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What the Aztecs could teach us about plants and their uses

  • What the Aztecs could teach us about plants and their uses

As Easter approaches, I was interested to read that the Vatican has announced it will be making its 82,000 manuscripts available online. Almost 600 years after Pope Nicholas V founded The Vatican Apostolic Library, a team of 50 Italian and Japanese experts will be digitising the contents to publish some 40 million pages online.

Who knows what new treasures will be found. The manuscripts date back to the 2nd Century and are known to include an illustrated edition of the works of Virgil, from around 400, and a version of Dante's Divine Comedy illustrated by Sandro Botticelli in the 15th Century.

One document that got away early however, is the Badianus Manuscript of 1552, a 'herbal' compiled by two Mexican physicians only 30 years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The Vatican 'returned' this manuscript to the Mexicans in 1990 and it is now in the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City.

What fascinates about Codex Badiano, as the Mexicans call it, is that it is based on an Aztec medical tradition still uninfluenced by Europe. And while the Spaniards imposed their religion on the Aztecs, they respected their expertise with herbal remedies enough to let them continue practicing and teaching it. They were impressed, among other things, at the Aztec skill in treating cuts and bruises and are thought to have made the Badianus itself a gift for Charles V of Spain.

The Aztecs took a broad view of medicine. So their plant-based remedies range from bodily ailments such as blisters, wounds, swelling, toothache, dandruff and constipation ... to ones more to do with the human condition and real life challenges such as lassitude, fear of lightening, crossing a river or being caught in a whirlwind!

Experts believe that as many as 90% of the plants used by the Aztecs as remedies are still used by Mexican 'curandos' today. That said most of the Mexican names in the lovely example attached are no longer in use. The following is therefore a best attempt (by others) at identification. Suggestions welcome.

  1. Painted tree. 2. Tomato shrub (an arbutus species). 3. Bright tree. 4. Sour tree (?Conostegia xalapensis). 5. Pleasant tree. 6. Greatly honoured tree. 7. Wild humming bird flower. 8. Maize flower. 9. Popcorn flower (Bourreria huanita) and 10. Precious ylin.

Of the ten only one, No. 9, is clearly identifiable as Bourreria huanita. Commonly known in English as the Popcorn flower, it was used to flavour cacao and was a key ingredient for the relief of those suffering fatigue from too much administrative work!

Now that's a remedy that might do well in Boots or Superdrug today.

Happy Easter!

Comments (1)

  1. Grower

    Helene U Taylor

    That’s fascinating, and according to many great novels written in the past, there should apparently be huge secrets waiting to be revealed if all of the Vatican’s manuscripts are published. But if nothing revolutionary is unveiled, it might simply be because there never was any big secrets after all :-)
    As for all the other things time has forgotten, it would be lovely if some of the old medicine recipes could come to light, many of the things we suffer from today are no different than what people have struggled with for millennia.

    Thanks for sharing Jeremy, and happy Easter!

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