Skip to Content

Mesoamerican Herbals

map of Oaxtepec.

This is a map of Oaxtepec, a city sixty kilometers south of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire. The rich vegetation along the river shores at the top left likely represents the city’s famous garden. According to Spanish sources, the garden covered thousands of acres, and was crossed by a beautiful river surrounded by trees, cultivated vegetables, flowers, fruits, and roses; large areas dedicated to medicinal herbs; animals of all kinds running free; colorful singing birds; and buildings made of stone for people to gather and enjoy. It was “a delectable site,” of “[unbelievable] greatness and fertility . . . one of the wonders of the new world,” having “everything that one can ask or desire,” and “the largest, most beautiful and freshest garden ever seen” (Morales 2004:371). Today we can glimpse some of the plants cultivated in gardens like this one through colonial herbals—compendia of plants produced by Indigenous informants. This section explores medicinal plants in two herbals: the Cruz-Badiano Codex and Rerum Medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus.

Oaxtepec is located at an ideal elevation, its mild weather permitting the growth of plants from both the highlands and the lowlands. Nahuas imported and cultivated plants from the entire subcontinent there. Like other gardens in the region, this lavish site served as a botanical laboratory, where herbalists experimented with plants and their medical uses. It also served as a giant pharmacy and warehouse, providing medicines and nourishment to those in need. And it functioned as a school and encyclopedia, a repository of herbal medical knowledge to be passed down through generations. In the words of the seventeenth-century historian Antonio de Solís, these gardens “had herbs for all kinds of pains and illnesses, from whose juices and ointments they created remedies of admirable efficacy learned by experience. . . . These herbs were generously delivered to the doctors that prescribed them and the patients that needed them” (Morales 2004:365).


Image Source

  • Map of Guaxtepec, 1580. Benson Latin American Collection, LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, The University of Texas at Austin. Accessed July 15, 2021. 

Further Reading

  • De Vos, Paula. “Methodological Challenges Involved in Compiling the Nahua Pharmacopeia.” Iberian Science: Reflections and Studies 55, no. 2 (2017): 210–33.
  • Morales Folguera, José Miguel. “Jardines prehispánicos de México en las Crónicas de Indias.” Archivo español de arte 77, no. 308 (2004): 351–73.
  • Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R. Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Exhibit Items