Healing Plants from Brazil

by sarahkburke

This post is provided by Bridget Gazzo, Librarian for Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks.

plate 22, Davilla rugosa

plate 22, Davilla rugosa

Saint-Hilaire, Auguste Francois César Prouvencal de, 1799-1853. Plantes Usuelles des Brasiliens. Paris, Grimbert (printed by Casimir), 1824-1828. [HOLLIS]

From the beginning of Brazil’s colonization by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, Europeans were keenly interested in its biodiversity. Jesuit priests, the first foreigners to make direct contact with native Brazilians, integrated Brazilian botanical remedies into European medicine. The French botanist Auguste de Saint-Hilaire was one of the first scientists to freely travel throughout Brazil, from 1816 to 1822. Saint-Hilaire, born in Orleans in 1799, had the opportunity to accompany the Duke of Luxembourg on his journey to Brazil to assume his post as French Ambassador in Rio de Janeiro in 1816. Saint-Hilaire spent the next six years traveling ten thousand kilometers to explore the southern provinces of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul, Espiritu-Santo, Mato Grosso, Cisplatina (currently Uruguay), and the old missions in Paraguay. He returned to France carrying 7000 plant species, 4500 of which were unknown to science at the time. These collections are deposited in Paris’ Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, along with Saint-Hilaire’s six volumes of field books. In his field books, Saint-Hilaire registered the vernacular names of the plants and, very importantly, also provided descriptions of the traditional uses.

While data from many species recorded in the field books has been published, as many as 75 species from these manuscripts have not been published by Saint-Hilaire or by later scientists. These field books continue to be a trove of unstudied raw material. The most common traditional uses recorded for the plants identified were as purgatives and febrifuges. Next in frequency were treatments for venereal disease, snake bites, and diuretics. Many of these efficacies have been, and continue to be, confirmed by laboratory studies.

Plantes Usuelles des Brasiliens (1824-[1828]) is one of Saint-Hilaire’s major publications on native Brazilian plants and their beneficial uses. Dumbarton Oaks has recently acquired a copy of this work, which will supplement research in Pre-Columbian Studies and the exciting, interdisciplinary work being done on the history of science in the New World. The first plant described and illustrated is none other than Strychnos faux-quinquina, with nom vulgaire quina do campo, highlighting the intense nineteenth-century interest in quinine and quinine substitutes. Another quinine substitute included in the book is Solanum pseudoquina. (Cinchona, the traditional source of quinine, was often over-collected, leading to the search for substitutes.) The author dedicates the book to the Emperor of Brazil, Pedro I, with gratitude for the constant protection of his Majesty’s government during six years of traveling through Brazil. Our newly acquired copy is an especially interesting object because of its hand-colored images and its retention of the publisher’s original boards and wrappers.

plate 21, Solanum pseudoquina

plate 21, Solanum pseudoquina

Anda gomesii

Anda gomesii