Proceedings of the Second Annual Mission Research Conference
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Herbal Use of Native and Imported Plants by the Inhabitants of the San Antonio Missions
Olin Fearing, Ph.D.
Biology Department, Trinity University
San Antonio, Texas

To speak with you immediately before the break may be somewhat of a challenge, because I know rigor mortis is setting in. I will try to keep my comments somewhat brief.

The studies that I have been undertaking have been basically botanic studies of the Missions, Mission citizens, populations of Mission people. The information that I have been gathering has come basically from translated materials that have been available to me from Spanish records, early clerics that came into the Mission field, from the records of the customs houses that were functioning at that time, and from the reports and records of explorers from the northeastern part of the United States after secularization or after 1800.

I have been attempting to develop some type of an understanding of the types of plants that were used and the ways in which those plants were used.

Let me digress slightly to point out that the study of plants by the Spanish had quite a significant historical development. The early study of plants by the Spanish in the New World commenced with the early work of Hernándo Hernández, which dates back about to 1570.

Now, I do not intend to review the botanical studies of the New World from 1570 on to the Mission era. But I would point out that the work of Hernández was very significant in establishing a framework of understanding the plants of the New World and the variety of organisms that occurred, particularly in Mexico and Central America, and of forming in the minds of the Mission settlers and the clerics coming north from the mission field an awareness of the natural flora and the value of the natural flora.

In fact, they were informed as they came north to record carefully the topographic and floriferous region through which they traveled and to record those on their return, of their Mission efforts. As a result of the early excitement, there was evidence among the early Spanish explorers that there was unique and peculiar flora in the New World and we see that there has been some record then of the early plants that are available to the Mission inhabitants from the early translated writing.

Many of these writings appear to be almost litany however, in nature. The travelers and early clerics seem to have perhaps somewhat dutifully recorded plants in almost the same order, under some cases, so we wonder exactly how accurate their observations were. They obviously were not trained botanists in that sense, but trained observers and consequently there is much to be wondered about in the writings that we do see available from these historic accounts.

The Missions had a number of reasons for existence, obviously, and it is not my purpose to go into this. You know much more about this, perhaps, than I do but certainly one of the things that they were attempting to do is demonstrate Spanish technology and to allow that technology to be used in the Mission areas.

One of the main aspects of that technology, of course, was agriculture and hydrometry which was necessary to sustain Mission life. For this reason, it seems quite clear that many of the plants that were used during certainly the latter part of Mission life were plants that were being introduced from European origin. When I say European origin, I mean origin from Europe and, perhaps in a secondary fashion, coming possibly from as far afield as China or Africa, cultivated in Europe and transported then to the New World by Spanish settlers.

There are a number of different types of plants that we can categorize insofar as the Mission uses are concerned. We would look, certainly, first, I suspect, at the indigenous plants — those plants that are part of the native flora — that were used by the Indians in this area as the Spanish settlers came in.

The second type of plants that we might want to look at would be those plants that were brought by the Spanish themselves and increased the technology then of the Mission itself and increased production within the Missions.

I can see that Dr. Cruz has very carefully put the titles together, as I see considerable connection between what I have been doing and what the previous speaker was talking about.

Those organisms that we might be talking about, as far as natural flora is concerned, would include, as far as I have been able to tell, a wide variety of herbal plants. If I could run through very briefly a few of these with a comment or two regarding them, perhaps it would be — it would give you some idea of what I am thinking of.

Insofar as herbal plants, meaning small plants of a basic nature, several of these, many of these that we see from the plant uses described in literature were aquatics and this would include such things as arrowheads, which is Sagittaria, Sagittaria-like creatures that would be found in the streams and water courses in the San Antonio area; watercress; such things as cattails, a wide variety of uses for things of this nature.

Many of these can be dug and the roots eaten or the rhizomes eaten and many of the young shoots can be dug and eaten themselves, either raw or cooked. Cattails can be used in a myriad of ways, as you may well know, either the pollen or the fruit or the shoots eaten in that fashion. Watercress, as we are well aware of in this immediate area, we can still see it existing in the water courses south of town particularly here.

In addition to this, there are a number of other types of herbaceous plants. If I can include cacti as being herbaceous, a wide variety of cacti were used by indigenous populations. Class Filicineae, one of the medicinal plants that we would find in this area; a wide variety of other medicinal plants, perhaps, such as ephedra known to be an astringent and used for a considerable period of time by both folk medicine and modern medicine as an additive to medicinal compounds of one type or another.

This list would include a wide variety of things which I am not going to attempt to go through at this late hour, but suffice to say that there are probably as many as 20 to 25 different herbaceous plants of indigenous origin to be identified as part of the local flora used by Indians and were used undoubtedly in association with the Missions themselves.

In addition to the native trees and shrubs that we were trying as part of the Indian technology and available within the Missions would be such things as acacias, ashes, barberry, which you have heard of on other occasions, wild cherries, crabapples. Of course, as far as trees are concerned, cypress, elms, hackberries, which we have heard of earlier today, junipers, mesquites, a wide variety of trees and shrubby plants which were part of the Indian technology and undoubtedly served as part of the Mission technology.

In addition to this, and perhaps equally important in Mission life, were those types of things that would be coming as part of the introduced vegetation from Spanish origin. Basically, some of those plants that would be coming in with the Spanish and introduced as part of their technology from, say, the Middle East and Europe or the Mediterranean area would include things like apples, apricots, beets, cabbage, carrots, celery, figs, garlic, a wide variety of different varieties of grapes.

Incidentally, in the middle 1880s the Germans were growing as many as 30 to 35 different varieties of grapes. The Spanish used grapes quite clearly, the native grapes or introduced grapes; probably the introduced ones were during the later part of the Mission period. Lentils, lettuce, peas, pears, pomegranate, wheat, and this type of thing would be basically European and being brought in by the Spanish as part of the technology of that particular era.

In addition, the introduced plants brought by the Spanish would include from the north or from Central and South America such things as amaranthus, cana. These are New World creatures — cotton, lima beans, peanuts, potatos, tobacco, yams, which would constitute part of the New World flora that would be used in agriculture.

In addition, of course, such things as agave, either wild or cultivated. Again, amaranthus, corn — obviously a major Indian crop. Interestingly enough, the corn that was grown mostly in the Mission fields here is believed not to be the cold, tepid corn, but probably corn that came from Durango over in the northwestern part of Mexico of Spanish introduction. Cotton, Jerusalem artichoke, or sunflowers of one type or another. Sweet potatos and tomatoes.

It is quite clear that this could be carried on in quite greater detail, but I think probably this gives you some idea of the types of directions in which I will be going with this and some of the things that I have been attempting to uncover here.

Olin Fearing, Ph.D.
Biology Department
Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas
Photo courtesy of Olin Fearing

DR. CRUZ: Olin, I think there is one question.

This is Richard Garay.

MR. GARAY: I just have one question. Perhaps you may have seen the anaqua tree. You are familiar with it, the anaqua tree — rough-leafed tree.

I have visited many of the Missions in Texas that are recognized as Missions and those that are not recognized as having been Missions and in every site I find an anaqua tree. There must be some medicinal or religious or some custom that the — I think it bears a little berry. It is not a very good berry.

There is one at the Alamo and one at every Mission in San Antonio. It may just be folklore or something, but it is an interesting point at every Mission and I have been from El Paso all the way to Louisiana and down to the Gulf Coast Missions and they all have an anaqua tree.

It is a very great favorite of bees.

DR. FEARING: Yes, It would be a honey plant, right. I do not know the answer to your question.

MR. GARAY: Okay. The largest anaqua tree is at Refugio Mission. When you go to Refugio, Texas, the Texas Forest Service put a — there are so many tree specialists here, I thought perhaps you or one of them could answer this.

DR. FEARING: I do not know that any of the rest of you know the answer to this. I do not know why that would be so widely — I will check that and see.

SISTER COOKE: The anaqua has a very, very high sugar content and the missionaries used them like plums. They are really very good, and children especially would eat them.

DR. FEARING: There are many seeds that are ground and they are quite good at grinding. That could well be the answer to this, but I am not sure.

MR. THOMAS: Is that not related to the sugarberry and appleberry?

SISTER COOKE: No, they are very, very juicy.

MR. THOMAS: I say, are they related to the appleberry and sugarberry?

SISTER COOKE: No, they are not.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: When was wheat growing in San Antonio?

DR. FEARING: I cannot give you a precise date, but wheat was part of the crop that was grown here in the Missions in this area, and I would presume fairly early in the Mission period.

I have no specific exact date in which the first wheat crop was grown.


MS. MENDOZA: Going back to the anaqua, maybe they wanted the anaqua to make some rosaries, you know, the little seeds? The missionaries could have made some rosaries.

DR. FEARING: Possibly; I do not know.

DR. CRUZ: Thank you very much, Olin.

We are going to ask Father Janacek now to show us where the refreshments and the goodies are.

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Last Updated: 24-Apr-2011