The North American “tree of life,” or “arbor vitæ,” is described in John Parkinson’s English herbal, Theatrum Botanicum (1640), as “a tall tree…similar to a cypress and covered by a dark reddish bark on the trunk[.]” Previously unknown in Europe, the tree was brought from the New World to France by French explorers and presented to the French king as the tree of life. Parkinson, however, admitted that he had no idea why.

What would earn a tree such an auspicious name?

A century earlier, in the winter of 1535–36, French explorer Jacques Cartier and his crew found themselves stranded in the icy waters of the St. Lawrence River while exploring the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Suffering from a mysterious disease that threatened to kill more than half of his crew, Captain Cartier turned to the local St. Lawrence Iroquois for help. Cartier had noticed that some of them suffered from the same affliction as his men, but unlike his men, they made full recoveries.

Cartier implored a local young man named Domagaia for the secret to his own miraculous recovery from the illness that plagued his crew. Domagaia explained that “he had taken the juice and sappe of the leaves of a certaine tree, and therewith had healed himself: For it was a singular remedie against that disease.” Domagaia sent a couple of local women to fetch about a dozen branches of the “Ameda” tree. The bark and leaves were boiled to make the decoction, which Cartier and his men were instructed to drink every other day. They were also told to put the dregs of the mixture on the legs of the sick. Within six days, Cartier’s crew was cured.

Over the centuries of surviving the harsh winters of eastern Canada, the St. Lawrence Iroquois had developed a successful treatment for a disease that commonly beset individuals living in cold climates—scurvy.

Scurvy, an acute chronic illness caused by a dietary deficiency of ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, was common among sailors because sea voyages often required long periods of time without fresh fruits and vegetables (common dietary sources of vitamin C). Without the vitamin, the human body cannot properly use the carbohydrates, fats, and protein it digests. Untreated, scurvy leads to exhaustion, anemia, bleeding and bruising, pain in the limbs (especially the legs), swelling of extremities, and in severe cases decay of gum tissue and loss of teeth. While scurvy is generally thought of as maritime disease, we now know that exposure to long periods of cold temperatures can also lead to ascorbic-acid insufficiency and cause scurvy. This is exactly what happened to Cartier’s men.

Page from the journal of Henry Walsh Mahon showing the effects of scurvy, from his time aboard HM Convict Ship Barrosa, 1841
Page from the journal of Henry Walsh Mahon showing the effects of scurvy, from his time aboard HM Convict Ship Barrosa, 1841 via Wikimedia Commons

Numerous trees have been proposed as the tree of life that saved the French explorers—the balsam fir (Abies balsamea), white spruce (Picea glauca), red spruce (Picea rubens), black spruce (Picea mariana), eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), red pine (Pinus resinosa), white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European herbals consistently describe the tree of life as a Thuja (a genus of coniferous trees) or similar to a cypress. From this we can conclude that the tree of life was indeed a coniferous tree native to the area around present-day Quebec and Montreal.

Canada is home to approximately thirty species of coniferous trees, and for the Indigenous peoples of eastern Canada, coniferous forests offered sources of food, building materials, and medicines for human survival. Thanks to their general distribution, ability to survive cold climates, and very real pharmacological properties, coniferous trees were used medicinally by all indigenous groups of eastern Canada. The tannins of coniferous trees have astringent and antiseptic properties, while their resins and essential oils have aromatic and stimulant properties. More importantly, many conifers contain high levels of vitamin C.

Today, adult scurvy is treated with 300–1,000 mg of ascorbic acid per day. Although lemons and oranges are traditionally associated with high levels of vitamin C (50 mg/100 g) the reduced ascorbic acid in 100 grams of fresh needles and shoots from many conifers exceeds or matches the vitamin C in citrus. For example, balsam fir has 270 mg, red spruce 169 mg, and white cedar 45 mg. Furthermore, as Don J. Durzan has highlighted in his scientific analysis of coniferous biofactors, in the winter when food was scarce and the temperature plummeted, the coniferous trees of life provided vital vitamins, arginine, proline, other amino acids, and antioxidants, all of which aided in the recovery from scurvy.

Cartier’s explorations in “New France” yielded no financial gain for the French crown, and there was therefore little interest in publishing first-hand accounts of his journey, which included the miraculous story of the Ameda tree. Although the tree was presented to the French king and planted in the royal gardens, the story of the tree that saved Cartier’s men was not well known for nearly a century.

Eventually, as the European colonial enterprise expanded, numerous naturalists, botanists, and historians did attempt to identity Cartier’s Ameda tree. Although Thuja occidentalis remains the consensus, other strong contenders are the white spruce and the eastern white pine, since both have names in the Mohawk language, “onnita” and “ohnehta” respectively, that sound similar to later European spelling varieties of Ameda (Anneda, Annedda, and Hanneda). Alternatively, many argue that it was the balsam fir, as it has the highest levels of vitamin C (270 mg) of any North American conifer.

Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. "Thuya occidentalis = Thuya d'Amérique." New York Public Library Digital Collections
Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “Thuya occidentalis = Thuya d’Amérique.” New York Public Library Digital Collections via Wikimedia Commons

The Scottish surgeon James Lind (1716–1794) is typically credited with solving the mystery of scurvy and discovering its cure. But as Lind explained in his 1772 A treatise of the scurvy, he was keenly aware of the therapeutic properties of “spruce beer,” which he knew to be a common drink of the Indigenous peoples of Newfoundland and because of which “they kept pretty free from the scurvy.” Lind also cited Cartier’s Ameda tree. Lind, however, saw “spruce beer” and decoctions of coniferous trees as preventative medicines. During his tenure as ship surgeon on the HMS Salisbury, Lind observed and recorded the effects of scurvy and carried out an early version of a controlled clinical trial on the men aboard. For one of the groups of afflicted sailors, Lind added orange and lemon juice to their meals. This group of men recovered and Lind’s experiment forever linked scurvy treatment with citrus, and eventually vitamin C.

While citrus fruits have become firmly associated with the treatment of scurvy, the coniferous teas prepared by the Indigenous peoples of eastern Canada were a more effective therapeutic (in both prevention and treatment), since they provided higher levels of vitamin C as well as other important biofactors. Unfortunately, we may never know for sure exactly which tree was used to make the medicinal tea that saved Cartier and his men. It is more likely that the Indigenous peoples of the region knew that many of the local coniferous trees could be used for the same medical purpose together or interchangeably. What we do know, however, is that the Indigenous knowledge of the therapeutic properties of coniferous trees not only saved the lives of early explorers and colonizers, but was also essential to the development of our understanding and treatment of scurvy.

Want to discover more of the tree of life’s fascinating history, including how this story was reconstructed through primary sources? Or how the story of the tree of life disappeared for nearly a century? Then head over to the newly launched beta version of the Plant Humanities Lab to read the full interactive visual narrative. The Plant Humanities Lab is an innovative digital space that supports the interdisciplinary study of plants from the perspectives of the arts, sciences, and humanities, in order to explore their extraordinary significance to human culture. It was developed by Dumbarton Oaks and JSTOR Labs in the context of the Plant Humanities Initiative, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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Economic Botany, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1988), pp. 177-194
Springer on behalf of New York Botanical Garden Press