- Museum number
'Wysauke'; known commonly as milkweed, pods at top and root cut off and drawn at side
Watercolour over graphite, touched with white (discoloured ?)
- Production date
Height: 356 millimetres
Width: 209 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- For an introduction to this group of drawings by John White and a list of abbreviations used in the Literature at the end, see curatorial comment for 1906,0509.1.1, the title page inscription to the album.
The following text is taken from K. Sloan, 'A New World: England's First View of America' (London, BM Publications, 2006), no. 37, pp. 172-3:
[NB. If you use any of the text or information below, please acknowledge the source]
Asclepias syriaca Linn. (commonly 'milkweed') is no longer found on the Outer Banks although other varieties occur locally. The pod on the left is slightly open to reveal the seeds with their silky tails of white down but the pigment has altered and now appears dull grey. The long root would not fit on the page so has been cut off and drawn separately to the right, a familiar convention of herbals. The saturation of the sheet after the Sotheby’s fire caused the sizing on the paper to pool and discolour but the other version of this drawing in the Sloane volume (see SL,5270.26r) has a stronger pen and ink outline and shows the details much more clearly. It is labelled with a slightly different Indian name, ‘Wisakon’. In fact it is now believed that wisakon is connected with the Algonquian words for ‘bitter’ and probably meant medicinal herbs in general.
Harriot did not mention this plant in his discussion of new and useful commodities in his Briefe and true report; but after his return to London John White was in contact with John Gerard whose name appears on the list of merchants of London who came forward to support the deserted colonists on 7 March 1589 (Quinn, p. 570). He was Keeper of the Physic Garden at the Royal College of Physicians and from 1577 superintendent of Lord Burghley’s gardens in London and at Theobalds. He also set up a nursery in Holborn, from which he had produced a list of plants in 1596 including ‘strange trees, herbes, rootes’. He called non-native plants ‘strangers’ and claimed that they flourished in his gardens (new plants from the New World in the late sixteenth century included sunflowers, nasturtiums, potatoes and tobacco). He had in 1587 obtained Dodoens’s herbal, which he translated and incorporated into his own vast Herball ten years later. It included a few additional New World plants such as the potato and information on the character of the sarsaparilla root provided by ‘Master John White an excellent painter who carried very many people into Virginia . . . there to inhabite’ (PH&DBQ 49). Only sixteen of the eighteen hundred illustrations in Gerard’s Herball were original and new (not woodcuts already used in other publications) and one of these, the milkweed, was based on a drawing evidently provided by John White and is labelled ‘Wisanck, siue Vincetoxicum Indianum Indian Swallow wort’. The description of its silky properties provides Gerard with an opportunity for an exegesis on its potential as clothing to cover the people of Virginia in their nakedness compared to its current use by the people of Pomeiooc and elsewhere as a kind of moss to cover ‘the secret parts of maidens that neuer tasted man’ (Quinn, p. 752).
Gerard explained that it grew in Virginia, ‘where are dwelling at this present Englishmen, if neither vntimely death by murdering, or pestilence, corrupt aire, bloodie flixes, or some other mortall sicknes hath not destroied them’, proof of his continued concern for the colony White had left on Roanoke. He knew of no ‘phisicall vertues’ of the plant; but it was not yet growing in England so it is not surprising that he was unaware of its possible uses as a diuretic and expectorant. But he was also apparently unaware of the knowledge of its healing powers as an antidote to poison conveyed clearly in White’s inscription on the present drawing. White drew the root carefully, indicating that may have been the relevant part. It is clear from Gerard’s text that it was not growing in his garden; because there were no living specimens available (only dried ones and seeds) and, because White’s drawing does not depict it, only a handful of Europeans at this time would have been aware that the living plant secrets a white sap (hence its current common name, milkweed). Knowledge of its properties as an antidote to poison therefore remained with the Indians and the person who owned the present drawing with its unique inscription.
There is a version of this drawing in the Sloane album (SL,5270.26r)
There is an 18th century watercolour copy commissioned by Sloane in the British Library Add MS 5289,228
It was used as the basis for a woodcut of 'Indian Swallow wort' in Gerard's ‘Herball’ (1597), p. 752
Lit.: LB 1(38); Quinn, pp. 444–6; ECM 50; PH&DBQ 55(a); PH 50; Rountree, p. 127; Henderson, pp. 119–20; Saunders, p. 22
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1965 Jan 30-Feb 22, NGC, Washington, John White, no.74
1965 26 Feb-14 Mar, NC Mus of Art, Raleigh, John White, no. 74
1965 17 Mar-5 Apr, NY, Pierpont Morgan Libr, John White, no. 74
1979, BM, 'Flowers in art from East and West', K8.
1984 May 1-Dec 31, BL, Raleigh & Roanoke, no.73
2007 Mar-Jun, BM, 'A New World:...', no.37
2007/8 Oct-Jan, Raleigh, North Caroline Mus of History, 'A New World:...'
2008 Mar-Jun, New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, 'A New World:...'
2008 Jul-Oct, Williamsburg, Jamestown Settlement, 'A New World:...'
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- The provenance given above refers to the moment when the album of drawings connected with John White was purchased by the Department of Manuscripts in what is now the British Library. The album was transferred to the Department of Prints and Drawings in 1906, where it was assigned new register numbers.
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number