Miracle plants

by sarahkburke

Detail from the table of contents (above) and Guaiacum (below). A collection of exotics from the island of Antigua / by Lydia Byam. London: White, 1799.

Can a plant cure what ails you?  From the Golden Bough to açaí, remarkable powers and properties have been attributed to plants.  The marvelous plant is sometimes a product of religion (consider manna or the tree of life) which humans are eager to locate in the physical world.  Or it can be the product of traveler’s tales: unknown lands do contain wonders, although perhaps not always the panaceas we hope to find.

“Lignum vitae” (or wood of life) is an alternate name for guaiacum, a New World plant that Europeans believed could cure syphilis.  Syphilis itself may have been introduced to Europe by way of the Americas, and the 15th and 16th centuries witnessed major outbreaks of the “pox,” or “French disease” in Europe.  People longed for a cure, and conveniently they found one in the islands and jungles of the New World.  Guaiacum features prominently in many Early Modern medicinal books and travel accounts, and is still described as “well known for its useful and medicinal qualities” as late as Lydia Byam’s work in 1799.  Unfortunately, although it is a real plant, its curative properties were a case of collective wishful thinking.

Ioyfull newes out of the new-found worlde / by Nicolas Monardes. London: Printed by E. Allde, by the assigne of B. Norton, 1596.

In part, the Monardes text reads as follows:

“There was a Spaniard that did suffer great pains of the Pox, which he had taken by the company of an Indian Woman, but his servant being one of the Physicians of the country, gave unto him the water of Guaiacan, wherewith not only his grievous pains were taken away that he did suffer, but he was healed very well of the evil: with the which many other Spaniards that were infected with the same evil were healed also, the which was communicated immediately, with them that came from thence, hither to Seville, and from thence it was divulged throughout all Spaine, and from thence through the whole world.”