Melissa Hernández ’22: Book X, Chapter I (Of the Tree or Plant With Which They Weld Fractures in Men)

Book X, Chapter I

Of the tree or plant with which they weld fractures in men.

Translated by Melissa Hernández ’22

On this Island of Hispaniola there are trees that are as common here as they are on these islands and the Mainland; they are thorny, such that no tree or plant could appear wilder, and due to its form I cannot know if it is tree or plant. It produces some branches full of very ugly, wide and disformed pads, all very thick and spiny; each one of these branches were at first leaves or stalks, and from each of these leaves or stalks sprouted others, and from those others still, and so on. From these hardened stalks, or as soon as they have hardened, others sprout and grow longer, and from those sprout others and so on; and from stalk to stalk it becomes a branch. Finally, this tree is such that I find it difficult to describe it in writing, for it would be necessary for an artist to paint it in its proper colors, so that by sight one could understand what by words I do not believe anyone who has not seen it could possibly comprehend (as other trees can be understood), for this tree is so unlike all others that there seems to me to be no other name for its wildness and extremes, never heard of nor seen anywhere else—except for monster among trees.

After the thorns are removed, the stalks or leaves are crushed into a paste, which is then spread over a canvas cloth, like a plaster; after the broken leg or arm is reset, it is bound with the plaster, and, if the broken bone is reset correctly, it is welded and fixed together as perfectly as if it had never been broken in the first place. And until the plaster or medicine has done its work, it is so attached to the skin that it is very difficult and painful to take off; but after it has healed and completed its good work, the plaster separates from the skin by itself. There are many of these same trees on the Mainland, in the province of Nicaragua; they bear a shiny fruit of a very fine crimson and about the size of a thick olive; the fruit has thorns all over, like tiny hairs, almost invisible due to their subtlety and thinness, and they can prick the fingers when handled. In that land the Indian women make a certain paste out of this fruit, which they cut into squares as thin as flaky pastry and about the size of a fingernail; wrapped in cotton so they won’t break, they take them to the plazas and markets to sell, and it is much esteemed among the Indian men and women as body and face paint. It is an excellent crimson color, and it sometimes fades to a pink color; it is a better face paint than that used in Italy and Valencia or Spain, and other parts by those women who want to mend or correct, or rather debase the likeness or appearance God gave them. I have experimented with many pieces or tablets of this color in drawings and paintings, for my pleasure and to see if it is a durable color; and I find that it is excellent paint, because in some things I painted on paper more than six years ago, today the color is better and more vivid than the first day it was used. And I have it in high regard, because I only tempered it with agua clara[1] and without rubber or any other method that painters usually use to temper their colors. This tree’s leaves are very similar to those of thistles, which they use in this city to barb corrals, or like the leaves of the prickly pear, which are the same thistles that were mentioned in Book VIII, in Chapter XXVIII. The tallest of these trees are almost twelve feet tall and the shortest a little more than a man’s height; the color of the trunk is rough brown, and the arms and branches as well, with the ends of them, which are the leaves, somewhat green. Some branches sprout through the same leaf; but all the leaves and branches, as I said, are very thorny, like the prickly pear. Here I have the shape of this tree (if I managed to capture it with my poor drawing), so that, along with what I have said, it can be better understood and considered.[2] And if this is not enough, I say that whoever travels from this city of Santo Domingo to the village of Yaguana, which is to the western part of this island of Hispaniola, will find many of these trees on the same royal road, and will out of necessity pass by and along them, without deviating from the road before reaching the meadows and summits of the source of the Artibonito River, and from there coming to this city they can be seen in many places.

[1] Agua clara or clear water; Oviedo is probably referring to a solution of Lead (II) acetate and water that was historically used as a fixative for some dyes and paints and was used for cosmetics as well. [EE]

[2] See Appendix 2 for illustration listed as Illus. 4, figure 2 in AR edition.

Image: Illustration of the prickly pear plant by Johann Weinmann in the 18th century.