local oaks, that three species were known and assigned common and Latin names:  white, chestnut and either black or red.  Unfortunately, there is little mention about local uses by settlers for these, except for the implied obvious like as wood and fuel.  Early colonial documents (ca. 1702, Gov. Dongan’s recommendation for managing Livingston’s tract, with the help of Palatines) suggest the initial emphasis on tannin-related bark use may have in fact been a consequence of the evergreen trees industries, resulting in bark-products for the initial production of shiphull stains or treatments as well as tanning dyes.


Wild Geranium

The logical follow-up to the tannin rich oaks is the discussion of another tannin-source-the wild geraniums.  There are numerous species of wild geraniums–Geranium maculatum L. (wild cranesbill, image to the right below, native to North America) and G. robertianum L. (herb robert, image to the left below, introduced or escaped from colonial gardens)—these two are perhaps the most abundant local species.  Geranium maculatum L. has a distinct leaf form, as does G. robertianum L., although the latter leaf, since it is milliform (appearing “lacey”, or very much divided into small feathery lobules), can be mistaken when found without a flower in the woods.  In general, cranesbill likes to grow along forest floors, well shaded, and herb robert, along forest floors close to forest edges and especially along taluses–those rock collections formed by boulders at the base of a steep forested mountain edge or tree-covered hillside totally contained within a well-shaded forest setting.

The tannin content of these plants is due to another type of tannin, unlike that produced by the oaks.  Herbalists take on such plants for their bitter, tonic-like nature, due to the relative mellow nature of these tannins to the tongue–they do not dry the skin so much or cause the lips to pucker as much as witchhazel or oak tannins.  Due to these qualities of the herb, it has numerous uses, most of which are a part of traditional European teachings in the early herbals.  So it is not unexpected to find that this herb may have been immediately recognized as a plant and important garden addition for the Colonial herb garden as well.  This common knowledge about wild geranium use is not expected in Jane’s writings, nor does it exist as such.   Mention of this tannin-realted use does appear in Cadwallader’s work, Coldengham Treatise, Part 2, in which he mentions the use of this plant for treating “Dysenteriam” or ‘dysentery’ –a name applied to a severe flux of the bowels usually with blood included, often due to various forms of bacterial contamination of foods and waters due to poor latrine habits and settings.  





In contemporary herbalism, there is something very traditional about Coltsfoot.  The common herb known as Coltsfoot is one of the most common medicinal herbs covered in books on this topic, past and present.  Coltsfoot is one of the most commonly marketed herbs in herbal medicine, most often found in products used for treating sore throats, coughs, and such.  But the “traditional” Coltsfoot covered in herb books and sold in the stores is not at all the “coltsfoot” covered by Jane Colden.  This begs that a story be told about ‘Coltsfoot’ and the history of this plant’s namesake, an example of how our impressions and understanding about the uses of plants as medicines changes over time.

According to Lyon’s Plant Names, the following plants have been given the common name Coltsfoot.

  • Caltha palustris L.  (aka swamp or meadow buttercup; marsh marigold)
  • Galax aphylla L.  (milkwort)
  • Tussilago farfara L. (coltsfoot in the modern sense, and introduced into North America as a part of Colonial history, second picture below)
  • Petasites petasites (L.) Karst.  (native coltsfoot in western North America, not shown below)

The first two received this name probably due to their leaf form resembling the hoof marks of a colt in mud. 

But Lyons also refers to Jane’s plant, Asarum canadense L., noting it as “False Coltsfoot” (first picture below).  Why the distinction between Jane’s coltsfoot as the “false” variety, and the first two as just “coltsfoot”?  There must have been some popularity to Jane’s name for this plant for a short while, enough to cause some local and international confusion amongst herbalists and botanists.  Lyons notes the Caltha and Galax names of “coltsfoot” could be better applied elsewhere.  Caltha had better names to be used by botanists, and Galax it ends up had other names as well, and since it is a southern plant is relatively speaking unimportant in terms of Jane’s overall experience and work history.

Just how the common name “coltsfoot” came about is pretty obvious, it is the question as to “when” this common name finally was assigned to the official coltsfoot that remains uncertain.   Since the name coltsfoot refers to the leaf-shape–which resembles to hoof print of a colt–one could argue that Jane’s application of the name coltsfoot to Asarum better fits the leaf form than the same name assigned to Tussilago.  The somewhat pointed or polygonal edge and trimmings of Tussilago may or may not be really the best representation of a Coltsfoot.  However, this leaf-form and name does not at all fit the leaf-form for Petasites.  So how did Petasites get the same name and why did it retain this name?

In general, there is a first-name rule that tends to dominate, which states that at least for Latin names, those who first define the plant description in its entirety and who assign a Latin name in the right format are priviledged with becoming the one to whom the fame of the plant name is assigned.  The same is not always true for common names applied to plants, but in this case such was perhaps the case.  No doubt earlier herbalists from a century before were beginning to use this term for specific herbs, and so the European name ‘coltsfoot’ seems to be more an application of a European naming tradition to this early North American discovery.  However, one could still argue that the leaf form of asarum better fits the name coltsfoot, even if it is a later addition to the herbals.

Still, the most interesting aspect of the coltsfoot herbs pertain to their uses.  Since coltsfoot (Tussilago in this case) is traditionally related to coughs and colds and such, it is possible the local herbalists also included these uses in their repertoire of applications for this local plant.  Or perhaps Jane alone made this connection.    But there is also the matter concerning the western coltsfoot, the use of which became popular well after Jane’s accomplishments.  This western use of a ‘coltsfoot’ like herb is due mostly to form and visual association, and not at all original, traditional application.  In other words, somebody travelling west noticed Petasites for the first time, saw the remarkable similarity its flower to that of Tussilago, noted the early pre-leaf blooming behavior of this plant, and the leaf growth habits, all like Tussilago, and likened the Latin name of this Petasites to Tussilago, calling it Western Coltsfoot.  Taxonomically, the two are very different. 

In terms of ethnobotany and medicinal use, the therapeutic applications of Eastern and Western Coltsfoot were as of that point in time the same in American medical history.  Yet, unlike Tussilago, Petasites in fact is toxic to the liver somewhat, due to pyrollizidine alkaloids.  Therefore, the overall medicinal potential of the two are in fact quite different.  Common belief is the only thing tying Eastern Coltsfoot to Western Coltsfoot in turns out.   

What this is all leading to is my point that there is a moderately complex “transformation of common belief” taking place here, a topic that I address several times elsewhere.  It is common for people to make visual and psychological assocations between plants and their uses based on simple observations and changes that result in personal philosophy and psychology.  The plant is then used as if it were traditionally applied in this fashion, even though it is not.  During the periods in history when natural theologian/natural philosophy formed the crux of many arguments about plants and their uses (as “signs of Heaven” or clues produced by God), experience, observations and reasoning were not always the reasons these plants came to be the medicines that they are.  Be it due to Jane or some other local family or herbalist familiar with the European Coltsfoot, this name “coltsfoot” interestingly did not stick around for the local Asarum plant.  It had a European relative Asarum europium L. (asarabacca) which could also be a reason for this.  That plant, appearing much like the local Asarum (except taller and more erect, and with leaves twice the size, darker and more “hairy”) was also not named coltsfoot apparently.  So the use of coltsfoot as a local name for this herb  stands out as possibly being local folklore and culturally based.



Settlers of the New World had a certain fascination about the charm of a snake or the “animal magnetism” it possessed when it selected its prey and next meal.  This, of course, was most closely associated with the rattlesnake of the New World, which through its cunning behaviors, such as eye to eye contact, tongue movements, coiled position, and ability to cause a rattle with its tail, was able to make any animal stand perfectly still for a moment, just long enough to become a victim of this snake’s charm.   In human behavior and philosophy, people tended to liken this activity and reaction to the environment as a consequence of an uncontrollable “spirit” within each body, its “animal spirit” which in turn resulted in medical afflictions brought on by the passions.

To scientists like Karl Linne, this human fascination with the snake developed a new meaning as he came to learn about how such beliefs developed due to the asps and adders of India also came to be in the New World, where a different type of snake existed, one not so venomous as instantly deadly as the venomous snakes of the Old World.  The rattlesnake added to the knowledge about the mesmeric skills of the Cobra by adding a new sense to this method of capturing your prey–sound.  This at first very physical basis for animal magnetism took on a different “sense” involving human imagination once Cadwallader Colden added to it some sort of metaphysical prowess that he claims some snakes had, those without the ability to rattle or produce a venom.  The local Black Snake of New York Corn fields was the reason Colden developed his philosophy on snake charming, thereby converting a fairly physical theory on the ability for snakes to charm and kill into one more “spiritual” in nature.

At the time, very popular and highly respected physicians were beginning to develop their own theory on the ability of snake to charm and kill their prey.  Richard Mead for example wrote a treatise on the rattlesnake, defining its anatomical make up and researching the nature of its fangs as the means for influencing its victims.  Cadwallader, meanwhile, developed his own theory further, melding it with some of the philosophy he was writing about pertaining to the metaphysical nature of the universe and its ongoing movement and activities, a philosophy opposing that of Isaac Newton.  This particular topic in Cadwallader’s writings was perhaps one of the most impacting natural history topics in general, comparing only to his introduction of Corn to the Old World as an important food crop and agricultural product with many potential uses.   

During the several decades that followed Colden’s treatise on Coldenham plants, we see evidence for the influences of this writing appear in Linne’s activites as botanist, physician and professor of a medical school.  Linne responded to this sudden surge in natural history pertaining to snake remedies and plants by having his students learn about this, and in at least one case , select this as the primary thesis topic required for final graduation from the university.  Colden’s mention of the various snakeroots was included in the first listing of those plants most important to understanding this part of American and worldwide medical history.  In later decades, numerous botanists in America would do much the same, adding much to the knowledge base that Cadwallader Colden and Linne had started. 

There are a number of “snakeroots” noted in Jane’s work.  Aristolochia from the south, and Polygala situated to the west in New York were two very popular examples of this.  Her father’s own Black Snakeroot, Caulophyllum thalictrioides (Black Cohosh), had also become a staple in local regular and herbal medicine practices for New York as well.  This plant was related to the one snake that made absolutely no use of venom to influence its prey, only its body form behaviors and metaphysical skills and charm.  Another snakeroot, probably more associated with the rattlesnakes, is one or more of the Prenanthes species.  Interestingly, neither Jane nor Cadwallader make mention of the association of Asarum canadense and its ethnobotanical history as Canadian Snakeroot. 

The following pictures demonstrate some features of Prenanthes that may have been the reason this plant was assigned some sort of serpentine-like metaphysical ability.  The single flower and its parts have the appearance of the face and forked tongue, the flower buds, draped in clusters and in a particular form, may have been interpreted as similars to the rattle itself.


Trillium or “Paris”

The three main trilliums of the Hudson Valley region are Trillium cernuum, Trillium erectum and Trillium grandiflorum.  Trillium erectum has the purple flower Jane talks about, Trillium erectum the smaller white flower shoe noted for the second trillium.  The third species, Trillium grandiflorum she never described in her manuscript.  To Cadwallader and Jane, the Trillium was simply a local example of the Herb Paris of Europe, a plant with much the same appearance, with the exception of its additional leaf or leaflet in the cluster at the top of its main stem.  The NewYork Trilliums were ultimately new species for Linnaeus.  The diverse stories about their local Native use would not be put into writing until the turn of the next century, around 1800 approximately.

Jane’s nickname for this plant was ‘The three Leaved purple flower’d Herb Trulove’ according to her manuscript.  The nick-name “True-Love” for this herb appears in Lyon’s Plant Names (1907), so this was a name that ultimately received some respect and so persisted into the next century.  The majority of common names for Truelove paint another picture, one which mimics the idealization that followed European settlers into the nineteenth century as women took a greater interest in the native plants.  Other names from this trillium are wake-robin, bathwort, bathflower, bumble-bee root, red benjamin, Indian shamrock, and birthwort.  During the nineteenth century, the use implied by this latter name took center stage in the field of herbalism.

Bethroot or birthwort pertained to its use is assisting in labor and delivery.  Two of the more culturally crude common names for this plant–squaw-flower and squawroot–were posed for the same purpose and made use of this plant quite popular for decades to follow.  Jane’s focus on this plant however remained very respectful and was more representative of the “Indian Princess” image of life.  This emphasis on the romantic view of the plant and its meaning is very much Jane Austen-like.  Jane’s ‘Paris’ contained three leaves, a sign of the trinity, whereas traditional Paris in Europe contained four leaves–a sign of the cross.  Still, note that for Jane’s drawings of the “leaf” of this plant, each of the three “leaves” (actually leaflets) on her Paris consist of four sections.

This romantic and somewhat religious ideology of Trillium erectum is not as evident, based on the folklorish names of the Trillium cernuum species.  The flower is not purple or red, but smaller and white.  And the common names for cernuum are rattlesnake plant and snakeroot, a history more reminiscent of other herbal medicines, with other Native American derived philosophies perhaps. 


Fibraurea or Goldthread

About the time that she documented this plant, Jane’s genus name for this plant, Fibraurea, meaning ‘Golden-thread’ (referring to its fine roots rich in the colorful alkaloid coptisine and its similarly colored ally berberine), was no more official than the name given to it by Linnaeus–Helleborus trifolius L.  Linne’s choice of names was later supported by the famous evolution-natural selection biologist and botanist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, who called this plant H. trilobus L.    The name Coptis, literally Grek for “cut leaved”, referred to the splitting of each leaflet which was common to this species.  Years later Richard A. Salisbury stated much the same for its name, again referring to it as a Helleborus species–H. pumilus Salisb.  Salisbury later conceded to Linne’s species name, finally defining this plant to be Coptis trifolia (L.) Salisb.

To Jane, this three-leaved, three-lobed “fibraurea” probably had some philosophical meaning.  To the botanists it was simple a new species, that really did not receive full recognition of its formal Latin genus name “Coptis’ until about 1807.  By then, Jane’s work was pretty much forgotten in the Anglican science world.  Jane’s only consolation with this plant was perhaps her win post-humously over Nathaniel L. Britton’s Latin name Isopyrum trifolium Brit., which never took off in popularity. 

To Colonial herbalists and perhaps locally trained physicians, Coptis had some features which made it stand out as a medicine.  The golden color of its thread-like roots, and the same for any tonic made using it as a medicine, was also provided with the bitter taste most typically associated with highly cherished tonics.  This along with its color harp back to the days when the four humours theory was popular–coptis was probably then considered to be a valuable remedy for any sickness pertaining to the liver and gall bladder. 

There was yet to be discovered another herb closely related to Coptis with similar uses, according to this same ancient theory.  Goldenseal provided much larger rootstocks from which to extract this type of remedy (its golden alkaloid was the highly unstable hydrastine, which decays rapidly upon drying and exposure to light and air to hydrastinine).  In due time, goldenseal became the next panacea in herbal medicine, right about the time that supplies of wild ginseng were dwindling.  Officially considered described and documented by Ellis in 1759, just a few years after Jane’s work was pretty much completed, Ellis and Phillip Miller competed for name and discovery recognition of this plant, Miller wishing to call it Warnera canadensis Miller).  But according to Linne, Ellis’s Hydrastis stuck and Linne gave this plant the name Hydrastis canadensis L.   Both Coptis and Hydrastis had a strong Oriental background for their use as medicines.  Coptis remains one of the most common Chinese herbal remedies, and Hydrastis the same for North America and the United States.  

Due to these events in herbal medicine history and politics, goldenseal became the most popular medicine and as a result was overharvested and has since become an endangered species.  Coptis remains fairly common, with numerous species noted in endangered forest settings all across North America and the United States.


Impatiens or Touch-me-Nots

The most common local Impatiens species, Impatiens biflora Watt., is defined by its dark yellow to orange color.  The lighter colored or more pallor species found locally is Impatiens pallida Nutt., discovered a generation or two after the production of Jane’s and Cadwallader’s manuscripts.    Nuttall called the orange flowering species Impatiens fulva Nutt., a name still found in many current wild plant books.

The touch-me-nots are so-called due to their hydroscopic behaviors–they gather water in their tissues, which gathers pressure where it is being stored; this pressure is released by contact with the seed by a passer-by, causing the seed to be expelled from the pod as it splits open due to this pressure just released.  This periaquatic herb fills the wet shorelines of lakes, streams, marshes and woodlands floors.  It had little to no well documented uses except as a curiosity for much of the Colonial period in American history, and even during the 19th century its uses appear limited.   Its more common 19th century uses are told by its moist nature–it is taken to induce sweats and as a diuretic.  In more recent herbalism history, it was recommended for use inj preparing a liniment or wash for treating poison ivy rash, with the added folktale story suggesting this is why poison ivy will not grow in the immediate vicinity where it grows and vice versa.  The cornucopia shape of the flower is what made this plant so attractive to early herbalists, like Jane.

Jane’s common name for this is Wild Balsamina, relating it to the Linnean species Impatiens balsamina L. found in tropical Asia.  In Europe, another touch-me-not could be found in the wild–I. noli-tangere L. (noli-tangere=touch-not), where it was also called Wild Balsam and Herb of St. Catherine. 

In the photographs below, both species are seen growing in close proximity to each other: Impatiens flava (yellow) and I. fulva (orange).  The yellow species was documented by Nuttall during the very early 1800s. 


Blue Vervain

The genus name for this plant, verbena, refers to its long history of use as a cure-all in European history.   The official vervain remedy come from the European Verbena officinalis L. for which reason many native North American species like Verbena hastata L. are often neglected.  According to her description of the size and flowering spikes of her “C’ommon Vervain’, this large species is the one to make note of.    In her end note on this plant, Jane also refers to a white-flowering vervain, possibly the pale pink-flowering species Verbena halei, which is more commonly a southern species native to Alexander Garden’s neck of the woods, but more likely the scarcely reviewed Verbena urticifolia L. 


Arbutus or Wintergreen

The wintergreen of traditional folklore is Gaultheria procumbens, which Linne has referred to as Brossaea procumbens.  Jane referred to this species as “Arbutus Gaultheria Kalm”, recognizing Pedr Kalm’s role in the knowledge of its local natural history.  According to New York botanist Asa Gray, Kalm named this plant after French botanist M. Gautier (whom he referred to in error as “Dr. Gaulthier”), a member of the French Academy who had recently made important contributions to New York-New England ethnobotany and economic botany with his paper on sugar maple.  A fairly early description of this plant dated 1737 by Otto Kuntze referred to it with the genus name “Gaulthiera”. 

The bulk of Gaultheria species are South American, with at least four on the North American continent.  Common names for this plant include boxberry, chickenberry, grouseberry, partridgeberry, deerberry, checkerberry, hillberry, ivyberry, teaberry, redberry, and spiceberry, to name a few.   The French referred to its leaf-based tea as The de terre neuve (Tea of the New World) or The de canada (Tea of Canada).  In New England, the common names pippins and liverleaf were applied and were for the most part particular to this region.  The only other plant with a smell and flavor comparable to Wintergreen tea for the time is Sweet Birch (Betula lenta).

In Jane’s writing, the illustration of this plant is subtitled “No. 103.  Arbutus Gaultheria Kalm. a Wintergreen.”  This is one of several plants that Pedr Kalm would document during his travels in the New York region, right about the time Jane was producing her collection and manuscript.  Kalm’s most important identification is perhaps the unique species Lobelia kalmii.

The better known ‘arbutus” for the New York-New England area is trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens L.), a close relative of Gaultheria.



The Staphylea (Staphylaea) trifolia L. or the three-leaved bladdernut tree, as Jane would call it, also went by the common name rattle-box.  This is due to the sound it makes in the fall when the small seeds, which look like kernels of corn, loosen from the pod that surrounds them, thereby making a rattling sound whenever it gets windy.  Just what uses there were for this plant during the colonial time in the Hudson Valley remain uncertain for now.  This plant has relatives in Europe, and so some uses may have stemmed from the knowledge of these other species. 


Black and White Birch

Jane note two species of birch in her manuscript:  “Betula lenta  No. 307 Black Birch Tree” and “No 308 Betula White Birch Tree” (sic, but perhaps implying Betula alba).  Linne had successfully identified four species by this time: Betula nigra L (black, red or river birch), Betula pumila L. (low birch), Betula lenta L., and Betula alba L.  In short time, due to increased knowledge about the Native American uses of birch, especially white birch, attempts were made to distinguish the paper birch into its own species, Betula papyrifera Marsh. (alt. name B. papyracea Ait.).  As a part of Cadwallader Colden’s influence on the general knowledge of Native American traditions, this fascination with the canoes made from paper birch bark and pine tar would not become as popular in the Mid-Atlantic region and even parts of New England as they did in the New France region, where cours-de-bois and other woodsmen made a living scouting about the lower parts of Canada using this form of transportation.  (New York Iroquois tradition focused on dugout canoes, made by log and fire, hand and adz.)

There is a use for Betula lenta, due to its wintergreen oil containing bark, that probably was very common to areas in the Hudson Valley where this tree could be found.  Birch tea is prepared using twigs, cut, split, broken and debarked into numerous very small pieces (minus the leaves), and steeped in hot water (the more inner bark, cambium and wood that is exposed, the richer the taste).  The smallest branches (<1/4 inch diameter) make the best tea, and of these, those that form as single branches sticking out of a wide trunk base make the strongest decoctions.


Arum or Arisaema

Now known locally as jack-in-the-pulpit or Indian Turnip, Arisaema triphyllum L. has a history more closely linked to Native American practices than first documented in the local history.  This and other arums have a corm-like starchy rootstock that is edible, but only if thoroughly cooked until a very soft potato or mashed potato consistency is obtained.  This is primarily due to oxalate crystals contained in the rootstock designed to serve as a feeding deterrent.  These are not so much chemically poisonous as they are physically hazardous, capable of causing a very painful pins-and-needles feeling in the mouth upon chewing a piece of undercooked root (based on first hand experience back in 1971).  Native American tradition was typically to pound the rootstock to form a mash. (This is very much akin to the well known Caribbean, and Middle and South American practice of doing the same for Cassava, although more to remove the cyanide in this root.) 

Again, noted the focus on three-leaf form for this plant.  The Arum can be distinguished from Trillium by the vein formation with the leaves.  Jane recognized this and made it an important point in her discussion of the leaf formation for this plant.  Perhaps the most interesting part of her description of thois plant and its flower is her details on the pestills and chives in this plant–a very tough feature to describe for this type of flower (known by botanists as spathe and spadix).

A very close relative of this plant, Arisaema dracontium L., green dragon or dragon root, is atypical to the middle Hudson Valley at this time.  It is characterized by a less colorful spadix and spathe flower, with the entire plant being taller, its parts more narrow and its overall color pattern more green in appearance.  Another relative of jack-in-the-pulpit is skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus Salisb., known by Linne as Dracontium foetidum L.), a plant also referred to some botanists by the common name dracontium as well (see Cadwallader’s writing on a plant of similar name).  As most of us know, the uses of this plant are going to be very different from those of jack-in-the-pulpit, and so will be discussed elsewhere.


Sagittaria or Arrowleaf

This “wapato” (wild potato) or “tule” of West Coast Indian fame has a rootstock that is unmistakeable in shape, appearances, and taste.  It is kind of spherical, but slightly flattened, with extensions of the root protuding from both ends.  The end close to the plant has a linear root about 1/8 to 1/4 inch in diameter.  At the other end, its younger tip, there is a young root coming out that is point, and when short makes the tuber appear somewhat like a comma.  The color pattern is somewhat zebraform due to overlapping scalar layers of epiderm.  When cooked (preferable steamed) the root is meaty in nature, not at all soft and tasteless like an overboiled potato.  You can overcook this tuber and it still has its characteristic taste and texture.

Colonists probably rarely went through the effort to gather this rootstock for food.  But if they did, it would have been an easy task.  Typically the rootstock floats to the surface once it is detached from the main plant.  This means that you can essentially detach the tuber from the plant base, causing minimal damage to the main stock of the plant itself, enabling it to grow more tubers for later harvesting.  One traditional way to do this was to move your feet around in the mud, and try to feel for the root, placing it between your toes.  You then move your foot along the root until a tuber is found, and then broken off.  (Of course, today’s mud at a typical lake edge is not at all safe enough to try this in, due to possible cans, bottles, etc. strewn about the mud.)

Locally, there are two species of Sagittaria, one with a broad leaf like the one that Jane discusses (Sagittaria latifolia Willd.), and the other with a very thin leaf blade (S. sagittaefolia L.).



Physalis and the Nightshade Family

Few members of the Nightshade Family or Solanaceae are native to New York.  According to Asa Gray, a botanist and professor in upstate New York during the mid-19th century, and an expert in the Coldens’ work on local taxonomy, the following Nightshade genera were present around 1856: 

  • Solanum – 7 species, only 1 native, 6 garden species.
  • Physalis – 4 species, 3 native, 1 introduced.
  • Nicandra – 1 species, introduced
  • Hysocyamus – 1 species, introduced
  • Datura – 1 species, introduced from the tropical south
  • Nicotiana – 2 species, 1 local, 1 introduced as a cultivar from the south 

The native species at the time for New York about this time were:

  • Solanum carolinense L., probably the same as S. virginianum L.
  • Physalis angulata L., including var philadelphica (P. philadelphica Lam.)
  • Physalis pubescens L., aka P. obscura Michx., and P. hirsuta Dunal., but native mostly to the deep south
  • Physalis viscosa L., with regional names applied such as P. pennsylvanica L., P. heterophylla Nees., and P. nyctaginea Dunal, again mostly native to the deep south.

Two species were more than likely extensively distributed and well naturalized at this point in New York history–Solanum dulcamara L. (bittersweet nightshade) and Solanum nigrum L. (common, black or deadly nightshade).  Other relatives to occasionally stray away from gardens for this region were Solanum tuberosum L. (potato) and S. melongena L. (eggplant), as well as Lycopersicon esculentum L. (tomato).  Other garden species not able to survive too long locally are Hyoscyamus niger (henbane, medicinal and toxic), Atropa belladonna (medicine, decorative and poison), and Capsicum annuum L. (cayenne pepper).

An attempt is made here to clarify the members of this family due to Jane’s entries about members of the Nightshade family, as well as a couple of her father’s notes regarding the same.  Cadwallader in particular made mention of a possible edible fruit-bearing species from Mexico (a Physalis? or tomatillo?–“husk tomato” is Physalis peruviana L.); if the identification is true, this plant’s introduction is a consequence of early trade relationships with New Spain.   Jane’s nightshade family members are probably Solanum dulcamara or nigrum, which she calls “Solanum, common nightshade” (Lyon’s Plant Names suggests the latter) and “Physalis, Winter cherry”, according to her manuscript index.   The name ‘winter cherry’ was traditionally related to Solanum pseudo-capsicum L. of Madiera, Spain, most commonly grown for ornamental purposes.

The photograph that follows is of Solanum carolinense L. (horse nettle), which could be Jane’s version of S. pseudo-capsicum L.  The other possibility is Physalis pensylvanicum L.




Jane’s leaf drawing pretty much resembles the leaf picture below for a local orchid noted in passing.    This is probably a large twayblade or Liparis liliifolia. (Jane reviewed 3 orchids, but neither of them seem to match this example in terms of woodlands location and appearance.)

The orchids have always been of special interest to botanist and flower specialists.  The unique work orchid has its roots, so to speak, to a Latin word for the same–orchis–derived from the resemblance of the roots, produced as two for the initial species this was applied to, to a pair of testicles. 


Head of a Turtle, Face of a Snake

Turtlehead, or “C’helone   Pentstemon” as Jane called it, is a periaquatic (shoreline or waterside) plant that can be tough to find.  I was fortunate enough to come upon two patches of these recently that were flowering–one on a lakeside next to a Broadway paralleling 25 near Shokan, and the other along the Hudson River a few miles south of Rhinecliff.  A close inspection of the flower reveals how it got its common name.   The Latin name Pentstemon refers to a fifth rudimentary stamen in the flower.  On and off, this genus name has been more associated with several western species of closely related plants in the scrophularia family (“Pentastemon”).  This plant family due to its definitive flower form is rich in herbs that are often considered to resemble some sort of snakehead, due to its unique flattened shape, stamens resembling a pair of fangs, the forked-tongue protruding from the tip of each flower, and the way in which the petals are merged thereby form a distinct head- and face-shape.   In Asa Gray’s manual of the Botany of the Northern United States (1857), three species of Pentstemon (known as Beard-tongue) are identified,  with one native to Connecticut-New York (P. pubescens Solander).



Avens or Potentilla?

Jane’s leaf drawing of “potentilla” (“No. 148 Potentilla”) could be in error.  Potentilla and its close relative Geum or Avens have leaves that upon first glance appear remarably similar to each other, but on close inspection do have some important differences to consider before making an identification.  What stands out in Jane’s line drawing of the leaf is a small pair of leaf-like structures at the base of the leaf stem or petiole.  These are remnants from the bud (they call them stipes I think) that help to form the leaf and are always much smaller of not absent from potentilla leaves.  In addition, potentilla leaves typically form leaflets that are different from those drawn by Jane, which again resemble more the Avens leaf structure.

Not that this minute difference is really important in the overall importance of Jane’s work, but this does demonstrate the ongoing nature of her work on local plants.   A number of times we find Jane’s mention of plant names to be applicable across other species, often of the same genus however.  The most common weeds, not covered here, are the best examples of this, like the chickweeds and bedstraws.  (These in fact will be reviewed on a different page.)

Back to Potentilla versus Geum issue, plants like the Avens are biennial–which means they grow for two years normally, with the first year consisting of just the base leaves, and the second year or stage of growth consisting of base leaves and a central stem upon which the flowers and seeds are produced.  So Jane really did not have the flower structure to based her identification upon, at least for the plant which she based her leaf illustration upon.  Still, it is possible that Jane’s drawing is truly that of a potentilla. 

The following photos are of the avens, either Geum virginianum L or Geum rivale L., which in Jane’s line drawing is called Potentilla, followed by the locally common Potentilla canadensis L. (For those with Jane’s book, see p. 106.  This line drawing will have to be scanned in and added later.)