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Web exhibitions

Early American Botany: Documenting the Wilderness

Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2


From the moment of their arrival in North America, English colonists actively - if not always systematically - explored and made use of the native flora of this region. They were not completely unprepared for what they might find. Indeed, Gerard's Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), which accompanied many settlers across the Atlantic, included American maize, climbing kidney beans, squashes and pumpkins. However, the vast majority of native plants were still unknown.

Necessity prompted the colonists to learn from Native Americans the value of these plants. Yet little of scientific or medical value was initially recorded. This changed radically with the creation of scientific societies in the late-seventeenth century. Dried specimens and seeds were sent to England from North America for examination and identification, and correspondence detailing new observations was widely disseminated and discussed.

Until the mid-eighteenth century this activity was dominated - with a few notable exceptions - by those born outside of the American colonies. Not only did Europeans lead the explorations, but European money provided patronage as well. As the new republic took shape, however, so American botanists and naturalists took the lead in documenting the flora of their nation. This exhibition highlights some key works in this journey.

Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2

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