Loskiel’s Plants

In terms of the richness and quality of Loskiel’s observations on natural history, his number of species is limited, and doesn’t include a number of expected species such as Wild Ginger/Canadian Snakeroot (Asarum canadense*), one or more of the mints (Mentha arvensis*, Monarda fistulosa* or didyma) or Lobelia species (esp. the deep red large flowering L. cardinalis* and L. syphilitica*), Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberosa*) or any other milkweeds (esp. Asclepias incarnata*), Dogbanes (Apocynum androsaemifolium*), the fireweeds (Epilobium spp.), and slippery elm (Ulmus rubra).   [Note: Those with * are in the above pictures, in the order stated from left to right, row 1 then row 2.]

The species he observes have been documented several times before.  He may have even paid close attention to previous writings published by Cadwallader Colden of New York and some of the botanists in the Mid-Atlantic region to better understand the local ecology and flora.  Supporting this argument that Loskiel was in essence writing as best he could with regard to what he could recall from these other books published, there are several faux pas that he makes with identifications, common names and locations.  Loskiel uses a southern common name for what should be the northern species of zanthoxylum, a mistake which implies a very different looking tree with obvious trunk and thorn or spike differences.  His second error pertains to the “thorny ash” name given to a plant.   His other uses of the name “Ash” imply he has a simplified naming system in which pinnately compound leaflets (paired, opposites) with one leaflet at the end are called Ash.

Loskiel’s Rhus identification is probably not unexpected.  He notes the poisonous variety of rhus (Rhus vernix, Poison Ivy is R. toxicodendron), which is not as likely to have been found.  Smooth Sumac (R. glabra) and Staghorn (R. typhina) are perhaps the most common.  People probably didn’t differentiate these two species much back then, and novices would have avoided trying to differentiate the most toxic species from the other two species of Rhus; according to Loskiel these were probably just one species.  [Incidentally, all are toxic to some extent, only the true poisonous sumac species with shiny oil-coated leaves is Poison Sumac; poison ivy is of course poisonous as well.]

There are a number of trees and medicines that demonstrate this north-south differentiation related to Loskiel’s writings.  Loskiel interacted with the Mahicans.  They resided in the New York-new England area into Canada.  Loskiel’s zoology related natural history points specifically to upper elevation, colder climate species, in particualr his fame for descrining the arctic owls that resided up near Canada. This therefore begs the question, why are some of the plants southern, to far south in fact to be associated with some of the animals he described?   Liriodendron tulipifera for example is typically a southern plant, but is spread as far north as Canada, in modern times.  But since few colonists in New York and New England ever make mention of this large tree important the large forest settings, its presence is somewhat questionable, not wrong, just questionable.   Loskiel demonstrates a  good background in southern plant medicines, a trait demonstrated by most other writers of plant medicines in these colonies as well such as Cadwallader Colden.   For this reason we find Loskiel describing the local equivalents for Ipecac (Cephaelis ipecacuanha) and Jalap (Exogonium jalapa).   But the use of the name Jalap for plants is more a commonly practiced reapplication of a traditional name to a new plant of similar virtue.  Loskiel may have, like others before him, been familiar with the New Spain writings and so applied some of these names to his findings, and what he learned about these plant uses from the locals.    There are also New France writings and several Mid-Atlantic-New York botany writings as well that Loskiel would have had the chance to review before his travels to New York.   In Loskiel’s case, sometimes a plant is called Jalap because it is an effective laxative.  Other times it is given a name due to its looks, not medicinal character.

The association between the American Ipecac and Southern Ipecac (the true ipecac) is related to the shared emetic effect both plants have.  Loskiel misapplied his knowledge of the South American species to the North American plant bearing the same name.  Likewise he made similar errors for the Jalap, which in North America is a common name referring to Pokeweed.  But since Loskiel has already reviewed Pokeweed, he may in fact be referring to the Ipomoea species growing locally.  This species resembles Jalap and is distantly related, but is not at all as medicinal as a laxative.   Based on appearances, an Ipomoea or the local Smilax hispida were more likely to have been misidentified as a Jalap relative than Phytolacca.

For the section that follows, text in blue has been added;  text in black is from the original quote taken from Loskiel’s book.  Plant pictures and illustrations have been added.  The following are reviewed by Loskiel in the order in which they appear. Latin names added by this author appear in brackets.  Otherwise, the wording of these entries remains unchanged:

[Begin Long Quote]

The Indians are remarkably skilled in curing the bite of venomous serpents, and have found a medicine peculiarly adapted for the bite of each species. For example: The Leaf of the rattlesnake-root (polygala senega) is the most efficacious remedy against the bite of this dreadful animal. God has mercifully granted it to grow in the greatest plenty in all parts most infested by the rattlesnake. It is very remarkable, that this herb acquires its greatest perfection just at the time when the bite of these serpents is the most dangerous. The Indians are so well convinced of the certainty of this antidote, that many will suffer themselves to be bitten for a glass of brandy. The leaves are chewed, and immediately applied to the wound, and either some of the juice or a little fat or butter is swallowed at the same time. This, occasions a parching thirst, but the patient must not be suffered to drink.

Virginian Snake-root [Aristolochia serpentaria] chewed, makes also an excellent poultice for wounds of this kind.  [Reviewed at the end of this section as well.]

A decoction of the buds or bark of the white ash (fraxinus canadense) taken inwardly, is said to be a certain remedy against the effects of this poison.


Aralia racemosa

The four possible Aralia species

A decoction of the bark and root of the thorny ash (aralia spinosa) is used as a purifier of the blood. The Indian physicians make up their medicines in very large draughts, for if their apparatus does not make a formidable show, it is thought of little or no effect, and the medicines being much diluted, maybe taken in large potions without injury.

Loskiel has possibly made an error here in this identification or description.  The most common local species in this region is Aralia nudicaulis L. or wild sarsaparilla.   Loskiel mistakenly refers to the wild sarsaparilla later reviewed as the actual South American species of this plant, Smilax sarsaparilla.  There is also a local species of Smilax which could also be part of the reason for this faux pas.  The name Thorny Ash implies that Aralia spinosa L. is what Loskiel is referring to in the above sentence; but this tree-like plant with a spike-covered trunk and branches is native to regions just a little too far south in its distribution to be important locally. This latter identification problem could be due to the fact that he has the right plant with the wrong common name assigned, in which case we are left with the following as the most likely candidates–Aralia racemosa or Aralia hispida.



The Toothach-tree (zanthoxylum clava Herculis) resembles the ash, and is thus called, because the Indians use its wood as a remedy against tooth-ach.

Again, the common species in the New York region is Xanthoxylum americanum, whereas the species given is southern Prickly Ash.  The Southern species may be chance be in the New York area, but based on the local habitat he was more likely to have come upon the X. americanum species.  Note the phytognomics or doctrine of signatures [thorn=tooth].


The Tulip-tree (liriodendron tulipifera) grows in Pennsylvania, and all the southern provinces, and is one of the tallest and stoutest trees. The stem is frequently seven yards in circumference, and is used for boards, boats, dishes, spoons, and cabinet-work. Its flower has a magnificent appearance but the fruit gives it that particular name, which resembles a tulip closed. Some Indians consider the fruit, and the bark of the roots, as a powerful specific against agues.

The mention of the root bark specifically is important.  Not too many writers emphasize this part of the plant being used.  There is some logic being developed during the 1790s about the root bark of the tree containing its strongest healing virtues.  This would later become a primary part of the Indian Root Doctor philosophy so popular during the early 1800s, especially out west near Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and in the Appalachian states.  Loskiel points to the American Indian as the source for this philosophy about root bark.  In another Hudson Valley recipe it is stated that the bark on the north side of the Cherry Tree is strongest.  The specificity of these instructions is important and has a natural philosophy still in need of better understanding.  There are some contemporary teachings that even go so far as to state that the direction in which you move the hand tool to remove the bark is important.  Moving the tool upwards away from the ground produces a medicine with a different effect than moving the tool downwards towards the soil to remove the bark.  The north side of a tree brings four directions philosophy into this method of producing a medicine.  The agues is more a southern malady associated with malaria when it is accurately diagnosed.  Local agues would have been imported into the Hudson Valley by livestock and human carriers of the disease, and ships bearing mosquito infested water tanks and ballast during the 1790s.

Dogwood (cornus florida) is neither tall nor bulky. Many believe its virtues to be the same as those of the Peruvian bark.

The use of Cornus as substitute or replacement for cinchona bark goes back at least 50 years.  During the American Revolution this use of this local plant became popular when supplied were low at the Fishkill encampment and hospital.  This may have been fairly common or shared knowledge amongst the military physicians, a use come upon through mutual agreement, but I often tend to link this use and perhaps its popularization locally to Dr. Cornelius Osborn of Fishkill, NY (reviewed extensively elsewhere).  A more official history and relationship about the history of this plant as documented by the literature has yet to be formed.

Lindera benzoin (Spicebush)

Wild Laurel (laurus æstivalis) [Lindera benzoin] grows in abundance in low rich grounds: The berries are smaller than those of the common laurel, but have nearly the same taste. The wood has a strong aromatic smell and taste, and the Indians prepare a medicinal draught from it.

Taste in this case is a matter of opinion.  The taste of Laurel is sassafras, the taste of Lindera is cinnamon-like and hot.

Sassafras albidum

Sassafras (laurus sassafras) [Sassafras albidum] rises sometimes to more than thirty feet in height; but in general, and particularly in northern latitudes, seldom exceeds that of a common shrub. The bark and root is preferable to the wood itself. The flowers serve for tea, and the Indians also use the berries as a medicine.

Sassafras is one of the first plants discovered and marketed heavily in North American herbal medicine history. Loskiel would have known about it uses quite  extensively were he kept up in the writings and discoveries for the time.  Nicolas Monardes wrote about it due to its discoveries in New Spain during the latter half of the 16th century.   By 1600, it became a popular medicine and would soon be the most popular New World medicine due to its popularization for use in treating the disease common to sailors–lues venerea or syphilis.  The Queen of England popularized its use for this malady which by 1600 resulted in numerous attempts by the British to aggressively seek out new sources for it in New England and other British colonial land claims.  Loskiel’s use of it is another example of Indian root doctoring.  His focus on roots and berries is seen elsewhere with trees and shrubs as well, and this emphasis of these parts led to some early mistakes made by explorers in search for medicines in the Far West parts of North American during the early 1800s (some medicines were missed due to the emphasis on trying the wrong parts, for example of Oregon Grape).  The leaves are very useful (they are the thickener for the famous gumbo soup of Louisiana and southern New France), but are ignored or at least not mentioned with any emphasis.  This is different from the Jesuit accounts of this plant in northern New France, where the leaves are a sign of trinity, due to their three forms, the largest one with three lobes.  The berry fruit are very hot when taken into the mouth.

The Canada shrubby elder (sambucus canadensis) resembles the elder, and bears a small berry of a reddish hue and aromatic smell. A decoction of the wood or buds is an excellent remedy in agues, and the Indians use it likewise for inflammations.


The Poison-ash (rhus vernix) is remarkable for poisoning some persons at a distance, when the wind carries its exhalations towards them; although others may touch, or even chew its bark and leaves without the least prejudice. Its poison is not deadly, but produces a swelling of the whole body, with an eruption, which, when ripe, resembles the small-pox. The Indians cure it by drinking saffron-tea, and using a salve made of cream and marshmallow.

Any of the above three sumacs could cause a rash.  The Poison Sumac has a very oily leaf, which makes it exceptionally poisonous to touch.  There are several other sumacs native to the region that may have been interpreted as the poisonous species.   His tale of the Indian recipe for the cure of the poison ivy rash–saffron-tea, and a salve made of cream and marshmallow–is questionable.  Neither saffron nor marshmallow are locally native species.   For marshmallow a local native mallow substitute indigenous to the region might suffice; alternatively, the true marshmallow from England (Althaea officinalis) may have escaped from a local garden.  Saffron (Crocus sativus) does have local yellow to red colored flower substitutes perhaps.  This is a tradition related to New Spain substitutions for Saffron (they use Safflower, Carthamus tinctorius L).  There is a tradition of the use of the locally native Impatiens fulva (orange) or Impatiens flava (yellow) for treating Poison ivy.  The resemblance of the dried flower parts suggests either might be the case, with an Impatiens species more likely to be the case

Crocus sativa

Carthamus tinctorius

Antique Prints

Impatiens fulva (I. flava is light yellow)


Wintergreen (pyrola canadensis) has a white flower. The berries are red, as large as sloes, smooth and round, and ripen in winter under the snow. The Indians eat these berries as a stomachic.

The differentiation of Gaultheria from Pyrola was not solidified in plant taxonomy, so Loskiel is probably not in error when he refers to the wintergreen as a Pyrola species.


A species of Liverwort [Hepatica triloba] is considered as an efficacious remedy in consumptive disorders.

Even though the phytognomonics as expressed by the name is clear–this plant was popular for treating liver problems due to its triangular form, like the liver–the netted veins in the leaves of the above drawings do have some resemblance to lung tissue, so the phytognomics is understandable regarding the use of this plant for treating consumption (tuberculosis).    There is a Christian interpretation of phytognomics that was fairly common in 18th century plants natural history–these signs are God’s messages regarding the reasons and uses for such plants.  Just how much Loskiel believed in this form of “God’s message” or natural philosophy is unclear.  For Sassafras he fails to mention the trinity of the plant, but this may just be the lack of emphasis Moravians placed on the trinity.


Virginian Poke (phytolacca decandra) is a large herb, with leaves about fix inches long, and two broad, bearing a red berry, called by some pigeon-berry, the pigeons being extremely fond of them. Applications of the roots to the hands and feet are used as stimulants in fevers.

We might need to see if there is a second writer who noted the use of Poke for treating fevers, in particularly by using the roots.   There are two other local plants often found somewhere in close association with Poke that have this ethnobotany history–Eupatorium purpureum or Jopi/Jobi Weed and Eupatorium performatum or Boneset.  The latter was especially known for this use; the former did not become popular until 30 to 50 years after Loskiel’s writing.    Strangely, Loskiel does not mention the most popular use of this plant at the time–as a treatment for cancer.  This use was documented in the early 1700s (ca. 1740) by New York’s Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden (served as Lt-Gov. ca. 1755).


Jalap (convolvulus jalappa) [Ipomoea batatas?] grows in abundance in the Indian country, and is prescribed as a purgative. In the rheumatism of the legs they roast the roots, then flit and apply them to the soles of the feet as hot as the patient can bear.

As noted in the introduction above, there are some mixed names and plant folklore related metaphors here.   Jalap is the common name for Poke.   The true south American Jalap plant is closely related to the American white flowering field morning glory vines Ipomoea spp.  The Ipomoea root will not result in the same purgative effect as Jalapa (for which the Latin name is Convolvulus [Exogonium] jalapa), due to lack of the resinoids responsible for this effect.  Phytolacca is an effective purgative due to its strongly toxic phytolaccin, a lectin.  Thus its local common name that is favored is often Jalap.  Ipomoea batatas is the Central American Sweet Potato Vine.

Ipecacuanha [Euphorbia sp?, versus. The South American species Cephaelis ipecacuanha] is used not only as an emetic, but also as an antidote against the bite of serpents.

Most likely he means one of the two pictured above.  The Porteranthus or Gillenia is more noticeable in the field.  The Euphorb bears “Ipecac” as its common name, but is exceptionally small, and unlikely seen or noticed much by Loskiel.


Sarsaparilla (smilax sarsaparilla) grows in great abundance in the country of the Iroquois. The root is used in medicine, and its virtues are well known.

The variety of local Smilax species are shown above.  Smilax sarsaparilla is a South American species.  The above smilax species are not effective or convincing substitutes.  The true North American Sarsaparilla is an Aralia species, also displayed above.  Loskiel probably heard of the local Sarsaparilla but made a mistake in relating it to another plant with another ethnobotany trait.

Canadian Sanicle (sanicula canadensis), a tincture of its root prepared with brandy is applied to wounds.

This is one of the more famous Snakeroot species–a common name for this is Black Snakeroot.   Loskiel mentions its use in treating wounds, which is derived from the traditional uses of snakeroots.  Loskiel is very familiar with the Virginia Snakeroot, but misses this more common Canadian Snakeroot locally, or the equally more common local Snakeroot Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger).

A species of Scabious (scabiosa succisa) commonly called Devil’s-bit, on account of the singularity of its root, is also used as a medicine.

Perhaps a species of the common knapweed or bachelor’s button, Centaurea.  Note the similarities of the two flowers above.

Bloodwort (sanguinaria canadensis). The root of this plant when broken, emits some drops of the color of blood, which is a strong and dangerous emetic.

Cuckoo-pint (arum maculatum) [Arisaema triphyllum?] has a root like a small nut; when tasted it inflames the tongue by its pungency, leaving a tingling sensation, without affecting any other part of the mouth. When dried it loses this power, and is made use of in complaints of the bowels.

The inflammation of the tongue is due to oxalate crystals, thereby confirming the identity.  Dried and powdered, this inflammation is reduced or totally prevented.  Boiling the root into a mash also dissolved out the crystals.  Loskiel is perhaps proposing here to use the root raw or semi-raw to ensure this inflammatory effect occurs in the intestines.  This is possibly related to the excitant theory of disease defined to Brunonianism, or Roeschlaub’s Theory of Excitement, two of the primary theories for the 1790s and early 1800s.  William Cullen’s Solids theory was going out of vogue by now although reprints of Cullen’s books between 1800 and 1815 were attempts made to maintain this philosophy by his local (US) supporters.   All of these are described in more detail elsewhere,  beginning with https://brianaltonenmph.com/6-history-of-medicine-and-pharmacy/hudson-valley-medical-history/osborns-biography/other-authors-other-notes-on-the-above-philosophies/1780-more-on-brunonianism/ and https://brianaltonenmph.com/6-history-of-medicine-and-pharmacy/hudson-valley-medical-history/osborns-biography/other-authors-other-notes-on-the-above-philosophies/1800-roeschlaub-theory-of-excitement-broussais-theory-of-heat/.


Virginian Snakeroot (aristolochia serpentaria) is excessively bitter, and much in use among the Indians as a sudorific and stomachic.  [see initial plant entry above]

Ginseng (panax quinquefolium), a plant brought first from Corea (sic) to Europe by way of Japan, grows wild in North America. In China and other countries in Asia, this root is deemed an universal remedy, in every kind of disorder. When chewed, it is an excellent stomachic. Formerly it was very dear, and sold in Holland for twenty-five florins a pound. But about thirty years ago a merchant in North America received a commission to send a large quantity of this root to London. He employed some Indians to collect as much as they could get, for which he rewarded them handsomely. Its price of course was greatly lowered, when found in such plenty.

Since Loskiel’s books was written and published in the 1790s, this tells us that the overharvesting of the local Ginseng was a very early event in American history.  The earliest evidence of its popularity as a very valuable resource of North America is seen in Loudon’s Packet, which by the 1780s contained advertisements requesting it be harvested by those residing in the hinterlands for trade with China.  As settlements headed west, this plant continued to be overharvested primarily for sale to the Orient, not for use by the locals.  American recognition of the value of Ginseng would not take off until the 19th century, at which time two other plants became heavily harvested as well–Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and American Mandrake or Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum).  The first almost underwent the same overharvesting problems as Panax.   Mayapple became one of the most popular remedies of the 19th century, and was first considered an effective cure for bilious or yellow fever, and later was served as the magic ingredient in Carter’s Liver Pills, resulting in a stool that was very yellow due to the release of bile it generated due to its irritation on the intestinal wall and gall bladder duct.

Endnote:  Also see the biography of a true medicine man from the Shekomeko Mahicans, second generation descendant Mannessah of Gallatin, NY.  His life from about 1770 to 1860 was spent just north of the missions and Pine Plains village in association with a local farming family.  He was referred to as “Prince Quack” by the regular physicians probably due to his traditional physical and metaphysical medical practices, in particular during the period when the term “Quack” became very common and had multiple associations within the local farming family cultural settings.





Moravian-Indian Medicine