Herball, Generall Historie of Plants by John Gerard, 1597
Introduction of North American plants into European herbals
Contact with the Native Americans and their strange, uniquely American plants prompted an expansion of European herbals. While the Spanish were the first to introduce American plants to Europe, explorers from other countries soon followed. In 1597, Englishman John Gerard (1545-1612) incorporated New World plants in his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plants.
Gerard was superintendent of the gardens of William Cecil, advisor to Queen Elizabeth. Gerard was one of the most respected plant experts of his time, but, strangely, he was not the primary author of the famous herbal that bears his name. Except for the additions of several plants from his own garden and from North America, Gerard’s herbal is simply an English translation of Dutch scholar Rembert Dodoen’s highly popular herbal of 1554.
In 1633, a London apothecary named Thomas Johnson corrected and expanded Gerard’s herbal. The following illustrations and descriptions were taken from the Johnson edition of 1633, housed in the Wilhelm Moll Rare Book and Medical History Room of The Claude Moore Health Sciences Library.
Although he claimed that garlic “yeeldeth to the body no nourishment at all,” Gerard prescribed garlic for a variety of ailments: sore throats, coughs, and flatulence, to name a few. He added that garlic “killeth wormes in the belly, and driveth them forth,” and “taketh away the morphew, tettars or ring-wormes, scabbed heads in children, dandraffe, and scurfe, tempered with honey, and the parts anointed therewith.”
Agrimony has a long history among the Anglo-Saxons as a vulnerary, or wound-healing, herb, but Gerard mentioned nothing about its application to wounds. Rather, he suggested a decoction of the leaves “for them that have naughty livers, and for such as pisse blood, upon the diseases of the kidnies.” Boiled in wine, Agrimony was supposed to help “inveterate hepaticke fluxes in old people.”
Gerard’s contacts with explorers Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake led to the acquisition of a Virginian potato plant for his own garden. Gerard called the plant a “Virginian potato” to distinguish it from the sweet potato. His picture of the potato was the first that most English people had ever seen.
At first, the plant caused some confusion. According to legend, Sir Walter Raleigh ate the poisonous berries of the potato plant, not knowing that the edible part was underground (the potato is of the same genus as the Deadly Nightshade). Sick and disgruntled, Raleigh ordered his gardeners to dig up the plants and throw them away. While doing so, his gardeners supposedly tasted one of the large, underground tubers and thus discovered, very much by accident, the culinary value of the plant.
For many years, the potato was considered a delicacy to be enjoyed only by the rich. Not until the early 1700s did the potato finally become a staple in the European diet. Carrying a potato in one’s pocket was once believed to be a remedy for rheumatism.
Foxglove was originally called folksglove, or “glove of the fairy folk,” since its flowers resemble the fingers of tiny gloves. Gerard recommended foxglove as an expectorant:
Fox-glove boiled in water or wine, and drunken, doth cut and consume the thick toughnesse of grosse and slimie flegme and naughty humours; it openeth also the stopping of the liver, spleene, and milt, and of other inward parts.
Gentian, or Felwoort
Gentian was named in honor of King Gentius of Illyria (180-167 B.C.), who, according to Dioscorides, discovered the medicinal virtues of the herb. Ancient and medieval physicians recommended Gentian primarily as an antidote to poison. Gerard noted its use as a counterpoison and as a remedy for “evill livers and bad stomackes.” He also recommended Gentian to “helpeth digestion, and dissolveth and scattereth congealed bloud.”
Legend and superstition surround the mandrake. The root of the mandrake has a peculiar shape, sometimes resembling human legs or arms, or even a complete body. The strange shape of the mandrake’s root contributed to its reputation as a magical, and dangerous, plant.
Many people believed that the mandrake root screamed as it was pulled from the ground. To dig up the mandrake and hear its cries meant certain death, so ancient herbalists instructed people to tie a dog to the mandrake and force the animal to pull it up, thereby killing the dog but saving themselves.
Having safely planted and replanted many mandrakes, Gerard condemned the fantastic tales. He recommended a decoction of the leaves against jaundice and internal bleeding. Gerard also claimed that the fruit, “being drunk in the weight of one dram, with three ounces of white wine for forty daies together, helpeth the spleen.”
Gerard highly recommended aloe juice as a purgative and vermifuge: “when all purging medicines are hurtfull to the stomacke, Aloes onely is comfortable.” He added that aloe “is good against a stinking breath proceeding from the imperfection of the stomacke; it openeth the piles or hemorrhoides of the fundament; and being taken in a small quantity, it bringeth downe a monthly course.” Gerard also suggested aloe as a cleanser for wounds and sores, and as a medicine for the eyes, “forasmuch as it clenseth and drieth without biting.”
Gerard claimed that basil juice, “drunke in wine of Chios or strong Sacke,” cures headaches. Mixed with barley meal, rose oil, and vinegar, basil juice was also used as an anti-inflammatory and as an antidote for snakebites. According to Gerard, “the seed drunke is a remedy for melancholy people; for those that are short-winded, and them that can hardly make water.”