Tracing Plant Traditions

St. Martin has rich traditions of farming and bush medicine. These are important parts of local culture. But the history of Caribbean plant traditions is largely unwritten. How do we tell this story?

The most developed plant traditions in the Caribbean came from Amerindian and African culture. Because written records were primarily European, these plant traditions were mostly undocumented. We will never know who brought certain plants to the Caribbean, or why. But there are many clues to help us fill in the blanks.

We have few early records, but many clues about plant traditions.

The plants themselves can tell us things. In most cases, we know which species are native to Africa. We also know species from Asia that were used in Africa and probably came to the Caribbean from Africa. In some cases, they were used here in the Caribbean by both Africans and Europeans. But many were only used by Africans, so these were probably brought here by Africans.

Caribbean Amerindians were nearly all killed by disease and genocide, but some of their plant traditions survived. Some knowledge was recorded by Europeans looking for plant products to sell to Europe. Amerindians also shared their knowledge with free and enslaved black people, who preserved this knowledge in their traditional medicine.

People living today still carry this ancient knowledge.

Other clues can come from plant names and how plants are used. The Caribbean names of many plants from Africa are similar to the names in African languages. Even some local plants have names that may be based on those of their African relatives. Similar usage of related plants in Africa and the Caribbean shows that existing traditions may have been adapted to new plants. 

Other plants have names that come from their Amerindian names. There are also cases where Caribbean plant use is close to how South American Amerindians use plants. This helps us see how some Amerindian plant knowledge survived on islands after the Amerindians who had lived there were gone.

Though there is little written data from past centuries, we can still tap into the oral histories that have preserved these skills for generations. People living today still carry this ancient knowledge. They also have insight about how it has changed in their lifetime. The constant mixing of people and cultures in the region has been making these traditions deeper and richer for centuries. 

Can you share something about St. Martin’s plant traditions? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

imilar usage of related plants in Africa and the Caribbean shows that existing traditions may have been adapted to new plants.

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