The healing potential of the Pitcher Plant

October 20, 1891

Archival Moment

Floral NewfOn October 20, 1891 Henry Clift a well-known barrister from Harbour Grace,  in a letter in the St. John’s newspaper, The Evening Telegram,  mused about the potential of plants that grew in Newfoundland and wondered why the medical community in the colony were  not exploring their medicinal potential.  The letter sets Henry Clift apart as one of the first to see the potential of pharmaceutical drugs in Newfoundland flora.

The young lawyer was driven to write the letter because he was amused that residents of St. John’s and his home town Harbour Grace were buying up all of the concoctions that were being sold by the visiting Kickapoo Company. The Kickapoo was an Indian medicine show that employed American Indians, supposedly Kickapoo’s, to tour Newfoundland demonstrating Indian life, and selling their medicines. They has set up shop in the Star of the Sea Hall on Henry Street with good audiences and brisk sales of their products.

Clift in his letter to the Editor argued that before the arrival of the Europeans to Newfoundland,  “when our native Indians became sick how did they cure themselves … the  answer is surely by the plants and the roots, herbs, bark of trees etc. of our native land.:”

Clift continued that there was in fact historical proof that there was healing qualities in the roots and berries that were gown in the colony. He wrote that as far back as July and August 1863 the St. John’s newspaper, The Times, had reported that “a certain Lieutenant Hardy of the Royal Artillery showed that Surgeon Logan had cured eleven men of the Regiment of smallpox by the use of the roots of the Pitcher Plant or rather a due concoction thereof.”

He continued that we were not to stop with the medicinal and pharmacological potential of the Pitcher Plant but should also “dilate here on the virtue of the wild cherry bark, dogberry bark, and berry, sarsaparilla, snake root, bog bean and the root of our beautiful perfumed, N. odorata or pond lily, etc.”

The good lawyer was well read and was aware that Reverend A.C. Waghorne  an Anglican Missionary priest working in Newfoundland  “has done good work on the botany of our native land and it is high time that the medical botany thereof should be more attended to than it is, and that we should open up  a way of relief  to the poor and the sick and to help people out of their coffins.“ Wayhorne had published extensively on Newfoundland flora in the local papers.

The coffins that Clift was referring to were for those that were succumbing to the full fury of the diphtheria epidemic. The Board of Health for the Colony of Newfoundland in 1889 reported that 1,881 cases of diphtheria affecting 878 families and resulting in 350 deaths. For 1890 and 1891 the number of deaths was 133 and 140 respectively. By April, 1892, when diphtheria had all but disappeared from St. John’s, the number of deaths for the first three months of that year was 23. Clift reported that the “cautionary sick signal is hoisted” on many homes.

To eradicate such an epidemic Clift was  suggesting that the medical community should consider the medicinal value of plants like the Pitcher Plant for consideration in the medical arsenal.

The Pitcher Plant was declared the provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1954, this strange plant appeared on the new Newfoundland penny in 1880. The Pitcher Plant, also called Sarracenis Purpurea, is found primarily in bogs and marshland throughout the province. It has one large wine-red flower with a red and gold centre and hollow pitcher-shaped leaves which are attached to the base of the stem. As an insectivorous plant, it feeds off the insects which become trapped inside the leaves when they fill with water.

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Recommended Reading: Home Medicine: The Newfoundland Experience by John K. Crellin . Based on material from the Folklore Archives at Memorial University  Crellin looks at the interplay between mainstream physicians and alternative treatments, and the effect of folk beliefs on today’s self-care practices, Crellin examines how the advent of modern medicine has affected self-treatment.