Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Kathleen M. Brown


This dissertation analyzes a type of knowledge that I call “lived botany” to argue that colonial settlers generated problems of classification and typology that shaped the development of natural history. I define “lived botany” as non-elite English colonists’ dynamic invention of plant nomenclature, terminology, and classification using the idioms, imagery, and inspired by the imperatives of everyday life. Unlike the transatlantic epistolary networks of natural history, lived botany consisted of highly local, oral networks of knowledge production and exchange as neighbors and friends swapped information face to face about beneficial flora, focusing predominantly on the practical applications of plants. While natural historians moved plants around the globe, lived botanists frequently harvested local wild plants as well as relying upon naturalized species. Drawing on three regions of English colonial settlement — New England, Pennsylvania, and the Caribbean — I argue that lived botany was integral to the process of building England’s Atlantic empire, inflecting knowledge production and settler relations with Indigenous peoples. Through lived botany, English colonists created highly context-specific knowledge of American flora used to sustain the household as food, medicine, and tools. In seventeenth-century Massachusetts, colonists constantly reinvented the terms and meanings of local flora, fixating not on each plants’ similarity to English herbs and trees, but on their most salient human application. In seventeenth-century Barbados and Jamaica, colonists Anglicized tropical plants by interpreting them as plastic and unusual versions of English ones. In some instances, settlers’ ecological interpretations, and the material practices such representations encouraged, led settlers to adopt plants originally used by Indigenous and enslaved people quickly, and with relatively little comment; in other cases, settlers explicitly marked Indigenous knowledge as different and desirable. In eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, colonists coveted knowledge that they called “Indian secrets” to acquire information associated with the Lenape people. In the Caribbean, however, settlers only intermittently used some of the same wild plants that enslaved people relied upon to compensate for a daily deficit of food, medicine, and material goods. As they generated information about the flora of the Americas, colonists both helped and hindered natural historians, encouraging them to increasingly differentiate between common and esoteric knowledge.


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