Louis Nicolas (1634–post 1700) ordered the drawings in his manuscript Codex Canadensis according to a seventeenth-century hierarchy: first humans, then plants, animals, birds, and finally fish. This crowded page, which begins the plant section, contains eight different figures. He captioned number 3, for example, as the “three-colour herb,” number 6 as “wild garlic,” number 7 as the “Cotonaria, which bears honey, cotton, hemp, a beautiful flower, and asparagus,” and number 2 as “ounonnata, which grows roots like truffles.” “Ounonnata,” an Iroquois word, has been identified as the rhizome of Sagittaria latifolia, the broadleaf arrowhead, known in the United States as the wapato or Indian potato. In his rendition, Nicolas chose to highlight its edible tubers. Botanists have found the “Lymphata” (number 5) difficult to identify because of inaccuracies in the drawing.
Nicolas was certainly interested in flora: he illustrated eighteen different species on four pages in the Codex. In The Natural History of the New World (Histoire naturelle des Indes occidentales), he describes close to two hundred plants in all—more than any other contemporary writer in New France. Nicolas had observed all the vegetation he drew, unlike botanist Jacques-Philippe Cornut, for example, who never visited North America and in his History of Canadian Plants (Canadensium plantarum historia) (1635) relied on descriptions and specimens provided by other botanists and travellers.
This Spotlight is excerpted from Louis Nicolas: Life & Work by François-Marc Gagnon.