Botany (1500+)

Sugar, rainforests, cacao, bananas, rubber, palm trees, peyote, and the environment in general are all things that readily come to mind when considering the study of plant life of Latin America and the Caribbean. But what about medicine, empire, gender, art, nationalism, economics, slavery, and culture? Plants and the science of botany have proven capable of shaping societies in dramatic ways, and perhaps no region has felt the impact of botany more than Latin America and the Caribbean. This is due in part to the amazing variety of plant life found in the region's fields, forests, deserts, beaches, plains, mountains, and jungles, yet it also reflects tensions about who has power over the region and its nature and to what ends that power is applied. Far from merely collecting, classifying, and studying plants, botany in Latin America has changed not only that region's society, but has played a significant role in world history.

The botany of pre-Columbian Indian groups was in many ways similar to that practiced by Europeans. Both cultures paid special attention to medicinal herbs and the post-conquest Spaniards had a great deal of respect for indigenous knowledge in this field (see the source on the Badianus Codex). Indians throughout Latin America also studied, improved, and cultivated plants like cacao, coca, and maize that had economic, cultural, or practical value. Although pre-Columbian science included elements of religion, magic, and mysticism, many aspects of applied botany were driven by empirical research and development.

Throughout the colonial period, Spain and other European empires organized several botanical expeditions to Latin America and the Caribbean. Economic concerns were very important to these efforts: just as the explorers of the early conquest era sought mineral wealth, so too were naturalists encouraged to discover and reproduce plants that would be profitable exports ("green gold") or useful in some other way. Although Sahagun, Oviedo, and others described and collected many plant specimens in the early colonial era, the heyday of colonial botanical expeditions was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Bourbon monarchs sent Linnaean botanists to New Spain, New Granada, and Peru (all of which are noted in the sources) in an effort to apply Enlightenment science to the enrichment of the Spanish empire. According to historian Londa Schiebinger, Enlightenment botany included the (subsequently differentiated) fields of applied botany, agriculture, and horticulture to find renewable sources of revenue from Europe's American colonies. Thus botany served European empires by identifying and reproducing sources of food and medicine, finding domestic (within the empire) substitutes for imported goods, and transplanting various plant species so they could be grown by and for a given empire (Schiebinger 2004).

Some plants that were studied and cultivated in the Americas were decisive in shaping local and, to a large degree, international society. In the Caribbean, sugar made the islands into plantation slave societies yet, by the late nineteenth century, abolition, a variety of plant diseases (like the mosaic disease in the sources), and competition from sugar beets threatened to make sugar production irrelevant on islands like Barbados. Geographer J.H. Galloway noted how, in the early twentieth century, British botanists produced new varieties of sugar that allowed Barbadian cane to remain economically viable. Such botanical innovation not only created an excellent source of revenue that allowed Great Britain to continue to fund its Caribbean empire, but it ensured that sugar continued to be the primary shaper of the region's economy, society, and environment for many more decades (Galloway 1996).

Although European powers still had some control over the form of Latin American botany, by the late nineteenth century the region's flora had come to be dominated by the U.S. and nation states within Latin America itself. As seen in the topic on Harvard's Biological Station in Cuba, U.S. economic and political hegemony in the South encouraged U.S. botanists to "extract" botanical knowledge much as European empires had done in earlier centuries. Concurrently, though, many Latin American countries were working to use science to solidify the state's control over its territory, and the classification and nationalization of local plants became an important part of this initiative. Historian Stuart McCook argued that, circa 1900, Latin American countries created national floras (like that of Costa Rica seen in the sources) that served to both discover potential economic resources and consolidate control of national territory. Plants were thus incorporated into a nation's identity while botanists imposed a new kind of scientific and economic value on nature itself (McCook 2002).

Botany has done much to contribute to the destruction of Latin American nature, but in recent years botanists have come to lament the negligence of their predecessors. New kinds of agriculture--imported and developed with the help of botany--demanded massive changes to the landscape, most conspicuous of which is the destruction of tropical rainforests. Just as botanists have scoured the jungles for centuries in search of resources and medicines, twenty-first century scientists continue to believe that the many still-unknown jungle flora could contain valuable medicines or other products that may be made extinct before they can be discovered. On an even larger scale, the preservation of rainforests may be necessary to the environmental health of the planet on the whole by helping to forestall global warming and other world-wide problems. It seems that now, perhaps more than ever, botany in Latin America is far more than an abstract study of plant life.

Questions for further exploration:

1. Look at how plants are depicted in the sources of this (and other) topics. Consider such questions as: Have images of plants become increasingly more "scientific" with the passage of time? What criteria would the audience of various illustrations use to judge the usefulness of these depictions? Was the way in which a plant was drawn done differently depending on the intention of the botanical study?

2. The peacock flower, an American herbal abortificant seen in the sources, was brought to Europe for cultivation but knowledge of its medicinal uses did not follow it across the Atlantic. Considering the differences between the societies of the eighteenth century Caribbean and Europe, why might knowledge of a plant used to induce abortions not have been publicized in Europe? Your analysis could include such issues as power, race, gender, and empire.

3. At various times, both European empires and the U.S. have used botany in Latin America to achieve various ends. What are some of the ways in which these foreign powers have exploited Latin American plants? Why did they do this in Latin America? What are some similarities and differences between how the U.S. and European empires used botany in Latin America?

4. Like other branches of science, botany has been centralized in and promulgated by scientific institutions. Focus on one of these institutions and make an argument about its impact on botany, society, economics, etc. in Latin America. Some possibilities (in this topic and beyond) include Harvard's Biological Station, Mexico City's Royal Botanical Garden, the West Indies Central Sugar Cane Breeding Station, Madrid's Royal Botanical Garden, and several others.

5. Compare the impact and import of botany in Latin America to other branches of applied science (mining, engineering, agriculture, medicine, etc.). Is botany more important to the region's history and development than these other fields? Why or why not? Is there something intrinsic in how botany has been done in Latin America that has (or has not) made it more significant? or could a historian make a similar argument about the importance of another applied science?

Further reading:

Bleichmar, Daniela. "Painting as Exploration: Visualizing Nature in Eighteenth Century Colonial Science." Colonial Latin American Review. 15: 1 (June 2006): 81-104.

De Vos, Paula S. "Research, Development, and Empire: State Support of Science in the Later Spanish Empire." Colonial Latin American Review. 15: 1 (June 2006): 55-79.

Estrella, Eduardo. "Expediciones Botanicas." In Jose L. Peset y Antonio Lafuente Carlos III y la Ciencia de la Ilustracion. Madrid: Alianza Universidad, 1989. pp. 331-352.

Galloway, J.H. "Botany in the Service of Empire: The Barbados Cane-Breeding Program and the Revival of the Caribbean Sugar Indistry, 1880s-1930s." Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 86: 4 (December 1996): 682-706.

McCook, Stuart George. States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Roys, Ralph Loveland. The Ethno-Botany of the Maya. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1976.

Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Schiebinger, Londa, and Claudia Swan, eds. Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Steele, Arthur Robert. Flowers for the King: The Expedition of Ruiz and Pavon and the Flora of Peru. Durham: Duke University Press, 1964.

Badianus Codex

Date: 1552
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images


The Badianus Codex (or The Badianus Manuscript) is an Aztec book of herbal medicine that was presented to the viceroy of New Spain's son in 1552 as a gift from the Colegio de Sanata Cruz in Tlaleteloco. The college taught indigenous Mexicans such things as philosophy, Latin, logic, and math, but it also specialized in New World medicine because, like many Europeans, the Spanish thought American ailments were best cured by American plants. Martinus de la Cruz, an Indian scholar who took courses in medicine and writing at the college, created this book, which he wrote in phonetic Nahuatl and was later translated by another Indian student, Juannes Badianus, into Latin. The book, the earliest Aztec herbal known to Europeans, was eventually given to Carlos V of Spain in an effort to secure funding for the college--the idea was that the book of herbal remedies would be proof of the institution's usefulness. Carlos, however, did not renew the funding originally provided by his father.

For centuries before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans studied and cultivated plants that they considered useful as medicine or a natural resource and, like contemporary Europeans, simply for their beauty. Indeed, the conquistadors noted that many Aztecs created irrigated gardens for cultivating plants from all over Mesoamerica. Indigenous groups in rural Mexico still grow medicinal plants in their home gardens, sites where women experiment with different herbs and cultivate those that best help them take care of their families.

The Codex also includes written instructions for how to create specific medicines from each of the 184 plants and trees it describes. All four herbs pictured here are meant to be used for chest pain, but each has a specific application. The herbs on the left-hand page are meant to be turned into a liquid that is rubbed externally onto the pained area. Extracts from Nonochton (a kind of nopal seen on the right) was combined with gold, amber, and burnt stag heart and made into a drink that relieved heart pain. Although Aztec medicine was a mix of magic, religion, and science, it is evident that significant empirical testing must have been required to come up with such a seemingly random combination of ingredients that met specific ends.

Reference: de la Cruz, Martin. The Badianus Codex (Codex Barberini, Latin 241), an Aztec Herbal of 1552. Translation and introduction by Emily Walcott Emmart. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1940.

CITATION: Fols. 27v and 28r. In: de la Cruz, Martinus. Badianus Codex, 1552.  Credit: Wellcome Library, London. L0021272.



Costa Rican Plants

Date: 1908
Owner: H.L. and J.B. McQueen
Source Type: Images


Henri Pittier's Ensayo sobre las plantas usuales de Costa Rica (1908) was one of many national floras (books about plants) sponsored by Latin American countries circa 1885-1935. Prior to this time, the best works on Latin American plants were made by European specialists who traveled to the region to extract natural knowledge and publicize it in Europe. Costa Rica was one of the first Latin American countries to create national floras, works that categorized plant life by national boundaries and sought to make plants known and useful to the nation. Just as fin-de-siecle nations increased the state's power to observe and classify its citizens (see the Criminology topic for more on this) so too did governments try to bring nature into the national political and economic systems.

These national floras were both works of botany and lists of known and potential economic resources. They were not, then, purely "scientific" but sought to apply botany as a useful science. For example, the second page of this source describes medicinal plants and the third describes some ways that cacao could bolster the Costa Rican economy.

Pittier, a Swiss naturalist, was one of several foreign experts invited by Latin American countries to survey and study their natural resources and set up scientific institutions that would encourage and facilitate the sciences. Although Pittier's Instituto Fisico-geografico was short lived (see the Museums topic), he did produce three major floras for Costa Rica as well as several maps and ethnographic studies.

Reference: McCook, Stuart George. States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

CITATION: Pittier, Henri. Ensayo sobre las plantas usuales de Costa Rica. Washington, D.C.: H.L. and J.B. McQueen, 1908.



Flora Peruviana

Date: 1800
Owner: Biodiversity Heritage Library
Source Type: Images


These six pages (cover page, dedication, and four plates) are from the published volumes of the Flora Peruviana (1798-1802), the authoritative Enlightenment botanical work on Pacific South American plants. The book was based on observations made during the botanical expedition of the Spaniards Hipolito Ruiz and Jose Pavon and the French botanist Joseph Dombey during their decade-long trip to the viceroyalty of Peru (1778-1788). Dombey proposed the expedition to its sponsor, the Spanish Crown, and the king accepted it on the condition that Dombey be accompanied by two Spanish botanists and provide Spain with a duplicate of every specimen he collected.

In the late eighteenth century, Linnaean botany became a tool of empire for Spain's Bourbon monarchs. Institutions like the Royal Botanical Gardens in Madrid were meant to collect, study, and cultivate plants from around the world that were potentially profitable or in some way useful, especially as medicine. The expedition of Ruiz and Pavon, just one of three major botanical expeditions in late colonial Latin America (the others being to New Granada and New Spain), sent hundreds of specimens back to Spain (including seeds, live plants, and dried samples) and catalogued well over 100 new genera of flora. In fact, over 500 species--mostly from Peru's tropical forests--still bear the names of Ruiz and Pavon.

Botanical knowledge, like most other types of learning, depended on individuals and states, and different people and groups often had very different understandings of a plant. Datura and cinchona are both examples of this phenomena. Datura, seen here on plate CXXVIII, was used by indigenous Andeans as both an herbal cure and a narcotic, but the Spanish team considered it to be so harmful that they destroyed the wild herb in an entire village. On their next visit to the town, however, they noticed that the herb had returned; the Indians apparently valued the plant regardless of what Europeans experts thought about it.

Cinchona, South America's malaria wonder-drug, was (and is) a difficult plant to classify, and various botanists engaged in heated debates about what variety was most effective. Ruiz noted seven distinct species in Peru, but this sparked the ire of Jose Celestino Mutis, leader of the botanical expedition in Nueva Granada, who considered Ruiz's claim to have found better varieties of the plant to be a blow to the dignity of Nueva Granada's cinchona and Mutis' own reputation. The fact that Mutis kept his botanical research and samples in Nueva Granada, however, meant that Ruiz's knowledge pulled more clout in Madrid.

Reference: Steele, Arthur Robert. Flowers for the King: The Expedition of Ruiz and Pavon and the Flora of Peru. Durham: Duke University Press, 1964.

CITATION: Ruiz, Hipolito, Jose Pavon. Flora Peruviana, et Chilensis, sive, Descriptiones et icones platarum Peruvianarum, et Chilensium, secundum systema Linnaeanum digestae, cum characteribus plurium generum evulgatorum reformatisauctoribus Hippolyoto Ruiz et Josepho Pavon. Madrid: Typis Gabrielis de Sancha, 1798-1802. Image courtesy Biodiversity Heritage Library.



Flos Pavonis

Date: 1726
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images


Flos pavonis, the "peacock flower," was (and is) used throughout the Caribbean as an herbal abortificant. Maria Sibylla Merian, one of very few women to undertake a scientific expedition during in the early modern era, made this drawing as part of her journey to study insects in the Dutch colony of Suriname (her primary concern was the caterpillar that lived on this flower's leaves). She noted, though, that a slave woman told her that blacks used the seeds of this flower to induce abortions, a form of slave resistance meant to both deprive owners of an economic resource and to protect their would-be offspring from the horrors of plantation slavery. The peacock flower was thus both a medical and political plant, a brutal tactic of resistance against a brutal institution.

Merian was not the only European naturalist to learn about this plant as an abortificant (the English naturalist Sir Hans Sloane and others knew how Caribbean women used it), yet unlike many other New World medicinal herbs, knowledge about Flos pavonis did not travel back across the Atlantic. While the medicinal properties of plants like cinchona and guaiacum made them valuable commodities that were reproduced in botanical gardens and included in European pharmacopeia, Caribbean abortificants (of which there were about twelve) were not publicized in Europe. The peacock flower was grown in Europe since at least 1666, mostly as an ornamental flower, but was only rarely noted in pharmacopeia as a remedy for fevers or stomach aches.

On the whole, Europeans were ignorant about exotic abortificants (although several European ones were well known by wise women and physicians alike) due to the ongoing struggle over who controlled female fertility. Abortions were censured by society and the medical profession alike, and limiting the knowledge of women about how they could control their own reproduction was a vital part of restricting their reproductive freedom.

There are several examples of how the Columbian Exchange facilitated a two-way transfer of knowledge across the Atlantic, but the peacock flower is an important example of how a piece of scientific knowledge, one both American and female, was not allowed to go east. There are layers of control over many aspects of learning, and what people do not know, and why they do not know it, can be as important as what they do.

Reference: Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

CITATION: "Flos pavonis." In: Merian, Marie Sibylla. Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium. Pierre Gosse, 1726. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. L0026583.



Mexican Botanical Garden

Date: 1790
Owner: Archivo General de Indias, Sevilla
Source Type: Images


This is the floor plan for the Royal Botanical Garden in Mexico City, an institution begun by Martin de Sesse y Lacasta (1751-1808) and his Royal Scientific Expedition to New Spain in 1785. Unlike Jose Celestino Mutis's botanical expedition in Colombia, Sesse's expedition was not initiated by the Spanish crown but by Sesse himself for the explicit purpose of establishing the botanical gardens. In this sense, Sesse predated even Alexander von Humboldt as an independently motivated observer of American nature. Concurrent with the opening of the gardens, Sesse oversaw the creation of a botany course at the University of Mexico, the first of its kind in New Spain, which helped to promulgate Linnaean taxonomy and other facets of European Enlightened science. The expedition lasted from 1785 to 1800, and with the help of Mexican naturalist Jose Mariano Mozino, Sesse collected and cataloged many plants from Mexico and the Caribbean that were unknown to Europeans.

The botanical gardens and the university course were exercises in both Enlightened science and commercialism. They promoted botany as a useful art that could improve the lives of Americans and Europeans alike in everyday ways. Thus one of the primary functions of the gardens was to cultivate cinchona, the plant that produced quinine, a drug known to prevent and help cure malaria. To help support the gardens financially and to promote overseas trade in American flora, the gardens also specialized in growing coca.

Reference: Engstrand. Iris H. W. Spanish Scientists in the New World: The Eighteenth-Century Expeditions. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981.
CITATION: Plan of the Botanical Garden of Mexico, by Miguel Costanso, showing working and living quarters for scientists and professors. Archivo General de Indias, Sevilla. 



Papaya Gathering

Date: 31 Mar 1924
Owner: Massachusetts Historical Society
Source Type: Images


In this photograph, two prominent botanists with Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology are picking hybrid papayas for the upcoming April Fool's Day celebration in the gardens of Harvard's Biological Station. In 1924, following several failed sugarcane crops; the E. Atkins & Co. plantation invited scientists with Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology to study the landscape, the crops, and the system of production and submit proposals for more efficient management, in an effort to use science to improve yields. Botanists and horticulturalists worked to create new, hybrid species of sugar, tobacco, and some fruit trees, which were more resistant to disease. This Biological Station became a gathering place for agriculturalists, botanists, horticulturalists, and ornithologists and housed some of the most impressive collections of tropical plants and animals. It was transferred to the Cuban government following the Cuban Revolution in 1959. In this image, Harvard zoologist Thomas Barbour and horticulturalist Robert Grey are picking papayas from a hybrid papaya tree for the upcoming feast. Notice the highly labor intensive process of production.

CITATION:  Fairchild, David.  Papaya Gathering.  31 Mar 1924. Atkins Family Photographs, Collection 37, Massachusetts Historical Society Photo Archives. 



Source References

Web Sites

Flora del Paraguay (undefined)

Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER)

Andean Botanical Information System (ABIS)

Lost Crops of the Incas (National Academies Press)


De Vos, Paula S. "Natural History and the Pursuit of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Spain." Eighteenth-Century Studies. 40: 2 (2007): 209-239.

Denevan, William W. Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2003. 

Estrella, Eduardo. "Expediciones Botanicas." en Jose L. Peset y Antonio Lafuente Carlos III y la Ciencia de la Ilustracion. Madrid: Alianza Universidad, 1989. pp. 331-352.

Fernandez de Oviedo, Gonzalo. Sumario de la Natural Historia de Las Indias. San Diego: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1979.

Galindo-Leal, Carlos. The Atlantic Forest of South America: Biodiversity Status, Threats, and Outlook. Washington DC: Island Press, 2003.

Galloway, J.H. "Botany in the Service of Empire: The Barbados Cane-Breeding Program and the Revival of the Caribbean Sugar Industry, 1880s-1930s." Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 86: 4 (December 1996): 682-706.

Henderson, Andrew. Field Guide to the Palms of the Americas. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

McCook, Stuart George. States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. 

National Research Council. Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes With Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. Washington DC: National Academies Press, 1989.

No author. Vegetation and vegetational history of northern Latin America: Papers presented as part of a symposium at the American Institute of Biological Sciences meetings, Bloomington, Ind. . New York: Elsevier Scientific Pub. Co, 1973.

Roys, Ralph Loveland. The ethno-botany of the Maya. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1976.

Schiebinger, Londa, and Claudia Swan, eds. Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Seeliger, Ulrich and B. Kjerfve. Coastal Marine Ecosystems of Latin America. New York: Springer, 2000.

Seeliger, Ulrich. Coastal Plant Communities of Latin America. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic Press, 2006.

de la Cruz, Martin. The Bodianus Codex (Codex Barberini, Latin 241), an Aztec Herbal of 1552. Translation and introduction by Emily Walcott Emmart. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1940.

Varieties of Sugar Cane

Date: 1927
Owner: Journal of Agriculture of Porto Rico
Source Type: Images


Since the late eighteenth century, new breeds of sugarcane have been tested in the Caribbean in an effort to improve crop yields and discover strains that are better able to resist various blights and insects.  This scientific chart shows several of the new hybrid breeds of sugarcane that were introduced to Puerto Rico and several other cane-growing countries in the wake of the mosaic disease in the early 1920s. These strains, developed and exchanged throughout the world, were part of the varietal revolution, a period when planters began to incorporate modern biology and botany into their agriculture in an unprecedented manner. Early twentieth century planters tended to grow a single variety of a given crop, the so called noble varieties, yet this lack of diversity left the crops more vulnerable to depletion by disease and insects while also damaging the quality of the soil. Scientifically produced hybrid plants that were resistant to disease (especially the mosaic disease discussed in the Agriculture and Science topic) and also had high sucrose content became the ideal in the cane industry. In this chart, the stems labeled with "P.O.J." were hybrids made at Proef-Station Oost-Java, an experimental farm in the Pacific that sent many varieties to the Americas.

With this emphasis on biology, the cane industry became distinctly modern and the impact on natural environments was profound. New varieties of hybrids often led to new types of disease. These, in turn, prompted the importation of newer hybrids--a vicious circle that took its toll on the soil as well as the sugar industry. It became standard for Puerto Rican sugar mills to employ chemists and botanists, and planters had to think well beyond the traditional concerns of rain, weeds, and bugs. Puerto Rico's sugarcane industry became an ideal to which various Latin American countries engaged in monocrop agriculture aspired. Puerto Rico, though, had the advantage of U.S. funding and expertise, and few Latin American countries were able to make the shift from traditional to modern agriculture so effectively.


McCook, Stuart George. States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

CITATION: Journal of Agriculture of Porto Rico, 1927