By Kendall Hallberg
Catesby’s “Natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Isles” was created for an interested European audience. Many of the plants and animals of the New World were completely unknown to them as a three-month long trip didn’t make America very accessible. Catesby’s unique work was one of the first that pictured animals together with the plants that dominated their habitats. By virtue of this, there are quite a few well-loved and delicious foods alongside a few that you may not be familiar with.
Let’s start with a crowd favorite: Chocolate. By the time Catesby was creating these books (think early 1700s), chocolate had made its way into the hearts of Europeans. However, they still would not have known how this plant was cultivated. While Spanish and French colonies were producing chocolate, Catesby wanted to encourage cultivation of “this excellent tree” by the English (Catesby, 1731, p.6). While publishing his work on the Carolinas, Florida, and the Bahamas, he also collected accounts and made illustrations that he knew would be of interest. This reasoning is why we also have the addition of Mexican Vanilla. While Mexican vanilla has since been introduced to regions in the United States and Territories, Catesby likely wouldn’t have come across it in his day. In fact, Catesby says, “With this fruit the Spaniards perfume their chocolate . . . This perfume is so little agreeable to an English palate, that it is rarely made use of any more in our American Plantations than at home, and therefore not cultivated by us” (Catesby, 1731). Can you imagine? Another plant that Catesby includes is the Cashew. It is included both as a curiosity as well as a correction upon the work of previous naturalists which illustrated the growth of the plant incorrectly. The inclusion of all three of these plants work to elucidate European audiences with what they may be familiar with, but misunderstandings of their nature still existed.
Catesby wasn’t just recording plants with popularity in Europe, he also exposed his audience to the many plants the New World had to offer; some more familiar to us than others. First, there is the Sweet Potato. Catesby’s descriptions of all the potatoes in America speaks to their general greatness. We, in South Carolina, are also very familiar with Persimmons as a common fruiting tree. Whether they are eaten fresh or dried, they are quite delicious as Catesby would attest. A bit less familiar is Yaupon. It’s in the holly family and can be brewed into tea though it has a rather unfortunate scientific name, Ilex vomitoria. This name links back to Yaupon’s traditional medicinal use by Indigenous people to detoxify, but the plant itself does not cause vomiting. It’s more like a relative, Yerba Mate, in flavor (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. 2016). Last, but not least, the Pawpaw or sometimes called a custard-apple. Discovering this in Catesby’s work was my first time learning about this fruit. However, if I go by Catesby’s word, it might not be that delicious. He describes, “All Parts of the Tree have a rank, if not a [fetid] Smell; nor is the Fruit relished but by very few” (Catesby, 1731, p.85). There are plenty of other native plants that may or may not be delicious, but these are just a few. To discover more, join me next time as I explore other Natural Histories from our collections! (aka browsing the library in pajamas? Fun!)
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. (2016). Ilex vomitoria. Retrieved from: https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ILVO
- Catesby, M. (1731). The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands: Containing the figures of birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, insects, and plants : particularly the forest-trees, shrubs, and other plants, not hitherto described, or very incorrectly figured by authors : together with their descriptions in English and French, to which, are added observations on the air, soil, and waters, with remarks upon agriculture, grain, pulse, roots, &c. : to the whole, is prefixed a new and correct map of the countries treated of. London: Printed at the expence of the author, and sold by W. Innys and R. Manby, at the West End of St. Paul’s, by Mr. Hauksbee, at the Royal Society House, and by the author, at Mr. Bacon’s in Hoxton.