Herbal remedies or "simples" developed by American natives influenced not only the medical practices of early European settlers, they also affected the course of medical science in this country. The United States Pharmacopoeia (USP), which was established in 1820 to set national standards for formulating and dispensing drugs, has listed more than 200 domestic plants that Indian healers used with "proven efficacy." In fact, some of those same plants continue to have applications today in research and as ingredients in dietary supplements, antibiotics, and in other medications.
NATIVE VILLAGE, 1580s
EARLIEST MEDICINAL REFERENCE
In the 1580s, when English expeditions first landed along North Carolina's coast, their members quickly gained respect for the natives' knowledge and use of the region's natural resources, including their medicinal applications. John White, an artist who took part in these expeditions, sketched and painted selections of the animals, plants, and people he saw. Less than seventy of White's original American drawings survive. This milkweed is one of them. Known as Wysauke by Roanoke natives, this species of milkweed (later categorized by Swedish botanists Carolus Linnaeus as Asclepias syriaca) was no doubt drawn by White as a medicinal reference for future English colonists. Milkweed was used at that time in diuretics to treat gout and as an expectorant for patients with severe congestion. Natives also used the pulverized plant as a topical ointment to treat poison ivy rashes, acne, and other skin conditions.
This is another one of White's botanical drawings that survived. Once again, the English artist and explorer recorded this plant not for the beauty of its flowers, but for the plant's practical applications. Still widely found in North Carolina's coastal region, Sabatia is more commonly known as Sea Pink or Marsh Pink.
This is a remarkably detailed and accurate drawing of the plant, although it should be noted that the original pink pigments used by White have oxidized and darkened considerably over time. Just as with his depiction of milkweed, White recorded this American specimen in great detail. In England, Sabatia (Pursh) had use as an "antiperiodic," a medication that was given to patients to prevent the recurrence of illnesses, especially fevers.