Excerpt: Sacred Seeds

The following excerpt is from Sacred Seeds: New World Plants in Early Modern English Literature (January 2019) by Edward McLean Test. This book is in the Early Modern Cultural Studies series. 


From Chapter One: New Seeds, Strange Countries

One place the voice of indigenous people resounds most loudly in early modern Europe is the garden landscape. Prior to the first botanical garden in Europe (Padua, Italy, 1545), the medieval pleasure garden, filled with common flowers and native plants, dominated the European horticultural system. In Europe, the scientific enterprise of categorizing plants did not begin until after the discovery of the New World gardens, particularly those of Tenochtitlán, where medical botany was studied as a science to an extent unknown in Europe. The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo marveled at the civilization of Mesoamerica, noting its variety of plants:

When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land and that straight and level Causeway going towards [Tenochtitlán], we were amazed. . . . Some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream. . . . There is so much to think over that I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about. . . . When we had looked well at all of this, we went to the orchard and garden, which was a wonderful thing to see and walk in, that I was never tired of looking at the diversity of the trees, and noting the scent which each one had, and the paths full of roses and flowers, and the many fruit trees and native roses, and the pond of fresh water. . . . I stood looking at it and thought that never in the world would there be discovered other lands such as these. . . . Of all these wonders that I then beheld today all is overthrown and lost; nothing left standing.1

Díaz’s “dream” adds to the list of hyperbolic adjectives describing the New World. The marvel of seeing the island city with its towering pyramids gleaming in the sun, the expansive lake lined with other villages, the canals, the aqueducts, five causeways leading from the mainland to the central island, is unquestionably dreamlike. It was something he had never seen or heard about before, much less imagined. The amazement and wonder continues as Díaz enters the astounding  garden of Moctezuma and bemoans the fact that he and the other conquistadores destroyed such a marvel. If we consider the New World environment and gardens as an Eden, then we can extend the metaphor and likewise view the Spanish conquistadores (and other European nations) as serpents that caused the fall and expulsion of the blissful couple(s) from their paradise.


The reason the Spanish conquistador “never tired of looking at the diversity of trees” was that the elaborate garden and orchard contained a variety of plants and trees incomparable to any garden in Europe. Padua would, to some extent, imitate what the inhabitants of Tenochtitlán had already created and understood about horticulture. Unlike the primitive folk study of plants of Europe, the Mesoamericans employed a complex taxonomical system for naming plants that rivaled that of Linnaeus. Indeed, it would not be until the eighteenth century that the Linnaean system of botanical nomenclature would approach the systematic naming of plants in fifteenth-century Mesoamerica.2 Take, for instance, the plant named tepehoilacapitzxochitl, which means “ornamental plant that grows in the hills, has a knotty stem, crawls but later turns straight and thin.”3 Each name contained elements of a classification system that included signifiers such as plant size, type, color, and where it grows. More astounding, these plant names and drawings of the plants were recorded in codices housed in a library, or amoxcalli, in Calmécac (which was destroyed by Spanish conquistadores).4 In terms of herbal knowledge, the Mesoamericans were more advanced than Europeans; they cultivated more plants, had a greater diversity of food crops, and exceeded Westerners in their “scientific” knowledge of horticulture.

It was just this sort of knowledge that Dr. Faustus wished to acquire when he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for all the knowledge in the world. Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus requests three books from Mephistophilis: one on incantations, a second on new astronomy, and a third “wherein [he] might see all plants, herbs and trees that grow upon the earth.”5 Evident in this last request is the importance of Earth’s botanical cornucopia to early modern Europe, a knowledge base that grown exponentially with the encounter, exploration, and merchandising of the Americas (initiated unintentionally by the likes of Díaz). As John Prest concludes, “The great age of the Botanic garden followed the discovery of the New World.”6 Physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, and herbalists throughout Europe fervently collected “new seeds out of strange countries” planting and categorizing new flora in the private medicinal and pleasure gardens of educated aristocrats.7 These men displaced country peasants and herbwives as the purveyors of a new empirical botanical knowledge, as William Turner, the father of English botany, notes in 1568: “I went into Italy and into diverse parts of Germany to know and see the herbs myself and to know by practice their powers and working not trusting only to the old herb wives.”8 The early modern botanist wanted to see the plant firsthand, observe it with his eyes. Subsequently, there was a boom in the production of botanical texts, or “herbals,” as they were known in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.



1. Díaz, History of the Conquest, 190–91.
2. Godínez and Butanda, Breve historia, 24.
3. Ayerza and Coates, Chia, 87.
4. Godínez and Butanda, Breve historia, 21–22.
5. Marlowe, Dr. Faustus, 5.171.
6. Prest, The Garden of Eden, 1.
7. Harrison, The Holinshed Chronicles, 1:208.
8. Turner, A New Herbal, preface. I have modernized the spelling from its original: “I wente into Italye and into diuerse partes of Germany to knowe and se[e] the herbes my selfe and to knowe by practice their powers and workinge not trustinge onely to the olde herbe wiues.”

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