Hudson Valley Plant Heritage
What is Plant Heritage?
Plant heritage refers to the cultural value of a plant within a specific setting. This setting is usually defined based on a given place or region, but often may have a time-related or temporal limitation as well, such as a plant important to the history of a local native American settlement or the most important farming and agricultural crop or product.
How does this relate to the Hudson valley?
If we wish to define the Hudson valley as a region, we need to refer to its listing of natural botanical resources, and then review the history of each of these plants in order to define their relative importance locally, regionally and even internationally. The next step then becomes defining whether or not the Hudson Valley setting played an important role in this important natural resource. This might includes questions like: Could this plant only survive or thrive in the Valley? Do local rainfall, temperatures, weather patterns, ecological setting, topography make the Valley a primary location for the development of this industry? Could the industry be developed only due to the work of local people in this industry, or specific local features that existed thereby enabling this industry to be developed?
This same philosophy can be applied to other “regions” as well. These regions may be governmentally defined like a state, or culturally defined such as the area served by a particular church or a spiritual social group with matching personal philosophies. Governmental boundaries are typically not good to use for defining your area and the researching it. Natural and social barriers have to be found, examples where distances do make a difference or routes that define what kinds of groups can socially interact. Throughout much the earliest decades of New York history, travel routes defined the communications and natural barriers such as mountains determined where two communities could be isolated from each other. By the middle of the 19th century, technology changesd all of this ,as the steamboat was invented, plans for the canal drawn up and followed through, and important railways were laid. These types of limitations and barriers can prevent knowledge of a particular use for a plant from extending much beyond it’s birthplace.
How do we determine which plants are most important to the local history of the Hudson Valley?
Importance is typically a very subjective feature or plants. A plant-related natural resource of 1800 for example might be very popular for just a decade, during which time it is overharvested to such an extent that it nearly becomes extinct, resulting in a reduction of the industry due either to change in the reasons it was popular in the first place, or a reduction in supply resulting in increased costs and reduced demands. The most common feature of Hudson Valley botanical industries is the impact overharvesting had on the industry itself, resulting in industrial changes brought about by the discovery of substitute for these very regional natural products. For example, the tanning of leather (i.e. in places with names like Tanville or Tanner’s Creek) may have originally been managed using oak and evergreen barks high in tannin content; but the overharvesting of these products, resulting in the death of their sources (the trees), ultimately forced the industry to convert to alternative sources (iron-based tanning agents, relying upon alternative sources for tannins such as the Chestnuts in Western Pennsylvania). Likewise, the overharvesting of Paper Birch for the production of canoes, the overharvesting of pines, cedar and hemlock trees for use in shipbuilding, all led to modifications in natural forest settings and ultimately the destruction of an entire industry based upon a potentially renewable resource.
Long term impacts found with either large-supply renewable resources or with agriculturally-developed industries related to these resources would be one reason a natural plant resource could be highly valuable to a given region. The question then becomes ‘is the Hudson Valley the only place where this need can be met?’
What are the defining factors used to define this local plant heritage?
In general, plants important to Hudson Valley Cultural Plant heritage have one or more of the following features:
- Importance is sustained both locally and regionally, and perhaps nationally.
- Importance has some sort of economic impact on the region, either directly in the form of barter, trade, or monetary value, and/or culturally in terms of impacts upon early local reputations, thereby resulting in industries that prevail and remain successful for generations to come.
- The importance of this product results in the establishment of a regional public perception of the area; the end product(s) is (are) somehow related to the Hudson Valley as a whole, with some knowledge of the effects of that relationship upon the local and national popular culture interpretation of the area.
Early non-botanical examples of the regionalist interpretation of Hudson valley products include the following very important industries in local and statewide/regional culture:
- The establishment of a glassier during the late 1700s and early 1800s in Kingston
- The establishment of the brick industries during the early 1800s in the Dutchess and Ulster areas
- The establishment of iron and lead mine industries during the mid to late 1700s and early 1800s by the Livingstons
- The development of a sheep and wool industry between 1795 and 1845 by the Livingstons and by financiers in the Glenham-Fishkill-Beacon area
- The development of a major source for dairy products i n order to meet the needs of New York City residents, 1790 to 1830, especially during the yellow fever epidemics
- The development of medical springs settings due to the influences of Ballstown and Saratoga
In Hudson valley history, the following major agricultural-premanufactory establishments might be used to illustrate plant related examples of the same:
- The establishment of a cannabis-hemp agricultural setting in Westchester County by the Governor
- The establishment of a creosote-and resins-extraction process involving the evergreens in the forests in and around the Livingston’s Manors, Columbia County, 1755-1795.
- The development of major grain and hay sources within the various counties of the Valley
- The development of major breweries for ales and beers throughout mid and late colonial Hudson Valley and early post-colonial New York City history
How do we go about defining the most important natural resources in Hudson valley history?
We can look at the following features to help define the answer to this question:
- The numbers of people impacted by a particular plant and its products over time. The more people in a given population that are impacted by a plant, the more influential this plant is said to be.
- The ultimate outcomes of a positive impact produced by the plant. The more likely this impact had a positive effect on the local culture and population, the more important its effect becomes upon that area in future years. For example, a plant product which prevents starvations, leads to the development of a major source of local revenue, or saves a lot of lives, might fit such a requirement.
- The length of time in which this impact takes place and is perpetuated. The longer an industry exists, the more people, the greater variety of people and families, and the greater diversity of populations, both culturally and financially within a given demographic setting, become impacted. An industry that benefits the poor for example, might at some later time become important due to its rising popularity in upper level income housing settings. For example, the early 17th century Iroquois basketry industry, by the 1660s, became a successful staple of a farmer’s market in New Amsterdam. This originally benefitted the rural inhabitants who made use of these baskets, but soon after became a popular domestic product of both a utilitarian and decorative, artistic nature.
- The number and types of by-products that result from such an impact. The plant may lead to the start of a particular industry, which in turn evolves into a better, more advanced form of industry, fed upon by the original plant use discovery.
What steps must be taken to break down these features in order to define the most important plant and its natural resources?
There are a number of approaches that can be taken to define plant heritage. The most modern view of plant heritage takes into account economic value to the region. In other words, what plants are most important to the economic development and various activities that took place in the Hudson Valley since its first settlements by indigenous groups, followed by its changes in settlement patterns and subsequent developments that ensued with the European migrations? Another popular perspective on assigning plants a local value focuses on ecological importance and impact. The question to be answered in this case might be: what plant(s) defines the Hudson valley or particular part of the valley as a distinct region, to such an extent that its elimination from the local environment constitutes some form of ecologically important change in biodiversity and environmental stability? This too is an important way of interpreting local plants for their value in the region, but lacks much of the human ecological reasoning needed to truly define the cultural aspects of the valley, that particular combination of human and natural ecology features responsible for defining the Hudson valley region both biologically and anthropologically or ethnographically as a unique place.
Another factor greatly impacting how we might define the most important examples of Hudson Valley flora relate to temporal features. The Hudson Valley region of today isn’t the same setting that it once was 150 years ago, 250 years ago or several generations into its early settlement by Europeans, 350 years ago-a period when it was first discovered by these explorers, travelers and immigrants, or 450 years ago when it was settled only by Native American groups. Applying this line of reasoning to periods even further back in time, we might consider the impact of time on local history as the changes that took place relate to large scale climatic changes, such as the flora of the Valley before, during and after each of the ice ages. This latter approach however is perhaps too human anthropologic in nature, and adds information and time-related matters that perhaps are not truly indicative of the valley as its own unique entity. The most important feature that makes the Hudson valley its own unique entity is the human population history of the region. Once human population features are taken into account, along with natural ecological features, those features unique to the Hudson Valley as a place where people resided becomes more evident, and relatable to current cultural heritage features.
The following factors have an impact on Hudson valley cultural heritage and the application of this line of reasoning to local plant ecology:
- Natural Ecology
- Human Ecology/Landuse
Those of borderline importance, with significant amounts of overlapping into other primary features of Valley history, are the following:
Each one of these factors can in turn be related to local plant-related natural ecology and human ecology features.
Time. Temporal changes can be evaluated in several ways. We could assess time on a large scale level by defining periods based on major changes in human population and natural history, such as:
Indigenous, early settlement and mid-colonial, late-colonial, Revolutionary War-early post-colonial (Early industrial), Industrial, Post-modern industrial. We could also in theory engage in some isochronic method of doing this research, in which major flaws could be demonstrates, i.e.
Prior to 1400, 1401-1500, 1501-1600, 1601-1700, 1701-1800, 1801-1900, 1901-2000, etc.
Climate. Historical evidence demonstrate some important climatic shifts in Hudson valley history, which at times had major impacts on the regional history. The “miniature ice age” of the early Revolutionary War years for example, or the periodic drought periods that impacted the farming industry of the valley might be considered. However, there is no easy way to define major periods in Hudson valley climate history in relation to a plant heritage study of the region. Climate and its impact on plant ecology has a much larger history related to time and climatic change at the century, multicentury, millennial, and multimillenial level that really doesn’t relate directly to local cultural plant heritage features. Although there are some applications of this way of interpreting local plant importance, important discoveries are going to be few in number for the most part, pertaining to the <1400 to present time frame reviewed for this study.
Topography. Topography has a major impact on regional plant heritage. There are a number of distinct topographic settings for the Valley, and if we include it bordering settings, which also impact Valley history and ecology, there are a number of very distinct regions that can be related to plant ecology and cultural diversity patterns. Take for example the formation of large hills and mountains. The ecology of the Catskills is distinctly different from that of the Shawangunks or the mid-Hudson ridge traversing the valley just north of West Point, and if we extend our boundaries a little, the Adirondacks to the north and Appalachia to the west. Likewise, it is reasonable to suggest that the open fields at the northern end of the Valley will have distinctly different features and history than those at the Northern end, as well as the less-populated mid-Hudson region and its borderlands. Lake edges in the Catskills and mid-Hudson counties will be distinctly different than those of the Lower New York and Mohawk-Albany region.
Natural Ecology. Natural ecology is very much a product of climate, weather, highly localized weather or microclimate features, topography, (part of which is the result of weather and climate), hydrography and local biological (lifeform and living habits) features. We can usually consider natural ecology to be that part of the local natural setting that exists prior to demographic and anthropologic impacts. However, there is a significant amount of evidence that suggests that even natural ecology was a scarcity in many parts of the more settled parts of the continent. Major indigenous landuse ecological changes prevailed over the expected natural ecology features, especially around the time of the first European explorations of the North American continent, when land surfaces were very much changed ecologically in the form of deliberately set wildfires, brought on because of the indigenous culture lifestyles and hunting-gathering habits. Natural ecology features of the pre-colonial and very early colonial periods are best considered to be of two forms: 1) non-modified to minimally modified natural ecological space, and 2) transitional ecological space, in which the impact of indigenous culture was present but at a minimum, relatively speaking. We might, for example, expect some areas that are very difficult to settle and reside upon to be of the former, and riverside, lakeside, woodlands and field settings to be of the latter form. But even this method of interpreting the impacts of indigenous cultures prior to migration, is open to change and modification. It may be almost impossible to find a natural space where human population has had no impact whatsoever. Unsettled areas are known to have had temporary periods of stay in which mounds were formed and patterns of plant growth and waterflow changed. Even if a region was truly unsettled, it still represents an important natural resource site for hunters and gatherers, making the local ecology susceptible to direct changes brought about by local indigenous group migrations and pass-throughs, or by modified animal behaviors (lack of continued migration through an area) thereby modifying specific local plant ecology features (a sudden lack of livestock foraging once engaged in on an annual basis).
Demography. The impact of populations in terms of numbers or size on a given region is the feature related to this line of reasoning. Accompanying population density increases are topographic, ecologic and landuse changes, with most landuse changes directed along a single path towards the production of heavily populated, extremely unnatural landuse conditions. These changes include the reduction in wetlands areas, the filling in of small water bodies, the redirection and even elimination of natural rivulets and streams, the reduction in size of small mountains and hills, the modification of rolling fields into flat, barren, uniformly developed industrial or business sites. Since people by habit have a significant impact on the local land surface features (cleanliness, natural foliage populations, etc.), we expect major changes to be seen that result in changes and reductions in biodiversity, and therefore the modification of local ethnobotanic histories.
Anthropology. Anthropology is a continuation of the demography characteristics of a region in that culture and ethnicity play a very important role in defining in detail the contributions of this feature to a region. Hudson Valley has a unique cultural history that distinguishes it from other valley settings, and so provides opportunities to both settlements and nature to undergo a unique change that exists only within given natural settings. Even more important perhaps, is the fact that anthropology has a give and take aspect that is significantly more morally and culturally regulated than the impacts of simple population change and growth. Changes in land use practices are very much culturally-defined, as are changes in natural resource utilization. This latter aspect in turn has direct impacts upon local ecological features, and is the direct cause for changes in a region that take place over time. Whereas nature itself can cause land changes to occur over time, the rates of succession for these changes are significantly altered, at times accelerated as much as 10 to 100 times the natural rates of regional change. In addition, the types of changes, their direction to be taken in an ecological sense, are modified by anthropological features. Whereas without a significant local cultural impact, a young forest might convert to a climax forest with mixed conifer-deciduous habitats developed, the addition of a culturally-based human impact to this scenario results in another form of ecological change, one that is highly dependent upon cultural features, topography, ecology, climate, and temporal features (period of time in which time change took place).
Human Ecology and Landuse. Whereas Natural Ecological features result in changes in fairly well-defined sequences, human ecology, or the impact of population size and type on the local land features, has a major impact on local culturally-defined phytoecological and ethnobotany-related patterns. At this level of interaction between man and nature, we find one of the most important features to keep in mind is the human form of ecological succession. Whereas in patterns of natural succession, we might expect to see a large water body (deep ice cold lake) slowly convert to a small, temperate lacustrine environment, followed by the development of a swamp or marsh, and then a wetland, field and finally young forest, with human ecology, we might find instead much more rapid changes in the latter ecosystems occurring. Early in local history, this almost always meant that with the increased settlement of a region, we might expect to find the elimination of many of these ecologically important land surfaces (no more small ponds or wetlands), the remapping of important creek and stream routes (diverted streams, canals, underground waterflow), the building of new water features (farmers’ ponds, artificial waterfalls, reservoirs). In later more recent years, we find some natural ecological featuresretained, but with a greater impact in the changes in human ecology of the neighboring land masses (development of roadways, shopping malls, factory sites,residential developments).
Economy. A very helpful interpretation of local human ecology and its relation to local cultural plant heritage features is demonstrated by the sequent occupance model designed in the early 1900s by geographer, and applied more aggressively during the 1950s for a short time in the academic environment. A close look at sequent occupance demonstrates a very effective way of interpreting local plant heritage in relation to time and place. The application of this method of spatio-temporally analyzing local ethnobotanical features not only results in a fairly effective way of breaking down particular places into specific types based on demographic and landuse features, but also enables the changing impacts of time to be taken into account as well.
Other Features. Hydrography, geology and pedology (soil science) also have important influences on local human and natural ecological features. Hydrography and geology are often incorporated into the local topographic interpretation of a region. Geology in particular is very much a physical science feature that often extends well beyond the border of otherwise well-defined regions, i.e. a rock layer does not stop at the end of a mountain face angling back down into the substratum. Pedology, a product of longterm chronologic (glaciers, surface water and volcanic activity), geology, macroclimate and microclimate, is also a feature that at times will play a very important role in local plant ecology, in turn impacting the anthropological features of plant utilization, but is not really a sufficient feature to use at a moderately large sized areal sense (like the Hudson Valley). Pedology may be best considered a sub-category of landuse, topography and geology, applicable at the cultural or anthropological level for the most part, and therefore discussed as a part of small-area analyses of changing landuse cultural patterns.
Defining Cultural Heritage
Based on the above areal features and their relationships to local Hudson Valley ecology, vegetation zones, environmental settings, or plant-defined ecotomes, the following methods are in use for defining those plants most or best associated with the local phytogeography, ethnobotany, and cultural heritage.
Time — Periods of time
- Hudson, Early [Dutch] Colonial
- Mid-Late [Anglican] Colonial
- Mid-19th C. Antebellum
- Early 20th C (mixed agricultural-industry)
- Late 20th C (low agricultural-high industry)
- 21st C
Climate and Weather — Microclimatic settings
- Mountain face/edge/front
- Precipitation and plant growth patterns
- Mixed Deciduous-Conifer
- Peririparian, perilacustrine wetland
Traditional ecosystem definitions, pre- and post-industrial settlement patterns
Urban (relatively speaking)
Suburban or borderland
Cultural pattern, habits and diversity
- French (French Canadian)
Human Ecology and Landuse, Historical to present
- Indigenous only
- Mixed Rural Populations
- Rural Farming/Agriculture
- Early Agricultural/Industrial
- Mid to Late Industrial (minimized agricultural)
In theory, the total number of possible interaction types to exist for a given time would be the number of weather/climate options times number of natural ecological settings, time the number of possible demographic patterns, time the number of cultural or anthropological settings, times the number of settlement or landuse options, etc. In actuality, there are specific combinations that just will not exist, such as the development of an Iroquois longhouse settlement atop the Shawangunks or the existence of a large-scale Man-of-War ship-building industry deep within the Catskills mountains.
Questions to ask
The following types of questions help to define a given cultural value for a plant. These can be used to assign value and meaning to the value of a product, and to determine its relative state of importance as a part of the local human environment.
- Is the source for this use “regional” on a small-scale basis?
- Is this use itself limited regionally or is it more broadly applicable, and so applied?
- Does thus particular use have a cultural bias related form or limitation?
- Was this use local, regional, national or global?
- Does this use have a particular historical limitation, such as reasons/cause for use and then becoming extinct?
- Did any environmental features play into defining whether or not this use might be expected?
- Does this use require a certain industrial skill or period of time and development to exist?
- How long of a period was this use in fashion and/or continued due to its value?
- Is there a dying period for this particular use?
- Did it have one or more revival periods?
- What parts of the local population(s) did this use serve?
- Does this use have a culturally-defined need?
- Does this use have an important discovery-based development signifying its importance?
- Does this use have a barter value, especially intercolonial or international?
- Does this use have an economical value?
- What impacts did this use have on the local environment?
- Did this use result in local, regional change culturally?
Humanizing These Impacts
Until this point in time in our reviews of plant heritage, the impacts of plants in Hudson valley history and local cultural heritage have been based on a number of fairly non-specific features. Although local regional settings and activities localize these impacts to some extent, the personalized Hudson Valley related touch of these historical events is lacking. To localize these important influences upon local, regional and national history, we have to link some of these important events in local history to particular individuals. It is these discoveries and inventions that define the uniqueness of the part of the Valley they reside in. It is these discoveries that make their influence something that Valley residents can assign personal praise to or hang a hat upon.
Within the foodways habits of the valley, one such definitive feature of the valley was the catching and baking of Shad for supper, or the production of a breakfast cereal using local grains and corn meal, the production of a dessert using the local berries, or the production of a local Spicebush, Sassafras or Sarsaparilla tea or drink. A local impact becomes local when a local culture invents and defines the particular recipe that is used, even if this recipe is originally of European origin in some cases. A local impact becomes local when a particular recipe can only exist locally because of the local availability of this plant and limited distribution of the knowledge on how this discovery was produced. A local impact also becomes local when it is passed on mostly orally, but occasionally noted in written documents and/or publications.
In the case of Jane Colden’s “Hudson’in’s” recipe, her “discovery” was culturally-borne, locally engaged in, and locally published. In the case of Dr. Cornelius Osborn’s recipe for Dia Drink beer, the recipe uses local indigenous medicine plants, distilled by his own distillery running in the barn behind his home; this recipe is his unique beer recipe, which one would not expect other local Brewers to successfully reproduce. In the case of the Mohecan medicine for Ague, the definition of specific portions of the tree trunk for removal of the bark is the defining culture-bound feature of this recipe; this directional meaning is typically lacking from Iroquois remedies, and its rewriting about 1825-1835 suggests the importance of not only Native American cultural heritage in this recipe, but also the recipe’s underlying transcendentalist meaning.
To define specific plant uses as those of cultural heritage importance locally, we therefore have to assign some local cultural aspect or name to the ethnobotanical feature, recipe, formula, etc.. The following are examples of these types of local plant-related local ethnobotany findings (at this point in the writing, the plants listed and/or their uses may not be specifically of a local nature or origin only):
- Livingston’s/Governor Dongan’s utilization of evergreen wood and resins as part of the boat manufactory process in New York City, with specific instructions discovered, described and published for effectively harvesting these products.
- Cadwallader Colden’s link of any of several plants, to later writings retelling the same produced by others in the medical botany field. Examples of plants rediscovered by other writers referring to Colden’s writings include: Phytolacca, Liriodendron, Xanthoxylum, Cimicifuga, Aralia.
- Jane or Jenny Colden’s writings of any particular plant uses, and their documentation in historical plant collection libraries; examples: Polygala, Aristolochia, the traditional local “coltsfoot” Asarum canadense, or her personal discovery-Fibraurea (Coptis).
- Dr. Osborn’s documentation of uses previously undocumented in local plant medicine history, with specific reference to plants residing upon his personal lands or lands immediately adjacent to his properties; examples: Sanguinaria, Sassafras, Dirca (Leatherwood), “Poppel”
- The locally over-harvested panaceas, like Wild Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium), and perhaps Sassafras and Unicorn Root (Aletris farinosa). (Goldenseal or Hydrastis canadensis is more midwestern).
- The link of Cadwallader Coldens work on the Iroquois to the establishment of the international Corn industry. Corn is a Central American invention, but the New York history writings introduced it to the world, resulting in the first book published on eating corn around 1800, a crop that otherwise could have become just livestock feed. This popularization was due to the Parmentiers, a Huguenot family with local ties in New Paltz. By 1825, the mid-Hudson Valley was the primary provider of New York City urbanites with this staple that helped them through the economic downfalls of this period. About this same time, the Corn Laws were established in England as a means to deal with rapid population growth and the risk of starvation that was feared. Although Aztec-Mayan in origin, this European domestic history of corn is what turned it into an international and global trade and foodways staple.
How do we find this information?
A number of information sources have been defined as the primary sources for locally-specific forms of ethnobotanical information. The following are these types of primary and early second generation information resources:
- Home recipe manuscripts or writing pieces. These documents may range from single recipes entered onto a piece of paper, to several recipes entered into a ledger or diary, to an entire manuscript (vade mecum) into which this and other personal information was penned.
- Notes entered onto the blank pages of an individual’s personal pocketbook or professional publication on the specific topic. Containing other notes and handwritten details.
- Early published pocket books had blank pages due to printing needs and requirements. Those with too few a number of pages often had to be penned or printed onto just one quadrant or half of the folio in order to fit into the bookbinder. Some books were produced with one-sided printing, enabling the reader to pen notes on the backface of the paper.
- Early pamphlets, farmer’s books, and recipe books published out of European or a local town, city, printing press business, with blank end pages.
- Early booklets and books with actual plant use data penned by the author, not the reader. Such book topics may include recipes, farrier texts, farming books, medical recipes, midwifery, various industries, medicine.
Once a source is reviewed and a specific local use is identified and documented, to further define local heritage, one has to peruse other important documents for the time, and times previous, in order to see if this information is simply a replication of some previous discovery.
One important aspect of this stage in evaluating the information is to remember that in some cases, information of similar form and nature may have already existed in European culture. In such a case, the application of this traditional knowledge for the first time in the colonial, North American, local setting is what is being documented, not necessarily the discovery. For example, cancer remedies are found throughout the European journals and magazines of the late 17th to late 18th century. These remedies are very similar to each other, and to a limited extent have some underlying chemical-physiological reason for their implementation, and in some cases only some philosophical reasons. In the case of Colden’s recommendation of the use of Phytolacca for treating “cancer”, the method duplicated many other recipes produced using numerous other plants of European origin. Colden’s recipe is the first of its kind due to the plant that is utilized. Moreover, additional importance is added due to the actual effectiveness of this plant clinically, upon true cancer (not just the forms of “cancer” Colden referred to).
Another situation in American history that crops up in such studies related to the origin of a specific use that is fairly ubiquitous to American ethnobotany history, but still has very local aspects to this history that must be documented and explained—the Snakebite remedy. The Snakebite remedies or “Snakeroots” are the single most defined, redefined and reinterpreted medicinal plant uses in American ethnobotany history. This particular medicinal use for a plant appears in most journals or diaries, summary writings in indigenous and early Euro-american medical botany writings and professional writings of American Medical Botany or Materia Medica books. The prevalence of this particular plant feature, due to similar histories involving Egyptian and other European plant medicine histories, even led to its review and updated reviews by numerous medical students in need of a thesis topic, from the periods prior to Linnaeus’s influences forward into mid-19th century American medical botany schooling activities. In the Hudson Valley, three “Snakeroot” remedies are documented by 1775—Sanguinaria, Polygala and Cimicifuga. An additional listing of plants can be provided with similar history locally or in the borderland/hinterland community settings, such as Aristolochia, Asarum, Vernonia, Chelone, Penstemon, Scutellaria, Uvularia, Sanguinaria, etc. Supporting documentation is found in the New France writings (73 vols) by Edmund B. O’Callaghan and occasionally within the New York in the Revolution and the New York as Colony and State series. Some of these are documented as important local plant and/or medicines by the Coldens for example (as well as by the expected local botanists like Bard, Bartram, Elgen, Hosack, Mitchell and such, and by numerous European individual documenting the same such as Gronovius, Collinson, and Ellis). Innumerable examples appear in the commonplace and professional science-engineering magazines like Gentleman’s Magazine, and Philosophical Transactions.
The most important reasons to include local history of the snakeroot or snake remedies are varied in nature and content, demonstrating broad cultural application of the belief(s) under consideration. First, there is a folklorish quality to this information. Second, it demonstrates how popular beliefs are transcribed, modified and changed over time, to make them conform better with modern practices and beliefs, Third, this belief provides important philosophical insights into the way people behave thoughout their years of settlement. In such a case, the local history of the plant and its uses is important due to its ability to add to a common theme which was popular throughout early American medical botany history. In the case of Seneca Snake Root versus Black Snake Root for example, both are documented and discussed by Jane and Cadwallader Colden, yet this philosophy began by knowing that Seneca Snakeroot was thought to treat the venomous snake bite, produced by a snake that has the anatomy needed to rattle its tail. The other plant treats the bite of a snake, yet lacks the boney rattle. Yet according to many writings of popular belief, the fact that it lacks any venom is unimportant. The fact that the Black Snake can still shake its tail in the leaves and mesmerize its prey without the need for venom before attacking its next meal, is the real reason for its local importance. By documenting such a history we are provided with important pieces of additional local history on a topic of regional cultural importance in the field of American herbal; medicine history, adding important insights into the importance of local history into this nationally important aspect of the medical field. The cultural signature in this review tells us more about the local people at a personal level, providing the reader with something unique about the local Valley.
A final example of how and why this type of information needs to be reviewed, and how it should be reviewed, pertains to early Dutch settler, lawyer and landowner Adrian van der Donck. In his published writings about his trip into that part of the valley just north of New Amsterdam (Yonkers area), he notes a number of plants, many symbolic of the natural philosophy and belief system for the time regarding plants and mankind’s pastoral purpose in the New World. The religious angle to this listing of plants relates to several highly popular beliefs for the time. The popular culture essentially stated that by removing to the new place (New World), something representative of a Garden of Eden experience might ensue. To the most devoted followers of this faith, we were obeying God’s wants and needs as well as our own. To the natural philosophers, we were still engaged in important pursuits, though not just for the purposes posed by the Bible.
When we review the various plants noted by van der Donck, we find a number of symbols to this societal value assigned to the New World. The ability of Nature to bear such symbols was the result of to God’s creation of these plants, and promoted such a philosophy that at times minimized the distinction being drawn between traditional theology (theistic and God-centered) and natural theology (a deistic-like nature-centered philosophy, prescience in nature). Therefore, in many cases, when plants are mentioned, it is important to read into the philosophy and meaning of such writings, especially with 17th to early 19th Century writings.
A mention of the Sassafras plant could be a symbol of trinity. The Wild Irises could be interpreted as a symbol of Royalty–the Fleur-de-lis. The presence of an umbel plant resembling Angelica could be representative of some heavenly condition.
One of the most symbolic plants of religion at this time was Plantago majus (plantain). This plant early on attained a reputation for its relationship to missionary work in the New Foundland-Nova Scotia area, for which reason the Mikmaq Indians referred to it as White man’s Foot. To Van der Donck this was the Priest’s Printle or Priest’s Pritzle, a plant used by the Dutch to line the shoes of a habitual walker and hiker of deep forest settings. These various interpretations of Plantain seem insignificant when comapred with its most popular uses as a medicine. The descriptions of Plantain’s use for treating “Cancer” hint back to Erasmus’s work, in which he stating the tale about a toad and spider–the toad used the Plantain for cover, and by making contact with the leaf helped to heal its back of the swollen area produced by the bite of the spider. This emphasized the symbology of the dispute, not the use of the plantain leaf as a medicine. Yet in later years, readers interpreted this story differently. Third and later generations of this story rewrote Erasmus’s tale into a message meant to tell us that the toad was telling us the plant has medicinal value (in particular for cancer and otehr skin problems). This “discovery” is even made “for the first time” several times in medical history in New York and vicinity. It is made by Elias Smith in upstate new York around 1815/1820, and so published as such in his own version of Thomsonian medicine, as well as by Wooster Beach, founder of Reformed Medicine in New York City around 1823/4, published in both his one volume (abridged) and three volume series of books published on Reformed Medicine.
Much of medical history focuses on the influences of New York City and Philadelphia on local medical and cultural history. In many cases, Hudson Valley plant heritage information takes second place it seems to the discoveries of plants that are medicinal or of ethnobotanical importance within the Pennsylvanian and Virginian colonial settings. Yet Colden and others provided botanists like Linnaeus and the Philadelphian botanists with enough evidence and reason to include his findings and works in their writings, particularly since he offered the same respect in reverse. Unfortunately, such never really became the cases. For this reason, much of the Valley’s ethnobotanical history is missing from the most popular writings for this period of American history. This is perhaps also the reason that there is relatively little knowledge commonly discussed and reviewed in institutional ethnological programs to result in the public awareness of this particular aspect of American and United States history—i.e. the multicultural influences of the combined Dutch-English-French-Scottish-Irish-German, etc. settlements in the region, had a major effect upon nearby scholars in the fields, as we know and remember them today.
The importance of a review of Hudson Valley Plant Heritage is that it demonstrates the uniqueness of this region culturally, physiographically and historically. It also enables scholars to better understand the influences this region had at a national and international level, to an extent previously unrecognized by most institutions due to inadequate review of such materials in past centuries. This is not so much meant to be a criticism of past scholarly work as it is a statement of fact regarding past interpretation of the Hudson valley culture in general. Except for those genealogically linked to or residing within and as part of the local regional culture, there are few academicians aware of this important piece of New York history. New York is still interpreted as a product of Great Britain, New England, Virginia, King James and the Duke of York in general, not a multicultural setting with a unique history unmatched by the Anglican dominant settings making up its neighboring Colonies or States. Some of the meaning of the Valley’s history is just regional, but most of it is national if not international in nature and impact. The plant heritage of the Valley is an exceptionally small part of this important piece of local history.