Children educated in the United States are taught that the Pilgrims learned about growing corn from the indigenous peoples who lived in and around Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. From the very beginning, local botanical knowledge was pivotal to the success of the settlement, as it was for all such enterprises in unfamiliar places. Within a few years after the founding of the colony in 1620, William Wood wrote New England’s Prospect (1634), a general description of the area and how it was developing. It makes fascinating reading as Wood pictures getting lost in untrod woods, searching for food during a harsh winter, and enjoying the bounties of a “fertile summer.” The book isn’t illustrated, but it has brief sections on plants used for food, as well as on the various kinds of useful trees available. Wood notes that crops which grow well in England do equally well in the colony, and some actually do better and grow bigger. As to trees, the cherry is different from the English cherry, and so is the walnut, but they are at least as good and useful as their British cousins. It is easy to detect a nostalgia for plants that are now only a memory for Wood, but there is also a sense of wonder at what the dense woods may hold.
John Josselyn first visited New England in 1638 and stayed a year. He returned in 1663 and remained until 1671. Afterwards he wrote two books on his experiences, New England Rarities (1671) and An Account of Two Voyages (1674). He is considered gullible since some of his descriptions border on the fantastic, but he does give interesting information on plants, listing 32 species growing in Plymouth gardens (Reveal, 1992). His first book describes the birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, and plants he encountered in Massachusetts, including areas where his relatives had settled that are now part of Maine. It’s not surprising that Josselyn provides an extensive list of fish, since he is reporting on coastal communities with access to both salt and freshwater species. However, he only mentions three insect species. As for plants, he focuses on their medicinal uses. For example: “An Indian bruising and cutting of his knee with a fall, used no other remedy than alder bark, chewed fasting, and laid to it, did soon heal it.” In 1865, Josselyn’s books were reprinted; and the botanist Edward Tuckerman wrote an introduction to Rarities putting Josselyn’s botanizing in context. Tuckerman deems him to be “little more than an herbalist,” but gives him credit for botanizing and making use of references like John Gerard’s The herball, or, Generall historie of plantes (1597), a book highly regarded at that time. Tuckerman considers Wood’s book a better introduction to the natural history of the area, but concedes that Josselyn provides more on plants. Then leaving Josselyn behind, he continues with a brief but interesting review of what had come to be known about plants of North America since Josselyn’s time, including mention of such greats as John Bartram, Peter Collinson, and Alexander Garden. If you are interested in the history of American botany, Tuckerman’s book is a good read.
One thing that makes Rarities notable is that it’s illustrated. For those accustomed to the polished engravings of the European floras of the time, Josselyn’s images are disappointing, but they carry some information as well as a certain charm. The drawings of walnuts aren’t inspiring, but Tuckerman notes that Josselyn “sufficiently exhibits” characteristics of the (see illustration above). Josselyn describes a plant he calls Paris or One Berry, but which Tuckerman identifies as Cornus canadensis, the bunch berry. The illustration is rather stylized and imprecise, displaying features that could be interpreted as either plant. This is why reading not the original Josselyn book, but Tuckerman’s edited version is more informative and satisfying. Both versions are available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, as examples of its wealth of resources. And in case you haven’t heard, BHL now has a full-text search function which makes it even more useful in historical research.
To get a few herbarium specimens in here, as well as a little family history, I want to mention Cotton Mather, a New England Puritan minister infamous for his involvement in the Salem witch trials. However, he was also a close observer of nature, who supported the use of smallpox vaccination and did early work on the hybridization of corn. Among his descendants was my husband of good New England stock, Robert Mather Hendrick. Cotton Mather corresponded with the London botanist and collector James Petiver (see earlier post) and sent him seven specimens, with notes (Stearns, 1952). These are in the Sloane Herbarium, and there is also a letter from Mather to Sloane in the Sloane manuscript collection in which he discusses his views on smallpox—a small but interesting piece of American, and British, history.
Reveal, J. L. (1992). Gentle Conquest: The Botanical Discovery of North America with Illustrations from the Library of Congress. Washington, DC: Starwood.
Stearns, R. P. (1952). James Petiver: Promoter of natural science, c. 1663-1718. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 62, 243–365.