The moravians: pioneers of american herbalism

In 1735, members of a Protestant sect known as the Unity of the Brethren, or Moravians, began arriving in North America from central Europe to evangelize to Native Americans and fellow European immigrants. Because they were expected to sustain themselves and build strong, self-sufficient settlements, the Moravian missionaries were well versed in healing practices and in the identification, cultivation, and use of local flora and fauna.

Bethlehem

In 1741, Moravians purchased land that would become the community of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and by 1742, the village’s first physician had arrived. Dr. Johann Adolph Meyer, trained in Germany, deputized a group of 15 men and women as assistants and caretakers. They had brought some plants with them from Europe, but now they scoured forest and field for indigenous specimens for use in medicines. The resulting botanical preparations were dispensed from one of the earliest apothecaries in the country, located in the communal dwelling house, or Gemeinhaus. By fall of 1742, they established separate hospitals for men and women — among the first, if not the first, hospitals in America. They recognized the contributions of women to treating the sick by compiling a collection of their most valuable household remedies. And by 1747, they laid out an extensive garden that included medicinal plants.

Moravian evangelists traversed the Eastern seaboard on foot and on horseback; one missionary alone covered more than 30,000 miles. En route, they recorded the habits and customs of Native Americans, including their curative practices, and they often returned to base villages like Bethlehem carrying botanical specimens for further study and propagation. They maintained meticulous notes both for themselves and for the home church in Germany.

Thanks to this attention to detail, we know that Moravians at what is now Winston-Salem, North Carolina, also established early physic gardens. Detailed garden plans show the plants cultivated, and other community records document their medicinal applications. The records demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of herbal cures employing a broad range of plants — including tropical species such as those in the genus Citrus; naturalized European herbs such as borage, caraway, and catnip; angelica, native to Scandinavia but naturalized in Europe; and marshmallow, originally from Africa.

Today, the medicinal garden of the defunct Moravian settlement of Bethabara, known as the Hortus Medicus, has been carefully restored on its original 1761 site in Historic Bethabara Park in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Gemeinhaus and the Old Apothecary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, are available for tours through Historic Bethlehem, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.