Introduction to the Plant Humanities

By Julia Fine

Recipes, as the tagline of this project suggests, feature in many facets of daily life, from food to science, magic to medicine. At the basis of many (if not most) of these recipes are plants: we’ve learned here how chiles were used to treat malaria in early modern China, that cucumber juice contributed to a 17th-century Russian hangover remedy, and why coffee was understood as a potential cure for the Plague in Turkey.

Bright watercolor drawing of various plants, most likely from Malaysia or Sumatra.
Plate from [Album of Chinese Watercolors of Asian fruits], held by Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library. The album was most likely produced by a Chinese artist located in Malaysia or Sumatra between 1798 and 1810. Image Credit: Dumbarton Oaks

Much of history focuses on decidedly human stories, where plants are relegated to the background. As historian Londa Schiebinger writes, “Plants seldom figure in the grand narratives of war, peace, or even everyday life in proportion to their importance to humans.”

We at Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington DC have spent the past four years working to rectify this by placing plants at the center of human stories as part of our Mellon-funded Plant Humanities Initiative. By bringing history together with botany, archaeology, art history, and other disciplines, we aim to highlight how plants have shaped the course of human history, and how humans have shaped plants in turn. The fruit of our exploration has been a digital humanities lab that puts narrative history side-by-side with primary sources, mapping tools, herbal specimens, and more in order to demonstrate the complexity of plants, as well as their importance in the current climate crisis.

Herbal specimen. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Our lab now features over 15 original narratives on plants, with more coming in the near future. These plant-centered narratives are written by historians of science, art historians, paleoethnobotanists, geographers, and comparative literary scholars (among others). One narrative highlights how early modern women used herbs like dittany as a means to exert agency over their own health and fertility— a particularly critical topic given the vociferous debates about abortion occurring in the United States and elsewhere today. Another narrative on turmeric demonstrated how plants were not simply drivers of imperial expansion, but also tools through which understandings of the British Empire were spread.

Over the next month, we will be publishing excerpts from some narratives on The Recipes Project site. We will see how European conquistadors drew on Indigenous Mesoamerican recipes when transporting cacao to Europe. We will learn how peony, often imagined today as an ornamental flower, was used as a medicinal herb in both Chinese and Western medical traditions, where it was used to treat epilepsy, sciatica, and convulsions. And we will see how our modern-day fascination with cassava, frequently lauded as a “climate survivor crop,” would not be possible if not for the knowledge, expertise, and processing techniques developed by Mesoamerican and South American women, which allowed for poisonous cassava to be made edible.

Botanical drawing of a cacao vine
Botanical drawing of a cacao by Maria Sibylla Merian in her work Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium , 2019. Image credit: Dumbarton Oaks

Together, these stories highlight the primacy of plants in the history—and future— of human society. We hope you enjoy your trip around the world through these narratives, and stay tuned for opportunities to get involved with our initiative.


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