Seeking Plants in Seattle: Sassafras and Sydney

3 Sassafras

Autumn sassafras, photo by Berean Hunter

This series of posts is about my trip to Seattle for the History of Science meeting (see last pasts 1, 2).  Since I am not a historian, I shouldn’t really criticize the group, but sometimes their use of jargon makes it difficult, at least for me, to figure out what a session is really about.  For example, there was “Speculative Biology: Uses of and for the World.”  I would have steered clear, except that on closer examination I knew, at least by reputation, several of the people presenting papers, and it turned out that the “world” referred to was the plant world.  One of the speakers was Katrina Maydom of Cambridge University, who discussed the reception in Britain of the eastern North American species of sassafras, Sassafras albidum.  She analyzed 179 texts published between 1580 and 1680 including books, pamphlets, serials, and newspapers that contained references to the plant and its uses.

Exploration of the New World by Europeans was driven in part by the desire to find useful and economically attractive resources that colonial powers could exploit (Schiebinger & Swan, 2005).  New plants with medicinal, culinary, or other properties were high on the list, and sassafras proved to be attractive for a number of reasons.  First, indigenous Americans employed it for treating ailments from urinary tract disorders to wounds and fever.  Sassafras bark and root were used in teas, and eventually sassafras became one of the original ingredients in root beer.  Also, its wood was utilized as a construction material, and England, which had destroyed much of its own forests, was desperate for alternative sources of lumber.  Finally, as gardening on a large scale became more popular among the British upper classes, novel trees and shrubs were highly desirable, so sassafras entered the nursery trade as well.

Maydom found that in the early years of the century she studied, there were limited references to the species, but as sassafras and its products became more common in Britain, it appeared more frequently in print.  In particular, there were medical references and claims that sassafras alleviated a widening range of problems from the pox to dropsy and fever.  Not surprisingly, issues of fraud and adulteration crept into the literature, as other less expensive plants were sometimes substituted for sassafras.  Because of its medical uses, physicians wrote many of the articles on the plant, but Maydom also found reports by explorers and colonists as well as clergy and even poets.  Her study was an interesting approach to a plant, something very different from a botanical treatment.  It all reminded me how much I love the shape of sassafras leaves and the lovely colors they turn in the fall.

The next paper was by J’nese Williams of Stanford University who spoke on “Plant Exchanges and Imperial Reform: Founding a Botanic Garden in New South Wales, c. 1820.”  She explained that the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney’s official start can be given as 1820, but this is not as clear-cut as it might seem.  That year the area for the garden was fenced in, but the Governor of New South Wales from 1810-1821, Lachlan Macquarie, had already earmarked this piece of land for a garden.  It was right next to the governor’s home, and he hoped to keep it bucolic once its usefulness as farmland had dwindled.  Charles Frazer was the first superintendent of the garden.  He received direction from Joseph Banks in England who was unofficially in charge of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which was seen as the hub for Britain’s botanical interests worldwide.  Of course, Banks was particularly interested in Australia because he and Daniel Solander had collected there during Captain Cook’s first circumnavigation of the globe.  A great deal of what was known about Australian flora at the time was thanks to them.

Banks supported Frazer in hiring plant hunters to collect in the many areas of the continent that had yet to be explored.  Seeds, cuttings, and specimens were to be sent back to Sydney—and to Kew—for study and cultivation.  By the 1820s, there were British-run botanical gardens in the West Indies, South Africa, India, Malaysia and other areas under their control.  These were important sites for acclimatizing plants, testing them for commercial possibilities, and studying taxonomy.  Kew kept close tabs on these gardens, and their superintendents had to write frequent and extensive reports on their activities and the state of their plant inventories.  Williams notes that Sydney seemed to be on a longer leash, with more latitude on what was done there and less rigorous reporting.

One point that Williams emphasized was that the British, and ultimately the Australians, saw the botanical garden as an important element in the development of a civil society.  Sydney had begun as a penal colony, and Macquarie was governor during the time when it was morphing into a colony of free immigrants who were attempting to create an open, safe, and peaceful environment in which to flourish.  The development of a botanical garden and other open spaces was considered crucial to this process.  William’s work suggests that botanical gardens can be about a lot more than just plants:  they can entail building community and the economy viability of an area, about beauty as well as practicality, and navigating political forces that may be acting at a great distance from where the plants are actually growing.


Schiebinger, L., & Swan, C. (2005). Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.


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