When the Spaniards began to explore the New World, they came across expansive and beautiful gardens in the fabulous Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City). Records indicate that the Aztec king Montezuma cultivated magnificent gardens ten miles from the main city. Hernando Cortez, the famous conqueror of Mexico, described these gardens with images of color and beauty, pools and flowers, and aromatic herbs.
According to scholars, at the time of Spanish contact in 1519, more than two thousand species of medicinal plants were grown by the Aztecs in the imperial botanical gardens. The Aztecs were
masters of extracting painkilling drugs from plants. Some of these were given to people before executions for crimes or as sacrifices.
It is said that Montezuma’s last request before his own execution was to be granted a moment in his beloved gardens. The request was honored. Throughout the Americas, aboriginal peoples have always used herbs for healing and in spiritual rights of passage. Along with flowers, leaves, roots, and barks, medicine men used hallucinogenic mushrooms. Each tribe had its own special herbs and herbal traditions. For example, the Shoshana Indians made tea from the juniper plant, and other Native American communities used herbs for medicine, dyes, and food. These included wild blueberries, sassafras, asters, goldenrod, and wild strawberries. Many of the common fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains we use today were common herbs among these native tribes.
The use of herbs and spices in the Americas was not limited only to native peoples. In early American history, the Puritans planted herb gardens outside of their kitchen windows. Potted herbs were grown in one half of their gardens and medicinal herbs in the other. The early American pioneers also used herbs extensively, especially lovage, sage, chives, lily of the valley, peppermint, thyme, flax, pennyroyal, and chamomile.