Thus begins the Tenth Book of the first part of the Natural and General History of the Indies: which concerns medicinal trees and plants and their properties.
Translated by Melissa Hernández ’22
In the preceding books I have discussed fruit trees and their varieties; now I want to speak in this tenth book of medicinal trees and plants, much noted for their benefits and properties, especially of what I have witnessed myself and of which I have in truth been informed—for I will not present as truth anything that cannot be confirmed. And on those matters about which I do not note or raise any doubts, I can be faithfully believed and my word be taken for the absolute truth; because our Caesar does not want fables, nor will I know how to tell them, but will only tell what can be told of such matters before His Majesty. More so because these things in themselves are so out-of-the-way and new that there is no need for fictions to court people’s admiration, or to stop giving infinite thanks to the Master of nature, who in so many ways made it adept at spawning and sprouting all the effects and properties he so desired. For the reader will be able to see, without fabulous speculation, how capable that same nature is, keeping in mind that what she does is very little compared to what her own maker can allow her to do; this considered, the reader will find that for the trees and plants that will be discussed here, and for their wonderful effects on noted and incurable diseases, one should not thank the creatures or things that are born—but their creator, God himself, who reveals such things to us, so that we may better know and serve Him and wholeheartedly love Him, because he loves us, but primarily because of who He is.
I will begin with a tree that in truth I know not the name that the Indians give it on this or the other islands or on the Mainland, where it has many different names because of the great difference and multitude of languages that exist throughout these Indies; nor do I think I will even know how to explain it as well as I would like, for it is so different and dissimilar from all the other trees—so much so that I do not know how to determine if it is a tree or a monster among trees. But I will say what I have understood of it, deferring to whoever can paint it or illustrate it better, for it would be better to see it painted by the hand of Berruguete or another excellent painter like him (like Leonardo da Vinci, or Andrea Mantegna, famous painters I met in Italy) than to describe it with words—alas, it is much better seen than written about or painted. The Christians who have been in these parts call it the ‘welding tree,’ with much reason, owing to properties and effects that have often been seen and experienced. It is in this way that I will proceed to the other things that, conforming to such matters, should be collected here.
Image: Antique German lithograph of medicinal plants printed in 1928, unknown artist.