Rashad Bell, MLIS, is Collection Maintenance Associate in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden.
Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to honor the contributions of Hispanic Americans and their cultures, which have roots in Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa, and Central and South America.
One of those contributions is the botánica, a type of store that is common here in the Bronx. Many members of Hispanic communities rely on botánicas to provide plants and other products for their traditional health care practices and religious and spiritual needs. These stores sell a wide variety of medicinal herbs, candles, incense, statues, and other items. Spiritual and religious ceremonies with connections in the Afro-Caribbean and Christian religions and other spiritual beliefs use different plants and herbs for many purposes such as blessings, charms, rituals, and healing.
Here are a few of the herbs and plants sold at botánicas that are important in Hispanic-American culture, beautifully illustrated in historical collections held by NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library.
Britton, N.L., Horne, F.W., Popular flora of Puerto Rico, Flora Borinqueña [unpublished watercolors]. Puerto Rico
Aloe vera is now commonly known throughout America. If you do not have the plant, you have probably seen it sitting on someone’s desk or counter. Aloe vera is a succulent with thick green-grey serrated leaves that is often cultivated for agricultural and medicinal uses. Among the plant’s many uses, its gel can be applied to burns, and drinking aloe juice is said to settle stomachs. Aloe powder is burned in spiritual rituals as protection for loved ones. Sometimes it is carried to bring good luck, and it is even mixed with other herbs to attract a lover.
Salvia officinalis L.
Sturm, J., Deutschlands flora. Nürnberg: Gedruckt auf Kosten des Verfassers, 1798
Sage is another very popular herb found in botánicas. Specifically, Salvia apiana, or white sage, is recognizable from its whitish-green leaves and aroma. It is commonly burned in spiritual rituals as a way of cleansing and purifying a person or place of evil and negativity. Pluchea carolinensis is known as salvia (sage) by the Dominican community and used as a medicine. The European Salvia officinalis, or common sage, has many applications but is often used as a topical antibacterial and astringent.
Artemisia absinthium, or common wormwood, is similar to sage in that it can be burned to remove curses and hexes. In some Hispanic communities, it is infused like tea to make a beverage to manage pain, stimulate appetite, and destroy intestinal parasites.
Ruta graveolens L.
Bulliard, P., Herbier de la France. Paris: Chez l’auteur, Didot, Debure, Belin, v.2, 1781
Ruta graveolens, or rue, is popular in Hispanic communities. Some believe rue can bring luck and prosperity when sprinkled throughout the home.