One of the first documented uses of indigenous medicine in North America was the cure in the winter of 1536 of Jacques Cartier's crew from a disease he called "Scorbut"(scurvy). This occurred during Cartier's second voyage, under the command of King François (1535–1536), at Stadaconna, now Quebec City.
Cartier's crew was cured from scurvy by ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) obtained as a decoction from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). It was prepared by boiling winter leaves and bark from an evergreen tree. In the winter, scurvy was the most prevalent disease among the Iroquois. This was due to the lack of food and vitamin C.
Although the preparation was very simple, few men were eager to try the medicine. Those who did immediately got better. The efficacy of the medicine was dramatic, quick, and according to the settlers, “miraculous”. Jacques Cartier considered the cure as a miracle and the Haudenosaunee as unknowing intermediaries of God. The author wrote:
"From all the diseases they had been suffering, they recovered health; isn't it marvelous to see a sailor who had been suffering from the pox for five years, immediately cured by this tree?" and "If all the physicians from Louvain and Montpellier had been involved with all the medicines from Alexandria, they would have done no better in a year than this tree in eight days."
Our take is that the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) were a historically powerful people who survived the most extreme winter weather conditions imaginable. They were certainly well aware of their actions, as well as their natural resources. They took pity on these men.
The Haudenosaunee referred to the tree as Annedda, or “tree of life”. The name represents the evergreen nature of coniferous trees, whose needles stay fresh and vibrant all year long. Based on collections by French explorers, the true identity of the tree of life became controversial. It is unclear whether the identity of Anneda meant one, or all of the following trees: Eastern white cedar, white spruce, black spruce, eastern white pine, red pine, balsam fir, eastern hemlock, and juniper.
After being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1873, Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau came to the Adirondack Mountains to recover. His simple presence in this region - while breathing in the cold mountain air - led to his remarkable recovery. In 1876 he and his family relocated to Saranac Lake so that he could fully devote himself to research and treatment of the highly infectious disease (which was responsible for killing one in every 7 people during the 19th century).
Dr. Trudeau believed that treatment and containment of Tuberculosis could be achieved by breathing fresh mountain air, getting plenty of sleep, eating nutritional food, and maintaining a positive attitude. In 1884, he established the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium.
The Trudeau Sanitarium brought in thousands of underprivileged people afflicted with tuberculosis. At the peak of Trudeau’s success, his Sanatorium consisted of over 50 buildings, homes, patient and staff cottages, an infirmary, a workshop, a library, a laundry, a chapel, community rooms, and its own post office.
The Trudeau Sanitorium ran for 70 years, but closed its doors in 1954, after the arrival of Penicillin, which gave way to the rise of antibiotic treatments.
It is generally accepted that the word Adirondack is derived from the Mohawk Indian word atirú:taks, literally meaning ‘tree eaters.’ The earliest recorded mention of the name (not accompanied, unfortunately, by an explanation of its origin) was in 1627 by the Dutch, who wrote:
“The most distant Nations known to the traders are the Indians from French Canada. Thereabout are the Orankokx, the Achkokx and others, both men and women."
This appears to have been a misconception. Orankokx and Achkokx more likely represent two phonetic variations of the Mohawk word atirú:taks and were misinterpreted to refer to separate Indian bands. The earliest definitive record of the word Adirondack—this time spelled Rontaks—that defines it as ‘tree eaters’ was in 1724 by the Jesuit missionary Father Joseph-François Lafitau.
According to visitadirondacks.com, the word ‘Adirondack' originated as a derogatory term given to the Algonquin tribe by neighboring Mohawk, meaning 'barkeaters.' Yet this is contradicted by Dyneley Prince in 1900, who documented a Mohawk word, ratirontaks or ‘they eat trees’, that was in common use among the Mohawks at Caughnawauga, Quebec.
If the Mohawk people commonly used the word ratirontaks, which meant 'they eat trees’ it seems fair to assume they were not using the word to refer to themselves. The story is still so unclear. What on Earth, or who on Earth, are these tree eaters that the Mohawk were referring to?
I am not an indigenous person, but as someone who has learned everything he knows from the forests in which the Haudenosaunee nations are the original inhabitants of, I have a theory. There is only one category of organisms that truly "eat" trees.
These of course, are the healing polypore mushrooms. Chaga, Reishi, Lion’s Mane, Turkey Tail, Artist Conk... The shelf-bracket mushrooms. The tree-decomposing fungi. It certainly seems plausible to this Northern Tooth mushroom I found the other day. If you ask me, it’s the abundance of these fungi that define this region - and perhaps spores in the wind give deeper meaning to Trudeau’s remarkable discovery.
Durzan D. J. (2009). Arginine, scurvy and Cartier's "tree of life". Journal of ethnobiology and ethnomedicine, 5, 5. https://doi.org/10.1186/1746-4269-5-5
"Cartier, Jacques ." Colonial America Reference Library. . Retrieved August 11, 2020 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cartier-jacques-0
Sulavik, S., 2020. Adirondack: Of Indians And Mountains, 1535-1838 - Purple Mountain Press. [online] Catskill.net. Available at:
Remarkably, Reishi mushroom has managed to establish its permanence in Chinese medicine as well as advancing its ascent within the western world, where soon it will reach new heights in its own cultural relevance.