John Bartram (1699-1777)

Description, virtues, and uses of sundry plants of these northern parts of America, and particularly of the newly discovered Indian cure for the venereal disease. 1751. Published as “Appendix to Thomas Short’s Medicina Britanica: or A Treatise on such Physical Plants as are Generally to be found in Fields or Gardens in Great-Britain.”

3ed. London. Reprinted in Philadelphia by B. Franklin, and D. Hall, 1751.

Research Notes: In the main text for Hobb’s article, he notes that James Logan, secretary to William Penn and later Governor of Pennsylvania, made many contacts with the Iroquois, from whom he probably learned about this Lobelia. It it also Logan who heavily influenced John Bartram by giving him several valuable books on late Renaissance and colonial medicine.

At the time of Bartram’s work, the Iroquois made frequent stops in Germantown, near where Logan and Dr. Christopher Witt resided. As early as 1660, the Iroquois were selling their arts and crafts in the city of New Amsterdam/New York. Most likely, this same barter-trade activity took place during the earliest years of Pennsylvania history as well. For this reason, Bartram was in the right place to hear and then later learn about American Indian herbalism fairly early in his professional career in the Philadelphia setting. Being fairly close to lower New York, the impacts of this knowledge in the Hudson valley are also very likely outcomes of Bartram’s works and discoveries. Like the Hudson Valley, the region also had its unique cultural faiths and traditions. This area is where the mystics of Dutch Colonial New Amsterdam removed to following the request for their removal by Peter Stuyvesant near the end of the 17th century. This is also the area where the birth of a mystic healing sect, headed by Kelpius of the Wissahickon River area took place, somewhere near Germantown where a three story monestary was built, the third story of which housed a telescope used to watch the stars, with hopes of witnessing the second coming of Christ.

Aralia (Aralia racemosa), other common names Spikenard, and Wild Licorice. This is one of the earliest written descriptions of a local medicinal plant used by an Afro-American. Bartram claimed it to have edible berries, stating “some of which are pleasant and wholesome to eat.” He noted the roots to be of a balsamick nature, for which the following medicinal uses were then cited: “The black Inhabitants use them to cure fresh Wounds; they bruise the Roots, then pour a little Spring Water to them, mixing them together, which brings the Mass to a mucilaginous Balsam, which they apply with good Success; the Roots chewed, and the Juice swallowed, help the Pains of the Loins.” [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 186]

Aralia Caule Nudo (Aralia nudicaulis), other common name Sarsaparilla. The knowledge of sarsaparilla is by 1751 almost a century old. Monarde notes the value of Sarsaparilla in his discussions of the medicines from New Spain? Bartram write: “commonly called Sarsaparilla, hath a long creeping Root, something like the Spanish, but it is really a very different plant, yet of great Virtue.” Bartram then recommends a decoction for “cleansing the Blood, and curing a Dropsy.” Outwardly applied, he recommends it for treating Shingles, and cleansing ulcers to help them heal. Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 186]

Erigeron (Erigeron sp.). The most popular use for this plant was as a snakebite remedy. Bartram’s description of this plant: “it bears a white Flower in the Spring, something like a large Daisy, about a Foot high, the Roots run under the Surface of the Ground in small Fibres or Threads, of a hot Taste: The Indians pound this root, and Apply it to cold hard Tumours to dissolve them.” [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 186] According to the author of this article Christopher Hobbs, this Erigeron sp. is possibly E. philadelphicus, or E. canadensis.)

Saururus (Saururus cernuus). Historically, Aristolochia has been the most popular Rattlesnake cure. For Saururus, this same use is uncertain, although similarities in form and structure of certain parts of this plant may be the main reason it is considered a snakebite remedy. According to Bartram, this is the Aristolochia referred to by some of the early Dutch writings, which Bartram explains may be due to their interpretation of “the Shape of the Leaf [which] hath some Resemblance to that Plant.” This plant grows in marshes and other wet places, and has a spongy root “like a Rush.” The Saururus of this region is considered an emollient and discutient in late 19th century writings. Bartram writes: “It is of excellent Virtue; being made into a Poultice, and applied to sore and imposthumated Breasts, it ripens and heals them.” The leaves can be made into a drink for treating back and breast pains. [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 186-7]

Collinsonia (Collinsonia canadensis), also known as Horseweed. Bartram notes this plant smells like Hops in the fall, and has seeds that are much like Sage seed. In reference to its usefulness as a medicine, he refers back to its common name horseweed, so named “not only because Horses are very greedy of it, but it is also good for sore gall’d Backs. The root is hard and knobby, and is much commended for Womens After-pains, being pounded, boiled, and the decoction drank.” [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 187]

Chelidonium, or Sanguinaria (Sanguinaria canadensis), other names include Redroot and Tumerick. This plant is also considered a Rattlesnake Cure.

“The Leaves broken yield a yellow Juice, like the Garden Celandine; the flower is white, and opens early in the Spring; the Root dried and powdered is commended by Dr. Colden, as a Cure for the Jaundice, the Powder being given to the Weight of a Drachm in Small Beer; and by others, for the Bite of a Rattlesnake.”
Bartram referred to this plant as “Chelidonium, or Sanguinaria”, but based on the description of its flower, the root medicine discussed is probably from Blood Root or Sanguinaria canadensis. The flower of Chelidonium (Celandine Poppy) is yellow, and is probably the “Garden Celandine” he is discussing in this brief report. [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 187]

Virga-aurea (Solidago spp.), other names: Goldenrod. A rattlesnake cure with one of the highest commendations for this use: “Species of Golden Rod, that is so famous for the Bite of the Rattle-Snake….This is extolled as a very effectual Cure for the Bite of a Rattle-Snake; the Herb boiled, and the Decoction drank, and the warm Herb applied to the Wound. It is used with good Success to cure the Swelling of the Throat and Neck, and Pains of the Breast, it being a powerful Dissolver of viscid Humours.”  [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 187]   [NOTE: The Author Hobbs identifies this as Solidago calcicola Fern. in his words, “said by Fernald to be “our closest approach to the European S. virgaura L., not S. canadensis.”  See USDA maps for other possible species.]


Jacea (Liatrus spicata(?)), common name Throat-wort.

As suggested by the common name. this plant was a popular remedy for sore throats. “The Roots are as big as Hickory Nut, with some small Fibres; the Stalk is about four or five feet high, without any Branches, with ling narrow leaves growing alternatively thereupon; the Flowers put forth toward the Top, surrounding the Stalk in a long Spike of purple Flowers . . . The Root Bruised and boiled in water, and the Decoction drank and gargled in the Mouth, and the Root applied, with warm Cloths dipped in the hot Decoction, to the Throat, gives Relief, it being of a warm discussing Nature.” [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 187]. Hobbs identifies this by stating “The old name for Centauria, but it is more likely the related Liatrus spicata (L.) Willd…” [p. 184]  Viola tricolor L is also called Herbae jaceae in some pharmacopoeias, suggesting Jacea is a possible French (Creole?) derived name.  The Viola spp. is ruled out by stem size.


Uvulary (Uvularia perfoliata L. or U. grandiflora, J.E. Smith). The most common popular name applied to this plant is Crow’s Foot. This plant was once formerly considered a form of Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum spicatum and other species). In terms of its use, Bartam write: “the Root is white and spreads like a Crow’s is a good Root for gathering and breaking a Boil, and makes a fine Salve for healing Wounds and Ulcers; it makes a fine maturating Poultice.” The use of a maturating poultice is an attempt to cause the infected sore (filled with white humours) or abscess to come to a head and erupt, thus dispelling its sick humours and cleansing the body. Important Note for researchers: This use of a plant to promote the natural progression of an ailment is not unusual in medical history, although scholars and historians for the most part tend to ignore this particular philosophy in the older forms of medicine. Known as “Sanative”, from the Latin “Sanare” for natural, is a method of cure that matches some parts of the religious or natural philosophy borne by early settlers, and is not to be misconstrued as any attempt to eliminate the cause for the malady, only to help assist it along its natural way. [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 187]

Triosteospermum (Triosteum perfoliatum), other common name to Northern Colonial settlements: Dr. Tinker’s Weed. In Pennsylvania this herb was referred to as Gentian, and in the southern colonies as Fever Root. This plant was used to treat fever and ague in the south, in Pennsylvania, to help treat Pleurisy, in New England as an emetic used to elicit “the vomit.” According to Bartram, “It is a little churlish, yet may be a noble Medicine in skilful Hands.” [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 187]

Blazing Star (Chamaelirium luteum (L.) A.), other name Devil’s Bit, a common name given to it be “Black Inhabitants” according to Bartram. This is the second plant with an important Afro-American uses noted by Bartram. Its bitter taste is the most likely cause for its uses: “This precious Root is a great Resister of fermenting Poisons, and the grievous Pains of Bowels, taken in Powder, or the Root bruised and steeped in Rum, of which take a spoonful at once, and as often as Need requires, until the Pains remit.” [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 187-8]


Star-Grass (Aletris farinosa), considered very similar in appearance to Blazing Star, and so not to be confused as such, Bartram writes: “The Decoction of this Root drank, easeth the Pains of the Stomach and Bowels.” [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 188]

Liriodendrum (Liriodendron tulipifera L.), common name for the time locally was Poplar, but better known elsewhere under the name Tulip Poplar. Its use: “The Bark of the Root steeped in Rum, and the Rum drank, is much commended for the Cure of the Fever and Ague; and to the Northward, for the Gout and Rheumatism.” [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 188]

Apocinum (Asclepias tuberosa). According to Hobbs, this is Asclepias tuberosa L. (Pleurisy Root, or Butterflyweed). According to the flower color in Bartram’s description, this is most likely correct. The flower color is perhaps the reason for its primary use, in light of the phytognomica or doctrine of signature for this plant: “…this hath for many Years used with good Success for the Cure of the Bloody Flux; the Root must be powdered and given in a Spoonful of Rum, or rather as the Indians give it, bruise the Root, and boil it in Water, and drink the Decoction: Peter Kalm saith it is excellent for the hysteric Passion.” [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 188]

Orchis. According to Hobbs, either Orchis spectabilis L. or Leptoorchis liliifolia (L.) Kuntze. There are however numerous other Orchid genera that may have similar uses. Bartram: “it hath a Root as big as an Onion, it hath one or two Leaves green all Winter, which are six or seven Inches long, and two broad, striped with white lines from one End to the other. This Root bruised and applied to the Ears, easeth the Pains thereof, and helps to break Boils.”
[Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 188]

Centaurium Luteum (Lycopodium sp.), other name ground-pine. According to Hobbs, this is either Lycopodium complanatum L. or L. clavatum L. Bartram’s description: “Commonly called Ground-Pine. It grows about a Span high, its slender Branches spread all round from one fibrous Root, like or Penny-royal, but as small as Wire, or the Leaves of Pine, from which is had its Name; the little Flowers are yellow, succeeded by little red pods on the Tops of the Branches; it smells as strong as the leaves of Pine’ it commonly grows on old poor Clay Ground; it is of excellent Virtue, being made into an Ointment with Penny-royal, Hemlock and Henbane (or it may do alone made into an Ointment) for Bruises and Strains, if it be green, for it loseth much of its virtues when dry, it being of an active penetrating Nature.” [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 188]

Elichrysum (Anaphalis margaritacea L.), the common names include Cottonweed and Life-Everlasting. Bartram writes: ” Elichrysum is very good for baths and Fomentations for cold Tumors, Bruises, or Strains; it may be mixed with Ground-Pine.” [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 188]

Veronica Spicata (Veronicastrum virginicum), commonly called Culver’s Root, this is the third Afro-American remedy noted by Bartram. Regarding its virtues: “One handful of the Roots of this Plant, boiled in a Pint of Milk, and drank, is used by the black inhabitants for a powerful Vomit.” [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 189]

Eupatorium Folium Perfoliatum (Eupatorium perfoliatum). This is one of the more popular fever remedies of the mid-Atlantic and New England colonies. “The Herb boiled in Water and the Decoction drank, is commended for a Vomit in the intermitting Fevers, and used as a fomentation for Pains in the Limbs.” [Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 189] The two most popular medical Eupatorium species of this part of North America are Boneset or Thoroughwort (Eupatorium perfoliatum), and Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum). Both of these species, and their other allied Eupatorium species (which may have been mistaken of gathered for similar use, or used as an adulterant), were strongly promoted for the first time during the early post-colonial colonial years as remedies for the major recurring epidemic of this time—Yellow Fever. Both tend to grow in the swampy fields common to the New England and Middle Colonies, a behavior which according to natural philosophy is a sign of their purpose when used as a medicine. Bartram’s work did not result in the heavy promotion of this plant in early Colonial medicine, but set the stage for its major contribution to medicine soon after the Revolutionary War was over and immigration to the United States was recommenced.

Lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica and L. spicata; L. kalmii included above as well)

The major reason this work by Bartram is reviewed is that it provided an important clue to how and when the colonist or early United States citizens came to learn about the primary herb used by Samuel Thomson, in the development of his book on Thomsonian medicine. Thomson’s new alternative form of medicine had a major impact on American medical practices, both personally and professionally. Exactly why this happened has often been the center of discussion on non-allopathic medicine history in the United States. By 1750, it is known, at least by members of the military and people residing near a New England fort, that this herb was a potential substitute for the ipecac that had to be shipped from Europe and its sources of the South American ports. Peter Kalm also spoke of it in his writings on his travels through this region about the same time. This herbal medicine knowledge may have also remained commonplace in and around the local communities, having not become a part of regular medical practice for quite some time. As Thomson himself has suggested in his autobiographical writings about how he learned to practice Thomsonianism, knowledge of this use of Lobelia may have also been a common claim in domestic herbal medicine practices which he learned from one of his neighbors (an elderly woman according to his story). In either case, this use of Lobelia as a drink, followed by its used on the third day as part of the bathing process, all for the purpose of eliminating the “sores” (venereal disease), form two important parts of the basic rules for practice Thomson later established and wrote into a book. The fact that a similar series of steps taken to effect a cure were again popularized in the late 1790s by a religious writer and physician, made it even more possible for Thomson’s theory to later become highly popular, by about 1812.

Hobbs identified the second plant discussed in this text as Ceanothus americanus, the Jersey Tea or Red Root, then often cultivated for use as a drug plant.

“This curious Plant riseth from a fibrous Root to three or four Feet high, with a Spike of blue Flowers surrounding the Stalk for near a Foot in Length: It grows in rich shady Ground; it is a scarce Plant in many Parts of the country. The learned Peter Kalm (who gained the Knowledge of it from Colonel Johnson, who learned it of the Indians, who, after great Rewards bestowed on several of them, revealed the Secret to him) saith, That the Roots of this Plant cureth the Pox much more perfectly and easily than any mercurial Preparations, and is generally used by the Canada Indians, for the Cure of themselves and the French that trade amongst them, tho’ deeply infected with it. They take a Handful of the Roots, and boil them in a Quart of Water, and drink the Decoction, beginning with Half a Pint at first, if the Patient be weak, the increase the Dose every Day as he can bear its purging; but if he can’t bear it every Day. let him omit it a Day or two, then take to it again, as he finds Occasion, until he is cured: They wash the Ulcer with the Decoction; but if it be deep and rotten, they put some powder of the inner Bark of the Spruce-tree into it, which helps to dry it up; but if the Disease is inveterate, they drink the Decoction of Ranunculus Folio Reniformus. An old Sachem told Colonel Johnson of another Shrub, with a red Root, from which proceeds several slender Branches, eighteen Inches or two Feet long, on which grow Spikes of white Flowers, which produce three-square black Seed-Pods; the Leaves some of our People drink as Tea, and some smoak it with Tobacco; the Roots of this, bruised and Boiled, and the Decoction drank, the Sachem said, he rather preferred to the Lobelia; but the Lobelia seems to be the most general Use, and with extraordinary Success.”
[Bartram, 1751, (C. Hobbs, 1991), 188-9]

“More particular Directions how to use the Lobelia-Root for the Venereal Disorder, obtained from the Indians by Col. J. “After making a decoction of it, the Patient is to drink about two Gills of it very early in the Morning, fasting, the same before Dinner, and Bed-time. Add or diminish as you find it agrees with the Patient’s Constitution: The third Day begin Bathing, and continue it twice a Day, until the Sores are well cleansed, and partly healed, then use the Lotion but once a Day till quite well; observing all the Time to use a slender Diet (vegetable Food, and small Drink) as in other Courses of Physick, a Salivation excepted. These are the directions I have had from the Person who gave me the Secret.”

Source for the above: Christopher Hobbs. “The Medical Botany of John Bartram.” Pharmacy in History. Vol. 33 (1991) No. 4, pp. 181-189.

For more on John Bartam see Maurice Bear Gordon. Aesculapius Comes to the Colonies, (Ventnor Publishers, 1049), Pennsylvania chapter, page 445 – .