Monday, September 10, 2012

An Update on Balsam Pears, and other Colonial Plants

Last week I went to Clemson’s library and checked out Lawrence D. Griffith’s book Flowers and Herbs of Early America. This lovely book, published in 2008, is an encyclopedia of plants that would have been favorite garden plants in 18th century Virginia. Griffith is Curator of Plants of Colonial Williamsburg, and this book is the result of a project he conducted starting in 2001, in which he researched the plants that 1700s Americans would have been growing, found seeds for them, and grew them all.

My big takeaway? Upper-class Americans and Brits wanted to grow beautiful and exotic plants from other parts of the world. The list of 60 or so species he studied consists largely of species not from North America – some from South America, some from Asia, many from Europe. Europeans, for their part, wanted American plants. Even in the early 1700s ornamental gardeners were growing exotics. Seeds traveled almost as fast as information does today.

That Balsam Pear I found in the Oxford collection, Momordica charantia – Griffith writes that it was introduced into Europe in 1710 but before was widely used in its native regions of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. It was used as a stomach medicine and as a food crop. The balsam apple, M. balsamina, on the other hand, was introduced into Europe much earlier, appearing in Leonhart Fuch’s 1542 herbal, in which he describes it as “planted in many gardens.”

Griffith also grew Eupatorium perfoliatum, boneset, which Catesby collected in South Carolina. It’s preserved at H.S. 212 f. 74. Boneset is a native plant, commonly used as a treatment for fevers – the “bones” in boneset refer to breakbone fever, or dengue, which I can attest makes one’s entire skeleton ache. Griffith comments that Linnaeus named the species, suggesting that John Clayton collected it, though no specimen exists in the Clayton Herbarium in London. Catesby’s specimen doesn’t have a binomial label, so it appears that Solander didn’t identify this one. Interesting….