In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Plants

  • Introduction
  • Foundations
  • Primary Sources
  • Correspondence
  • Digital Collections, Digitized Repositories, and Digital Humanities Projects
  • Mesoamerican Cultures
  • Native North America
  • West Africa
  • West Central and Southern Africa
  • Atlantic Africans in the Americas
  • Connecting Atlantic and Asian Histories
  • Herbals, Books, and Recipes
  • The British Atlantic
  • The Iberian Atlantic
  • The French Atlantic
  • Botany, Science, and Collecting

Atlantic History Plants
Chris Blakley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0370


Plants moved between locales, and connected points across, the Atlantic world from Antiquity to the Early Modern period. While the role of plants as the portmanteau biota of colonial settlements in the Americas underscored their instrumentalization by Europeans, historians now see the interplay of African, Indigenous, and even Asian plants in the Atlantic world. Plant humanities scholarship in history, geography, anthropology, archaeology, and other disciplines provides a sense of diverse human-plant relationships, and this article collects research that focuses on plants as food, medicine, cultural emblems, scientific specimens, and aesthetic objects. These varied kinds of socio-floral engagements are reflected in equally disparate scholarship from researchers investigating North and South America; the Caribbean; West, West Central, southern, and eastern Africa; and western Europe. Numerous studies of Mesoamerican cultures conducted by anthropologists and archaeologists point toward the rich botanical traditions of Maya, Mexica, and other Central American societies in “pre-Hispanic” periods. However, the contact between Europeans and Mesoamericans largely still serves to divide studies on plants, particularly since many sources reflect the hybridization of plant knowledge. A number of monographs and articles are included here; however, more research is necessary on earlier cultures and periods, such as the Olmecs. Likewise, for Atlantic African and African diaspora studies, much of the scholarship remains regionally divided between West Africanists and scholars of West Central and southern Africa. Exceptions to this trend are evident in Caribbean-focused research that emphasizes the relative dynamism of plant-derived medicine as knowledge crisscrossed among Africans, Indigenous Amerindians, and Europeans. An epistemic challenge remains for historians of science and medicine and economic or cultural historians regarding whether to write about plants as culturally embedded actants or as emergent commodities moving along chains of production, supply, and consumption. One example of this involves the history of High John the Conqueror root, both a material plant and a spiritual being who appears in African American literature as a trickster. John’s commodification over time in the United States, as Carolyn Morrow Long has shown, into an accepted pharmaceutical, involves his transformation from a black spirit into a white kingly figure. This further touches on the complex racialization of plants, an issue likewise related to the de-Africanization or de-Indigenization of plants by settler colonialism. Linguistic challenges pose problems for researchers as well, as a number of plant collections remain untranslated and understudied, such as plants collected at slave castles where captives spoke a multitude of languages and dialects. Vagueness and anonymity within primary sources that mention “an Indian” or a “Negro Dr.” further frustrate efforts to identify and build up narratives of Amerindian and Atlantic African intellectual traditions due to the historical construction of the archive itself.


Scholars interested in the intersection of Atlantic and environmental history with a focus on plants must necessarily begin by approaching the portmanteau biota concept discussed in Crosby 1972, a landmark text on ecological imperialism and the Columbian exchange. Crosby’s research set the stage for waves of historiography focused on the physical environmental impact of plants, animals, and microbes on the “Neo-Europes.” Two other foundational texts on plants in the Atlantic world come from historians of science, Grove 1996 and Schiebinger 2004, which underscore how knowledge of plants, particularly via botany and medicine, hinged on networks of trade, empire-building, and slavery in the Early Modern period. Sauer 1993 is a valuable roster of East and West African plants mobilized through the diaspora. Watson 1983 further shows the exchange and movement of plants among the medieval Islamic caliphates, South Asia, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Americas.

  • Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange; Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1972.

    The Columbian exchange, a framework coined by Crosby, involved the circulation of plants between Europe, Atlantic Africa, and the Americas after 1492. Food plants from the Americas became staples in Europe, including potatoes as well as drugs or medicinal plants like tobacco. West African adoptions of American plants include peanuts, tomatoes, maize, and manioc, and Crosby points out that these biotic adaptations occurred as early as the second half of the sixteenth century.

  • Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    Flora play a major role in Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism as the portmanteau biota with which Europeans created Neo-Europes in the Americas, Australia, and elsewhere. Domesticated plants and weeds like clover added to the Europeanization of the physical landscape in places like Mexico as they replaced indigenous flora communities. European grasses also spread via the transformation of American lands into pasturage for livestock.

  • Grove, Richard. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    Grove’s book is of interest to forest historians and researchers in early modern environmental thinking due to his nearly exhaustive scholarship on observations of the climatic and ecological consequences of long-term deforestation and desiccation on small islands like St. Helena, St. Vincent, and others from the start of the seventeenth century until the middle of the nineteenth century. Incipient forms of ecological thinking resulting from environmental destruction in these island contexts led naturalists and botanists to adopt conservationist attitudes that served an imperial and environmental purpose.

  • Sauer, Jonathan D. Historical Geography of Crop Plants: A Select Roster. Boca Raton, FL: CRC,1993.

    Sauer’s roster is a valuable reference text with entries on crop plants organized taxonomically. The book combines historical, geographical, and archaeological data, and it sheds light on the role of the African diaspora for transmitting plant species, such as kikuyu grass and Cenchrus clandestinus, a plant species used for pasturing in East Africa and the Americas.

  • Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    Plants and Empire remains an influential study particularly for Schiebinger’s introduction and elaboration of the theoretical framework of agnotology, or the study of culturally induced ignorances. Cases involving peacock flower, Caesalpinia pulcherrima, and other plants known to Amerindian and African healers illuminate how knowledge of plants did and did not move throughout the Atlantic world due to a number of factors, chief among them struggles over power between men and women, free and enslaved people, and colonizers and colonized.

  • Watson, Andrew M. Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World: The Diffusion of Crops and Farming Techniques, 700–1100. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    Watson discusses the pivotal role of the Islamic world for mobilizing plant diffusions between India and the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Iberian Peninsula, and East Africa from Late Antiquity until the High Middle Ages. The book raises the thesis that conquests led by the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates diversified and intensified the agricultural productivity of Islamic agriculture, with special reference to sorghum, sugar cane, shaddock, and cotton.

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