University of Cambridge > > Cabinet of Natural History > Putting the pieces together: Canadian ginseng and botanical expertise in the French Regency

Putting the pieces together: Canadian ginseng and botanical expertise in the French Regency

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This paper will examine the complex history of the relationship between French botanical knowledge, commerce and Royal institutions in the 1710s–1730s through the case of Canadian ginseng. Its discovery in 1717, growing in newly-colonised French Canada, was ostentatiously publicised back in the metropolis. The history of how this Canadian plant came to be attributed properties similar to those of the famous Chinese drug which was its namesake has been told several times, most recently as a story of widening separation between the interests of botanists and those of clergy. Using previously neglected archival materials, I will argue, in contrast, for a far more complex response to the new drug, centred on a reconfiguration of the relationship between state power and botanical expertise during the 1710s. These developing connections shifted the scope of botanical practice away from classical humanism and towards a new view of the distant natural world as a source of national prosperity; they also placed a new emphasis upon the botanical garden as a space of proof and demonstration. The ways in which Canadian ginseng changed as an object of knowledge can be seen to express these forming and transforming relationships between statecraft, natural knowledge and wealth.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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