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Botany in the New World

American Household Botany: A History of Useful Plants 1620-1900 Judith Sumner Timber Press, $27.95

September 09, 2004|Lili Singer

Europeans who braved the sea to settle in the New World had it rough, but their new home provided plenty. And ingenious homemakers made the most of what they had, including plants they brought with them and strange new flora they found.

Early American "practical" botany -- the use of plants around the home -- is described in detail. Edible plants, medicines and herbs are well documented by Sumner, a medicinal botanist, as are plants used for wood, fiber and textiles. Though sparsely illustrated, the fascinating text is ripe with quotes from such sources as "The Family Nurse" (1837) and "Skilful Housewife's Book" (1852).

Settlers quickly recognized problems with invasive exotics. In "New-Englands Rarities" (1672), John Josselyn wrote "Of such Plants as have sprung up since the English Planted and kept Cattle in New-England," including shepherd's purse, mullein and comfrey -- medicinal plants that had become weeds.

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-- Lili Singer

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