From  1492 (the movie). In Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise.  YouTube (links at end).  


New World Plant Discoveries

The most poorly told stories in the history of medicine are those about the impact Native American knowledge had on European and Euro-American medicine.  Sometime between 1620 and 1630, a cure for the killer disease of malaria was developed when a Jesuit working in Loxa, Peru documented for the first time the use of the bark from a local tree.  This amazing plant would later be given the name cinch0na by Carl von Linne (Linnaeus), which refers to the Countess of Chinchon who was healed by this medicine around 1638.

See and

In a classic illustration once presented when I was in medical school (a history in itself), a Peruvian medicine man is spitting onto the head of a warrior who is lying in the field following battle.  The injured warrior seems as though he has already died due to a head injury he just sustained.  Struck in the head by an adz, a hematoma was developing within the skull, as the blood leaving the vessels began to pool beneath the skull, place pressure against the brain, squeezing and deforming it, and then pressing it to the other side of the skull, much like a sponge with limited elasticity being forced to share its limited space with the rapidly growing hematoma.  

The Peruvian medicine man begins treating this injury by placing a coca leaf in his mouth, chewing on it a few minutes, and then spitting out the fluids that have built up in his mouth.  Next he takes a sharp stone and drills a hole through the scalp, skull and other tissues beneath, a process known as trephination. This enables the built up blood to flow out of the hole that was left, leave the brain cavity and reduce the pressure being placed on the brain.  A short while later, perhaps within an hour or two, the fellow Peruvian who was previously unconscious wakes up.  

To the shaman, the belief was that bad spirits have left the body due to the trephination process.  This allowed the person’s own spirit to regain possession of the original body.  Due to a full recovery, the individual soul and spirit are restored and the injured person’s life returned to what it should be.

For more than a century, both the coca leaf (Erythroxylum coca) and cacao fruit (Theobroma cacao) were pulled from the woods of what remained of Aztec-Olmec-Mayan setting in South America, before their future users fully understood the reasons for their value.  The coca leaf represents some form of spiritual cure that worked it “magic” along one set of processes or channel in the body.  The cacao, with its theobromine, flavor and bitter caffeine effects, influenced the body in other ways, along different pathways involving the spirit and physical constructs.  Over time, certain parts of these belief systems became common place for many European cultures.   Europeans may not have believed in the shaman’s traditional renderings as to how and why these plants worked the way they do as medicines, but they certainly believed they did work.  So long as the New World medicines that were discovered met their wants, needs and expectations, these natural resources were considered gifts to man made available by God Himself, much like the Peruvians, Andeans, Mayans and Aztecs viewed these gifts of Nature as a result of the Creator–different words and perhaps even definitions, but two concepts with the same meaning.

Bartholomew Gosnold at Smoking Rocks by William Allen Wall.  From

The next “magic” was brought to the European tradition with the discovery of Sassafras.  This plant had miraculous uses, such as treating the many fevers that prevailed in New World tropical settings, but most importantly an example of one of God’s gifts to explorers designed to treat the lues venera sailors often experienced–a venereal disease, in particular syphilis, that they obtained as a consequence of their journeys.   

Nicolas Monardes (1574) knew about this plant and its history in New Spain.  Jacques Cartier (1535) had documented its presence in New France.  During the 1580s, New England lacked the knowledge and experiences needed to be able to find it on British territories, and made considerable efforts trying to locate this plant with its unique aroma and leaves symbolic of the fleur-de-lis and trinity.

This meant that at first the French and Spanish had the edge on this new and rapidly growing industry.  No one of any political importance in Virginia knew exactly what the sassafras looked like and where to find it.  British Explorer Thomas Harriot knew it had to be present locally, but where exactly he was uncertain of.  This even led the British to hire a well experienced and trained scout and woodsman from Florida to find this crop.  As a result, during the very late 1500s, years after the “discoveries” made by other explorers of this valuable medicine.   According to Ralph Lane of the Roanoke colony Sir Walter Ralegh helped establish during the late 1580s, “great woods of Sassafras” were noted to be in the vicinity in 1585 (see for the Virginia take on this story).  The aggressive search for Sassafras finally enabled Bartholomew Gosnold to identify this tree and to begin gathering it in large quantitites around the Cape Cod setting in 1602.  

Sassafras was strongly promoted by Royalty as the cure for the lues venerea, also known as “French Pox”.  Sailors at sea often returned with this disease, known today as syphilis.  The use of Sassafras as a remedy for syphilis was more than likely not as successful as cocaine was for treating pain.  But the power of this remedy for the time was enough to make it one of the first overharvested medicinal plants of the Americas by 1650.  The syphilis the sailors experienced naturally went away over time (only to later return as advanced disease resulting in neurological and psychiatric damages).  Thus the mass marketing of this plant made it a success well past the mid 1600s. 

Brazilwood, cacao and coca

In between Cape Cod and New Spain, the two major sources for sassafras, Sir Walter Raleigh made his way towards the mid-Atlantic shores of North America in 1584, where he also managed to secure samples of tobacco and potato.  Along with these two plants, later to become the most successfully cultivated early American products brought back to Europe, were some herbs that later became economically important medicines.  When Portuguese, French, Spanish explorers made their way into the interior continent of South America during the late 1500s, contacts with Yagua Indians or Nihamwo resulted in a popularization of Brazil wood (Haematoxylon or Caesalpinia sp.) and the dark red colored flower of the shrub Annato (Bixa orellana).   Further south in South America they documented the value of the Vanilla vine.  Along the northernmost edge of the American shores in what is now called Canada, Jacques Cartier brought back with him the  “Tree of Life” or Arbor Vitae (Thuja occidentalis) that cured him and members of his crew of scurvy. 

Annato, Achiote, or Roucou

Annato is one of the most commonly referred to examples of  plants “discovered” due to interactions with New World indigenous cultures.  Once the flowers of this shrub made its way back to Europe, it quickly became a curiosity added to many foodstuffs, ultimately becoming a major competitor with saffron for coloring certain food dishes a deep yellow to red.  At the expense of a small group of indigenous people living on an island in the Bahamas, a sample of the dye bixa was brought back to Spain by Columbus.  This sample came from the island of San Salvador (Watling Island or Guanahani), and was provided to Columbus by the natives, whom due to their habitual use of this dye became known as “red Indians.”  (See Sauer, Carl and Ortwin Sauer. The Spanish Main. (Cambridge, 1966) p. 55-6). 


As a result of his voyages into the New World,  Christopher Columbus also made note of the local Sweet Gum (Liquidambur styraciflua) tree, which he felt closely resembled the marketable Gum Mastic of the Mediterranean.  Other plants with their histories influenced by Columbus included a species of capsicum (chili pepper), the allspice used by the Arawaks, tobacco, and the pineapple, although it was not a product of this area.

New World discoveries did not necessarily begin with Columbus.  It is possible that several earlier explorers of the New World also interacted with the Natives in such a way as to learn a little about their local ethnobotanical practices.  But very little about these trips is provided in the written legends and stories of these early explorers.  With the exception of some of the Viking folklore legends, nothing is really stated about the types of people encountered and the ways in which they made use of their resources other than in the form of poorly described foods and on occasion the various types of weaponry they made use of.  

Laurie Lacey. Micmac Medicines: Remedies and Recollections. 1993. p. 77

A malingering medicinal plant folktale in early pre-Columbian history world is that of the common plantain or Plantago major, a plant that Euro-American botany often considers to be a North American native, but to traditional Native oral ethnohistorians is defined as a product brought to this continent by early explorers.  The Mi’kmaq traditional name for this herb is “White Man’s Foot.” (See Laurie Lacey’s Micmac Medicines: Remedies and Recollections. 1993. p. 77)


Another of the most important first natural products noted early in an European herbal is the “Marygold” (Tagetes patula L., image above), which plant historians consider to be the first herb discovered with New World links or applications when it was documented during Emporer Charles V’s expedition to Tunis, Africa in 1535.  As a result of such an early discovery, it first appeared in Remberdt Dodoens’s Herbal of 1535, and again in Fuchsius’s Herbal of 1542 bearing Tagetes indica as it Latin name.  Fifty years later, in Gerard’s Herball of 1597, its close relative Tagetes erecta L. or African Marygold was described.  In America, the knowledge of Tagetes minuta of South America and the Tagetes lucida of Mexico became the New World versions of this important discovery.

Zea mays L. or Turkish Corn was the second American plant to be described in a European herbal, this description published in 1562.  Referred to in early letters as Turkish Wheat, due to its resemblance to the same, the corn was brought back to England and cultivated in gardens.  It was usually referred to as “the food of the poor inhabitants” during the earliest years of North American exploration, and for quite some time was used to feed hogs and cattle more often than people.   It took nearly two centuries for corn to become accepted as a staple food for people.  

The Potato (Solanum tuberosum L.) had three introductions to European gardens and farms (see Sauer pp. 145-155).  In 1565 it was introduced to Ireland by Hawkins, by 1570 it was growing Spanish gardens and fed to the patients in a local hospital; twenty years later it was brought to England by Sir Walter Raleigh.   As a South American plant, there were some other starch bearers that bear a resemblance to potato, but only as a statch crop.  These were of limited importance at first, but are currently fairly popular in multicultural food stores, such as Cassava (Manihot esculenta), Oca (Oxalis tuberosa, Andes), Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas) and Mexican Yam (Dioscorea sp.). 

Clockwise from upper left: Oca, sweet potato, cassava or manioc, and mexican yam


Sir Walter Raleigh’s introductions in particular are important because they increased the focus on the central Atlantic shoreline region.  It is hard to define which of the plants from this part of North America were most important, but some evidence suggest the starchy rootstock of Smilax was perhaps the most economical product found in this region.  There were already some highly significant medicines in this region, which added to the market already established or underway in colonial trade, markets relating to Virginia Snakeroot and Sassafras for example.  But for Smilax, the remarkable similarity in appearance made this a very marketable resource for the Orient.

American Smilax (S. rotundifoliabona-nox and other species)

Smilax china (other species are used as well and have different appearances)

The Smilax root was important because it set the stage for a successful market with the Orient.  The local species was very much comparable with the Oriental species of Smilax used in the regions around what had just obtained the name Cin (Persian) or Cina (Sanskrit) and Goryeo (Persian) or Corea (common Anglican).  This starch source had both food and medicine applications, two of life’s practices that were very closely related to each other in Oriental culture.   The drawback to this potential market was finding the rootstocks, since the vines were typically several dozen yards in length, and the rootstock hard to find due to the delicate nature of both the main plant stem and its underground rhizome connectors between tubers.  It could take several weeks to uncover a tuber for Smilax, after the production of a trench measuring as much as 15 or 20 feet in length and 3 to 4 feet in width and depth.  Such efforts were perhaps not worth the financial benefits obtained by supplying the marketplace with more of this resource, and as supply went up, earning went down, making such industrious efforts not worth the time and energy back then.


The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597). John Gerard (1545-1612. “Virginian Potato” (II.146)

Both Corn and Potato ended up in the next massive Herball to be published by John Gerard in 1597, who by then was growing them in his private garden.

Also noted in Gerard’s Herball was the import fodder crop Coronilla emerus L. (Emerus, or Crown Vetch) and the fiber-producer Yucca gloriosa L. (Yucca).  Of these, the Yucca remained popular and so appeared thirty years later in herbalist John Parkinson’s Paradisi del Sol. Paradise in the Sun.  The exploration of Peru gave to the European medical profession the knowledge of Coca (Erythroxylum coca Lam.). 


Mirabilis jalapa

In 1597, the Herbals first noted the Mirabilis jalapa L. or Marvel of Peru, a marvel due to its heliotropic nature–it flowered fairly regularly at 4 o’clock and thus became known as the 4-O’clock Flower.  There were several other plants in the New World that behave this same way, including the Sunflower (Helianthus spp.), which was more often like the jeruslem artichoke (H. tuberosum) back then.

From Brazil came the colorful Brazil Woods (Haematoxylon campechianum L. and H. brasiletto Karsten).  The Mayans of Yucatan provided fiber (Agave americana L. and others) and latex sources (Manilkara zapota (L.) P. Royen, figure below).

In the 1600s, these interests became more utilitarian in nature and began to focus on edible and decorative plants and one fiber-producer which served more as a curiosity: Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas L.; 1609), Southern Acacia (Acacia farnesiana (L.) Willd.; 1611), Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis L.; 1619, 1629), White Oak (Quercus alba L.; 1620), and Cotton (Gossypium herbaceum L.; 1621).  

In 1629, John Parkinson’s Paradisi added to this list of valuable garden plants Sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.), Tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum Miller), Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis L.), Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca L.), Scale Bark Hickory (Carya ovata (Miller) K. Koch), Red Mulberry (Morus rubra L.), Raspberry (Rubus idaeus L.) and Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis L.). 


During the 1630s, decoratives like Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia L.), Turtlehead (Chelone glabra L.; C. obliqua L.), and Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana L.) came to be cultivated in England following their introduction from the new settlements in New England, Virginia, and Newfoundland.   The Sensitive Mimosa (Mimosa pudica L.) made its way into Sir John Danvers’s Garden in Chelsey by 1638.



Botanist John Tradescant, Jr., took great interest in New World flora by 1640, and introduced several poisonous and medical plants along with the decoratives.  The Poison Ivy or Oak (Rhus toxicodendron L., and Rhus radicans L.) became a curiosity item grown in gardens in England.  The Maiden Hair Fern (Adiantum pedatum L.) was not only a decorative, but also considered comparable to the European Maiden Hair Fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris L.) which was valued as a popular medicine.  The toxic Carolina Jasmine (Gelseminum sempervirens L.) of Virginia, and the medicinal Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos L.) of Maryland were important additional proof to many later plant medicine books.

Together, these first garden crops and medicines brought back from the New World illustrate the nature in which the first Explorers judged the value of these discoveries: most were food plants and marvellous medicines.  Marvels and panaceas were the first plants noted and brought back to Europe by early explorers. 



Ocean Voyage images from and

The early Herbals

Remberdt Dodoens. A Niewe Herbal. English Edition, translated by H. Lyte.  London: Gerard Dewes, 1578.  Noted in Rudy F. Favretti & Gordon P. DeWolf.  Colonial Gardens.  Barre, Massachusetts: Barre Publishers, 1972.

John Parkinson’s Paradisi del Sol. Paradise in the Sun. London, 1629.

Reprinted, edited herbals

Marcus Woodward (ed.)  Gerard’s Herbal.  The History of Plants.  London: Studio Editions Ltd, 1994.

Secondary Sources

Rudy F. Favretti & Gordon P. DeWolf.  Colonial Gardens.  Barre, Massachusetts: Barre Publishers, 1972. p. 90.

For a detailed history of most of the above mentioned food crop plants, see Jonathan D. Sauer.  Historical Geography of Crop Plants. A Select Roster.  Boca Raton: CRC Press, 1993.