Medicinal Plants In New Zealand, 1850s-1920s
The history of medicinal plants is a subject that often prompts recollections of favoured or loathed family remedies, handed down through generations and representative of a relative’s resourcefulness or frugality. While contemporary debates divide the population into advocates or opponents of traditional therapies, the historical use of medicinal plants continues to evoke feelings of nostalgia and pride in our pioneering past. People who have explored New Zealand’s medical history could be forgiven for thinking that settlers relied predominantly on inorganic medicines and a relatively large number of colonial doctors to maintain their health and the health of others.
New Zealand’s current medical historiography is dominated by histories of institutions, the development of public health practices and the professionalisation of medicine. Medicinal plants have been largely overlooked by both social and medical historians as well as environmental historians who examine nineteenth-century plant exchange and transfer. My Ph.D. thesis entitled, ‘A History of Medicinal Plant Use in New Zealand’s Professional and Non-Professional Settler Medical Culture, 1850s-1920s’, will explore the introduction, propagation and use of medicinal plants in New Zealand. It will challenge the distinction between public health practices and domestic or alternative medicine in nineteenth and early twentieth century New Zealand and will contribute to current environmental historical scholarship relating to the role of botanical gardens and the local and international movement of plants.
Environmental and garden historians have identified numerous reasons for the rapid introduction of plants and animals by New Zealand’s settlers, including the desire to create a sense a familiarity by importing known species. More recently the pursuit of health has been proposed as an impetus for the introduction of plants believed to have healing or sanitising qualities. My thesis will follow this line of enquiry and will test whether medicinal plants were introduced and later propagated to support the health of the colonial population. Through an analysis of nursery catalogues, herbarium records and accounts and correspondence between local and international botanical gardens, it will determine what role botanical gardens and local and international nurseries played in the introduction, propagation and distribution of medicinal plants.
Early herbal manuals such as Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1653) are evidence of people’s desire to order and understand medicinal plants which have maintained an integral role in the history of medicine and medical care. The New Zealand Family Herb Doctor (1891), written by herbalist James Neil, was widely distributed in New Zealand during the nineteenth century. It provides an indication of what plants New Zealand colonists had access to and how they were using them.
My thesis will use primary sources such as Neil’s as well as colonial diaries, doctors’ case-notes, and memoirs, pharmacopoeias and pharmaceutical literature for insight into the professional and non-professional use of medicinal plants. In 1962 Stanley Brooker and Richard Cooper collated all available literature on medicinal plants in New Zealand and the extent and scope of this research reflects great interest in native New Zealand plants and their therapeutic value. While my research is based primarily on introduced species, it may touch upon the use of native medicinal plants by Europeans and will determine if any interest or co-operation existed between Chinese healers and Europeans during the nineteenth century. This research will explore a new aspect of cross-cultural relations in the nineteenth century New Zealand by testing whether, amidst the introduction of Eurocentric policies and institutions, European settlers made use of medical practices and knowledge from Māori and Chinese.
If anyone has information, particularly relating to the introduction of medicinal plants to New Zealand or Australia, please e-mail me ([email protected]).
 Jo is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Waikato.