There is an interesting relationship between Cadwallader Colden’s writings and the manuscript of his daughter Jane. Together their works reviewed about 363 plants, plus or minus. The lack of exactness of this count is due to the descriptions of the plants given by each for Anonymous species, and the tendency for each of the writers at times to behave as what we call “splitters” in the taxonomic profession. This means that they were often fairly willing to make the claim that a different species is being described, based on simple differences such as petal color, flower size, growing habits. Nevertheless, not excluding these possible and experience regarding the physiology and biology of the new plants under review, these taxonomic “mistakes” are understandable. To both Cadwallader and Jane, differentiation at times was a problem, and unless easy to notice features such as petalform and stamen-anther structures and counts could be made, they lacked the typical instruments needed to differentiate between similar plants that are in used today.
In the end, the publications of Plantae Coldenhamgiae and Jane’s Manuscript demonstrate that between the two of them a total of about 373 or 374 plants were identified and described by either or both of these works. Every possible problem with performing such a count accurately has taken place. Of course these botanists often used different names for the same plant–and since Cadwallader’s names were in Latin and Jane’s in English, being able to see the parallels at time were difficult although not impossible. For Cadwallader, in the case of the common currant (Ribes), those with a white and black or deep purple color were lumped together as a single entry into his work. For Jane, two Crataegus (hawthorns) were identified as distinct species: those with thorns and those without.
In terms of numbers, Jane’s work outshined her father’s work to some extent in terms of variety, total numbers of species, numbers of species per genus, numbers of total individual plants, etc. When their entire lists are combined to produce the 363 count, we can see that Cadwallader’s efforts resulted in about 65% (237) of the total species in the Coldenham area noted by the two being covered, and Jane’s efforts in about 81% (295). This begs the question: Why was Cadwallader’s listing less? after all, he was the expert in botany, not Jane.
This is possibly because his work was completed earlier and subsequently submitted for publication a few years before Jane completed her work. Also, Cadwallader’s plants were completely reviewed and most likely provided as pressed herbarium samples to Linnaeus as well, whereas Jane’s collection contained a lesser number of completed samples, and a large numbers of incomplete and nearly blank specimen sheets according to one early 19th century biographer of her work. Nevertheless, it is quite evident that Jane’s work had a little bit more leeway (no need to do it in Latin) and time enabling her to include some common plants skipped by her father Cadwallader like the common Spring Cress (Barbarea), the small and exceptionally common Ox-eye daisy (Bellis), the local barberry Bush (Berberis), the two Bindweeds or Wild Morning Glories (Convolvulus), the Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris, which she called Bursa Pastoris), a toothwort (Dentaria), Milkwort (Glaux), and Wild Cress or Pepper Grass (Lepidium). Due to their ubiquitous nature, Cadwallader perhaps excluded these from his review of the Coldenham flora.
Now in terms of applicability and exactness of their work, neither Jane nor Cadwallader demonstrated any outstanding tendencies in terms of how they divided these plants into species. A unique and historically important example of Cadwallader’s tendency to split was that this behavior resulted in the identification of 8 species of Zea (Maize or Corn). These species were split into different plants based on kernel colors for the most part, although kernel form and shape and the shape of the flower and seed spike played some role in this process as well. As a review of subsequent literature published about Colden’s writings tell us (see the chronology for the very late 1700s and very early 1800s writings on Maize as a food crop, especially by Parmentier), such a small trait of Colden’s work had a major influence on the food history of the nation, much less the New York area. For Jane, she may have outshined her father by producing everything from brief notes to descriptions and drawings of such genera as Lysimachia, Polygala, Solidago, Veronica, and Viola.
In terms of unique coverage by each, Jenny produced descriptions of the following, which her father did not include in his submissions for publication to Linnaeus (to name just the first few): Abutilon, Agopogon, Agrostema, Alisma, Arenaria, Aristolochia, Asperula, Bellis, Bursa Pastoris (true name Capsella), Chenopodium, Convolvulus, Cucumis, and Dentaria. Jane mentions several woody species (trees) not covered by her father (i.e. Fagus, Juglans and Pinus). The Aristolochia (Virginia Snakeroot) may be the result of local growth of this fairly non-native species in some modified environmental or garden setting. The Potamegeton (Pondweed) she covered has special local value due to its possible use as a medicine, as documented in the handwritten manuscript produced by 18th C Fishkill physician Dr. Cornelius Osborn (reviewed elsewhere).
Turning to Cadwallader’s unique accomplishments in terms of species coverage, he covered slightly more variety than Jenny for such common plants as (again to name a very few): Ambrosia, Anemone, Asclepias, Aster, Bidens, Cephalanthus, and Cypripedium (Lady’s Slipper). His unique lignose (woody) species included Acer (Maple), Carpinus (American Hop Hornbeam), Taxus (Yew) and “Thuya” (Arbor Vitae or white cedar). The most important species documented by Cadwallader and not Jane was, of course, Zea (Corn).
Both Jane and Cadwallader provided reasons for the ample amounts of attention paid to several of the most important local medicines, namely Apocynum, Asclepias, Eupatorium, Leontodon, Liriodendron, Lobelia, Polygala, Sanicula (Caulophyllum), Sanguinaria, Scutellaria, and Thalictrum. All of these became highly favored plant medicines by the 1820s.
In terms of importance of coverage, a numbers of plants deserve special attention because of the roles they played in local folklore, colonial botany and ethnobotany history, and local medical history.
Panax or ginseng was one of the most important herbal medicine products in Colonial American history. The importance of this plant to the British was related to its value in trade with Oriental cultures. In America, significant attempts were made to market the locally found Panax quinquefolium as a substitute for the Oriental Panax ginsenga. This market had some success in North American and New York economy, for we find mention of the need for local Panax in the newspaper published just before, during and after the Revolutionary war from New York City. Both Jane and Cadwallader make mention of Panax in their work, although nothing about its possible popularity as a ginseng substitute.
A similar market had been established a century or more earlier for Smilax (Wild Potato), a plant with a unique starchy tuberous rootstock, that if found produced a very white, delicate starch powder, a plant product highly prized in the Orient. In Sir Walter Raleigh’s writings about the exploration of the Mid-Atlantic, for example, this is one of the first plants identified as an economically important local plant species with tremendous marketing potential. For a while, attempts were made to engage in the gathering and trade of this product, but perhaps with limited success. The main problem with marketing such a plant is simply finding the rootstock of a plant that bears a vine anywhere from 10 to 25 feet in length, with numerous vines growing in every direction possible, and with a massive root measuring from a few inches to a foot or more located not just beneath the soil of the main stem, but somewhere within a few to 10 foot area around that spot. Gathering this product was the hardest step in developing this arrowroot-like starch product industry. Jane mentions the Smilax in her work, not Cadwallader.
Jane, and not her father, also mention important folklore plants like Cranberry or “Cramberry” (Oxycoccus, to her “Oxicocus”), Strawberry (Frageria), Wintergreen (Gaultheria), Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea), and Lizard’s Tail (Saururus). Her manuscript also includes the Pokeweed (Phytolacca), which her father did not cover in his Plantae Coldenghamiae, but does detail in a separate essay written about this plant for use as a possible “cancer drug.” (Republished in O’Callaghan’s New York series.) Her manuscript reviews imported species grown in the garden (some also reviewed by Cadwallader) including: “Wild Marjoram” or Oregano (Origanum), “Cat Mint” or Catnip (Nepeta), Palma Christi (Ricinus, from the Carribean), a wild lettuce, possibly escaped from the gardens–Lactuca, the most likely introduced broad-leaved plantain (Plantago majus), and the possibly introduced Chenopodium species Lamb’s Quarters (C. album in modern texts).
In terms of defining meaning to the Coldens’s work, one of the more difficult steps in this analysis of this work is the use of this information to define the first and most important plants in Hudson Valley medical history, in particular with regard to the assignment of a cultural value to their writings in local history. To demonstrate this importance one need only define specific examples of local, followed by regional and then national and international influence. Such can be done for various parts of these two peoples’ writings.
The following logic is used to base the review the Colden’s work as the first detailed series of related writing pieces on local valley history. First, since these two works do complement one another, and in turn can be directly linked to another similar piece of information from the valley around this time–the manuscript of Dr. Osborn–the proof for importance in documenting local ethnobotany history is established. It ends up, these works also demonstrate signs of local cultural influence and perhaps even the direct influences of Cadwallader and Jane’s intimate knowledge about local plant uses upon his own personal writing and work during the late 1750s to early 1760s. This importance in local history is further supported by similar claims that appear in the locally published Medical Repository produced by faculty at the medical school in New York City, beginning around 1797 and of significant local influence by 1810. For this reason, this lineage of the Colden’s plant knowledge can be traced, followed, reviewed for changes in thought and reasons from one generation to the next, and demonstrate to have had continuous influence in local and ultimately national and international history had impacts that continued well into the mid-19th and twentieth centuries. Once we take into consideration the impacts this knowledge on plant uses had on the different industries, especially food and medicine, the conclusions that can be drawn are somewhat mind-boggling. Even with different forms and nature when it comes to scientific reasoning for the years that followed, we find the Coldens’s statements continuing to demonstrate an impact. At time, any claims they made were simply modified slightly from one generation to the next, for the development of new lines of reasoning for plant uses as medicines. The most impressive example of this is the Coldens’s description of Black Snake root, with a line of reasoning that ultimately led to the popularization of this plant (Caulophyllum sp., or ‘black cohosh”) into one of the most popular herbal medicine uses in modern history that are documentary, unchanged in overall social value since the mid-nineteenth century.
As noted elsewhere, in my Chronology notes, and under specific plant discussions for Coldinghamia, the Coldens’ work had influences on numerous types and forms of medicine, ranging from domestic medicine and valley medicine, to Indian medical fads (see the Eupatorium coverage), the lobelia-emetic based Thomsonian practice popularized during the 1820s, and even Samuel Hahnemann’s work on homeopathy, attested to by Hahnemann himself (again see Chronology, although this time it was not a plant that influenced the creator of this profession). The next step in this line of thinking is to review the combined Coldens’s flora and determine which species had the most influences in science, medicine and literature.