There are a number of species in Jane’s work that require considerable effort to be located in the field. This is because they are no longer as commonplace since the Coldens first settled the Hudson Valley, due to the impact of settlements on local ecology and the environment and perhaps local climatic changes since the colonial period in local history. Whatever the reason, it is not unexpected to learn that some very important plants in local history have since migrated to greener pastures and forest floors so to say, located far from Coldengham and to such an extent that one may have to travel across the Catskill Mountains or even across the Pennsylvanian or Canadian border for some of these species to be abundant. A few species perhaps have even become nearly extinct, or if not, totally absent from habitats where people reside, thus making it difficult if not impossible to find them.
For those familiar with this history with the very important herbal medicine Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), some of New York’s most historically important medicinal plants probably underwent the same changes ecologically as they were overharvested for important medicinal uses. The best examples of these pertaining to local Hudson Valley history are, in descending order, American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium L.), Lizards’ Tail (Saururus cernuus L.), Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia virginiana L. or perhaps A. macrophylla Lam.), Pitcherplant (Sarracenia purpurea L.), and Unicorn Root (Aletris farinosa L.). Other plants have just become more difficult to find due to changes in local ecology and plant succession patterns following the introduction of numerous European species, both deliberately and undeliberately, such as Turtle-Head (Chelone glabra L.), Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberosa L.), Goldthread or as Jane called it Fibraurea (Coptis trifolia (L.) Salisb., or Helleborus trifolius L. according to Linne’s review of Jane’s specimens), Melampyrum (Melampyrum arvense L.), the Yellow or False Foxgloves (Aureolaria spp.) and a number of hard to find Orchids (esp. Cypripedium and Liparis spp.).
The role of the farming and agriculture and the wildcrafting of herbal medicines in this story cannot be understated. Whereas we typically like to assign such changes as a result of the development of domestic and industrial settings in various regions, wildcrafting itself is probably mostly to blame for the bulk of this overharvesting. Between 1650 and 1750, we find this practice had its heaviest impacts upon American ginseng. The Coldens had in fact captured the ecology of this part of the continent of North America just as it was nearing its end of its unique life as a riparian-montane transitional zone, traversing from the Hudson to Shawangunks and Catskills. Ultimately it was the new influxes of people just before and soon after the Revolutionary War, due to the French Revolution, that herbal medicine became an American profession with a unique cultural background and even more unique cultural traditions and ties.
The following are plants that are simply hard to find specimens in the wild for me to collect photographs of, for the time being. The bulk of these photographs come from the USDA Plant Research website noted elsewhere throughout my work on the Coldens’ flora. Therefore, a number of photographers whose pictures were posted at this site (names are on the photos) are due my acknowledgements for their work.
Heart Leaved Lizard’s Tail (Saururus cernuus L.)
Thriving along pond edges, the reasons for the common name ‘lizard’s tail’ should be obvious. The shape of the flower bunch has some resemblances to the tail of a skink or salamander in terms of its changing diameter. This common name might also have been a phytognomic for its use, were it not for the fact that Porta’s version of phytognomics had been pretty much deceased, except for a few stragglers mostly of European or Old World origin, by the beginning of the 18th century. Unlike the ‘snakeroot’, which had its charm and venom to meet the needs of the imagination of any readers of this folktale, lizards were inconsequential to life in the Mid-Atlantic and New England areas. In spite of this, the interest in lizard’s tale as a part of early 19th century American herbalism, from the Eclectic medicine point of view, was enough to put this plant at risk for a short while within its ecological setting.
There are several taxonomic features of the Saururus that are worth mentioning. This species is considered to be fairly primitive. Depending on the taxonomic review of this Genus, only two species of Saururus exist, one in North America and the other in China. Since Saururus is of its own family Saururaceae, and is in the Magnolia Subclass of the Dicotyledonous Flowering Plants, it is considered a paleotypic or ancient specimen, the remaining survivor of its previously much larger heritage. Neither Colden nor Linne had any notion of this of course when they defined its relationship to other plants for the first time. The notion of a ‘lizard’s tail’ does have a different significance at the level of Oriental herbal tradition and philosophy. Whether or not the Coldens were familiar with this is uncertain. This may however be one link to its acceptance as a medicine, without need for any pre-columbian American ethnobotany history. Like the Ginseng and the Smilax, Oriental traditions may have influenced American herbalism and the natural products industry in general, in this manner as well. This is a plant we have no evidence for in terms of any Colonial attempts to market it to China.
Pleurisy root or Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa L.)
This is a prime example of the documentation of Native American ethnobotany by Jane’s writings. It also presents to us injsights into some of the behaviors associated with native plant uses. One typically likes to imagine that introducing one’s self to a new herbal remedy is an easy, openly practiced experience. But this is far from the truth. A major deterrent to openly using a plant for medicine is its toxicity, which in some cases may be deadly, and in others beneficial. Herbal medicines are typically tested and the results documented and passed on, often by physicians.
There is also the possibility that, using some basic knowledge and such, a colonial herbalist might venture into making some use of a plant based on some basic teachings he/she went through, like the basics of contemporary phytognomonics, the science of botany, and the practice of domestic medicine using household and local herbs. So, it is very possible that some herbs came into practice due simply to their resemblances to other herbs that herbalists were already familiar with, and so used in much the same fashion as the traditional plant. We might tend to see this latter practice with “similars”–plants that look like other common plants–such as ginseng, violet, daisy, etc.
Asclepias tuberosa is actually a fairly toxic plant, with possibility for both cures and fatalities. Ecologist typically learn about it with the example of the monarch butterfly, which by taking the nectar of this plant introduces into its blood a toxin that causes birds to vomit once they eat the insect. This is often taught as part of the natural selection process, and as an example of a learned behavior important to adaptation and the survival of both species. Neither Jane nor her father experienced or knew about the digitalis-like toxicity of Asclepias tuberosa (due to some unique phytosterols in the plant), which is much more severe than the same for most other Asclepias plants they might have found. In part this may be due to the absence of much knowledge about the effects of certain plants, like Digitalis, on the body. Digitalis was a medicine, but not for anything it would found to be best used for until scottish Doctor William Withering’s “discovery” of this use about 1793-4, long after the Coldens’ work as medical botanists was complete.
This plant was called Pleurisy Root during Jane’s time. The source for this name has not been traced to any single individual or cause for association. In general, modern herbalists have tried relating the implied pulmonary treatment as related to its simple use as an expectorant, which is very inaccurate, to the use of Asclepias for treating lung or respiratory afflications in general, which still does not address the pleurisy directly. I make this point because we often apply a modern understanding of disease to past disease-related writings. During Colonial times, pleurisy was diagnosed when the patient experienced a painful feeling in the chest with breathing, due to inflammation of the chest wall and ribs that surround the lung–a condition usually brought about by infectious diseases of the chest cavity. Infection and inflammation of the pleura (sac) surrounding lung tissue may be indicative of infectious diseases common to Colonial settings but atypical for today. The pleurisy of the past may be due simply to a wound penetrating the chest wall which has since become infected, a tumor resulting in much the same, or a tuberculosis lung with fungal growth inflaming the pleura and causing the pleurisy and pleuritis. More often than not, it is the latter that ensued back then.
Instead of pleurisy, Jane recommends this plant for Colick–or the build up of gas in the intestines, causing pain and feelings of abdominal discomfort. This Colick may be typical Colick due to gas, or due to spoiled meats and foots, or due to simple food poisoning. Jane also recommended this for bloody diarrhea or flux, usually referring to dysentery (most likely, a bloody diarrhea due to bacterial contamination of foods, such as by salmonella, shigella, listeria, etc.).
Of the local Pleurisy Root, Jane writes:
“The root of this Asclepius taken in powder, is an excellent cure for the Colick, about halff a Spoonfull at a time. This cure was learn’d from a Canada Indian, & is calld in New England Canada Root. The Exellency of this root for the Colick is confirmd by Dr. Porter of New England, and Dr. Brooks of Maryland likewise confirm’d this.
“One ounce of the Root, chiped into small pieces, to which put a pint & halff of boiling water, & let it stew for about one hour, of this Decoction drinck halff a Tea cup full, every hour or two, and you bin certainly perfectly cured from the bloody Flux, and better is when you boil the Root in Claret than in Water. This cure was learned from the Indians.”
Note: One possibility for an identification of Jane reference and probably a colleague of her father: just north of New Haven about this time, in a town called Southington, Connecticut, was Dr. J. Porter house, which dates to around 1754 (see www.archiplanet.org/wiki/Porter%2C_Dr._J.%2C_House). Dr. Brooks is unidentified. “Doctor” or “Dr.” often referred to religious leaders during the colonial years, since a doctorate degree was typically required for this profession.