Bees love thyme. So, some say, do fairies. Thyme honey tastes so delectable, in fact, that the ancients made the herb synonymous with sweetness. Its name derived from the Greek "thumus" or "courage," and thyme was often embroidered on scarves presented to knights by their ladies. To remark that a person "smelled of thyme" was the imply that he or she was top-notch, upper drawer, a real class act.
A woody perennial with narrow gray-green leaves and white, pink, or purple flowers, thyme seldom grows taller than 12 inches. But it has, as you can see, an enormous reputation.
The bustle of bees may explain why thyme stands for "activity" in the Language of Flowers. Or perhaps that definition alludes to the herb's reputation for easing depression and invigorating the feeble.
Thyme also relieves the symptoms of viral infections by expelling phlegm and encouraging perspiration. A natural antiseptic, it speeds healing of canker sores, gingivitis, and fungus problems, not to mention relieving headaches caused by muscle spasms and stomachaches caused by gas.
With a warm, resiny perfume reminscent of sunny afternoons, thyme has been used to embalm corpses. On a happier note, it can be combined with lavender for summer-scented sachets.
Finally, thyme is probably best known for its culinary virtues, being widely used to flavor meat dishes, stuffings, and soups.
The plant can be propagated easily from seed, cuttings, or divisions. It loves the sun and does best in well-drained soil, making it a good companion for lavender in the garden as well as the linen closet.
There are an amazing variety of thymes available. One catalog lists 45. Some of the most common are English, French, German, lemon, caraway, wooly, and mountain. Like chamomile, the creeping thymes will tolerate some foot traffic and make excellent edgings for stone paths.
Thyme forgivingly perfumes the shoe that treads on it. This herb, to me, epitomizes the type of person who can take "crushing" disappointments and spring back with renewed vigor. Constantly working to clean the air around it as it cleans the human body of disease, thyme is indeed an apt symbol of courage and hope. May it refresh yours!Plant plate and background from Kohler's Medizinal Pflanzen, used by permission of the Missouri Botanical Garden library.
Rosemary doesn't just stand for memories. Recent research indicates that it may keep you from losing yours! Even in ancient times, rosemary had a reputation for stimulating mental activity. Today it is being investigated as a possible treatment for senility.
Rosemary may also stand for remembrance because it "recalls" its color and scent so well. "For you," a character in The Winter's Tale comments, "there's rosemary and rue; these keep/ Seeming and savour all the winter long. . ."
The herb was originally carried to funerals simply as a protector against infection. It soon became customary, however, for mourners to drop sprigs of it onto the coffin as a promise that they would not forget the deceased. Woven into the bride's wreath at Tudor weddings, it reminded the happy couple not to forget their vows also.
It was so closely associated with marriage, in fact, that the nurse in Romeo and Juliet could ask, "Doth not rosemary and Romeo begin both with the same letter?" This may be due to its supposed empathy with Venus, the mother of romantic love (Eros). Like the herb, she was also supposed to have sprung from the sea. Unfortunately, later in Shakespeare's play, the friar has to adjure Juliet's mourners to "Dry up your tears, and stick your rosemary/ On this fair corse."
Perhaps because of its association with sacred rites, rosemary gained a reputation as a holy plant. Considered efficacious against black magic, it docorated church festivals, especially those celebrating Christ's birth. "Down with rosemary and so," writes the poet Herrick. "Down with the baies and mistletoe,/ Down with the holly, ivie all/ Wherewith ye deck the Christmas hall."
A charming tradition holds that the Virgin Mary threw her blue cloak over a rosemary bush during the flight into Egypt, transforming its formerly white flowers. For this reason, the Spanish call it romero, the pilgrim's flower, and contend that it will never presume to surpass the adult height of Christ.
An old manuscript sent to Queen Phillippa of England by her mother claims that rosemary "mighteth the boones and causeth goode and gladeth and lighteth all men that use it. The leves layde under the heade whanne a man slepes, it doth away evell spirites and suffereth not to dreeme fowle dremes ne to be afeade. But he must be out of deedely synne for it is an holy tree. Lavender and Rosemary is as woman to man and White Roose to Reede."
This association of rosemary with masculinity seems to be directly contradicted, however, by another old belief that the herb would only thrive where the woman of the house ruled the roost. I suspect that many bushes were subjected to surreptious snippings!
Meaning "dew of the sea," rosemary has also been called polar plant, compass-weed, or incensier, the latter because it sometimes took the place of more expensive incense.
The ancients burned rosemary, often along with juniper berries, not just for the pleasant smell, but as a disinfectant. Strewn along with rue in the dock at trials, rosemary protected spectators from gaol-fever.
Gerard describes the herb as "a wooddy shrub, growing oftentimes to the height of three or foure cubits, especially when it is set by a wall: it consisteth of slender brittle branches, whereon do grow very many long leaves, narrow, somewhat hard, of a quicke spicy taste and whitish underneath, and of a full greene colour above. . .among which come forth little floures of a whitish blew colour. . ."
Rosemary can be propagated by seeds, cuttings, layering, or division of roots. Those plants which I have grown from seed seemed to be stockier and more vigorous than those taken from cuttings.
Rosemary grows best in light, dryish soil with a sheltered location and full sun. It doesn't usually survive northern winters, but one variety, Arp, is hardy to Zone 6.
Hungary water, rosemary distilled in wine with sage and other spices, was used to treat paralysis, arthritis, and gout. A rosemary wash rubbed into the scalp supposedly stimulates hair growth and prevents dandruff. Rosemary tea soothes headaches, colic, colds, and nervous disorders, and disinfects sore gums or throat. It is also said to raise the blood pressure so, as with any herb, don't overdo. Once used to flavor liquors, rosemary more commonly spices meat dishes these days.
I think the ancients had the right idea when they associated goodness with this robust invigorator. "Make thee a box of the wood of rosemary," Banckes Herball advises, "and smell to it and it shall preserve thy youth." May your own goodness keep you young eternally!Plant plate and background from Kohler's Medizinal Pflanzen, used by permission of the Missouri Botanical library.
The marigold to which Shakespeare referred was not the French or African variety common in the U.S., but the flower we call calendula. In Europe, it is known as the common or pot marigold.
Other nicknames for the flower include golds, ruddes, gauchefer (because of its shield shape), Mary Gowles, oculus Christi ("eye of Christ"), sun's bride, sun's herb, and Jacke-an-apes on horse backe.
Calendulas track the sun in its course across the sky and close when it sets or is hidden by clouds. Perhaps this habit of mourning the sun's disappearance is why the marigold, despite its bright flowers, stands for grief and jealousy. Or maybe that association arose because, as Macer puts it, "Golde is bitter in savour." Also the Victorians seem to have had a prejudice against orange or yellow blooms, most of which stand, in the Language of Flowers, for something unpleasant.
Gerard describes the leaves as being "large, fat, broad. . .and full of spungeous pith. The floures. . .are beautiful, round, very large and double of a light saffron colour, or like pure gold. . ." He also advises that the longer crooked seeds are more likely to produce single blooms.
Now as then, calendula is often an ingredient in soothing lotions and salves. But the ancients also enjoyed the petals as a flavoring for soups, so much so that grocers stocked the dried flowers by the barrelsful.
Fortunately for those retailers, the calendula is very easy to grow. Its name derives from the fact that, in some parts of the world, it can be counted on to be in bloom at the "calends" ("beginning") of every month in the year. Even in my Zone 5 climate, it will thrive from April until the first snow. It seems, in fact, to do its most prolific blooming during the fall months, and will often self-sow to blithely reappear in the spring.
Superstition held that this lowly flower could reveal the name of a thief--or prevent anyone from speaking against the bearer of it.
You can eat the fresh blooms in salads--the leaves too, if you can get past the acrid smell! To dry the petals, gather them on a warm day and spread them on paper in the shade.
An infusion of marigold flowers was often used to treat fevers, especially those associated with smallpox and measles. For those, Culpepper deemed it "a little less effectual than saffron." (More than a little less expensive too!)
It was also given internally to soothe ulcers and externally for varicose veins. The juice of the leaves mixed with vinegar was applied to hot swellings, especially toothaches, bee stings, and sprains.
That juice is said to be an effective laxative also. Snuffed, it will provoke sneezing and consequently clear the head of mucous. (There must be easier ways of relieving either type of congestion!)
Finally, Turner says that "some use to make their heyre yelow wyth the floure of this herb, not beyinge content wyth the natural colour which God hath gyven them."
For all its morbid associations, the calendula is a cheerful, unpretentious light-lover. We might do well to follow its example.Plant plate from Kohler's Medizinal Pflanzen, used by permission of the Missouri Botanical Garden library.
For Valentine's Day, let's consider the bloom which has been the symbol of romantic love for centuries. A simple shifting of the letter E, after all, turns rose into Eros. The frequent poetic comparisons of females to the flower may not be altogether complimentary, though, since the rose is a notoriously thorny and temperamental plant!
This, however, only adds to "her" allure. As Spenser put it, "Sweet is the rose, but grows upon a brere. . ./ So every sweet with sowre is tempered still,/ That maketh it be coveted the more:/ For easy things that may be got at will,/ Most sorts of men doe set but little store."
The ancient Romans certainly couldn't get enough of this "difficult" Persian-born beauty. They strewed rose petals inches deep at their bacchanals, and Nero's fountains spouted rosewater. A few guests even smothered under a deluge of petals from a balcony--a literal example of the wealthy drowning in their own excess! A rose suspended over the table warned that everything said must remain secret or "sub rosa."
Knights returning from the Crusades may have introduced the gallica rose to Britain. Gallica officinalis (a.k.a. the Apothecary Rose) was the Red Rose of Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses. The White Rose of York is believed to have been either alba semi-plena or alba maxima.
In his version of those down-and-dirty conflicts, Shakespeare has Richard saying, "Let him that is a true-born gentleman/ And stands upon the honor of his birth. . ./ From off this brier pluck a white rose with me." Somerset retorts, "Let him that is no coward nor no flatterer,/ But dare maintain the party of the truth,/ Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me."
Despite this bloody stain on her reputation, the Apothecary Rose was widely respected as a healer. In his 1597 herbal, Gerard recommended grinding the petals with sugar to "strengthen the heart and take away the shaking and trembling thereof." Bancke's Herbal prescribed honey of rose for "feeble, sick, phlegmatic, melancholy, and choleric people." John Heinerman touts rose petal tea as a treatment for two modern diseases: anoerexia and bulimia.
Otto of roses was supposedly discovered in the early 1600's in a canal filled with rosewater for a Persian princess's wedding feast. The happy couple noticed an oil separating from the water. When skimmed off, this ungent proved fit for a princess. And, considering that at least a hundred thousand roses were required for a butter-thick ounce of attar, a princess was one of the few who could afford it!
Poorer folks made do with potpourri-filled sweet bags, sweet waters, pastills, and pomanders. Rosaries may originally have been strung with either rose hips or rose-petal beads.
Rosewater is still used occasionally in cakes, but, during earlier centuries, roses flavored everything from jams and wines to poultry dishes. Dainty petal sandwiches delighted guests at Victorian teas.
Despite her delicate reputation, the rose can be one tough broad! Around here, if I wade through the poison ivy and briars of an abandoned farm, I am quite likely to stumble painfully across a cabbage rose or two, blooming away in the tall weeds--even after the house and barn have long disappeared.
Besides the "cabbages" (centifolias), the categories of old roses include gallicas, damasks, portlands, albas, mosses, bourbons, hybrid perpetuals, chinas, and rugosas. Three of my favorite heirloom varieties are the striped rosa mundi (a mutation of the Apothecary Rose), wine-colored Tuscany (a.k.a. Old Velvet), and the luminous silky-pink Celsiana.
In the Victorian Language of Flowers, the meaning differed depending on the variety or color of the bloom. A burgundy rose, for example, praised "unconscious beauty," and a china rose "beauty always new." A savvy suitor would, however, never send his sweetheart a yellow rose which signalled "decrease of love," or the York & Lancaster variety which declared "war."
To the Church, the queen of flowers often represented Mary, "queen of heaven." It also stood for the creation and life symbolized by the rose windows in Gothic cathedrals. The rose has probably appeared on more coats of arms than any other emblem except the cross. In fact, it often appears with the cross, standing, perhaps, for the pain of the crucifixion and the glory of the resurrection. This flower teaches us that our most beautiful experiences may bloom from the thorny difficulties in our lives, and that we would not appreciate the joy so much without the pain which preceded it.
Perhaps T. S. Eliot had that thought in mind when he wrote, of the "Reality that is eternally underlying all things,": "All manner of things shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned Knot of the fire/ And the fire and the rose are one."
Note: Photos are by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without author's permission. The ancient roses pictured in the first photo are, proceeding from the lower left clockwise, the Apothecary Rose, alba semi-plena, Tuscany, rosa mundi, and Quartre Saisons.
We call a nettle but a nettle and the faults of fools but folly.
(Shakespeare: Coriolanus II, i)
Shakespeare's characters seem to have shared a common prejudice against the nettle, Cordelia listing it among the
"idle weeds." When, as children, my siblings and I brushed painfully up against the plant in our nitrogen-rich barnyard, we would have agreed with the assessment--plus probably throwing in a few stronger adjectives!
And all of us were wrong. The nettle is actually one of the least idle weeds in history. It was supposedly introduced into England by the macho Romans, who brought it along to help keep them warm.
The original "netel" derives from "noedl" or "needle." This may have referred to the plant's needle-like sting. But it may equally well have referred to the fact that, before flax became popular, the northern European countries used the nettle plant as the source for most of their thread.
I remember a certain Hans Christian Anderson tale about a princess and eleven swans. The swans were, as you may recall, her brothers who had been trapped by an evil spell in the birds' bodies. That spell could only be broken if the princess made each of them a coat from nettles, and didn't utter a word the whole time she was doing it. Back when I first heard the story, the unlikelihood of fashioning cloth out of those evil weeds added to the magic of the idea for me. But now I discover that it was really quite a common practice.
The poet, Campbell, commented that "In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other species of linen."
Germany and Austria, in fact, reverted to the plant during World War I when their supply of cotton ran low. They often mixed it with a small amount of ramie. Ramie, frequently used in sweaters these days, is actually a tropical member of the nettle family.
Some of you may have gotten distracted by another use that Campbell indicated. "Eat nettles?" I can almost hear you exclaim. Yes, the nettle is a very nutritious and blood-purifying spring green when cooked like spinach. You should be careful to harvest it, however, when it is only six to eight inches tall--and to wear gloves for the process! You should never eat the mature plant, since it will be gritty with crystals. The nettle was so popular as a spring vegetable in Scotland that it was often forced under glass, then combined with leeks and broccoli, cabbage, or brussel sprouts in a rice pudding.
Nettles are the only food for three types of butterflies: the Atalanta, Paphia, and the Urticae, and the favorite food of still another, the Io. Once wilted, the weeds are also good fodder for livestock. They will make your horse's coat--or your own mane--soft and glossy. I occasionally boil up a nettle tea to use as a final rinse after shampooing.
Dr. Andrew Weil prescribes freeze-dried nettle for hay fever and other allergies. This is nothing new, since the plant has long been used to treat asthma, colds, and other respiratory troubles. It is good for the kidneys and will stop internal or external bleeding. Some say that nettle will also kill worms and prevent TB. Jethro Kloss recommended it, along with sea wrack, for dieting--or "reducing," as it was called in his day.
Certain brave souls have also flayed themselves with fresh nettles to treat rheumatism. I don't think this is a good idea, however. I can testify from experience that a nettle rash will heat your skin all right, but it also hurts like crazy. The stings come from the plant's sharp little spines, each of which has a venom sac at its base filled with a type of ammonia. Fortunately, the pain usually dies away after a few minutes, unlike the "envy" or "slander" for which the nettle stands in the Language of Flowers.
Rosemary, dock, or sage leaves rubbed on the rash may help relieve it. And, strangely enough, the juice of the nettle plant is supposed to be an antidote to its own sting. Perhaps that explains an old saying which goes, "Tender-handed grasp the nettle, and it stings you for your pains. Grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains." You won't catch me trying it!
The saying does make sense, though, when you see it as an analogy for any painful problem. Try to ignore that problem, and you're liable to keep brushing smartingly up against it. Better to grasp and make something good out of it!
Note: Photo is by Robyn Klein, courtesy of Michael Moore and the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine at: http://chili.rt66.com/hrbmoore/HOMEPAGE/...
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty. . .
(Shakespeare: The Winter's Tale IV, iv)
Daffodils spring up like sudden miracles in the weeks surrounding Easter. Their sunny good looks, unsullied by the season's mud, shine in dazzling contrast to the pale and scentless winter left behind. But some of the ancients considered that fresh-faced beauty deceitful.
Socrates called narcissus "the chaplet of the infernal gods." Homer, while acknowledging the flower's loveliness, asserted that it could cause torpor, insanity, and death. Narcissus derives its title, in fact, from the Greek narkao--"to numb."
Its namesake in Greek mythology, the son of a river god, perished after he became entranced with his own reflection in the water. For that reason, narcissus represents "conceit" in the Language of Flowers. According to one unknown poet, "The delicate narcissus pines away/ In hectic langour. . ."
Anyone who has grown the popular paperwhite variety indoors will testify to its sweet and heavy, almost stupefying, scent. At close quarters, that perfume can cause headache and even nausea in sensitive people.
Fortunately, the daffodil (narcissus pseudo-narcissus) is not as overpowering as its relative and stands for "regard." Also called porillon, daffodowndilly or daffodily Affodily from the days when it was mistakenly linked with asphodel, it is a cheerful, carefree greeter of spring. One of Shakespeare's characters sang, "When Daffodils begin to peer,/ With heigh! the doxy o'er the dale/ Why then comes in the sweet o' the year."
Prospering in either sun or light shade, the flower multiplies rapidly and survives years of neglect. In fact, daffodils still faithfully return every April to the sites of many long-abandoned farms. The crystals of calcium oxide present in their leaves and bulbs protect them from assault by animals or bugs. Most varieties do require occasional division, however, to keep them at their blooming best. Spenser wrote, "Strew me the ground with daffodowndillies,/ With cowslips, and kingcups, and loved lillies."
Gerard reports that "the root of Narcissus stamped with honey and applied plaister-wise, helpeth them that are burned with fire, and joineth together sinues that are cut in sunder. Being used in manner aforesaid it helpeth the great wrenches of the ancles, the aches and pains of the joints." The grated bulbs were also employed to "draw out" boils and other abcesses and to treat hysterical conditions. But the narcissus is really too poisonous to be used for self-medication. Mrs. Grieve's Modern Herbal warns that applying the extract to open wounds can cause "staggering, numbness of the whole nervous system and paralysis of the heart."
Narcissus contains an alkaloid called narcissine which, "in warm-blooded animals acts as an emetic (incites vomiting), causing eventually collapse and death by paralysis of the central nervous system." Most people poisoned by the bulbs in the past mistook them for onions.
The official classes of narcissus include: trumpet, large-cup, small-cup, double, triandrus, cyclamineus, jonquilla, tazetta, poeticus, and species (wild) varieties. The least hardy are the tazettas, which include the paperwhites, but they can easily be forced indoors. With the exception of a few species types which are only dependable to Zone 6, most daffodils prove remarkably hardy--considering that they originated in the Mediterranean countries!
An elderly woman for whom I worked years ago would insist on calling them "lilies." I thought that an eccentric and individual quirk until I discovered that daffodils had, in the past, been commonly known as Lent Lilies. I wrote this poem, called Lent Lilies, for her.
Lilies, she calls them,
Not the white and formal funereals,
But the golds that flare on April hills,
The daring, dancing daffodils.
Death sets his flowers in stiff array,
In careful, inevitable bouquet.
"The end, the end," they croon
In hard, hypnotic tune.
The daffodils laugh, dance,
Curtsy with gypsy impudence.
"No end, no end. We've lived
And lived, and live again.
Death's the fool in any garden;
Ask any of our brothers who
Burned the night
Outside a Judean tomb.
Due to the tragedy which occurred at a high school bearing its name, the state flower of Colorado is now assoicated with violence and death. But, ironically enough, columbine derives from "columba," the Latin word for dove.
The dove, as we all know, has long been a symbol of peace, gentleness, and love. That reputation apparently transferred to the flower, with Francis Bacon referring to "columbine innocency." In European pantomime, Columbine was Harlequin's dancing sweetheart, and the Italian "columbina" a term of affection.
In the past, columbine was also known as culver, culverwort, or culverkey after "culfre," the Saxon word for pigeon. In this country, the flower's common names include meetinghouses, rock bells, wild honeysuckle, and Granny's bonnets. Only in its Latin title, aquilegia, which derives from "aquila"-- "an eagle," does columbine show a fiercer side.
The plant's long association with birds has several possible explanations. Some think the flower's circle of spurs resembles doves perched around a fountain. Others contend that those spurs look like eagle talons. But all must agree that columbine blooms, poised quiveringly atop springy stems, seem ever on the verge of taking flight.
Despite its gracefully frail appearance, aquilegia is a tough plant. The Virginian refers affectionately to wild white columbines growing among the mountain pines. Although some varieties will flourish in sun, most prefer to withdraw shyly into partial shade and a light, humus-y soil which won't hold them down. The plant's chief enemy is the leaf miner, a tiny worm which mars the lovely blue-ish foliage with winding trails.
Perhaps its appearance of insubstantiality is what caused the columbine to stand for "folly" in the Language of Flowers. A purple variety declares the giver to be "resolved to win," while a red type indicates that he/she is "anxious and trembling."
The Indians used wild columbine to relieve heart troubles and fevers, as a sedative, and as a wash for poison ivy. Braves rubbed the ground seeds into their hands as a love potion and perfume. Europeans treated sore throats with the leaves and kidney stones with the roots. A mixture of six herbs, including columbine, was reputed to destroy the pestilence "be it never so fell." Since children were sometimes accidentally poisoned by the plant, however, it is probably too dangerous for modern use as an herb.
It does make an excellent ornamental for the semi-shaded flower garden, though, being available in a wide variety of exquisite shapes and sizes. The gardener can choose from single, double, pleated, alpine, clematis-flowered, and anemone-flowered types, among others.
This May-blooming plant will now always stand as an apt symbol for the lives which "flew away" in the freshness of their youth. Years ago, C. W. McCall could almost have been forseeing the tragedy when he sang of the wild Rockies' variety, "Columbine, columbine, blue on the mountain,"--and added plaintively, "Will you miss me when I've gone away?"
Note: Photos are by author. All rights reserved.
Who are the violets now
That strew the lap of the new-come spring?
(Shakespeare: Richard II,v,ii)
The viola family includes both pansies and violets, the former most loved for their perky faces and the latter for their pretty perfume.
Our modern pansies are descendants of the wild Viola tricolor or heartsease. The long string of nicknames for this plant includes love-in-idleness, call-me-to-you, three-faces-under-a-hood, godfathers and godmothers, flower o'luce, banwort, and jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me. The smaller violas are, in fact, often still referred to as johnny-jump-ups.
The flower was called herb trinitatis because its three colors were considered a symbol of the Trinity. As many of its other names indicate, heartsease, believed to be "purple with love's wound," was often employed as a love charm too. It caused a lot of romantic mischief in A Midsummer Night's Dream, since "the juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid/ Will make a man or woman madly dote/ Upon the next live creature that it sees."
A plucked upper petal might even foretell the lovers' future! Four veins meant hope, seven, constancy in love, eight, fickleness, nine, a change of heart, and eleven, disappointment in love and an early death.
The name "pansy" is derived from the French "pensees" or "thoughts," which remains the plant's meaning in the Language of Flowers. The drooping of the pansy's head in the evening or on gray days does not mean that it is lost in contemplation, however, but rather protecting its delicate countenance from dew or rain.
Heartsease, except for a few varieties like Bowles Black, has very little scent. But that lack is made up by its relative, Viola odorata, or sweet violet. It was the favorite flower of Napoleon who, upon his banishment to Elba, promised to return with the violets. His partisans adopted the bloom as their symbol.
The violet symbolized modesty and faithfulness and, on a less happy note, the death of the young and innocent. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Laertes says of his dead sister, Ophelia, "And from her fair and unpolluted flesh/ May violets spring!" Before her untimely end, Ophelia herself seems to be mourning some loss of naivete when, after the killing of her father, Polonius, by her love, Hamlet, she laments, "I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died."
This association of the flower with death made violet as acceptable as black for mourning. If violets bloomed in the fall, a plague would surely follow. Even to dream of any flowers outside of their natural season was considered a bad omen!
A golden violet was awarded to the best bard in troubador contests. Wordsworth wrote of "A Maid whom there were none to praise/ And very few to love./ A violet by a mossy stone. . ."
Medicinally, violets have purified the blood, soothed ulcers, inflammations, and nervous headaches, and eased lung problems like asthma and bronchitis. Jethro Kloss used them, along with red clover and vervain, to treat cancer. John Heinerman considers violet syrup one of the best remedies for a sore or scratchy throat.
The leaves and blooms were occasionally added to salads. Do not consume the rhizomes, however, as they are emetic and may cause vomiting.
"Rub thy face with violets and goat's milk," an old Gaelic saying goes, "and there is not a prince in the world who will not follow thee." Considering the morbid and moody prince with whom Ophelia was burdened, that may be a mixed blessing!
Still, the duke in Twelfth Night compared the spirit of love to the sweet "sound" that breathes upon a bank of the flower. And famed gardener, Vita Sackville West, said she could almost enter into the feelings of Walter Savage Landor. That irascible writer, after tossing his cook out of a window, (presumably into a flower bed), is reputed to have exclaimed in horror, "Good God, I forgot the violets!"
Note: Photos of violets are by John Egbert, violet image by National Geographic Society, all courtesy of Michael Moore and the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine at http://chili.rt66.com/hrbmoore/HOMEPAGE/... Viola photo is by author. All rights reserved.
"My friends, we are going into a terrible danger,
and we need arms of many kinds. . .
put these around your neck,"
here he handed me a wreath of withered garlic blossoms. . .
(Bram Stoker, Dracula)
Shortly after having been delivered from bondage by Moses, the Israelites remembered nostalgically "the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick." Human nature being what it is, they had apparently forgotten that the Egyptians fed slaves garlic solely to increase their stamina!
As a result, the herb has always had a somewhat low-class reputation. Because it was also used to treat leprosy, it came to be associated with outcasts and the poor. Pariahs called "pil-garlics" had to skin their own cloves of the plant, which was widely known as poor man's treacle (or "heal-all").
Shakespeare's Hotspur delivered the ultimate insult when he said, "I would rather live/ With cheese and garlic in a windmill far/ Than feed on cates (delicacies) and have him talk to me/ In any summerhouse in Christendom." Menenius also speaks scornfully of "You that stood so much/ Upon. . .the breath of garlic-eaters!"
That sulphurous odor raised some questions about garlic's origins. According to Mohammedan tradition, it sprang up from the footprints of Satan! In a Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom begs, "And most, dear actors, eat no onions or garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath."
But, in the plant's defense, I must point out that the Egyptians also deified the plant and fed it to their soldiers to make them brave. So garlic stands for "courage" and "strength." Its name derives from the Anglo-Saxon "gar" ("a spear") and "lac" ("a plant")--in reference to the blade-like foliage. According to legend, wild sorcerer's garlic called moly prevented Ulysses from becoming a pig. The herb is also reputed to have protected many from the attentions of vampires and other members of the undead!
More seriously, because it is a natural antiseptic and antibiotic, garlic saved the lives of thousands before the age of modern medicine. It earned the nickname "Russian penicillin," perhaps because it originated in Siberia. It was also the principal ingredient in Four Thieves Vinegar, which supposedly allowed certain rogues to rob victims of the bubonic plague with impunity.
In addition, garlic thins the blood, expels worms, treats lung ailments, and combats viruses, bacteria, and yeast--besides lowering blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. Field workers have claimed that it staves off sunstroke as well.
According to superstition, garlic will prevent anyone from passing you in a race. Jockeys used to fasten it to their horses' bridles. Bald men were once called "peeled garlic." But they could remedy their bareness by rubbing the plant's crushed cloves on their scalps.
Sprays which include "the stinking rose" will kill insects and prevent fungus diseases on real roses. (One hates to think, however, what they may do to the flowers' scent!) The plant's effect on fungi is probably attributable to its high sulphur content.
That sulphur is, of course, to blame for the eater's halitosis, but it is also what makes garlic so good for you. It's also just good, period. I suspect that even the wealthy were occasionally guilty of garlic-breath!
Perhaps God presents us a challenge by giving some of the best herbs one unpleasant feature. So the nettle has its sting, the milk thistle its spines, and garlic its lingering odor. But we would be clods, indeed, to allow the bad to keep us from sampling the much greater good!
Note: Garlic image is courtesy of http://www.donskitchen.com/clipart.htm . For another article that includes hints on selecting and cooking with the herb, see Jennifer Wickes "Garlic" at the following link: http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/1518...
As Rosemary is to the Spirit, so Lavender is to the Soul. (Anonymous)
Lavender is one of my favorite fragrances. That's only appropriate, since it is known as the old maid's herb! The scent was supposed to encourage chastity.
In olden days when a woman felt faint or hysterical, she was always sent off to lie in a darkened room with a lavender-saturated handkerchief over her face. This use of the herb was documented as early as 1597 in Gerard's Herball. "The distilled water of Lavender smelt unto, or the temples and forehead bathed therewith, is a refreshing to them that have the Catalepsy, a light migram, and to them that have the falling sicknesse, and that used to swoune much."
Of course, the women prone to "swounes" in old novels were usually upper class. Poorer females didn't have time for such nervous palpitations!
Lavender has not always been a female scent, however. It was popular in the Roman baths, where it was called asarum. It derived its later name from the Latin "lavare"--"to wash," or, perhaps, from the Spanish "lavendera"--"a laundress." The variety employed was probably the French lavender stoechas which, some say, smells more like rosemary than lavender. It grew so abundantly on the Hyeres islands that the Romans called them the Stoechades. Although it seems that stoechas was originally known as French lavender and dentata as Spanish, they often get switched around these days!
Later used for strewing floors on festive occasions and in bonfires on St. John's Day, lavender stoechas was also known as sticadore and, as such, was one of the ingredients of the Four Thieves Vinegar. According to legend, this vinegar--which included a mix of antiseptic herbs like rosemary, sage, wormwood, rue, mint, and garlic--allowed certain scoundrels to rob victims of the bubonic plague with impunity.
The Greeks knew lavender as nardus or nard after a Syrian city called Naarda. It seems possible, therefore, that the spikenard with which a woman anointed Christ, could have been some form of lavender oil. (It is more likely however that it was nardostachys jatamansi.)
"Lavender spike," Gerard writes, "hath many stiffe branches of a wooddy substance. . .set with many long hoarie leaves. . .of a strong smell, and yet pleasant enough to such as do love strong savors. The floures grow at the top of the branches, spike fashion, of a blew colour."
He may have been describing lavender spica, which came to be known as "lesser lavender," since it was considered inferior to lavender vera. Hybrids produced by the crossing of vera and spica had an even less flattering appellation, "bastard lavender."
Although lavender was occasionally used to flavor food, its primary use remains to scent and to soothe. Modern aromatherapy tests have proved that the perfume does have a sedative effect. So the old custom of placing lavender sachets in the linen closet had a double benefit. The odor permeating the sheets repelled bugs and lulled insomniacs into dreamland.
It also led to the cliche "laid up in lavender" being used to describe anything placed in careful storage. That phrase eventually came to apply also to persons in hiding or goods in pawn.
Lavender stoechas not only smells like rosemary; its oil was used in much the same way, as a stimulant, an antiseptic for minor wounds, and as a rub for sprains and rheumatic or paralyzed limbs. In small amounts, lavender will also relieve flatulence. But please keep in mind that, in large doses, the oil becomes a narcotic poison.
For such a genteel herb, lavender had a somewhat equivocal reputation. In the Language of Flowers, it stands for distrust. This may derive from an old belief that poisonous snakes made their home in the plant.
Gerard too seems to have had his doubts about lavender, adding to his earlier recommendation, "But when there is abundance of humors, it is not then to be used safely. . .For by using such hot things that fill and stuffe the head, both the disease is made greater, and the sick man also brought into daunger. . ."
Of course, a hint of "daunger" only adds to a lady's allure. And this particular female is still considered to be in a class above the rest!
Photos are courtesy of Cathe Gordon. Visit her site at http://www.aheb.com/garden/lavender.html to see over thirty varieties of lavender, including white, pink, and yellow-flowered types.
One's delight in an elderberry bush overhanging the confused leafage of a hedgerow bank as a more gladdening sight than the finest cistus or fuchsia spreading itself on the softest undulating turf. . . (George Eliot, Mill in the Floss)
The elder has long been considered a magical tree, though there seems to be some confusion over whether its charms are good or evil! Piers Plowman wrote that "Judas japed (cheated) with Jewish siller,/ And sithen on an elder tree/ Hanged himselve."
We Americans, who know the plant as more of a large shrub than a tree, may find this tradition unlikely. But the Old World elder, sambucus nigra, can grow to twenty feet.
Another ancient--and accusing--chant goes, "Bour tree--Bour tree: crooked, rong/ Never straight and never strong;/ Ever bush and never tree/ Since our Lord was nailed on thee."
Elder was known as bore or pipe tree because the ancients removed the pith from its branches to make flutes. The Latin Sambucus is believed to be adapted from the Greek, Sambuca, a musical instrument.
Children also shaped the bores into pop-guns. "That's a perilous shot out of an elder gun," one of Shakespeare's characters comments. Finally, those lighting fires would puff through the hollow rods to stoke the flames. So the plant's common name derives from the Saxon "aeld" or "fire." In this country, Indians fashioned arrows, tapped maple trees, or called elk with elder pipes.
Despite the unhappy traditions associated with it, elder gained a reputation as a protector. In the 1600's William Coles reported that "the common people formerly gathered the leaves of Elder upon the last day of Aprill, which to disappoint the charms of Witches they had affixed to their Doores and Windowes." Cottagers planted elders in their dooryards for the same reason.
A coachman driving a hearse commonly carried a whip of elder, and mourners tossed the tree's green branches into the open grave to preserve the deceased's body from evil. They also planted an elder tree on the new grave, pruning it into the shape of a cross. If it bloomed, they could happily assume that their late loved one was enjoying paradise.
On Christmas Eve, the superstitious cut elder pith into discs, soaked those discs with oil, and floated them in a bowl of water--where they were set afire. By that flickering light, the fearful hoped to be able to identify all of the secret witches in the neighborhood.
Part of the belief in elder's magic must be attributed to pagan myth. According to Danish legend, the tree is inhabited by a wood nymph called the Elder Mother. In Hans Christian Anderson's story, supposedly told to a little boy with a cold who was drinking elderflower tea, "The Little Elder-Tree Mother" is benevolent.
But she wasn't always considered so understanding. Those so careless as to harvest elder's pale, fine-grained wood without asking her permission could expect to feel phantom hands grasping at them from the floors or furniture they constructed with it! The more cautious souls fortunate enough to receive her assent, however, found the wood to be easily cut and long-lasting. But a child whipped with an elder stick would, they believed, cease to grow.
It's no wonder that even wanderers gathering firewood steered clear of elder. They also avoided sleeping under the tree, since its "narcotic" odor was thought to inspire dread and dreams of death. In Cymbeline, Shakespeare compared grief itself to the "stinking elder." And, on Midsummer's Eve, there was always the danger of encountering the King of the Elves under its branches!
According to tradition, the dwarf elder, also called "the plant of the Blood of Man" supposedly sprang up on battlefields from the gore of dead Danish warriors. For this reason, it was known as danewort or dane's blood. There may actually be some truth to this belief, since elder prefers fertile soil--and blood is rich in nitrogen.
In former times, all parts of the elder were used in medicine. The famous Dutch physician, Boerhaave, had so much respect for the tree that he would always tip his hat to it. But children have died from eating the fresh root.
The root, bark, and leaves of elder contain an alkaloid and a small amount of cyanide which makes them violently purgative. So they should not be taken internally. In the past, some people did cook and eat the spring shoots like asparagus. But I suspect they first boiled off the poison, as was often done with poke.
It is safer to sample only the dried flowers and the cooked berries. The raw fruits can make you sick too, if you eat too many. Often an ingredient in pies, jellies, or chutneys, elderberries are good for bronchial troubles like asthma because they expel phlegm.
For the same reason, hot elderberry cordials, called "robs," were quite popular treatments for colds and flu. Besides getting rid of mucous, they also broke fevers by encouraging perspiration. Those knowing the tradition about Judas's hanging found it quite significant that a purplish fungus which grows on elder proved a most effective cure for throat problems! This fungus, Hirneola auricula Judae was more commonly called Judas's Ear.
Elderberries have also been used to treat both diarrhea and constipation. In the past, many rheumatism sufferers discovered cheap port to be a good cure, since it was commonly adulterated with elderberry juice.
John Heinerman reports that the Choctaw Indians mixed elderberry juice with honey and smoothed the resulting "salve" over burns and skin eruptions. For migraines, they employed the fresh fruits, mixed with hot salt, applied as a compress to the forehead.
Elder flowers treated many of the same problems as the berries did. Those blooms take on a surprisingly pleasant odor when dried. The pale-skinned belle of the past always kept a jar of elderflower water on her dressing table. This excellent concoction would bleach her complexion, soothe sunburn or headache, and quiet skin eruptions such as pimples or poxes. Like the berries, elderflower tea also treated colds, flu, sore throat, fevers, and burns. The flowers were sometimes baked into flannel cakes and muffins as well.
Elderberry juice boiled with alum made a violet color for artists, just as the roots would make black and the leaves green. That juice would also darken the hair.
Livestock seem to have the same equivocal view of the elder as people once did. Sheep and cows will eat the plant, but horses and goats avoid it. Wild birds love the berries, but those fruits are toxic to most domestic fowl. The leaves will repel insects as well as mice. A tea made from the shoots also fends off blight from fruit trees.
I'm fond of elderberry jelly and even fonder of the fact that the plant grows quite contentedly without any assistance from me. In other words, it gives without expecting anything in return. That can only make it blessed!
Note: Image of American Elder by National Geographic, Photo of Red Elder by Michael Moore, Image of Red Elder by Mary Vaux Walcott, all courtesy of the SW School of Botanical Medicine at http://chili.rt66.com/hrbmoore/HOMEPAGE/...
The English Parliament once forbade the cultivation of hops, calling it "a wicked weed." At that time, British ale was fermented malt and honey, flavored with such "bitters" as heath and ground ivy. Only German beer included hops, which the English believed to cause melancholy.
The ban didn't last long, however, and one district in England became particularly famous for production of the herb. "Everybody knows Kent," Mr. Tupman in Dickins' Pickwick Papers comments. "Apples, cherries, hops, and women."
Even for teetotalers like myself, a hops vine--with leaves up to eight inches across--makes a pretty addition to a trellis or fence. Its primary "wickedness" for me is its rude good health. A vine has been known to grow as much as six inches in a day. If not kept in check, it will run rampant through the rest of your garden, that vigor perhaps leading to the once common expression "thick as hops."
The Latin title, humulus lupulus, is thought to derive from "humus" and "lupus." The first name indicates the "earth" to which this perennial dies back each winter, and from which it lustily erupts each spring. The second, "wolf," refers to how the vine will strangle other plants as a wolf does sheep. The common name, hop, comes from the Saxon "hoppan," which means "to climb."
"The Hop doth live and flourish," Gerard explained, "by embracing and taking hold of poles, pearches, and other things upon which it climeth. It bringeth forth very long stalkes, rough and hairie; also rugged leaves broad like those of the Vine(grape). . .the floures hang downe by clusters from the tops of the branches, puffed up, set as it were with scales like little canes. . ."
There are both male and female hops plants, with only the females producing the catkins called strobiles. When no male plant is nearby, a female will still yield unseeded hops. Though smaller, these are thought to be richer in scent and flavor than the seeded variety. Hops are harvested when they are yellow-green and crisp to the touch--usually in late summer or early fall--then dried in kilns called oasts.
A yellow powder known as lupulin, found on the strobiles, gives the herb its bitter taste and medicinal value. Hops tea will improve the appetite and digestion, cleanse the blood, promote liver function, and, when applied externally, quiet skin irritations. You can make a brown dye from the leaves or eat the young shoots like asparagus.
"The floures," as Gerard pointed out, "make bread light, and the lumpe to be sooner and easilier leavened, if the meale be tempered with liquor wherein they have been boiled." Like hopeful males everywhere, he also argued for "the wholesomenesse of beere. . .for the hops rather make it a physicall drinke to keepe the body in health, than an ordinary drinke for the quenching of thirst."
Although I have my doubts about that, the herb on its own has a long reputation as a sedative and pain reliever. In his book, Of Human Bondage, Maugham speaks of the hops pickers "sleeping like tops." A pillow filled with the strobiles, if warmed, will soothe earache and toothache while lulling the sufferer to dreamland.
So, despite its brawny vigor, this plant does have a gentler side. And those colorful catkins will add an interesting and unusual touch to your August-September landscape. For the garden, however, I would recommend buying only the female version. One hops vine is hard enough to keep under control without having to worry about seedlings!
Note: Photos are by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without permission.
He who would live for aye Must eat sage in May. (Anonymous)
The musky scent of sage always makes me think of Thanksgiving. These days, the herb is generally only used to season stuffings and meat. But, by so limiting it, we may be missing something.
The ancients virtually rhapsodized over the life-extending properties of this plant. "He that would live for aye (forever)," they said, "must eat sage in May." And, "why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?" In 1699, one John Evelyn commented extravagantly, "'Tis a plant, indeed, with so many and wonderful properties as that the assiduous use of it is said to render men immortal."
Since, as far as I know, John isn't around these days, I think we will have to modify that claim. But the voices singing sage's praises have been so many and enthusiastic that maybe it's time we allowed this herb out of the kitchen!
The official name, salvia, in fact, is derived from the Latin "salver"--"to save or heal"--and the plant was sometimes called salvia salvatrix or "Sage the Saviour." The Chinese loved the health-promoting qualities of sage tea so much that they would give three times as much real tea in exchange for it.
The grandiflora (balsamic) type of sage is said to be the best for brewing. Some people like to add a bit of lemon or lime juice and honey to the cup. Hollanders, returning indoors after skating, often enjoyed a hot beverage made with sage and milk.
The most common culinary sage grows about a foot high with soft gray-green leaves and purple flowers. It prefers a warm, sheltered position in sun or partial shade. Though hardy, it often looks dead in the spring. Have patience, and it will sent out leaves from what appear to be dry twigs. Sage does eventually become quite woody, though, often sprouting only at the ends of the branches, so you may want to replant it every few years. It can be started from seeds or cuttings.
Gerard spoke of a different variety, "the leaves whereof are reddish; part of those red leaves are stripped with white, others mixed with white, greene, and red, even as Nature list to play with such plants." He calls it "painted" sage. This one is not so much seen these days, perhaps because, according to tradition, a person needed a "lucky hand" to make it flourish! It had to be propagated from cuttings, since plants started from seed would revert to the ordinary green.
You might want to plant sage near your cabbages and carrots, since it is supposed to protect them from the white cabbage butterfly and the carrot fly. Cucumbers, on the other hand, don't like this herb.
Superstition holds that the plant will thrive or wither according to its owner's fortunes, so keep yours growing strong! Sage was also sown on graves because it was thought to assuage grief.
That wasn't all it assuaged. This herb treated virtually every disease known to man. An infusion was used as a gargle for sore throat, inflamed tonsils, or canker sores, and to prevent excess saliva. The tea relieved hoarseness and coughs, lung, liver, and kidney problems, head and joint aches. It also soothed the nerves, improved the memory, and cooled fevers.
A wash of black tea and sage applied to the scalp is supposed to darken the hair and eliminate dandruff. A sage poultice will stop bleeding, cleanse sores, and relieve inflammation or itching. The herb has also been employed to halt the milk flow in nursing mothers and to end profuse sweating.
In the Language of Flowers, sage stood for "domestic virtue," flavoring ales and cheeses as well as meats. In Mill on the Floss, Eliot compares a bonnet to "a sage cheese garnished with withered lettuces." Sage leaves were often eaten in a bread-and-butter sandwich as a spring tonic.
On second thought, perhaps it is not a bad thing to associate sage with Thanksgiving. That holiday is, after all, the day when we remember to be grateful for the often over-looked and life-sustaining "domestic virtues" of home and family.
"Sage, properly prepared," wrote Sir John Hill, "will retard that rapid progress of decay that treads upon our heels so fast in the latter years of life. . .and make the lamp of life, so long as nature lets it burn, burn brightly." Who could ask more from an herb than that?
Thou waitest late, and com'st alone, When woods are bare and birds are flown, And frosts and shortening days portend The aged year is near an end.--Bryant
Depending on whom you believe, the gentian is either a cursedly difficult flower to grow--or it has been unfairly saddled with that reputation! It does seem to thrive better in the wild than at the hands of man, perhaps because many species originated in mountainous regions and prefer an uncommon combination of both sun and cool temperatures.
In one of Amy Lovell's poems, a little girl comments on her mother's rule that "never/ Must we pick any gentians--ever!/ For if we carried them away/ They'd die of homesickness that day."
The often "startling" blue of the plant's blooms, however, make it much coveted in the gardening world, where too many "blue" flowers are actually shades of purple. Most gentians also bloom late in the year, in striking contrast to the typical golds and rusts of autumn. So stubborn gardeners will keep trying to make the plant which stands for "loveliness" happy!
Poets also cannot resist this flower. D.H. Lawrence wrote moodily, "Not every man has gentians in his house/ In Soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas./ Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark/ darkening the day-time torch-like with smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom." (Pluto was the mythological god of the dead.)
Although gentian has become another word for blue, not all members of the family boast that color. The most common medicinal type, gentiana lutea, has yellow flowers, and a few South American and New Zealand varieties are red.
The gentian is named for an Illyrian king named Gentius, who reigned from 180 to 167 B.C. and discovered the plants medicinal uses. (Illyria was near present-day Bosnia.) Years later, a much-beloved monarch of Hungary named Ladislas, who was later made a saint, is supposed to have asked God to lead him to a cure for the plague. He then fired an arrow into the air and, falling, it pierced the root of a gentian plant. Culpeper agreed that "a more sure remedy cannot be found to prevent the pestilence."
As one of the bitter herbal tonics, gentian root does, in fact, improve overall health by strengthening the digestive system, plus stimulating circulation and appetite. It also purifies the blood and assists liver function, besides having an ancient reputation as an antidote for poison.
The fall-blooming varieties are said to be the easiest to grow, with two of the best for beginners being gentiana septemfida (Everyman's Gentian) and gentiana cruciata (Cross-leaf Gentian).
Emily Dickinson wrote of a little gentian who tried to be a rose, but could not bloom in the warmth of summer. "The frosts were her condition," the poet concluded. "The Tyrian would not come/ Until the North evoked it. . ." In the same way, perhaps some of us require difficult conditions to bring out our full potential!
Note: Images are by Mary Vaux Walcott and National Geographic, photos by Mimi Kamp and John Egbert, all courtesy of the SW School of Botanical Medicine at: http://chili.rt66.com/hrbmoore/HOMEPAGE/...
A barren detested vale you see it is;
The trees, though summer, yet forlorn and lean,
Overcome with moss and baleful mistletoe.
(Shakespeare--Titus Adronicus II, ii)
The mistletoe which decorates our Christmas celebrations did not always have such a merry reputation. A parasite, it grows on the branches of deciduous trees--and sometimes sucks the life out of them to maintain its own. The American variety, phoradendron, literally means "thief tree." The European type, viscum, is translated as "sticky."
Shakespeare called mistletoe "baleful" because of a belief that Christ's cross was constructed from its wood, cursing the plant to eternal dependency. In fact, it is sometimes known as herb of the cross as well as devil's fugue and mytldene. Some think its name derives from "mistl" ("different") and "tan" ("twig"). Others believe that the first part of the name comes rather from the German "mist" ("dung"), since the plant was supposed to be propagated by bird droppings.
"Mist" was also the Dutch word for birdlime. The latter was a sticky substance made from mistletoe resin and smeared on branches to catch birds. That might be considered the rankest injustice, since birds--especially the missel thrush--are the primary distributors of the plant.
According to Scandanavian myth, Balder, god of light, suffered similar ingratitude from mistletoe. When he had a dream foretelling his death, his mother, Frigga, goddess of love, became alarmed. She won promises from all the elements, plants, and animals that they would not harm her son.
Balder's enemy, Loki, found a loophole, however. Frigga had forgotten the mistletoe, which does not sprout from fire, water, air, or earth. So Loki tricked Balder's blind brother, Hoder, god of darkness, into shooting a mistletoe arrow which brought down the god of light.
Although each of the elements tried to resurrect Balder, only his mother's tears succeeded in bringing him back to life. Those drops supposedly turned into white berries on the mistletoe. Overjoyed by her son's return, Frigga "reformed" the plant, and began the habit of kissing everyone who passed beneath it.
In Celtic tradition, mistletoe was one of the most magical of plants, known as All-Heal. The Druids threw a December celebration five days after a full moon, at which time they flocked to an oak-woods to gather the "sacred" herb. The mistletoe growing there was probably rare enough to seem enchanted, since the plant prefers softer-barked hosts like apple, ash, hawthorn, or linden trees.
Armed with a golden knife, the Arch-Druid climbed an oak to harvest the mistletoe, while his followers danced around the base of the tree, singing, "Hey derry down, down, down derry!" The plant was then divided amongst those present, who hung it over their doorways for protection during the new year. Mistletoe's lofty perch probably explains its meaning--"I surmount difficulties"--in the language of flowers.
The free-loading plant supposedly strengthened magic, prevented babies from being snatched by bad fairies, speeded healing, and bestowed good dreams. Swedes wore rings and knives fashioned from its wood to ward off sickness. Germans believed that a sprig carried into an old house would force the ghosts residing there to appear and answer questions. Enemies meeting each other under the mistletoe were required to throw down their arms, embrace, and declare a truce for a day.
In modern times it is usually friends and lovers who come together there. Every man who claims a kiss must present a berry to the lady as payment. When all the berries are gone, no more kisses are allowed!
The Europeans used mistletoe to treat convulsions, delirium, hysteria, neuralgia, and heart conditions. American Indians employed their variety as an external compress for headaches, and as a cure for high blood pressure, lung problems, epilepsy, and vomiting. Although, in the proper doses, mistletoe does numb the nerves responsible for convulsions, it will actually cause those spasms itself if over-used. In fact, the "berries" included with mistletoe these days are often fake, to prevent such poisonings.
The plant which was transformed from a symbol of hatred to a symbol of love seems an apt tribute for the season. The One whose birth we celebrate succeeded, after all, in transforming the cross from a symbol of death to a symbol of life!
Note: Image by National Geographic, courtesy of the SW School of Botanical Medicine at: http://chili.rt66.com/hrbmoore/HOMEPAGE/...
For want and famine they were solitary; fleeing into the wilderness in former times desolate and waste. Who cut up mallows by the bushes, and juniper roots for their meat.--Job 30:3-4
According to mythology, mallows were the first gift sent to earth by the gods to prove that they had man's best interests at heart.
These flowers--which include hollyhock, hibiscus, and malva plus the less well-known abelmoschus, callirhoe, lavatera, and sidalcea--are, indeed, an extravagant present. Although most are big and beautiful, they have easy-going temperaments.
The majority of mallows are found in tropical climates, but the ones that do survive here in Zone 5 have proven quite adaptable. They self-sow prolifically, and can become a nuisance. Shakespeare, in fact, mentions mallows in the same breath with such weeds as nettles and docks. Their flattish, disc-shaped seed pods are commonly called "cheeses."
The wild marshmallow is the ancestor of the hollyhocks. Its roots are, as Culpeper put it, "full of a slimy juice, which, being laid in water, will thicken, as if it were jelly." In the early 19th century, French and German candymakers whipped, sweetened, and molded that sap to create the familiar confections named for the plant.
There is, of course, no real marshmallow root in marshmallows these days. Gelatin has replaced it. But the plant has more to offer than candy.
The ancient Romans and Egyptians boiled, fried, and ate the roots as vegetables. (Culpeper recommends cooking them with parsley or fennel roots.) Uncooked, they were the teething rings of olden days, since they soothed a baby's gums as he gnawed. Marshmallow also relieves colds, ulcers, and kidneystones, as well as soothing all kinds of inflammations.
In the Language of Flowers, mallow stands for the "mildness" which is one of the clan's biggest assets. The family name, Malvaceae, derives from "malake" or "soft." Althea comes from the Greek "altho," which means "to cure."
Because they are "good" plants, mallows are also supposed to repel witches and break up the "wicked gatherings that be engendered in a man's body." Hollyhock actually derives from "holi" ("holy") and "hoc" ("mallow"), and stands for "ambition" or "fecundity." It may, in fact, have been brought to Europe from the Holy Land, as so many flowers were, after the Crusades.
Any daring souls who want to tread hot coals might be well advised to paint their soles first with a mixture of egg white and mallow sap. It's supposed to protect the skin from fire!
The hollyhock is a mainstay of cottage gardens. One of Maugham's characters thinks wistfully of "the dear flowers which bloom in all men's hearts, of the hollyhock and the red and white rose which is called York and Lancaster, and of love-in-a-mist and Sweet William, and honeysuckle, and larkspur, and London Pride. . ." In this country, however, hollyhocks often served as a pretty screen for outhouses!
The natives of India grow hibiscus canabinis, also known as Mahl-stick, for its fiber. From the calyxes of hibiscus sabdariffa, otherwise called roselle or Red Sorrel, they make exotic jellies and tarts. And they shine their footwear with the blooms of hibiscus rosa-sinensis, alias Shoe-flower. In the Language of Flowers, the bold hibiscus stands, strangely enough, for "delicate beauty."
The abelmoschus, or musk mallow, is popular in India too. Its Latin name derives from the Arabic habb-ul-mushk ("grain of musk"), and its amber seeds scent perfumes and flavor coffee. The finger-sized fruit of abelmoschus esculentus, better known as bandicoy, bendy, or bindy is eaten as an Oriental vegetable. In this country, we call it okra or gumbo. It was apparently brought to the Americas by slaves from West Africa, who knew it as nkruma.
Although many of the tropical hibiscuses are too tender for Zone 5, they overwinter surprisingly well indoors, if they are cut back to a reasonable size first. Like other woody tropicals such as fuchsia and lantana, they will often droop for a few days and may drop most of their leaves. But, being reasonable sorts, if given a sufficiently bright position, they will docilely adapt to what they cannot change.
In other words, despite their often towering height and showy flowers, the mallows are not vain enough to be the gift of temperamental mythological deities. Rather, they must come from the God who has proven his love for man to be enormous!
Note: Photos are by author. All rights reserved.
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, Whiles like a puffed and reckless libertine Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads. . . (Hamlet I, iii)
Primroses are, strangely enough, associated with both virgins and playboys. But, then, the flower stands for inconstancy! That could be due to the fact that some primroses will soothe the skin while others, like primula obconia, may cause an eczema-like rash when touched.
The primrose derives its name from the Old English primerole, which was probably a corruption of "primavera" or "first spring flower." Shakespeare calls it "the firstborn child of Ver (spring)", and the poet, Robert Herrick, dubs it "the sweet Infanta of the year."
Herrick's further description is not so flattering: "yellow-green and sickly too." The original primrose does seem to have been a wan flower, since the phrase "pale as a primrose" pops up often in old literature, usually in reference to fair young women. The flower is compared by Dobell to "a maiden looking forth/ From the window of a tower."
The drooping heroines popular in those days do not seem to have minded the comparison, however. In fact, they used water distilled from primrose and cucumber to bleach their milky complexions even whiter.
The original wild primroses were the cowslip and oxslip. The plant we now call auricula was the mountain cowslip or "bear's ears." Wild primroses have been known by a host of nicknames, including paigle, herb Peter, key flower, buckles, Mayflower, fairy cups, butter rose, or Lent rose.
In a Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare writes of cowslips, "In their gold coats spots you see;/ These be rubies, fairy favours." Primroses were so associated with the "little people" that they were often considered the keys to fairyland. In 1780, John Logan wrote of the "primrose path along" which a milkmaid "sees the fairies with their queen/ Trip hand-in-hand the circled green. . ."
In fact, country folk often strewed their doorsteps with primroses on the evening before May Day to placate the pixies. Those gathering the flowerheads kept careful count, since bringing less than thirteen indoors would curse the neighborhood hens into producing only that many eggs in a year!
Primrose blooms are known as "peeps" and come in two different varieties. In the "pin-eyed," only the stigma is obvious at the center. In the "thrum-eyed," five anthers in a ring are more prominent.
A child could make a "tostie" by hanging the flower clusters across a string, then pulling it tight to force the blooms into a ball. The ancients ate primroses regularly as well: the leaves in salads and stuffings, and the flowers candied, pickled, or flavoring pottages, puddings, pies, teas, and spirits.
Cowslip wine, since it was slightly narcotic, had a reputation for banishing care. "For the future," Pope once wrote, "I'll drown all high thoughts in the Lethe (oblivion) of Cowslip Wine."
Culpeper commented, "Of the leaves of Primroses is made as fine a salve to heal wounds as any that I know." Primrose was also employed as a sedative and as a remedy for arthritis and gout.
On the darker side, the goddess Bertha is supposed to have enticed unwary children into her palace with primroses. And Webster defines the "primrose path" as that of pleasure and self-indulgence. Even more ominously, it is also described as "a course that seems easy but that leads to disaster." A character in Macbeth speaks of the "professions that go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire."
People craving a life of ease these days are trying to find their own entrance to the primrose path. They want, like the poet, to be lulled into forgetfulness of the things that are really important. But the Lethe he refers to was a river in Hades, the home of the dead in Greek mythology. As Ophelia knew, the "steep and thorny" road may be harder, but its destination is much to be preferred. Perhaps those primroses which sting rather than lull are doing us a favor after all!
Note: Cowslip photo is by Tom Clothier at http://www.anet.com/~manytimes/index.htm
Let the sky rain potatoes.
Like the tomato to which it is related, the potato initially met with distrust and suspicion. Although it had been cultivated in Peru by the Incas for thousands of years, it was not introduced into Europe until the 1500's.
Because the tubers grow underground, the conquistadors who took them home to Spain called them truffles. Those tubers are not roots, but "lumpy" stems in which the plant hoards its starch supply.
Since the potato is a member of the deadly nightshade family, its leaves and berries do, in fact, possess some of the narcotic and poisonous characteristics common to the clan. But, as long as the tubers are not exposed to light for any length of time, they remain quite innocuous. Still, the very fact that they grow under the earth made them seem unclean, somehow unholy! At one time, they were even believed to cause leprosy.
The potato, called "papa" by the Incas, probably received its later name because it was confused with the sweet potato, an unrelated plant known as "batatas".
The potato was so important to the Incas that they calculated their units of time by how long it took a potato to cook. They often freeze-dried the tubers to make a flour called "chuno" or brewed them into a beer called "chica."
In the Old World, however, the potato remained for some time a delicacy for the rich--and was even considered an aphrodisiac! That is probably why Shakespeare's Falstaff adjured the sky to rain the vegetable. The vegetable was still such a novelty when Gerard published his herbal in 1597 that the frontispiece of the book pictured him holding a spray of the plant.
It didn't reach Ireland until 1663, but the peasants on that island adopted it wholeheartedly. Due to the constant wars there, they often saw the rest of their crops ravaged by soldiers. But the underground tubers, frequently overlooked by the raiders, saved many a longsuffering family from starvation. An old Irish saying asserts that "only two things in this world are too serious to be jested on--potatoes and matrimony." Ireland became too dependent on the potato, however--so much so that when a blight devastated the crop from 1845 to 1848, a million people starved. Another desperate million fled the country for America.
The potato, which stands for "benevolence" in the Language of Flowers, had become a staple there as well. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had introduced what would seem to us a very modern dish--"pomme-frites" or French fries--in the 1700's. Today we eat approximately 120 pounds of potatoes per person per year.
Fortunately the vegetable is quite nutritious, being composed of 80 percent water, no fat, and a significant enough dose of Vitamin C to prevent scurvy in earlier times. A large percentage of a potato's nutrients and most of the fiber, however, are in the skin--and are lost when the vegetable is peeled. So it is best to leave the skin on when possible.
But do be careful to pare away any green patches. Those show up in tubers which have grown too near the soil surface, and indicate the presence of a poison called solanine. Although that toxin is supposed to be dissipated by cooking--and I've never heard of it actually killing anyone--we should probably cut it out, just in case.
The potato's potassium may keep you from dying after a stroke, and its serotonin-producing tryptophan will improve your mood. That makes the vegetable a real "comfort food!"
Applied to boils, sprains, bruises, or rheumatic limbs, grated raw potato, sometimes mixed with cabbage, is supposed to "draw out" any pus, heat, or pain. More suspect, perhaps, is an old belief that a peeled, raw tuber simply carried in the pocket would cure rheumatism or a toothache.
You might want to try it as a stain remover or knife cleaner, however. When journeying west by wagon train, pioneer women would often take along rose cuttings with the stems stuck in raw potatoes to keep them moist. A half of a spud with a design carved into it also makes a cheap printing block for children.
The once-scorned potato must now pay the price of popularity. Fortunately, it endures being boiled, baked, fried, mashed, sliced, diced--even riced--with placid good humor and unfailing good taste!
Considering that tomato, pepper, eggplant, and petunia also all belong to the "wicked" family named Solanum, perhaps we should hereby resolve to never judge anyone or anything by his/her/its relatives. While we're at it, we can promise to never reject the new or foreign until we've tried it!
Note: Photos are by J. R. Manhart and Hugh Wilson, courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Library at: http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/ftc/dft/i...
You are a tulip seen today, But, dearest, of so short a stay That where you grew scarce man can say.--Robert Herrick
Tulips are best known for the "mania" they inspired when they first hit Europe in the early 1600's. At the height of the frenzy, a single bulb of the most coveted "flamed" or "broken color" varieties could sell for the price of a house. In fact, the trade became so inflated and irrational that the bulbs were sold by the ounce, and often considered much too valuable to plant!
The tulip gained popularity much earlier in the Ottoman Empire, being grown there as early as 1000 AD. In fact, the flower is supposed to derive its name from the Turkish "thoulypen" ("turban"), and was sometimes known as Dalmation or Turk's Cap.
According to Persian legend, the tulip had its origins in the blood shed by a lover, and a red variety is still supposed to declare love to the recipient. Probably because of its later notoriety, the tulip itself stands for "fame," "luck," or "the perfect lover." A variegated bloom praises the recipient's "beautiful eyes," while a yellow type represents "hopeless love."
Writing in 1597, Gerard called the Dalmation Cap "a strange and forrein floure. . .with which all studious and painefull Herbarists desire to be better acquainted, because of that excellent diversitie of most brave floures which it beareth."
A Flemish ambassador to Constantinople named Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq originally brought some tulip bulbs back to Vienna with him in 1554. When the imperial gardener at Vienna, Carolus Clusius, moved to the Netherlands in 1593 to become head botanist at Leiden's Hortus, he took some of the bulbs along.
Although Clusius simply wanted to discover the tulip's medicinal value, others saw a potential money-maker in the novel blooms. When Clusius refused to sell any, the unscrupulous businessmen stole them.
Since only the wealthy could afford the rare flower, it quickly became a status symbol. One of the most coveted was the white and maroon "flamed" Semper Augustus, which routinely sold for thousands of guilders.
The broken stripes which made some tulips so unusual were actually caused by a virus. The only one of the original virused varieties known to be available today is the strawberry-and-cream Zomerschoon, which is supposed to date back to 1620.
The mania reached its peak between 1634 and 1637. By then, both rich men and poor were bidding on contracts for bulbs which hadn't even bloomed yet. This was known, scornfully, as "wind trading," and the tulip was beginning to be known as the "Fool's Cap!" Then, much like the overheated stock market of 1929, the boom crashed as abruptly as it had begun.
Many went bankrupt, and some could not even bear the sight of the flower thereafter. Evrard Forstius, a professor of botany at Leiden, is reported to have thrashed with his walking stick any tulip that he chanced to see!
The flowers are hard to ignore. In a poem called "Tulips," Sylvia Plath described them as "excitable." She added, "Before they came the air was calm enough/ Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss./ Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise."
The Dutch eventually came to terms with the flamboyant alien flower which had been both a blessing and a bane to them--and found a more enduring way to make a profit from it! Holland remains the main producer and exporter of tulips to this day. In fact, during World War II, many Dutch citizens survived by eating the bulbs.
The modern stiffly-upright varieties are said to be a far cry from their floppier forbears. Amy Lowell speaks of them "Marshalled like soldiers. . ./ Forward they come, with flaunting colors spread,/ With torches burning, stepping out in time/ To some quick unheard march. . ."
Today, there are at least 16 different classes of tulips, divided into three bloom periods: early, mid-season, and late. Unlike other more persistent spring flowers, most tulips will only flourish for a year or two. The exceptions to that rule are the species, Greiggi, Kaufmanniana, Fosteriana, and Darwin types, which can truly be called "perennial."
Although natives of Afghanistan sometimes eat tulipa montana for "strength," the flower never has achieved much of a medicinal reputation. But, then, it doesn't need one! Though now inexpensive enough to be purchased by us "peasants," the tulip's evanescent, glowing goblets of color will assure that it is cherished for generations to come.
Note: Semper Augustus image is courtesy of the U.S. Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center at http://www.bulb.com
Simple and fresh and fair from winter's close emerging As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics had ever been, Forth from its sunny nook of shelter'd grass--innocent, golden, calm as the dawn, The spring's first dandelion shows its trustful face.--Walt Whitman
G. K. Chesterton called it a "strange and staggering heresy" that humans deserve even the dandelion, that most common and cheerful of flowers. His point was that we have all been given much more than we could rightfully expect.
He might well have added that the dandelion itself is much more of a blessing than it appears to be. This "weed" which we gardeners so assiduously yank out of our vegetable plots is actually better for us than most of the vegetables!
"The hearbe which is commonly called Dandelion," Gerard wrote, "doth send forth from the root long leaves deeply cut and gashed in the edges. . .upon every stalk standeth a floure. . .double and thicke set together, of colour yellow. . .which is turned into a round downy blowball that is carried away with the wind. . ."
A "rustic oracle" in the Language of Flowers, the dandelion derives its name from a corruption of Dent de lion or "tooth of the lion." This refers to the jagged leaves rather than to the more mane-like flowers.
Taraxacum, the official name, comes from the Greek taraxos ("disorder") and akos ("remedy"). Ancient herbalists called the weed Herba Taraxacon or Herba Urinaria--the latter because the plant is a diuretic. The more direct common people simply called it Piss-a-bed! The Irish knew the plant as heart-fever-grass, since it also relieves heartburn.
Children have dubbed the dandelion "swine's snout," since the closed-up bloom resembles that shape, or "priest's crown" for the bald head which remains after the seeds have flown. They also knew it as "blowball" or "telltime," since the number of puffs necessary to dispatch all the seeds was supposed to indicate the time of day. According to tradition, every puff also sends good thoughts floating towards a loved one.
The dandelion has even more uses than names. The young leaves and crown can be eaten raw (in spring salads or bread and butter sandwiches) or steamed like spinach. My mother serves the cooked leaves with vinegar and chopped boiled egg.
The roots are also edible, prepared like parsnips, or roasted and ground to make a java-like beverage. We have also found the flowerheads delectable when dipped in batter and fried. Little old ladies once favored a sherry-like wine fermented from those blossoms. Working men of old preferred herb beers brewed from the greens of dandelion, nettle, and dock.
Finally, completing its reputation for abundance, this humble plant has treated just about every physical disorder on record. It stimulates the kidneys, relieves both constipation and diarrhea, cleanses the blood, improves circulation, whets the appetite, relieves indigestion, eases upper respiratory infections, and betters liver and gallbladder function.
The juice may cure warts in addition to bleaching liverspots and freckles. Dandelion is also high in insulin, protein, calcium, iron, riboflavin, niacin, and Vitamins A, B, and C.
It's no wonder that Culpeper couldn't resist adding a postscript to his description of the plant. "You see here what virtues this common herb hath, and that is the reason the French and Dutch so often eat them in the spring; and now if you look a little farther, you may plainly see without a pair of spectacles, that foreign physicians are not so selfish as ours are, but more communicative of the virtues of plants to people."
Dreaming of dandelions is supposed to be bad luck. But Matthiolus reports an old superstition that a person who rubs himself with the flower will be welcome everywhere. It is too bad that the dandelion itself is not always so welcome, because such a generous weed is, indeed, a gift of grace.
Note: Second illustration is by National Geographic, courtesy of the SW School of Botanical Medicine at: http://chili.rt66.com/hrbmoore/HOMEPAGE/...
That well by reason men calle it maie The daisie, or else the eie of the daie.--Chaucer
The daisy is probably best known for the "loves me, loves me not" ditty which children chant as they pick off the petals. The superstition that the flower could discern affections was popularized in the early 1800's by Goethe's play, in which the naive Marguerite tries to determine the devil-assisted Faust's feelings for her.
Perhaps that is why the daisy is sometimes also known as marguerite, and still stands for "innocence." Or that nickname along with another, "fair maids of France," may be traced to an earlier Margaret--of Anjou. That 15-year-old princess chose a spray of daisies as her motif when she wed King Henry VI of England in 1445.
In the days of chivalry, a suitor often wore a daisy, and the courted maiden would don a garland of the flowers to indicate her answer. In Hamlet, Ophelia gives the queen a daisy, purportedly to reprove the royal female's "light and fickle love which ought not to expect constancy in a husband."
According to Celtic legend, the white blooms spring from the spirits of children who died at birth. And the weaving of daisy chains has always been a popular pastime with the younger set. So the flower came to stand for the innocence of the most Holy Child.
In much old literature, however, the daisy indicated is the European bellis perennis rather than the oxeye daisy (chrysanthemum leucanthemum) which is more common here in the States. But the pristine oxeye seems a better symbol for purity than the pinkish bellis. In the Rape of Lucerne, Shakespeare writes, "Without the bed her other faire hand was/ On the green coverlet; whose perfect white/ Showed like an April daisy in the grass. . ."
In this country, the oxeye daisy blooms in late May and June. Its official name derives from the Greek "chrysos" ("gold"), "anthemum" ("flower"), and "leuc" ("white"). The common name, on the other hand, comes from the Anglo-Saxon "daeges-eage" or "day's eye."
The flower has a host of other nicknames, including bruisewort, goldens, gowan, maudlinwort, dun daisy, moon penny, Balder's brow, Dutch morgan, poverty weed, dog blow, and priest's collar. Dun daisy derives from the flower's association with the Anglo-Saxon thunder god, moon penny from its supposed link with the goddess Artemis, and Balder's brow from its connection with the Teutonic deity of peace and light. Later, it was renamed maudelyn or maudlin in affectionate reference to St. Mary Magdalen.
The daisy has never been popular with farmers, who consider it a pernicious weed. The Scots reportedly knew it as "gool" and hired "gool-riders" to root it out of their grain fields. It did not even make good forage, since cows and pigs dislike the plant's bitter flavor.
Despite that acridity, the leaves have been used as a salad herb, even though they were believed to stunt growth. The fairy, Milkah, after stealing a royal human child, Albion, is supposed to have fed him daisy roots to keep him fairy-size!
In reality, the daisy is an effective herb. It was used in salves to treat wounds, swellings, or ulcers. According to John Heinerman, a decoction made from the flowers is good for "inner burstings" like hernias--or even appendicitis if no other medical care is available.
A tea made from the flowers will also relieve coughs and asthma, calm the nerves, and, as a compress, soothe skin eruptions or tired eyes. Daisy is a very old treatment for jaundice and other liver problems, and was once prescribed for the night-sweats of tuberculosis. Mixed with livestock bedding or hung from the rafters, dried daisy is supposed to repel flies.
It will always be a draw to romantics, however. We still wistfully associate it with the kind of faithful love portrayed in the song which promises, "I'll give you a daisy a day, dear. . .I'll love you until the rivers run still, and the four winds we know blow away."
Note: Daisy photos are by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without permission. Image is by National Geographic, courtesy of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine at: http://chili.rt66.com/hrbmoore/HOMEPAGE/...
(The nermit gathers) The yarrow, wherewithall he stops the wound-made gore.--Drayton
War is almost as old as history, and yarrow is almost as old as war. For centuries, prudent soldiers carried the herb to staunch battle wounds. Officially known as achillea millefolium, it was named for Achilles. One of the military heroes in Homer's Iliad, Achilles learned the plant's secrets from a centaur named Chiron.
"Millefolium," on the other hand, means "thousand-leaf," a reference to the ferny foliage. Mattioli describes those leaves as being "like the wispy feathers of young birds." The flowers, writes Mrs. Grieve, are "white or pale lilac, being like minute daisies, in flattened. . .heads."
As a result of its popularity with fighting men, the herb was also called herba militaris, knight's milfoil, bloodwort, and staunchgrass--and stands for "war" in the Language of Flowers. The common name, yarrow, derives either from the Anglo-Saxon "gearwe" or the Dutch "yerw."
Although most famous for its ability to stop bleeding--it speeds clotting--yarrow was occasionally twirled inside the nostrils to start bleeding as well. A nosebleed was once considered a good cure for headache, or a promise of success in love. A hopeful old chant runs "Yarroway, yarroway, bear a white blow (flower),/ If my love love me, my nose will bleed now."
In an old Scottish raum (rhyme?), a poet conjures up his beloved's image with yarrow:
I rose early in the morning yesterday
I plucked yarrow for the horoscope of thy tale
In the hope that I might see the desire of my heart
Ochone there was seen her back towards me.
The herb's supposed "insight" made it popular with soothsayers and witches as well as lovers--so that it was also known as devil's nettle. In ancient China, 50 dried and stripped yarrow stalks were used as an oracle: "the medium by which deities were consulted" (Webster). A person holding the herb over his/her eyes was supposed to be able to see into the Other World.
Witches believed that sprigs of yarrow, known as Cappeen d' Yarray, in their caps would allow them to fly. And an old incantation ran, "There's a crying at my window and a hand upon my door,/ And a stir among the yarrow that's fading on the floor. . ." On the principle, perhaps, that it takes fire to fight fire, the common people believed that yarrow would also protect them from evil.
Although its powers are not supernatural, the herb does have an amazing ability to cleanse and heal wounds. In earlier times, it was often "stamped with swine's grease" to make ointment. John Heinerman tells a more modern story of a teen on a hiking trip who accidentally stabbed himself in the leg with a piece of sharp firewood. Since the camping party did not have adequate first-aid equipment with them, they crushed yarrow and taped it over the wound. When the boy saw a doctor a couple days later, the medic could find no trace of the original gash.
Yarrow also aids other herbs growing close to it, increasing their health and essential oils, and attracting beneficial insects. Ironically enough, the only plant it doesn't help is itself. Over several years, a build-up of its own toxins in the soil will hinder the herb's growth. Pregnant women should avoid yarrow, since large doses may cause abortion.
Besides wounds and sores, yarrow has been used to treat a multitude of other problems, including eruptive diseases like measles or poxes. Jethro Kloss wrote that, "if taken freely at the beginning of a cold, with other simple remedies, it will break it up in 24 hours." That is probably attributable to the herb's competence at cooling fevers, increasing circulation, soothing aching muscles, and healing mucous membranes.
John Heinerman touts yarrow's "great ability to reduce tissue and joint inflammation in everything from wounds and edema to gout and arthritis." So it will make a soothing bath for sore muscles or aching joints, and was sometimes chewed to dull toothache pain. It also stops internal hemmorrhages--such as bleeding in the lungs and ulcers--and relieves digestive problems.
Brewers flavored beer with this "field hop," perhaps because it had a reputation for dispelling melancholy! It was also added to snuff, winning it another nickname: "old man's pepper." The flavor, however, is supposed to be more similar to nutmeg and cinnamon, for which it sometimes served as a bitter substitute.
Yarrow reminds me of the strong-silent male who is willing to protect and help everybody else, but never mentions his own problems. Salt of the earth, in other words, but he needs dug out of his rut occasionally--for his own good!
Note: First photo is by Mimi Kamp and image by National Geographic, both courtesy of the SW School of Botanical Medicine at: http://chili.rt66.com/hrbmoore/HOMEPAGE/... Second photo is by James Manhart, courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Library at: http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/ftc/dft
The Indian weed, withered quite;
Green at morn, cut down at night;
Shows thy decay: all flesh is hay
This think, then drink Tobacco.
Anonymous, English Ballad
As a Sunday-School child, I was taught to chant, "Tobacco is a nasty weed, and from the devil it doth proceed. It robs your pockets, stinks your clothes, and makes a smokestack out of your nose." This early, if somewhat primitive, version of the "just-say-no" program must have had the desired effect, since I remain a non-smoker!
I suspect, however, that my parents, also non-smokers, deserve most of the credit for that. My grandmother was so averse to tobacco that she would even weed the ornamental type out of flower seed mixes.
Not being inclined to blame plants for the strange uses that people make of them, I enjoy growing the decorative varieties of nicotiana myself. One large, white-flowered specimen returns every year to the sheltered corner southeast of our front porch steps. In July and August, when the windows are open, its jasmine-like scent sweetens our long summer evenings. In her poem, "There at Dusk I Found You," Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote of the "dumb white nicotine" which "wakes and utters her fragrance" in a garden sleeping.
Having thus discovered that even this plant has its benefits as well as its drawbacks, I am reluctant to describe it as "nasty." Besides, whether or not we like the fact, American history--like a smoker's clothes--is permeated with the smell of tobacco.
It is an entirely New World herb, being unknown in Europe before Columbus's expeditions. Native Americans had had long exposure to the plant, however. The oldest known image of a person smoking decorates a piece of Mayan pottery which dates to between 600 and 1,000 AD.
Although the "best" variety, Nicotiana tabacum, was grown in South and Central America, North American Indians had their own types. Those in the east preferred Nicotiana rustica, which later became known as Turkish tobacco. Tribes near the Missouri and Columbiana Rivers grew Nicotiana quadrivalvis, and the western-most harvested Nicotiana attenuata, otherwise known as Coyote Tobacco. After its introduction to Europe, tobacco was commonly known there as Indian Weed or Indian Drug. Native Americans believed that "drinking smoke" warmed and invigorated the body.
When Columbus landed in the West Indies in 1492, he recorded in his journal that the inhabitants made him gifts of "fruit, wooden spears, and certain dried leaves which gave off a distinct fragrance." A later explorer, Rodrigo de Jerez, observed Cuban natives smoking leaves rolled up inside palm or maize fronds. He adopted the habit himself and, when he returned to Spain "breathing smoke," was promptly jailed by the Inquisition for seven years!
In 1560, Jean Nicot, Lord of Villemain and French ambassador to Portugal, sent some rustica plants to his queen, Catherine de Medici. (He reportedly also dispatched some snuff to cure her son's migraines the following year.) As a result, when Carolus Linnaeus assigned tobacco a genus a couple centuries later, he called it nicotiana after the aristocrat who introduced the plant to France. The common name derives from the Haitian "tabaco" which applied both to the smoking "tube" and the rolled leaves used to fill it.
At the beginning, the new addiction spread slowly--mostly among sailors. It wasn't until some of the American colonists returned to England, "huffing and puffing," that the rest of European society was exposed to--and either fascinated or appalled by--the practice.
Pochahontas's husband, John Rolfe, developed the variety which came to be known as Virginia Tobacco. It soon became the most demanded export from the colonies, and a widely-accepted form of currency there. When the first shipload of brides arrived from England, every eager colonist who wanted one had to hand over 120 pounds of tobacco--though technically he was paying for her passage, not for the woman herself!
At that time, tobacco was also known as "sotweed". In his book, published in 1597, Gerard preferred to call the new herb Henbane of Peru, because it resembled the European Hyoscyamus niger. Both plants do, in fact, belong to the solanum family, which also includes potato, tomato, and nightshade. Members of that clan have always been viewed with suspicion, since so many of them are toxic.
Tobacco is no exception. In its purest form, nicotine is a deadly poison--once employed as an insecticide. Gerard points out its similarity to henbane, in that it "bringeth drowsinesse, troubleth the sences, and maketh a man as it were drunke by taking the fume only."
That sedating effect led to its signifying "contentment" or "I soothe you" in the Victorian Language of Flowers. The juice, when drunk, Gerard reports, "procureth afterward a long and sound sleepe." Providing, of course, that the patient did not drink too much of it--in which case he would never wake!
Although smoking seems to relieve headache and other pains, Gerard stressed that the leaves only "palliate or ease for a time, but never perform any cure absolutely." Tobacco was once added to salves also, a dangerous practice, since nicotine is all too easily absorbed through the skin. The plant is also an irritant, increasing the flow of saliva and provoking sneezes. Snuff, mixed with lard, was sometimes applied to children's chests to treat croup.
Although Gerard recommended occasional medicinal use of tobacco, he easily recognized the addictive nature of the plant. He spoke of some who "drink it (as it is termed) for wantonnesse, or rather custome, and cannot forbeare it. . .which kinde of taking is unwholesome and very dangerous."
The herbalist was not the only person of his time to have reservations about tobacco. In his "Counterblaste," King James of England described smoking as "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless." He then increased the import tax on tobacco by four thousand percent!
In 1601, Samuel Rowlands wrote, "But this same poyson, steeped Indian weede/ In head, harte, lunges do the soote and cobwebs breede. . ." In 1617, Dr. William Vaughn exaggerated a bit when he penned, "Tobacco, that outlandish weede,/ It spends the braine and spoiles the seede:/ It dulls the spirite, it dims the sight,/ It robs a woman of her right."
Despite occasional overstatements, it is obvious that people have always had a pretty good idea that tobacco was a drug and bad for them. If not, why were cigarettes so often referred to as "coffin nails?" So the outrage directed at tobacco companies these days seems a bit ridiculous--and a large abdicating of personal responsibility.
I'll close with the last verse of the ballad quoted above, to which I have taken the liberty of adding a line!
The ashes, that are left behind
May serve to put thee still in mind
That unto dust return thou must:
(And earlier than most if you)
Thus think, then drink Tobacco.
Note: Nicotiana tabacum photo is by Hugh Wilson, couresty of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Library at: http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/ftc/dft/l... Nicotiana trigonophylla photo is by Mimi Kamp and, along with the tobacco sketch, is courtesy of the SW School of Botanical Medicine at: http://chili.rt66.com/hrbmoore/HOMEPAGE/... . Other photos are by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without permission.
I must have saffron to color the warden pies.
The Winter's Tale IV, iii
Since it takes about 4,000 crocuses to produce one ounce of saffron, the spice was once literally worth its weight in gold. Its hue is actually an orange-ish gold, considered, in Asia, to be the ultimate color. Kings and other ancient VIPs strutted in robes dyed with saffron.
The spice's name derives, in fact, from the Arabic za'faran ("yellow") and sahafarn ("thread"). Even the Greek word croci, forerunner of crocus, means "weft".
All of this gold comes, strangely enough, from a blue crocus (sativus) which blooms in the fall. As Gerard writes, "The floure of Saffron doth first rise out of the ground nakedly in September, and his long small grassie leaves shortly after, never bearing floure and leafe at once. The floure consisteth of six small blew leaves tending to purple, having in the middle many small yellow strings or threds; among which are two, three or more thicke fat chives of a fierie colour somewhat reddish. . ."
There is also a white-flowered form of the saffron crocus (as pictured above), but it is much rarer. The "chives" Gerard mentions are the stigmas of the crocus and they, along with part of the style, were picked, dried, and pressed into little cakes.
Although the ancients adored saffron, also called karcom, krokos, or zaffer, it is apparently not so appealing to those unaccustomed to it. Many modern writers describe the spice as "bitter" and its aroma as "astringent." Nevertheless, that scent often pervaded weddings and theaters, and the sawdust on Nero's banquet floor glowed with saffron, vermilion, and powdered mica.
Crocus sativus was probably brought back to England from the Holy Land during the Crusades, either by the Knights of St. John or, as one tradition goes, by a pilgrim who risked his neck to hide a bulb in the hollow head of his walking stick. Saffron is native to the Mediterranean countries, but was eventually raised in large quantities at Saffron Walden in England where the growers were called "croakers." Monks used the yellow dye in place of gold leaf in their artwork and calligraphy.
Saffron tea became a popular remedy for fevers caused by skin diseases such as measles. It apparently invigorated too, since Gerard reported that "the moderat use thereof is good for the head, and maketh the sences more quickly and lively, shaketh off heavy and drowsie sleepe, and maketh a man merry."
He added that "it is also such a speciall remedie for those that have consumption of the lungs, and are, as we terme it, at death's doore, and almost past breathing, that it bringeth breath again. . ."
Saffron has also been used for skin and menstrual disorders, to treat alcoholism and depression, to strengthen the heart, and as a tonic or aphrodisiac.
One must be careful, however, not to confuse true saffron with another fall-blooming crocus known as meadow saffron, Colchicum autumnale, or Naked Ladies. It is, as Turner so eloquently put it "sterke poyson and will strongell a man and kill him in the space of one day!" So, if you wish to try growing saffron, make very sure that you purchase Crocus sativus.
You can more safely and easily buy the spice ready-made, but it is also very expensive. High-quality saffron can cost up to $36 an ounce. (That is why some supermarkets have been known to keep it locked in the manager's safe!) The spice's supporters point out, however, that an ounce of saffron is a year's supply if only used once a week.
It is sold in both thread and powdered form, with the powder being more potent and convenient, as it can be added directly to recipes. The threads must be steeped first. The best saffron has a coloring strength of at least 220.
Saffron, like gold, was thought to make men happy. In the Language of Flowers, after all, the saffron crocus stands for "mirth." But saffron itself warns "beware of excess."
Gerard cautioned that over-consumption of the spice "causeth head-ache, and is hurtful to the braine. . .for the too much using of it cutteth off sleep. . ." Culpeper reported that some users "have fallen into an immoderate convulsive laughter, which ended in death." That proves, I guess, that too much saffron, like too much gold, can become a dangerous extravagance!
Note: Image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library, at http://ridgwaydb.mobot.org/mobot/rareboo...
Comfort me with apples. . .
Song of Solomon 2:5
The aroma of apple pie is, they say, one of the most comforting odors known to man. It must be one of the most enticing too since, in the Language of Flowers, the apple stands for "temptation." That probably harks back to the story of Adam, Eve, and a wily serpent in the garden of Eden. After all, the Latin word for apple, "malus," means "evil."
Later writers like Josephus also speak of apples of Sodom. Located on the shores of the Dead Sea where Sodom and Gomorrah once stood, they supposedly produced pomes that looked lovely but were, as Byron wrote, "all ashes to the taste." Those "apples", however, have been identified as a member of the nightshade family--solanum sodomeum.
Actually, the Genesis account never identifies Eden's forbidden fruit. And, although "apples" are mentioned elsewhere in scripture, Biblical scholars have concluded that the fruit indicated is, in fact, the apricot.
The malus did stir up a lot of trouble in mythology, though. According to one tale, at a wedding attended by all the gods and goddesses, a chap named Discord tossed a golden apple onto the table for "the most beautiful." You can see how this sly trouble-maker got his name!
Also called "pippin," the apple is an ancient fruit, with 27 varieties being cultivated in ancient Rome. Shakespeare's Shallow offers Falstaff "a last year's pippin of my own graffing, with a dish of caraways. . ." Roasted apples were traditionally served with a saucer of caraway seeds.
Those apples, along with bits of toast, also floated in the wassail bowl. Wassail is hot spiced ale, wine, or cider. It was sometimes called Lamb's Wool, not in reference to sheep but to the Irish "la mas nbhal," pronounced "lammas-ool." The term refers to "the feast of apple-gathering" which occurred on All Hallow's Eve. Perhaps that is why bobbing for apples is still a popular Halloween game. And those bits of browned bread floating in the wassail bowl might explain how the word "toast" came to be a synonym for drinking to a friend's health and prosperity.
British farmers once drank to their orchard trees as well as their friends on Christmas Eve. They placed hot cakes in the branches, toasted the trees three times, then flung cider over them. Finally, the women and children shouted while the men fired off guns. All of this is reminiscent of earlier heathen sacrifices made to Pomona, an Italian goddess of fruit.
Cider has always been a popular rural drink in this country too. Even during Prohibition, farmers were allowed to keep the hard stuff. Most of those approving the ban on liquor were country people, and the leaders of the movement could not afford to alienate their biggest supporters!
The farmers' wives also made apple butter in large kettles over open fires. They boiled tart pippins in cider to make a paste, then flavored it with allspice.
The apple was popular on the dessert table too. Tudor pies included ginger and saffron as well as the cinnamon common today.
Apples are still served with goose, pork, and cheese because the canny ancients knew that a side-dish of the fruit would improve their digestion of fatty foods. Although an apple is eighty-five percent water, it also contains acids beneficial to the stomach. The old adage, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away," has won support from modern research. The fruit will cure both constipation and diarrhea. For the latter, John Heinerman recommends eating grated pulp that has been allowed to sit at room temperature to darken for several hours. The oxidized pectin is, he says, similar to the main ingredient in Kaopectate. Strangely enough, though, too much apple juice can cause diarrhea in children.
In countries where cider is a common drink, gallstones are virtually eliminated because pectin reduces cholesterol levels. Apples are also anti-cancer and anti-viral and lower the blood pressure. Apple cider vinegar has been touted as a cure for everything from dandruff and body odor to athlete's foot.
We have no excuse for not "dosing" ourselves with the fruit, either, since there is a variety to suit every palate. As Gerard put it, "Apples do differ in greatnesse, forme, colour, and taste; some covered with a redde skinne, others yellow or greene. . .some are sweete of taste, or something soure; most be of a middle taste. . ." I love the tart and juicy Granny Smiths for snacking. Where apples are concerned, my taste runs more towards the "soure"!
Finally, there is nothing like an apple for topping off a country walk on a brilliant October day. As you bite into the crisp, succulent flesh, you can almost imagine yourself back in that garden planted by God. Or perhaps the truth is, as Chesterton suggests, that we are in Eden still and only our eyes have changed.
Note: Malus sylvestris image is by National Geographic, courtesy of the SW School of Botanical Medicine at: http://chili.rt66.com/hrbmoore/HOMEPAGE/... Other photos are courtesy of the Washington Applegrowers at: http://www.bestapples.com
"Your nose is as red as that cranberry sauce," answered Fan.
Old-fashioned Girl--Louisa M. Alcott
Where fires thou find'st unraked and hearths unswept,
There pinch the maids as blue as bilberry.
The Merry Wives of Windsor--Shakespeare
One of the joys of Thanksgiving is successfully plopping jellied cranberry sauce, whole, out of the can onto the serving plate. Tradition holds that cranberries were eaten at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, though probably not in such quivery form!
Although the eastern Indian tribes knew the fruit as "sassamanesh" or "ibini" ("bitter berry"), the Pilgrims dubbed it "craneberry," the blossom being thought to resemble the head of that particular bird. Cranberries did not become a popular part of the holiday feast, however,until Grant had them served to his troops in 1864--just a year after Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving an official national holiday. Apparently the soldiers liked the piquant flavor. Sailors did too, since the berries prevented scurvy on long voyages.
Cranberries were sometimes also known as "bounce-berries," because good ones will bounce, while rotton or damaged ones won't. This was supposedly discovered by a gentleman who kept his in his loft and had to pour them down the stairs! Cranberries are still sorted by bounceboard seperators.
There are only three fruits native to America, and two of them--cranberry and blueberry--belong to the vaccinium family. Native Americans made good use of both, pounding the dried berries with jerky and suet to form pemmican cakes and dying their robes in cranberry or blueberry hues.
The two vaccinium "brothers" are at home in the acidic, damp, but well-drained soil near swamps. (Commercial cranberry bogs are flooded only at harvest-time and during the winter.)
I vividly remember picking wild blueberries as a child. We kids would belt plastic milk pitchers to our waists to leave both hands free for stripping the succulent fruits from their bushes. Since the wild berries are much smaller (and darker) than the domestic types, gathering them took time. We would inevitably eat half of our harvest and complain loudly, through blue-stained lips, about the mosquitoes whining around our heads. A sibling who found a good bush would, however, fall suspiciously silent--not wanting to share his or her bounty!
Although North America is the major exporter of both cranberries and blueberries, some wild varieties such as the ligonberry (vaccinium vitis-idaea) and the bilberry (vaccinium myrtillus) grow in Europe too. The bilberry is also known as whortleberry, whinberry, trackleberry, or "hurts." Perhaps the latter name is a reference to the fruit's bruise-like color. The author of Wuthering Heights mentions bilberries climbing over the churchyard wall from the moor. Whinberry, in fact, means "furzeberry."
Almost everyone has heard that cranberry juice, if consumed often enough, will stop bladder infections. It is also said to break up kidney stones and deoderize urine. The modern consensus seems to be that the fruit's tannins prevent bacteria from adhering to body tissues, so the juice may ward off gum disease and ulcers as well. Blueberry reportedly has the same antibacterial effect, but isn't as readily available year-round.
The fruits of both vacciniums are very high in the antioxidants and flavanoids that fight cancer and heart disease. Those berries may also prevent cataracts, repel viruses, and cure diarrhea.
If you have any whole cranberries left over from Thanksgiving, you might want to try stringing and drying them to make decorative red "chains" for Christmas. They will stain your hands, but that's all part of the fun.
Cranberries and blueberries can also color our memories with the anticipations of childhood. Wading through the July weeds or clustered eagerly in the kitchen on a certain morning in November, we kids never doubted that abundance was very close and only waiting to be discovered!
Note: Cranberry and blueberry photos are courtesy of the National Park Service at http://www.nps.gov Vaccinium oxycoccos image is by National Geographic, vaccinium ovatum by Mimi Kamp, vaccinium corymbosum by Mary Vaux Walcott, all courtesy of the SW School of Botanical Medicine at: http://chili.rt66.com/hrbmoore/HOMEPAGE/...
At Christmas I no more desire a rose Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled shows. Shakespeare--Love's Labor Lost I, i
Black hellebore, also known as the Christmas Rose, seems a strange plant to associate with the happy and hopeful celebration of Christ's birth. It is, after all, one of the four classic poisons--along with nightshade, hemlock, and aconite. Attalus III, a nasty king of Pergamum, doted on hellebore since it "racked the nerves and caused the victim to swell."
But there was, we must remember, a paranoid and homicidal monarch in the Christmas story too. Perhaps hellebore's black and poisonous root can remind us of Herod, while its white, winter-blooming flowers bring to mind the innocents he murdered.
The "hell" in the plant's names seems to be inadvertent, though, since it derives from the Greek "elein" ("to injure") and "hora" ("food"). Hellebore is not actually a rose at all, but bears a slight resemblance to the single varieties. It was also known as melampode after a physician named Melampus who claimed to drive insanity out of his patients with it.
This seems to have been a commonly accepted use for the plant since Theodorus purged Gargantua "canonically with Anticyrian hellebore." The treatment purportedly "cleansed from his mind all perverse habits."
DeQuincey speaks of Walking Stewart, an eccentric British traveler, as being "crazy beyond the use of hellebore." And Pliny recommends the herb "to purge the brain in order to make it better for serious study." Many poisonous narcotics have a tranquilizing effect in small doses. I suspect hellebore did not so much cleanse minds as drug them into submission!
It was also supposed to purge disease from livestock. The sick animal wore a piece of the root in one pierced ear like the latest thing in organic jewelry.
Hellebore might "wipe out" annoying flies as well. Albertus Magnus whitewashed his walls with a mixture of lime, opium, and hellebore to repel insects. We can only hope that children weren't prone to eating paint chips back then.
The Christmas rose, helleborus niger, is not the only member of its toxic family. Helleborus orientalis, also known as the Lenten Rose, blooms closer to Easter in an appropriate array of pastel colors. The less popular helleborus foetidus is known for its stench--and green flowers.
According to superstition, any person harvesting hellebore roots should first draw a circle around the plant with a sword. Since most of us don't have such a blade handy these days, I would recommend leaving those roots in the ground. Hellebore is much too dangerous for use as an alternative medicine but, left undisturbed, it will bloom at a season when most of the garden is comatose.
Gerard reports that helleborus niger "floureth about Christmas, if the weather be mild and warm." Keep in mind, though, that the British climate is more moderate than much of the United States. Here, the flowers might not emerge until March.
According to one tradition, Gabriel produced the out-of-season blooms for a sobbing shepherdess named Madelon, who had nothing to give the Christ Child. Those pristine flowers would certainly have been an appropriate gift for the cleansing "Rose e'er blooming" who came like "a floweret bright amid the cold of winter."
Note: Helleborus photos are courtesy of Kurt Stueber and the Kurt Stueber Library at http://www.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/~stueber/st... Helleborus niger illustration is from A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve, published in 1931.
"Ah, you flavor everything; you are the vanilla of society." Sydney Smith--Lady Holland's Memoirs
Although it is difficult for us to imagine life without vanilla and chocolate, most of the world had never heard of these flavorings until Cortez invaded Mexico in 1519.
He found the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, and his court enjoying a drink called xocolatl. This exotic beverage combined chocolate, vanilla, and honey. I'll save the chocolate for February (Valentine's Day) and concentrate instead on the orchid, vanilla planifolia, which became part of the conquistador's booty.
Initially, Europeans only used the flavoring in conjunction with chocolate. But finally, in 1601, Queen Elizabeth's chemist, Hugh Morgan, suggested that vanilla be allowed to stand on its own. The rest, as they say, is history!
As with most orchids, the plant's greenish-yellow flowers grow in racemes, with the blooms opening one at a time. Each will fall off after a day if not pollinated. So the first attempts to grow the orchid outside of Mexico weren't worth beans! Or, more accurately, they didn't produce any of the 6 to 10-inch seed pods which are called "beans." In 1836 a Belgian, Charles Morren, finally realized that only a tiny Mexican bee named Melipone was able to squeeze past the membrane separating the bloom's pistil and stamen to pollinate the plant.
After an ex-slave named Edmond Albius figured out a quick and easy method of artificial pollination in 1841, the Bourbon Islands off the southeast corner of Africa became the main exporter of the flavoring. The vanilla produced there is said to have a "darker," more "tonka-bean" flavor than the Mexican type.
True vanilla is the second most expensive flavoring in the world--after saffron--so imitations sprang up almost immediately. Originally they came from such unlikely sources as fir sapwood, asafoetida, oil of cloves, and coal tar. Today, however, most fake vanilla is produced synthetically. You can still find flecks of real vanilla bean in some premium ice creams. One taste will assure you that the original is still far superior to its imitators!
The vanilla orchid is a vining type, attaching itself to trees by means of aerial rootlets. Its name derives from the Spanish "vainilla" or "little sheath," while planifolia means "flat-leaved." Although there are other types of vanilla orchids, such as the phaeantha pictured above, planifolia remains the most common. The Aztec name for vanilla, tlilxochitl, combines "tlilli" ("black") and "xochitl" ("pod").
The pods are originally green, however, and frosted with a vanillin substance called givre. When those pods begin to turn yellow, they are wrapped, steamed, then alternately dried and "sweated." Although we tend to associate the word "vanilla" with white delicacies, vanilla beans do actually turn black once the process of fermentation is completed. The extract is made by brewing chopped beans in an alcohol-water mix.
Vanilla beans need airtight storage to preserve their flavor. Some gourmets suggest burying those you want to keep in sugar.
Although some people attribute a sedative effect to vanilla and recommend it as a cure for hysteria, others insist that it "promotes wakefulness" and "increases muscular energy." Perhaps that is why it also has a reputation as an aphrodisiac!
According to Totonac mythology, Xanat, daughter of the Mexican fertility goddess (Centeotle?), transformed herself into the plant out of love for a Totonac youth. As the story goes, she wanted to provide "pleasure and happiness" to all humankind. Vanilla has certainly done that.
These days, the Totonacs employ the beans as air fresheners in their cars and linen closets. Here, in North America, we can add the sweet flavor to snow to produce our own premium desert.
To make snow ice cream, collect fresh, clean snow which has just fallen. Add milk, sugar, salt, and vanilla until you have achieved the right consistency and taste. Then, curl up in a cozy corner with your bowl and dream of tropical climes like Madagascar and southern Mexico where orchids quite literally grow on trees!
Note: Vanilla phaeantha photos are by Clifford Pelchat, vanilla planifolia photos by Thomas Schopke, image from Kohler's Medicinal Plants, all courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery
Chocolate is nature's way of making up for Mondays. Anonymous
According to Aztec mythology, the cacao tree was brought down from heaven by a god named Quetzacoatl. So the drink made from its beans was believed to impart wisdom and power. When Hernando Cortez stormed into their kingdom, the Aztecs supposed that he was Quetzacoatl returned, and tried to placate him with cocoa.
The conquistador was not enthusiastic about the taste. The Aztecs drank their cocoa cold, unsweetened, thickened with corn meal, spiced with chili peppers and vanilla, and dyed red with achiote--in a frothy brew that would probably leave modern palates gasping!
Cortez was, however, impressed by the golden goblets from which Montezuma sipped his xocoatl ("bitter water"), and by the fact that cocoa beans served as currency in the Aztec realm. The conquistador established his own plantation so he could, quite literally, grown money on trees!
Christopher Columbus had earlier noticed that Mayan traders used what he called "almonds" in place of coins. He may even have sent some of those "almonds" as samples back to King Ferdinand. But his search for the spice-rich Indies apparently caused him to overlook the flavoring that could really have made his fortune!
The Spanish added sugar, heat, and spices to their cocoa, and invented a whisk-like tool called the molinillo with which to froth the beverage. (Formerly it was foamed by pouring it from cup to cup.) They then selfishly kept the new drink to themselves for a century! During that period English buccaneers, who captured Spanish ships laden with cocoa beans, often destroyed what they thought was a worthless cargo.
In reality, cocoa was so valuable originally that only the wealthy could afford the brew. It arrived in England at about the same time that tea and coffee did. At the first chocolate house in London, which opened in 1657, cocoa became popular as a hangover cure! But it remained expensive long after tea and coffee prices had fallen. And originally it was enjoyed ONLY as a drink. The first crumbly chocolate bar did not make its appearance until the end of the 17th century.
The Swedish naturalist, Carolus Linnaeus, named the tree from which the beans are picked theobroma cacao, "theobroma" being Greek for "food of the gods." Its beans grow in pods attached to the tree's trunk or branches. Each pod contains up to forty seeds in a white pulp. Harvesters hack the pods down with machetes, and allow the beans to ferment in the pulp for several days.
Then they are sun-dried for a week or so, roasted, and ground into chocolate liquor. That liquor is molded into blocks to make unsweetened baking chocolate. For the ready-to-eat variety, other ingredients, such as extra cocoa butter, sugar, milk, and vanilla are added. Then the chocolate is "conched" (blasted with fresh air) to rid it of excess moisture and improve the flavor.
For cocoa powder, most of the cocoa butter is removed. It often finds its way into cosmetic products like face-creams and sun-lotions.
The original cacao, called criollo ("indigenous") is the highest quality, but also the rarest. A hardier, faster-growing type known as forestero ("foreign") produces most of our chocolate these days.
In the good old days, it was used medicinally to fatten patients, as a stimulant, and to improve the digestion. Although chocolate was once considered something of a vice, we have recently learned that it doesn't seem to raise cholesterol levels. It also contains the same polyphenol antioxidants that tea does, but in even higher quantity. (Dark chocolate and cocoa have the most.)
So this indulgence could theoretically help fight cancer and heart disease. One controversial study even claims that chocolate eaters live a year longer than everybody else. I am willing--no, eager--to believe it! Of course, with all that fat and sugar, it's still a stretch to call chocolate good for you. Most of us don't eat it for our health anyway, but for pure pleasure.
As the Marquise de Sevigne wrote in 1677, "If you are not feeling well, if you have not slept, chocolate will revive you. But you have no chocolate! I think of that again and again! My dear, how will you ever manage?"
Note: Plates are from Kohler's Medizinal Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library at http://www.mobot.org
In the spring of the year when the blood is thick, there is nothing so fine as a sassafras stick. Ozark ballad
Every year, at maple syrup time in late February, my father digs sassafras roots to brew a spring-tonic tea. In fact, he often simmers those roots in maple sap, instead of water, to impart a natural sweetness.
This is a very old custom in rural areas such as ours. Jethro Kloss recommended the herb as a blood-purifier and tonic for the digestive system. He also found it valuable for treating skin disease and kidney problems. His book, Back to Eden, does caution, however, that sassafras shouldn't be taken for more than a week at at time. (Pregnant women should not consume it at all.)
Since the modern version of that book has been revised, the warning may have been added after scientific studies concluded that safrole, the major chemical in sassafras, causes liver cancer in lab rats. As a result, in 1976, the sale of sassafras roots was banned.
It's still legal to dig your own, and sassafras does not seem to have done my father any harm. But, then, he only drinks it for a few days out of the year. Those who are more addicted to the beverage claim that alcohol causes greater harm to the liver than sassafras does.
Originally called pauame by the Indians, sassafras officinale (or albidum) has also been known as ague-tree, black ash, cinnamon wood, file-gumbo or gumbo-file, smelling stick, golden elm, and saxifrax. "Sassafras" probably derives from the Spanish term for saxifrage. The tree can grow to sixty feet, but usually remains much smaller in the north.
This member of the laurel family is an oddity in that each tree is either male or female and can produce leaves in three different shapes. Those leaves, which--at 3 to 7 inches--are quite large, can be either simple, mitten-shaped, or tri-lobed (three-fingered). It's a shame that the tree is not used more often as an ornamental species, since it also boasts greenish-yellow flowers in the spring and deep blue olive-shaped drupes on red cups in the fall.
Those berries are very attractive to birds. The leaves are also inviting to the larva of such spectacular butterflies and moths as the spicebush swallowtail, luna, and promethea.
Sassafras does, however, spread very quickly, by underground runners, so it can become invasive. Since it prefers disturbed soil and the brighter light on the edges of forests, it coexisted quite comfortably with the early settlers.
The root was one of the most popular exports from the New World to the Old. In the Great Sassafras Hunts of 1602 and 1603, ships were dispatched to the "colonies" specifically to bring back more of the herb. Michael Drayton, in his poem "To the Virginian Voyage," speaks of the "cypress, pine, and useful sassafras."
British street-vendors added hot milk and sugar to the tea and hawked it from London street-corners as "saloop." At that time, strong-smelling plants were believed to have the most medicinal value. In Volpone, Ben Jonson mentions sassafras, along with tobacco, as one of the "Indian drugs."
A somewhat alarming concoction called Godfrey's Cordial was administered to children, to relieve colic or hunger pains. Along with sassafras, molasses, and caraway, this patent medicine reportedly contained both opium and brandy. We can only hope that the amounts of the latter two ingredients were small!
The spicy scent of sassafras may remind you of Hires or A & W--with good reason. The original root beer was made from fermented sassafras and molasses.
Down south, the dried leaves, known as file, still flavor condiments and thicken gumboes. This practice may have originated with African slaves who were accustomed to adding powdered baobab leaves to their soups. (File is legal, since sassafras leaves don't contain safrole.)
Because it resists decay, the wood was used for ships, fenceposts, and railroad ties. Country folks constructed beds from it, as well as chicken roosts, since the strong smell was believed to repel bugs and promote drowsiness. Perhaps that explains why, in Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, the ladies in the cave slept on sassafras boughs.
Those who don't want to run the risk of consuming sassafras might want to try spicewood (lindera benzoin) as an alternative. The flavor is very similar and, as far as I know, lindera has not been banned. But perhaps nobody has tried it on rats yet!
Note: Sassafras flower photo is by James Manhart, leaf photo by Hugh Wilson, and color illustration from Kohler's Medicinal Plants, all courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery Black and white illustration is courtesy of the SW School of Botanical Medicine at http://chili.rt66.com/hrbmoore/HOMEPAGE/...
The fairest flowers o' the season Are our carnations and streaked gillyvors. The Winter's Tale IV, iv
Shakespeare's Perdita finished the above comment startlingly with the phrase "which some call nature's bastards." Although carnations and gillyflowers ("pinks") were second only in popularity to roses during the Middle Ages, they were also the first flowers to be widely grafted and hybridized. That raised some questions about paternity!
In fact, Perdita declines to have gillyvors in her garden, since their beauty owes so much to art rather than to nature. In what sounds like a very modern dispute, Polixenes chides her for this attitude, pointing out that hybrids could not be created without nature's cooperation.
To add to the confusion, the ancients also called several other fragrant flowers from different families by the same name. Stocks (matthiola) were "stock gillyflowers," wallflowers (cheiranthus), "wall gillyflowers," and sweet rocket (hesperis), "Queen's gillyflower."
Back then, people had an equally relaxed attitude toward spelling, with the word being written as gylofre, gillofloure, gelyflower, gelouer, gelefleure, and even July flower. The term is supposed to be a corruption of the French "giroflee," which means "a clove."
In this article, however, I will confine myself to the "clove gillyflowers" or dianthus, also known as carnations, sops in wine, pagiants, blunket, or, strangely enough, "horseflesh."
Explanations for the plant's common names vary as widely as the spelling. "Carnation" may spring from "coronation," since the flowers were often used in chaplets. As the poet, Drayton, put it:The curious choice clove July flower,
On the other hand, the name might equally well have come from the Greek "carnis" or "flesh," in reference to the flower's original color. Another possibility is the Greek "incarnacyn" or "incarnation," since dianthus literally means "divine flower."
According to tradition, pinks sprang up from the tears Mary shed as she followed her Son to Calvary. So the pink carnation, the official symbol of mother's day, stands for maternal undying love.
The term "pinks" may derive from the German "pinksten" or "pfingsten," or from the "pinked" (jagged) edges of the blooms. It did not come from the hue, since the color "pink" was named after the flower--and not the other way around!
Almost all members of the dianthus family have a heavenly countenance and scent. Despite their delicate appearance, these are very tough flowers! They sprout easily from seed, require only well-drained limey soil with lots of sun, and are seldom bothered by bugs or disease.
Some of the best-known members of this robust clan are dianthus barbatus (Sweet William), dianthus caryophyllus (carnation or clove pink), and dianthus plumaris (cottage pink).
The ancients solemnly vowed that the flowers would take on any perfume in which their seeds were steeped before planting. The "sops in wine" nickname derives from an old custom of flavoring spirits with red carnations. I have grown a variety called Fenbow's Nutmeg Clove, which was supposedly used for that purpose. The reds were preferred because they have the best scent, with the more modern yellows having the least.
Dianthus flowers also spiced up soups, salads, sauces, jams, and vinegars. They were said to "prevail against pestilential fevers and comfort the heart." They are known as Qu Mei in Asian, where they have been used to relieve rheumatism and arthritis, and to kill harmful bacteria in the stomach.
The meaning of the flower varied with the color. A dark red carnation sighs, "Alas for my poor heart." A striped variety signals "refusal" and a yellow one "disdain."
Clove gillyflowers seem to have experienced some decline in popularity since the Middle Ages. As with women, flowers that are too "easy" are often scorned! That is unfortunate, since the dianthus literally has it all: beauty, scent, amiability, and durability. So I would recommend, as did Polixenes, "Then make your garden rich in gillyvors,/ And do not call them bastards!"
Note: Dianthus caryophyllus photo is by J. R. Manhart, courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery Other photos are by author. All rights reserved.
. . .his crest that prouder than blue iris bends. Trollius & Cressida I, iii
The iris has long been a symbol of military pride and might, perhaps because its leaves resemble swords. A stylized version of the bloom adorned the sphinx's brow, the sceptres of pharaohs, and the crests of French kings.
The yellow flag, iris pseudacorus or "false sweet flag", is believed to have been the famous Fleur de Lys. That phrase is supposed to be either a corruption of Fleur de ("flower of") Louis, or a reference to the river Lys where it grows in profusion.
(Some think another flower was indicated and that the phrase should be translated as "flower of the lily". But I agree with those who insist that the fleur-de-lis symbol looks much more like an iris.)
Clovis, a sixth century king of the Franks, replaced the three toads on his banner with irises at about the same time he converted to Christianity. According to legend, the yellow flag saved his life because its presence revealed which parts of the Rhine River were shallow enough for his troops to cross. That flag was also known as Segg ("sword") or Gladyne.
The fleur-de-lis insignia became such a well-known symbol of French royalty that, after the revolution of 1789, the simple wearing of it could send a man to the guillotine!
Despite all this masculine swagger, the iris was named for the Greek rainbow goddess. But she was the messenger the gods sent when they were unhappy, so she might also be associated with war. Her bloom, naturally enough, stands for "message" in the Language of Flowers. Since Iris was also supposed to lead dead females to the Greek version of paradise, her flower often decorated the graves of women.
According to Gerard, "the common Floure-de-luce hath long and flaggy leaves like the blade of a sword with two edges, amongst which spring up smooth and plaine stalks. . .bearing floures toward the top compact of six leaves joyned together, whereof three that stand upright are bent inward toward one another; and in those leaves that hang downeward there are certain rough or hairy welts."
These days, the "upright" petals are called standards and the "downeward" ones are known as falls. The "rough and hairy welts" are, of course, the beards. Those threes were supposed to stand for faith, wisdom, and valor.
Gerard also refers to the Floure-de-luce of Florence, "whose roots in shops and generally every where are called Ireos, or Orice (whereof sweet waters, sweet pouders, and such like are made). . ."
Orris root has also been harvested from iris Germanica and iris pallida ("pale" iris), but iris Florentina is considered superior for the purpose. Although orris was once used extensively in perfumery for its violet-like scent, it is most often employed as a preservative for potpourri now.
Mixed with anise or dipped directly into boiling laundry water, orris scented clothes and linens and perfumed the powder sprinkled on wigs. Combined with honey and ginger, it flavored a favorite drink in Russia. On its own, it often spiced and preserved beer, wine, and artificial brandies. The ripe seeds have also been brewed into a coffee-like beverage and the orris roots carved into beads or charms.
Gerard wrote that "the root of the common Floure-de-luce cleane washed, and stamped with a few drops of Rose-water, and laid plaisterwise upon the face of man or woman, doth in two daies at the most take away the blacknesse or blewness of any stroke or bruse."
John Heinerman seconds this treatment, suggesting, for those who don't have rosewater on hand, that they puree the iris root with a handful of rose petals and a couple tablespoons of water.
Although iris, in the past, also treated dropsy, bronchitis, and chronic diarrhea, ingesting it can cause vomiting. The Blue Flag (iris versicolor) was often mistaken for sweet flag (acorus calamus) by unfortunate children who found the imposter to be quite nauseating.
The iris is such a lovely flower, though, that we should forget the "bad taste" left by her association with war and unpleasant news. Her vivid colors can, instead, remind us of her connection to the rainbow--that promise of better things to come.
Note: Iris versicolor image is from Wildflowers by Homer House, courtesy of the SW School of Botanical Medicine at: http://www.chili.rt66.com/hrbmoore/HOMEP... . Photos are by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without permission.
The large-leafed rhubarb and cabbage plants slept too, their broad limp surfaces hanging in the sun like half-closed umbrellas. Thomas Hardy--Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Since I'm one of those peculiar people who prefer apples tart and chocolate bittersweet, I love the tangy taste of rhubarb. So I was fortunate to be born in a rural area where "pieplant" is one of the rites of passage between spring and summer.
Although some country cooks combine it with the strawberries that ripen at about the same time, I prefer my rhubarb pie adulterated only with raisins--and a little sugar, of course. My nieces and nephews like to suck on the raw stalks, but the unsweetened flavor is a bit too acidic even for me!
The plant's original title, rheum rhabarbarum, derives from Rha--an ancient name for the Volga River--and barbarum--the Roman name for any of the "barbaric" regions occupied by non-Romans. Rheum may have come from the Greek "rheo" ("to flow"), in reference to rhubarb's laxative effect!
The root was originally imported into Europe from China. Since it came by way of Persia, however, the medicinal rheum palmatum was often mistakenly known as Turkish Rhubarb. In George Eliot's Mill on the Floss, Mrs. Tulliver opines that "it 'ud be better for sister Glegg, if she'd go to the doctor sometimes, instead o' chewing Turkey rhubarb whenever there's anything the matter with her."
The plant apparently became very popular. In Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie writes that Nana "believed to her last day in old-fashioned remedies like rhubarb leaf. . ." In Moby Dick, Melville speaks of spermaceti as once "only to be had from the druggist, as you nowadays buy an ounce of rhubarb." In Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Catherine reflects that poison can't be procured "like rhubarb, from every druggist."
The common or garden rhubarb grown today is rheum officinale or rhaponticum. It is probably most popular in the country because its clumps of huge leaves make it impractical for city gardens. Those leaves bear some resemblance to burdock, but are larger and glossier--up to two feet across. Burdock was, in fact, sometimes known as Robin Hood's Rhubarb.
Although rhubarb leaves have been eaten as greens in the past, it was a risky practice since oxalic acid renders that greenery somewhat poisonous. Shysters occasionally sold the leaves as fake tobacco too. Whether or not they are more toxic than tobacco is probably open to debate!
Theoretically, it would take a large amount of oxalic acid to kill a person. But some digestive systems seem to be more sensitive to it than others. Since people have died from eating rhubarb leaves, I would recommend that you get your greens elsewhere.
Because even the stalks are high in oxalates, persons with a tendency to gout or kidney stones shouldn't eat rhubarb. Pregnant women should avoid it also, since it can cause contractions.
On the positive side, the fruit can relieve both diarrhea and constipation. Since it contains a large number of pain-relieving compounds, it reduces the inflammation common with skin eruptions, arthritis, or toothache. It has also been known to inhibit tumor growth, decrease cholesterol, staunch the bleeding of ulcers, and cure jaundice by stimulating the liver. In Cervantes' Don Quixote a clergyman jokes that "Don Belianis. . .hath need of a dose of rhubarb to purge off the mass of bile with which he is inflamed."
When the Chinese threatened to cut off the supply of rhubarb during the Opium Wars, the threat was taken seriously. The plant was, after all, considered an ultimate, almost miraculous, cure for dysentery (an intestinal inflammation characterized by bloody diarrhea).
In my opinion, however, rhubarb justifies its existence simply by what Culpeper calls its "fine tart or sourish taste." I find that being a rural "rube-barbarian" has its compensations!
Note: Photo is by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without permission. Other image is from Kohler's Medicinal Plants, courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tmu.edu/FLORA/gallery.
Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedst yesterday. . .
Shakespeare, Othello III, iii
For such a breezy, fluttery flower, the poppy carries some heavy baggage. The Shirley or rhoeas variety, pictured to the left here, is the most familiar. But any discussion of the family Papaver must, of necessity, be dominated by that most notorious of its members--somniferum.
Better known as the opium poppy, that flower is now considered a curse by some. But its ability to dull agony and promote sleep was once a blessing to sufferers who had few other painkillers or sedatives available. Somniferum derives from Somnus, the mythological Roman god of sleep, son of night, and brother of death.
Its principal alkaloid, morphine, takes its name from Somnus' son, Morpheus. He reportedly clutched a bunch of poppies and summoned up dreams.
So Keats could write, "ere the poppy throws/ Around my bed its lulling charities." Or Donne could say of death that "poppy or charms can make us sleep as welle. . ."
Laudanum, often swilled by insomniacs in old books, was a mixture of opium, water, and alcohol, but seems to have been a respectable sleep aid. I suspect that it probably produced as many addicts, however, as the infamous opium dens mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
The white poppy, also called Mawseed, was most often used for opium production. So it stands, in the Language of Flowers, for sleep, dreaminess, or oblivion. But it can also mean either "my bane" or "my antidote."
This ambivalence about the poppy is common. Gerard admitted that it "mitigateth all kinds of pains," but added that "it leaveth behinde oftentimes a mischiefe worse than the disease it selfe." He recommended that opium not be used except "in extreme necessitie." Not only might it promote addiction but "opium too plentifully taken doth also bring death." Drayton also warns of "henbane, poppy, hemlock here/ Procuring deadly sleeping. . ."
In small doses, opium is a stimulant rather than a narcotic, and was fed to tired horses. It is extracted by slashing the unripe poppy heads and allowing the milky juice to harden. Opium derives its name from the Greek "opus" or "juice."
There is some debate over whether or not it is legal to grow opium poppies in this country. Gardeners have been doing it for years, the flowers being larger and more striking than most other papaver species. Some simply know them as "lettuce" or "heirloom" poppies.
Many seed companies carry them, with the double or fringed varieties being respectively known as paeoniflorum and laciniatum. This probably does not worry the DEA overly much, since it takes between three to five thousand poppy heads to produce a pound of opium!
Somniferum is not the only member of the papaver family to be associated with death. Ever since John McCrae's "In Flander's Fields" spoke of where "the poppies blow/ Between the crosses,row on row," the field poppy (Papaver rhoeas) has represented the blood of fallen soldiers. McCrae concluded, "If you break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields." So those raising money for veterans' groups will often distribute scarlet paper poppies.
The modern Shirley varieties are descendants of this wilding that robbed nutrients from European wheat fields. Its petals, however, added a pretty color to syrups.
Other poppies include the perennial Oriental and Iceland varieties as well as the California annual. A certain news magazine, running an article on opium poppies, mistakenly pictured a field of the California variety instead. I was probably not the only amused gardener from whom the editors heard. I just hope the piece did not cause a run on the innocent wild eschscholzias!
As with so many plants, opium poppies can be good or bad, depending on how they are used. Without them, we would not have the morphine and codeine so essential in hospitals today. But neither would we have heroin addicts--heroin being a stronger form of morphine.
Painkillers of any sort offer only a surface solution. Just as doctors must discover the causes of the pain to cure it, we will need to get at the causes of drug abuse to end it.
Note: Papaver somniferum photo is by Mimi Kamp, courtesy of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine at http://www.swsbm.com/HOMEPAGE/HomePage.h... All other photos are by author. All rights reserved.
But whom do you blame for the will in you
That feeds itself and makes you dock-weed
Jimpson, dandelion or mullen
And which can never use any soil or air
So as to make you jessamine or wisteria?
from "Calvin Campbell" by Edgar Lee Masters
Masters would probably be surprised to learn that the once lowly "Jimpson" (or Jimsonweed) has been transformed into a garden flower as exotic and sweet-scented as jessamine and wisteria. Datura and its twin, brugmansia, were all the rage on garden forums a couple years back. Fads don't last long, however, and the current big thing seems to be unusual morning glories.
Still, datura boasts some of the largest and showiest blooms available on an easy-to-grow annual. Those trumpet-shaped flowers open in the evening to attract moths, and usually remain fresh into the following morning--until the day heats up. I've grown several varieties, and think the prettiest is the double purple, sometimes known as Blackcurrant Swirl. Datura discolor, a single white type with a purple center, is also striking.
The recent popularity of the daturas has sparked a running debate about the differences between them and the brugmansias. If what I've learned is correct, daturas are all annuals or short-lived perennials with no woody growth. Their round, spiny seedpods burst open when ripe, and their blooms face upwards. Brugmansias, on the other hand, grow into woody perennial shrubs or trees in tropical climes. Their blooms dangle downwards, and their longer, narrower, smooth seedpods must be broken open. The "brugs" may all be descendants of the South American tree datura known as arborea.
Daturas tend to have white, purple, or yellow flowers. The brugmansias steer clear of purple, but also run to several shades of orange and pink--even two reds (sanguinea and one of the suaveolens). Although rumors persist that there was once a red datura, it is possible that the plant indicated was really a brug.
Daturas and brugmansias seem to be similar in all other aspects. Both contain the same poisons as belladonna, another member of the solanum family. Those toxins include hyoscyamine, scopolamine (the so-called "truth serum"), and atropine.
The name derives from the Hindu "Dhatura," which was applied to the native type in India--fastuosa, AKA tatorea. Although most other daturas seem to have originated in the Americas, stramonium (the infamous Jimsonweed) is also native to parts of Europe and ferox to China. Stramonium combines the Greek strychnos ("nightshade") and manikos ("mad"). Other nicknames for datura include thorn-apple, devil's apple, devil's trumpet, angel's trumpet, stinkweed, green dragon, apple of Peru, and toloache (the latter probably referring only to datura innoxia).
Datura has crazing and and deadly effects on both livestock and humans. Some believe it to be the Greek hippomanes that drove horses mad. And goats who have consumed it will supposedly try to walk on their hind legs like men. Fortunately, most animals don't like the smell or taste of the foliage, and will avoid the plant unless they have nothing else to eat. Humans are not always that sensible.
The nickname Jimsonweed is supposed to be a corruption of Jamestown weed. Some British soldiers, sent to crush the 1676 Bacon rebellion in the colony, consumed the plant and "turned natural fools upon it." Sources differ as to whether they ate datura as a cooked green, as a spice, or ground the seeds into flour. But the fact that their ill-advised meal turned the men into gibbering idiots for eleven days testifies to the potency of the poison.
At least, the soldiers seem to have consumed the plant out of ignorance. Throughout history, other imprudent persons have taken it deliberately. Datura was frequently used by pagan priests to induce visions. (Frankly, I would have doubts about any god who requires mind-altering chemicals to guide his people!)
Thorn-apple is also reportedly one of the drugs that gave hallucinating witches the impression they could fly. The Thugs of India drugged their victims with datura fastuosa, and new mothers there poisoned unwanted female babies with it. (You can see why "devil" frequently appears in the plant's nicknames.) The whirling dervishes also "fueled" themselves with the plant.
Although sufferers of spasmodic conditions such as asthma and whooping cough once smoked datura to relieve their symptoms, that risky use was banned in the sixties. The plant was also sometimes an ingredient in narcotic ointments for inflammations such as rheumatism, neuralgia, abscesses,and burns.
I am alarmed to note--from a recent episode of C.S.I. and from several web sites I've come across--that datura is regaining popularity as a recreational drug. Since this is one extremely toxic plant, I have to conclude that those rash enough to consume it must be out of their minds-- even before they take it! They certainly will be after. If I am remembering correctly, the young user in the TV show went temporarily insane and killed his best friend. That was fiction, but I'm very much afraid that it could easily become fact.
Datura's combination of beauty and danger caused it to stand for "deceitful charms" in the Language of Flowers. But, as I have frequently pointed out in my articles, plants are not responsible for the foolishness of some humans. Just as the devil was once an angel, all evil is a perversion of something good. Whether datura will be angel or devil to you depends on whether you crave its beauty or its bane.
Note: Brugmansia photo is by Michael Moore, courtesy of the Southwestern School of Botanical Medicine at http://www.swsbm.com/HOMEPAGE/HomePage.h... Datura stramonium image is from Kohler's Medicinal Plants. Other photos are by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without permission.
She went to the open door and stood in it and looked out among the tomato
vines and jimpson weeds that constituted the garden.
from Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
There's an old joke that we country people only lock our doors in late summer --and that's to prevent our neighbors from unloading their excess garden produce on us! There's some truth to that notion, since this is the time of year that we all have tomatoes piled high on our kitchen counters.
We're not talking about those hard and scentless ethylene-ripened imposters you city-dwellers buy in the supermarket, but the soft and sun-succulent real things! Considering how essential the tomato has become, it's hard to believe that it didn't gain popularity in the U. S. until the 1840's.
As with most of the solanums, the wild plant seems to have originated in the Andes of South America. From there, it spread northward to Mexico where the Aztecs domesticated the immigrant they called xitomatle. At that time, the fruits were small, round, and yellow --similar to our cherry tomatoes. The conquistadors apparently carried seeds with them back to Spain.
Matthiolus was the first European herbalist to mention the plant, calling it pome d'oro ("golden apple"). The French knew it as pomme d'amour ("the love apple"), but that may have been a mistaken translation of pome dei Moro ("Moor's apple").
The tomato had to overcome the suspicion directed toward any member of the often toxic solanum family. Gerard wrote that "Apples of Love grow in Spaine, Italie, and such hot Countries" and added that persons from those regions "eate the Apples prepared and boiled with pepper, salt, and oyle." He quickly added that the fruits "yeeld very little nourishment to the body, and the same naught and corrupt."
He did grow the love apples in his own garden as an ornamental, however. By his day, the fruits had grown to "the bignesse of a goose egge or a large pippin." Even the official name of the tomato, lycopersicon esculentum, contains some of the old prejudice. It means "edible wolf peach" --a reference to the fact that witches were believed to use solanums to call up werewolves.
Although colonists carried tomato seeds back to the Americas, only a few adventurous cooks or gardeners --like Thomas Jefferson --actually consumed the fruits. Everybody else used them externally to remove pustles! George Washington Carver tried, without success, to talk his poor neighbors into growing tomatoes. The Creoles, perhaps because of their French heritage, were the first Americans to really adopt "love apples" into their diet.
There is a legend that, in 1820, a colonel proposed to consume a bushel of the fruits in front of the Boston courthouse. The story holds that an enthusiastic crowd gathered to watch him die, and found his failure to do so a bit anti-climatic! Whatever the truth of the matter, by the 1840's the tomato was suddenly all the rage.
The enthusiasm has not abated since. The tomato is the most widely consumed vegetable (actually a fruit) in the U. S. Most of us eat about 13 pounds per year of fresh tomatoes and 20 pounds of the processed variety.
It's a good thing too. Due to an antioxidant called lycopene, people who consume large amounts of tomatoes have a reduced risk of cancer. They also improve their heart health, since tomatoes help dissolve animal fats and, being high in potassium, lower blood pressure. The chlorine and sulfur in the fruits also detoxify the body and stimulate the liver. As the colonists knew, tomatoes applied to the skin will help draw pus from wounds. A mixture of tomatoes and buttermilk is also reputed to turn a sunburn into a tan.
Considering how many of the nightshades have now become respectable staples of the American diet --potatoes, eggplants, and peppers, to name a few --maybe we should be looking a little more closely at other members of this sprawling family. Granted, a few of them are really poisonous, but every clan is entitled to a few black sheep!
Note: First photo is by J. R. Manhart, second by Monique Reed, courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery . Black and white illustration is from The Herball or General Historie of Plantes by John Gerard.
It fills the heart with hilarity while its occasional use will, it is said, add a decade of years to the ordinary human life. Can all these millions of Orientals, all those many generations of men, who have boiled Ginseng in silver kettles and have praised heaven for its many benefits, have been totally deceived? Sir Edwin Arnold, 1832-1904
Asians originally revered ginseng for much the same reason Europeans venerated mandrake. The roots of both plants can appear man-shaped. The word "ginseng", in fact, derives from the Chinese "jen shen" ("like a man"). It official name "panax" comes from the Greek "panakes" ("panacea"), meaning a remedy for all ills.
There are three varieties of the plant popular today: the Asian panax ginseng, the American panax quinquefolius ("five-leafed"), and the Russian eleutherococcus senticosus. Although Russian ginseng is not a panax, it also belongs to the aralia (ivy) family and its effects are similar. It must be a spinier plant, though, since senticosus means "thorny". Eleutherococcus might be loosely interpreted as "Mongolian seed". Nicknames for ginseng include manroot, life root, ninsin, garantoquen (the Native American name), ‘sang, ‘seng, and red berry.
It was so popular in Asia that the supply eventually ran low there. A Jesuit priest stationed in Manchuria, Father Jartoux, described ginseng and its value in his writings. A Canadian Jesuit, Father Lafitau, concluding that his climate resembled Manchuria, set out to see if he could locate a similar plant. When he succeeded, the Jesuits made a tidy profit exporting American ginseng to the Chinese.
By 1748, shipping agents were paying $1 per pound for ginseng and selling it for $5 per pound in Asia. In those days, that made the herb the colonies' most valuable export. (A recent article I read puts the current price at about $350 per pound for wild ginseng, only about a tenth that for the domesticated variety.) It's no wonder that everybody began to keep an eye out for the herb with its distinctive cluster of red berries. One story has Daniel Boone losing 12 tons of ginseng roots when his boat upset in the Ohio River. (Talk about a sinking feeling!) That may simply be a legend, since 12 tons is a heap o'‘sang! It generally takes at least three pounds of fresh root to make one pound dried.
Native Americans had a habit of bending down the fruited stems, to assist in propagation of new plants, before digging the roots. But the colonists were not so foresighted, and the American woods were virtually stripped of the plant. Although a number of hillbilly superstitions grew up around ‘sanging --such as that one should skip the first three plants discovered--ginseng never became as popular here as in Asia. Perhaps people have always been too busy shipping it out to try it!
It has long had a reputation in China and Russia as a tonic for the aged, a stimulant for athletes, and a heal-all for virtually every ailment under the sun. Ginseng is said to fight viruses, boost immunity, reduce cholesterol and blood sugar, thin the blood, protect the liver, treat colds and other respiratory problems, ease depression and menstrual difficulties, and shrink tumors --not to mention increasing fertility and desire. In the 1600's a William Byrd of Virginia wrote that ginseng "frisks the spirits!"
Many American scientists still disdain the plant, and consider its benefits largely all in the mind. They also point out that there can be side effects such as insomnia, diarrhea, high blood pressure, allergy attacks, and hormonal disturbances. Their frequent failure to achieve good results may, however, be blamed on the steep price of the herb. Because ginseng is so expensive, most products bearing its name are diluted, adulterated with other plants, or made with immature roots. Some of those side effects might actually be attributable to the adulterants rather than to ginseng itself. In fact, what was once advertised as "wild red" or "desert" ginseng was found to be nothing more than red dock --a known laxative! Also ginseng often requires a month or so of steady use before any changes are noted.
To afford ginseng, you almost have to grow it yourself --and that is much easier said than done! The plant is quite susceptible to fungus, and the seeds often don't sprout until the second spring after they are planted. Ginseng also requires rich but light soil, about 80% shade, and 6 years to reach full maturity. (You can tell a root's age by counting "scars" from previous leafstalks.) Ginseng grows best in raised beds of sandy loam or clay soil lightened with humus, in high shade, and heavily mulched with dead leaves. Most problems arise from too much sun, over-crowding of plants, or poor drainage.
Today most of the ginseng exported from the U. S. is cultivated in Marathon County, Wisconsin. Growers once used wooden lath or fast-growing vines like wild cucumber to shade their beds, but nylon mesh is more popular today. Domesticated plants and roots are larger and grow faster. "Farmed" plants can reach two feet in height, the wild ones seldom more than 15 inches. But wild roots are still considered to have better quality and stronger flavor. So a few fur buyers still purchase ginseng too --as in days of yore.
You are most likely to find ginseng growing under hardwood trees or on the shady side of ravines, in the same conditions that mayapple prefers. For the best results, the roots should be collected in autumn, very carefully, since they are worth more unbroken. The wild ones are usually only about the size of a little finger, smaller, darker, and lighter in weight than field-grown roots.
Because wild ginseng is endangered, please plant the berries from any patch you dig. If the ginseng you find isn't producing berries yet, it definitely isn't mature enough to be harvested.
In China, the poor use codonopsis tangshen as a substitute for ginseng. The more impatient and underpriveleged of us might want to do the same.
In the meantime, ginseng can remind us that coddled people like coddled plants may appear more prosperous, but are often as bland as over-fertilized herbs. It is those who have had to struggle for survival who take on the real flavor!
Note: Photos are by Stephen Tice. They and the black and white illustration are courtesy of the Southwestern School of Botanical Medicine at http://www.swsbm.com/HOMEPAGE/HomePage.h...
No diamond in the ballroom seems so costly as that perfect flower, which women envy, and for whose least and withered petal men sigh; yet, in the tropical solitudes of Brazil, how many a camellia bud drops from the bush that no eye has ever seen, which, had it flowered and been noticed, would have gilded all hearts with its memory.--George WM Curtis
With the possible exception of the rose, no flower was more adored in the Victorian era than the one that stood in the Language of Flowers for "excellence" and "perfect loveliness." The camellia offered everything: novelty, showy blooms, and Oriental origins. (The Victorians were infatuated with the Far East.) The excellent import also tolerated--even preferred --the dim and chilly atmosphere of the parlor.
A novel called La Dame aux Camelias, which associated the flower with loose women, eventually caused the wealthy to cut the plant dead, so to speak. But the lower prices associated with decreased popularity allowed the middle classes to redeem this beauty from its titillating infamy.
The camellia also provided just enough challenge to be interesting. Though the plant itself is easy enough to keep alive, it will only set and keep buds if nighttime temperatures of 40 to 50 degrees are assiduously maintained. So, although it can be grown outdoors in the South, most Victorians kept it on their windowsills.
Unfortunately, modern central heating makes the camellia harder to please, except for those hobbyists with cool greenhouses. On the plus side, new cold-hardy crosses of camellia oleifera and sasanqua may allow even those of us in northern climes to cultivate this southern belle outdoors.
And one variety of camellia, "thea," has never lost its popularity. It provides us with the main ingredient for the most widely consumed beverage in the world other than water--tea. Although most of us don't think of tea as an herb, it is also the most used plant "medicine." The esteem the drink commands in certain countries is indicated by the fact that the Greek "thea" means "goddess."
According to Chinese legend, an emperor named Shen Nung ("Divine Healer"), discovered tea around 2727 BC when some leaves from a camellia tree drifted down into a pot of water he was boiling. But the drink didn't become widely popular in China until the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). Europe, on the other hand, didn't adopt the beverage until introduced to it by Dutch traders in the 1600's. Known as "cha", the Cantonese type arrived in Eastern Europe via a land route while the Fukien type known as "te" made it to Western Europe by sea.
"Camellia" was, strangely enough, named after a man who probably never heard of the plant. An Austrian Jesuit missionary to the Philippines, Georg Josef Kamel did provide the world with valuable information on the flora that grew there. But the "goddess" of flowers was not among them.
The first European to write about the camellia was probably a German physician named Andreas Cleyer who visited Japan in the 1680's. At that time, Japan had expelled all foreign missionaries and put strict limits on what could be imported or exported from its shores. It allowed only a few Dutch companies to maintain a presence on an artificial island in one of its harbors.
According to Alice Coats' Plant Hunters, Cleyer "organized a lively smuggling trade for which he was eventually expelled." That trade reportedly cost the Japanese he had suborned into helping him their lives.
So when Linnaeus was handing out plant names, he may have had his reasons for preferring to honor Kamel, a priest who handed out free medicines to the poor. Besides, you have to admit that camellia sounds much better than cleyerria would have!
Shortly thereafter, in 1698, a Scottish surgeon named James Cuninghame made a perilous trip to China in the employ of the East India Company. Between surviving massacres and imprisonment, he somehow managed to ship about 600 varieties of Oriental plants --including camellias--back to England. Although he never made it home himself to receive credit for that feat, European nurserymen apparently seized upon his finds with gusto. When another Scottish botanist, James Main, visited China in 1794, he purchased very few camellias because he thought those already being developed in Britain were superior.
Tea soon became nearly as essential there as it was in the Orient. The high demand for it may have motivated British colonization. And, in the late 1800's, tea saved the plantations of Ceylon from financial disaster after an epidemic of coffee rust.
The top three leaves of each camellia thea shoot are harvested, dried, and called, respectively, the flowering orange pekoe, the orange pekoe, and the pekoe. For black tea, those leaves are also crushed and oxidized.
A 1773 tax on the tea that was shipped to America made the beverage temporarily unpopular here. Certain disgruntled colonists expressed their displeasure by dressing like Indians, hacking open crates of imported tealeaves, and tossing them into Boston Harbor. (That must have been the largest "pot" ever brewed!) Perhaps the Boston "party" explains why coffee still seems to have the upper hand in the U. S.
Tea is, however, gaining more popularity, as its health benefits become known. It contains polyphenols that help prevent cancer and heart disease. Although tea, like coffee, is a stimulant, its caffeine levels are lower. So its effects are milder, though it will still ease breathing for asthmatics and increase alertness.
To some, it acts as a comforter as well. The unfortunate person who stumbles upon the corpse in an English murder mystery is always offered a "cuppa" to calm the nerves. Tea's tannic compounds fight viruses, increasing the body's resistance to colds and flu, and are astringent enough to heal diarrhea. Tea also speeds up metabolism, helps prevents tooth decay (because it contains fluoride), and improves digestion.
I find plain tea bland, but have recently discovered the Indian version called chai, which is much more to my taste. It is made by heavily lacing the tea with milk and exotic spices like cardamom, ground cloves, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, pepper, coriander, etc. Since many of those spices also have health benefits, you might be able to kill two maladies with one cup, so to speak.
Although tea reportedly helps prevent some types of cancer, countries where it is consumed "straight" (without milk) seem to have higher rates of throat cancer. So do consider adding a jolt of calcium to your cuppa!
Finally, we modern middle-class plant enthusiasts might want to close off a room during the winter months for this tea-singly gorgeous flower. (Our primroses and cyclamens will thank us for the cooler tempatures too!)
Note: First camellia photo is courtesy of Grist Wallpapers at http://members.tripod.com/mgrist/home.htm . Camellia thea image is courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery . Other tea images are courtesy of the Cat-Tea Corner at http://www.angelfire.com/art/catteacorne... Last camellia image is courtesy of Pacific Northwest Plants at http://www.geocities.com/PicketFence/408...
A green Christmas makes a full graveyard. Old saying
The above grim prediction refers to the belief that an unusually mild winter causes more disease. But Christmas is always green, in the sense that plants are always included in the celebration of Christ's birth. This wasn't always the case. In the early days of Christendom, believers were discouraged from decorating with evergreens because it was considered a pagan custom.
That prohibition didn't last long. By the 1600's, Robert Herrick was writing in an apparently post-holiday poem:Down with the rosemary and so,
In the following century, Robert Steele commented satirically on the "decking" of churches: "The Pulpit itself has such Clusters of Ivy, Holly, and Rosemary about it that a light Fellow in our Pew took Occasion to say that The Congregation heard the Word out of a Bush, like Moses."
The tradition of bringing boughs indoors at the winter solstice probably originated with the Roman feast of Saturnalia that ran from December 17 to 24 each year. During this evergreen-decked festival, business ceased, all classes were temporarily equal, and gifts were exchanged.
Since I have written other articles on rosemary and mistletoe, I won't comment farther on them here --except to refer you to those articles at the following links: Rosemary: The Rite Herb and Under the Mistletoe.
Sweet bay is the ancient laurel, also called lorbeer or daphne, which wreathed the brows of heroes and poets and stands for "glory." The word "bachelor" in our college degrees comes from "bacca-laureus" or "laurel-berry' through the French ‘bachelier."
Bay still flavors soups and stews. A tea made from the berries was once recommended for poisonous bites and stings, to prevent contagious diseases, to alleviate cold, flu, and allergy symptoms, and to relieve gas. Applied externally, bay oil treated bruises, sunburn, itches, eczema, earache, and arthritis pain. The berries were also given to women in childbirth, but should never be consumed by pregnant women prior to that since they may cause premature delivery.
Holly has been considered a symbol of Christ's sufferings, because it sports both thorns --as in the crown of thorns --and red berries, like drops of blood. So it has been called Christ's thorn or holy tree as well as holver bush, holme, or holme chase.
Representing "foresight," holly was considered a man's plant. Perhaps that explains the pro-holly bias in the following Christmas carol!The holly and the ivy,
Actually, holly requires both a male and a female plant to set berries--and only the female produces fruit. Whoever had the "foresight" to bring the Christmas holly into the home, however, would supposedly dominate (or assume the masculine role) during the following year.
As with mistletoe, the most extensive use for holly was in birdlime, a sticky substance for trapping birds made from the rotted and pounded bark. Holly leaves were also brewed as a tea substitute and to treat catarrh, pleurisy, smallpox, fevers, rheumatism, jaundice, and broken bones. Holly berries are poisonous, however, and may cause vomiting if consumed.
Ivy represented woman in the Christmas decorating scheme. It also stood for intoxicating beverages. Besides being the symbol of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, it was often featured on English tavern signs to indicate the excellence of the liquors served within. The ancients believed that the porous ivy wood could filter wine from water.
Scandanavians chose to quaff their meads around roaring December fires while entertaining each other with tall tales. Those fires supposedly encouraged the weak sun. That orb was believed to be a wheel which actually stood still for a period during the winter. The wheel was called hweol, from which we get "yule". The yule log might be considered a more recent version of those ancient fires.
The log was always hauled in on Christmas Eve and lit with a piece saved from the previous year's log. Thomas Cooper wrote:They pile the yule-log on the hearth,
The crabs mentioned were crabapples. In England the yule log was usually an ash tree, since the baby Jesus was supposed to have been first washed and clothed before a hurried ash fire made by the shepherds. Ash is one of the few woods that will burn well and without smoking when green. Perhaps its relationship to the olive tree also gave it almost-Biblical status.
And what, you may ask, of the Christmas tree? It originated in Germany where it was decorated with paper roses, fruits with gilded leaves, wafers, and sweets. These days the tree employed is usually fir or pine, standing for "time" and "pity" respectively or hemlock which predicts, "You will be the death of me."
The latter interpretation probably arose from a mistaken impression that the hemlock tree caused Socrates death. (He was, in fact, executed with poison hemlock --a wild biennial plant.) A tea made from the inner bark of evergreens has been used to treat lung and kidney problems, but even the tree hemlock should not be consumed by pregnant women.
The pagan traditions mixed into our Christmas celebrations do not particularly bother me. You can, after all, attach any symbolism you choose to a plant. For me, the evergreens stand for the eternal life gifted to us when God was a baby and even time itself turned upside down!
Note: Bay illustration is from Kohler's Medicinal Plants and ash image from Carl Lindman's Bilder ur Nordens Flora, both courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery . Black and white holly and ivy illustrations are from The Herball or General Historie of Plantes by John Gerard.
A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Unusual morning glories have become the latest rage on seed trading sites. As with the similarly showy daturas which were all the fashion before them, the modern morning glories spring from a very unpopular weed. Gerard wrote of convolvulus that "it is not fit for medicine, an unprofitable weed and hurtful to each thing that groweth next to it, and only administered by runnagat physickmongers, quacksalvers, old women leeches, abusers of physick and deceivers of people."
I understand his bitter tone. My brother, when he was quite young, once planted bindweed in one of our garden plots because he found it "pretty." In late summer, when the impossible-to-eradicate interloper has strangled all other flowers in sight, I could happily strangle my brother!
The name "convolvulus" derives from the Latin "convolvo" which means "to twine around." There are a large variety of these despised clingers-on in ever conceivable location. They include convolvulus sepium (hedge bindweed), convolvulus soldanella (sea bindweed) and --the one with which we are plagued --convolvulus arvensis (field bindweed). Some say that it only takes the latter vine 1 hours to make a complete twist around the stem of a garden flower. That probably explains why the pernicious plant appears to take over within a matter of days. Bindweeds have also been known as calystegias as well as shepherd's clock, cornbind, ropebind, withywood, bearwind, Jack-run-in-the-country, and devil's garters.
Fortunately, the convolvulus family does have its share of more beautiful and less bullying members. Most modern morning glories are either ipomoea purpurea or ipomoea tricolor varieties. Ipomoea takes its name from the Greek "ips" ("bindweed") and "homois" ("similar to").
Morning glories have always been very popular in the Orient. In Japan, they are known as asagao or "morning face." And some Japanese web sites show photos of exotic varieties that make we American gardeners drool with hopeless envy. Now that the plant is becoming so popular again in this country, however, perhaps seed companies will start importing more types. In the meantime, if you find any old packages of now-rare varieties such as Wedding Bells or Cornell, don't throw them out! Morning glory seeds remain viable for a very long time, and it's possible that you still might be able to sprout a few of the antiques. (They germinate best if soaked overnight before planting.)
The plant received its name, of course, because it generally blooms in the AM and fades before noon. I plant ipomoeas along the east-facing wall of our barn's feedroom, so that the early-rising farmers in the family can enjoy them even when a non-morning-person like me can't!
Heavenly Blue remains the most popular of the "glories" for a reason. It was the most prolific bloomer of the 15 or so varieties I tried this year, and its very large flowers will often remain open into the afternoon on cool autumn days. If you're searching for an equally vigorous companion for this one, try Blue Star. Although a much lighter blue, it also persists longer than most and the star in its center almost matches the heavenly shade. "Chocolate" is also very popular, though more floppy. Its color is really more of a tan-ish pink than brown, but still unusual. The heirloom called Grandpa Ott's (AKA Kniola's Black) is probably the darkest morning glory. Though its blooms are smaller than the varieties listed above, its color is a glorious deep purple.
That site next to the barn has actually proved a little too fertile, since the vines produce huge leaves which often half-obscure the flowers. Morning glories prosper in a less rich, fast-draining soil. Drier conditions will also discourage the slugs that love to munch on the leaves. (Don't let the plants get too parched, however, or you will just trade the slugs for spider mites!)
Because its period of bloom is so short, the morning glory stands for "departure" or "farewell" in the Language of Flowers. It also represents "affectation" or "pretense," though the reason for that is less clear. Perhaps its blooms are so large as to appear artificial?
Yams are actually the tuberous roots of a bindweed called convolvulus batatas. Another, convolvulus rhodorhiza, produces an oil called Rodium, which is used to lure rodents. And convolvulus dissectus is a source of prussic acid --AKA cyanide.
There are not, however, as Gerard pointed out, many medicinal uses for morning glory. The roots of some varieties such as convolvulus scammonia (AKA Syrian bindweed or scammony) have been used to treat constipation. They can be very violent purgatives, though, so it's probably best to avoid them when there are much more pleasant remedies. The mashed leaves of morning glories will reportedly soothe swellings.
Both the Zapotec Indians and the Aztecs used ipomoea seeds to induce "religious" hallucinations. They would often, however, have experienced very unpleasant side effects --especially extreme nausea and diarrhea. As I mentioned above, the members of this family can be drastically laxative!
The chief "glory" of the flower remains its gorgeous, if all too fleeting, blooms. And, since the enjoyment of beauty can be calming and medicinal in itself, the modern bindweed may prove not so "unprofitable" after all!
Note: Bindweed image is courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery . Photos are by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without permission.
They are burs, I can tell you, they'll stick where they are thrown.
Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida
"Love leaves" seems a strange nickname for the pesky burdock. My dog, a high-strung and thin-skinned Border Collie, always looks haunted after tangling with the plant's burrs. She flees, as if in an attempt to outrun the importunate hitchhikers. When I'm attempting to dig them out of her long fur, only to be rewarded with fine spines in my fingertips, I feel less than affectionate toward this particular weed myself!
The "love" may refer to the burdock's vaguely heart-shaped leaves. It could, however, derive from another nickname, philanthropium, which comes from the Greek philantropos --meaning "loving mankind." At first, I assumed this was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the burrs' clingy ways. But after learning of the burdock's many historical uses, I have to concede that it can, indeed, be a friend to man.
The plant has a wealth of such nicknames, including bardana, beggar's buttons, clot-bur, cocklebur, fox's clote, happy major, hardock, personata, and gypsy's or Robin Hood's rhubarb. The Latin name, arctium lappa, is from the Greek arktos ("bear") in reference to the burr's coarsely hairy texture. Lappa ("to sieze") may derive from the Celtic llap ("hand"). Arctium minus ("lesser burdock") is also common in the U. S., though there is nothing minor about the size of the variety here in PA! The "bur" in the common name comes from the Latin burra ("lock of wool"), since sheep sometimes leave bits of their coats behind on the cockleburs. Dock is an Old English word for "plant". For obvious reasons burdock stands, in the Language of Flowers, for both "importunity" and "touch me not."
As one of the nicknames indicates, burdock's large leaves are similar to rhubarb's, though less glossy. Burdock's stems have also been eaten, though usually as a vegetable rather than a fruit. Cut before the plant flowers, those stems are stripped of their green rind. Only the white cores are boiled and consumed. They are supposed to taste similar to asparagus and were sometimes candied like angelica.
I always assumed burdock leaves to be as toxic as rhubarb's. Having long experience at trying to wrest burdock's one-to-three-foot roots out of my flowerbeds, I am quite familiar with the plant's less-than-appetizing smell on my hands. The leaves are supposed to be edible, however, if cooked. Herbalists caution that children under two, pregnant women, and those with acidic stomach problems or ulcers should not consume any part of burdock. Diabetics on insulin should probably avoid it too, since it lowers blood sugar.
The bitter burdock leaves have never proved as popular as the sweeter roots. In Japan those roots, known as gobo, are peeled and boiled like carrots. Pamela Jones describes their flavor as a "blend of celery and potato, with perhaps a soupcon of cucumber." She recommends that any parts of burdock that you plan to eat first be boiled in two changes of water with a pinch of baking soda added. Burdock roots are often an ingredient of sukiyaki.
They are also the dominant ingredient in a gobo gumbo that James Duke recommends for the treatment of HIV. This is only the latest in a long list of ailments for which burdock has been prescribed.
A medieval German abbess named Hildegard of Binger proved to be ahead of her time when she recommended burdock for the treatment of cancer. Harry Hoxsey later picked up on the idea, including burdock among the ten plants in his alternative cancer formula. Although Hoxsey was often derided --and actually died of prostate cancer himself --most of the plants he espoused have been proved to inhibit tumors. (As modern science has had to admit, we are all so different that no single cancer cure works for everybody.) Burdock contains arctigenin, which not only slows the growth of tumors but also decreases cell mutation.
John Heinerman calls burdock root "the most widely used of all blood purifiers, among the best the herbal kingdom has to offer for this, and the most important herb for treating chronic skin problems." For eruptions such as eczema, burdock can be either consumed--in tea or capsule form--or applied externally.
Burdock is also reputed to have a slightly laxative and diuretic effect, as well as to improve digestion, break up kidney stones, stimulate the liver, cure seborrhea and improve hair growth, and soothe the aches and pains of rheumatism. The plant's large leaves, mashed, were frequently used as a poultice for swellings, bruises, or bug bites. Burdock's most intriguing asset, however, may be its yet unexplained ability to protect lab animals from the effects of toxic chemicals.
If you don't require any of these remedies, you can always toss some of the burrs at the back of a loved one. According to folklore, if the burrs stick that person returns your love --but might change his/her mind if you make a habit of burr-flinging!
As I previously discovered with nettles, it's often the most irritating weeds that do us the most good. I suspect that the same might be true of the most aggravating people. At least it's nice to know that, all the times burdock reached out to grab us, the plant really had something to say!
Note: Photos are by James Manhart, other burdock image from Carl Lindman's Bilder ur Nordens Flora, all courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery .
If of they mortal goods thou art bereft, And from thy slender store Two loaves alone to thee are left, Sell one, and with the dole, Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul. Musharish-Ud-Din Sadi
Like the camellia, the hyacinth was the quintessential Victorian "everyman's" flower. Its lushness of both fragrance and color, not to mention its affordability and ease of culture, made it the most popular bulb for forcing during that era. As Tovah Martin pointed out in Once Upon a Windowsill, hyacinth glasses even mimicked the hourglass figure that was in vogue at the time.
When hyacinths reached the height of their popularity, there were about 2000 cultivars available --including many opulent double-flowered varieties. Today, of course, that number has dropped drastically. The hyacinth's squat, stiff shape and waxy flowers can make it appear artificial and out-of-place in the cheerful disorder of the cottage-type gardens we prefer now. But the bulbs are still very easy to force indoors. And, in the midst of a long gray winter, we can all use a splash of gaudy color and fragrance.
The hyacinth has two colorful myths attached to it too--both related to jealousy. Reportedly, the gods Apollo and Zephyr were both fond of a youth called Hyakinthos. One day when Apollo and the young man were playing at quoits, the jealous west wind misdirected one of the discuses throw by Apollo, so that it struck and killed Hyakinthos.
The flower that sprang from his blood is supposed to be etched with Apollo's cry of woe "ai". Although originally the flower of grief and mourning, hyacinth now stands for "game," "play," or "sport" --probably another reference to the quoits story.
Another fable holds that the plant sprang from Ajax's blood instead. Miffed that the weapons of the dead Achilles had been rewarded to Ulysses instead of himself, Ajax plotted murder. Sneaking into what he thought was Ulysses' camp, he commenced slaughtering right and left. With the return of daylight, however, he discovered to his chagrin that he had killed a flock of sheep instead. He reportedly committed suicide out of sheer embarrassment--perhaps with an "ai" of his own!
Since the English bluebell bears no trace of anybody's wail, it was called hyacinthus nonscriptus ("not written on"). Today, it is sometimes known as hyacinthus nutans. It also bears little trace of the heady hyacinth scent. Its odor is more "starchlike."
There may be a good reason for the lack of resemblance. Some think the Greek hyacinth was actually a fritillary, though the scent of fritillary is generally nothing to write home about either! On the other hand, the flower known in the Bible as "lily of the valley" may actually be hyacinth, since true lilies of the valley do not grow in the Holy Land.
Although poisonous, the bulb of hyacinthus nonscriptus is, according to Gerard "full of a slimie glewish juice, which will serve to set feathers upon arrowes in stead of glew, or to paste bookes with: hereof is made the best starch next unto that of Wake-robin roots." That starch came in handy for stiffening the ruffs that were once popular men's wear. Mixed with wine and applied externally, hyacinth juice reportedly inhibited hair growth.
The grape hyacinth, muscari racemosum, is supposed to have a similarly starchy smell although, in the Fragrant Path, Louise Beebe Wilder calls it "plumlike." And "muscari" actually derives from the Greek for "musk."
The feather hyacinth, muscari comosum, has a soaplike substance, known as comisic acid, in its bulb. Although also poisonous, comosum was occasionally used as a diuretic and stimulant.
Our modern hyacinths are descendants of hyacinthus orientalis, which probably originated in Turkey. Their unforgettable scent is, of course, their main claim to fame. Carl Sandberg wrote that poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits --meaning, no doubt, a combination of the beautiful and the mundane. (Of course, the look and taste of fresh biscuits can be pretty darn heavenly too.)
At any rate, after the dreariness of winter, the sight and scent of hyacinths is as welcome as equally vivid Easter eggs!
Note: Muscari comosum image is from Otto Wilhelm Thome's Flora von Deutschland Osterreich und der Schweiz, courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery . Other photos are by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without permission.
April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. T.S. Eliot--The Wasteland
There is always something wistful about lilacs. Their scent may be, as both Eliot and Louise Beebe Wilder seem to agree, "the most memory-stirring of all fragrances."
Because the flowers are frequently associated with the old home-place, perhaps they remind even modern generations of something important lost. In fact a persistent lilac is often the only domesticated tree remaining to mark the spot where a long-gone farmhouse once stood. Since it has been so loved by the common people, the bloom stands for "humility" in the Language of Flowers.
The lilac has lived close to man for centuries, with the common type introduced to Britain around 1560 and the Persian variety before 1614. Gerard called it "blew pipe privet" and described it as bearing "many smal floures in the form of a bunch of grapes. . .consisting of four parts like a little star, of an exceeding sweet savour or smell. . ." Any blossom that has five rather than four lobes is considered rare enough to promise good luck.
The official name, syringa, derives from the Greek syrinx or "pipe." As with elder, lilac has branches filled with soft pith that can easily be removed to create hollow tubes. The common name is a corruption of the Persian "lilag," and the plant has also been known as duck's bill, laylock, lily oak, blue Persian jasmine, and --by Lord Bacon --as lelach. Although there are vague references to the use of the plant for treating malaria or as a vermifuge (killer of worms), its claim to fame has always been its starry flowers and intoxicating scent.
Since pale purple hues were once considered as appropriate as black for mourning attire, the flower and its color inevitably became associated with death. When Walt Whitman wrote his poem of lamentation for Abraham Lincoln, he chose to begin it with the lines:When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
There are, of course, many other colors of the flower. The huge white-lilac-bearing bush on our farm was one of my favorite hideaways as a child --for reading or daydreaming. Although Eliot refers to April lilacs, here in Pennsylvania they usually bloom in May. In Blackmore's Lorna Doone, a character cradling the body of his young murdered wife, mentions that it was "Whit-Tuesday,and the lilacs all in blossom." (Whitsunday is the 50th day after Easter.)
Maybe it is the fleetingness of lilac's glorious bloom that sometimes makes us sad, because it reminds us of the briefness of youth. The purple lilac stands, after all, for "the first emotions of love" and the white for "youthful innocence." But, probably due to its association with death, the lilac was considered bad luck in affairs of the heart. "She who wears lilacs," an old saying goes, "will never wear a wedding ring." And a bouquet of lilacs from a lover hinted that he wished to break off the relationship.
I suspect the sweet pain that beauty sometimes inflicts on us is really a homesickness for Eden. Or, as C. S. Lewis put it "for that earlier music that men are born remembering." To him, the longing was actually a form of joy, because it reminds us of where we really belong. To me also, lilacs always speak of home!
Note: Photos are by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reprinted without permission.
Flora, always tall, had grown to be very broad too, and short of breath. . .Flora, whom he had left a lily, had become a peony. . . Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit
According to legend, the peony emanated from the moon. Its glossy seeds supposedly shine through the night too, offering protection from devils, nightmares, and other terrors of darkness. Known as "the blessed rose," the peony also purportedly guarded against illness, injury, and insanity. The superstitious wore beads, carved from the flower's roots, as amulets.
They harvested those roots at night, since woodpeckers were thought to jealously guard the peony by day --and to peck out the eyes of anyone caught interfering with the plant! Some herbalists even considered it unsafe for humans to dig the blessed roots, and advised that dogs should do the harvesting instead. As Gerard pointed out, "the same fabulous tale hath been set forth of mandrake." He added scornfully that all these superstitions "be most vaine and frivolous: for the root of Peionie, as also the Mandrake, may be removed at any time of the yeare, day or houre whatsoever."
The peony, which originated in China and Tibet, was named for Paeon or Paeos, the legendary Greek physician who treated the wounds of the gods during the Trojan war. In China it is known as Sho-Yo, "most beautiful," and considered an emblem of wealth. Due to the blush suffusing the new leaves, however, the plant stands for "bashfulness" or "shame" in the Language of Flowers.
Perhaps because fairies were believed to nestle among the many petals, a peony bloom supposedly bestowed on its recipient the willpower to keep secrets. But the ants that really flock to the buds are not necessary, as some believe, to a peony's opening up!
Single blooms of the flower are considered "male" and the double varieties "female." Those blooms posses what Louise Beebe Wilder describes as a "coarse rose scent." She reports that the double whites and pinks generally have the strongest odor, with single and red varieties having the least.
Peony root was used as a cure for palsy,"the falling evil" (epilepsy), and as a teething aid for infants. John Heinerman also recommends it for jaundice, kidney problems, and allergies. The seeds, "as big as Pease" (Gerard), once served as a popular spice. They also eased childbirth and, steeped in wine, alleviated nightmares.
Although its protective powers were illusory, peony still "shines" as one of the showiest flowers of spring. The only "danger" is that you might plant those roots too deep and thus prohibit blooming. But, just to be on the safe side, keep "an eye out" for woodpeckers!
Note: Photos are by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without permission.
Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did. --William Butler
"Rare and ripe strawberries," London street criers chanted. "And haut boys sixpence a pottle, full to the bottom haut boys. Strawberries and cream are charming and sweet. Mix them and try how delightful they eat!" A pottle was a small fruitbasket and hautboys were a type of strawberry, so called either because they came from the "high woods" or grew on a "long stalk."
Strawberry derived its name from "streowan" ("to stray"), probably a reference to its habit of casting runners to wander from its original position. Non-resident clergymen were often called strawberry preachers, because they strayed from their flocks for most of the year. The Latin title "fragaria" comes from "fragrans" --in reference to the berries' fruity scent. Perhaps the switch to the current name originated with farmers carting those berries to market on beds of straw.
Sales techniques do not seem to have changed much over the years, however. Francis Bacon complained of "the strawberry wives, that laid two or three great strawberries at the mouth of their pot, and all the rest were little ones."
Although strawberries are supposed to stand for the "fruits of righteousness," they are not technically berries at all but simply "the enlarged ends of the plant's stamen." The little black spots are the real fruits.
Not all of the blossoms produce. One of the characters in War and Peace is described as "a barren flower. . .like what one finds among the strawberry flowers."
I grew a few wild European strawberries (fragaria vesca) in my garden for several years. (The native American kind is fragaria virginiana.) Although the fruits were quite small, they were, in my opinion, superior in taste to commercial strawberries. The wild ones also do well in partial shade, whereas the tame giants need more sun.
In fact, many historical references to strawberries imply that they were often gathered in the forest. Tusser describes them as "growing abroade among thornes in the wood." And, in what was perhaps the original "babes-in-the-wood" folktale, two abandoned toddlers died there, and a kind bird covered them with strawberry leaves. "The Robin so red/ Fresh strawberry-leaves did over them spread."
The esteem in which this member of the rose family was held is proved by the fact that a duke's coronet was decorated with strawberry leaves. For lesser noblemen, those leaves were interspersed with pearls! So, when the duchess in Dorian Gray complains that she is "tired of strawberry leaves," we can assume that she is fed up with her exalted position.
Besides being "excellent good," strawberries are easily digested and nutritious. Six medium ones will provide a hundred percent of your RDA of Vitamin C. They are also high in boron which naturally raises blood levels of estrogen, so James Duke recommends them for postmenopausal women.
Culpeper prescribed strawberries "to cool the liver, the blood, and the spleen, or an hot choleric stomach; to refresh and comfort the fainting spirits, and quench thirst." They are cleansing too, and have been used to whiten teeth and skin or to soothe sunburn. Perhaps due to their high Vitamin C content they also help, as Culpeper describes it, "to fasten loose teeth and to heal spungy foul gums."
The leaves of wild strawberry make a good tea which, according to Jethro Kloss, "tones up the appetite and the entire system generally." They are often mixed with sweet woodruff, either in tea or May wine. Duke also praises those leaves for their rich content of vitamins, minerals, and ellagic acid --which is supposed to help prevent cancer.
But we love strawberries best, of course, for their sweet selves and can't get enough of them in shortcakes, pies, jams, and other delicacies. After all, the nursery-rhyme "good life" was to "sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam and dine upon strawberries, sugar, and cream!"
Note: Strawberry photos are by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without permission. Strawberry image is from Carl Lindeman's Bilder un Nordens Flora, courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery .
I am that flower --that mint. . . Love's Labor's Lost V, ii
Rats and mice are supposed to hate the scent of mint, but we humans find it stimulating and invigorating. Pliny wrote that "the very smell of it alone recovereth and refresheth the spirits."
He recommended that students crown themselves with the plant to sharpen their thinking, or clear their throats with its juice before prolonged speaking. The ancients also strewed floors, rubbed tables, and stuffed pillows with mints --even adding the pungent odor to baths.
Gerard commented that "the smelle rejoiceth the heart of man, for which cause they used to strew it in chambers and places of recreation, pleasure and repose." He added that, "The smell of mint doth stir up the minde and the taste to a greedy desire of meate." If consumed with that "meate," mint might prevent indigestion, sweeten the breath and whiten the teeth! Culpeper asserted that the plant also stirred up other greedy desires, namely "venery or bodily lust."
Although there are scads of mints --as many, one writer insisted, "as there are sparks in Vulcan's furnace" --the most popular remain peppermint (mentha piperita) and spearmint (mentha viridis). The mints are named after Menthe. A mythological nymph and daughter of the river god Cocyte, she loved Pluto. His jealous wife, Persephone, A.K.A. Prosperine, supposedly turned the pretty young thing into a lowly plant to be trodden underfoot. Unable to reverse his spouse's spell, Pluto tried to atone by at least granting his ex-lover a pleasant odor!
An old superstition cautions that mint must never be gathered with an iron tool. The herb was often carried for protection by travelers or those performing exorcisms --and sometimes placed with money to make it grow! Another old wives' tale holds that an injured man must not be fed mint, or he will never mend.
The flavorful plant has been popular for a long time. It appears in Ebers Papyrus, the oldest known medical "book." Christ condemned the hypocritical Pharisees for assiduously paying tithes "of mint and anise and cummin," while they ignored other laws less to their liking. The Romans carried spearmint, also known as Roman mint, with them to Britain. The more pungent peppermint, A.K.A. brandy mint, is believed to be a later spearmint hybrid. The Pilgrims conveyed both plants to America.
Playing near summer streams as children, my siblings and I would often scent the unseasonal Christmas-y odor of candy canes, and eagerly trace the smell to its source. As Gerard put it, mints "being once set. . .continue long and remaine sure and fast in the ground." So we could never tell whether the plants we stumbled across were wild mint (mentha arvensis) or a domesticated variety planted years before near a long-gone springhouse. Perhaps a housewife had used the herbs, as the ancients did, to prevent milk from souring.
The mints prefer damp soil in partial shade, but will also flourish in the sun if kept moist. "White" peppermint is considered to have a better flavor than the "black" variety, which is actually a purplish color.
When planted near stinging nettle, mints increase their output of menthol. But keep them away from chamomile, which will decrease their pungency.
Mints are most often used these days to flavor candies, dental products, and summer drinks --especially lemonade and the southern julep (mint-garnished bourbon). They also add a piquant taste to dishes of lamb, green peas and new potatoes, and pea soup. A "pasty" (turnover) with a currant and mint filling was once popular in Yorkshire.
The herb, as Gerard points out, is also "marvelous wholesome for the stomacke." It relieves indigestion, raises internal heat to induce perspiration for fevers, and relieves congestion, motion sickness, rheumatic pain, sore throat, and toothache. Peppermint oil disinfects as well. And, strangely enough, stimulating mint is also recommended as a cure for insomnia.
It is no wonder that mint stands for "virtue" or "eternal refreshment" in the Language of Flowers. In particular, spearmint represents "friendliness" while peppermint speaks of "cordiality" or "wisdom."
Mint's reputation for increasing wealth probably arose from its similarity to the Saxon word "mynet" ("money"). Although the plant will not actually multiply coins, it is an inexpensive and easily-grown treatment for a variety of ills. So it may, in fact, improve your finances along with your digestion!
Peppermint image is from Kohler's Medicinal Plants, courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery . Photo is by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without permission.
The proud giant of the garden race, Who, madly rushing to the sun's embrace, O'ertops her fellows with aspiring aim, Demands his wedded love, and bears his name. Charles Churchill --Gotham, Book I
The sunflower is HUGE, not only in size and present popularity, but in terms of its many uses. Native Americans cultivated helianthus thousands of years before Christ in the region that later became the Plains States, as well as in Peru and Chile. The Aztecs decorated their sun temples and temple priestesses with its flowers and hammered out images of those blooms--in pure gold.
Helianthus derives, in fact, from the Latin helios ("the sun") and anthos ("a flower"). Its round rayed blooms do appear to be a down-to-earth depiction of that heavenly body. And its late summer shades of gold, orange, rust, and brown provide a fitting preview of the autumn splendors to come. In Vanity Fair, Thackery described those flowers as being "as big as warming-pans, that are fit to stare the sun itself out of countenance."
The idea that the blooms turn their heads to follow the heavenly orb, however, probably derives from old descriptions of another light-lover, calendula. The sunflower is said to raise its large face when rain threatens, however!
Its flashy beauty is far from being its only asset. Native Americans ground sunflower seeds for both flour and oil. They also painted textiles and their bodies with yellow and purple dyes extracted from the plant's blooms and leaves. Although American settlers virtually ignored the gentle giant as a common weed, Europeans greeted its introduction to their shores in the 1500's with enthusiasm.
Gerard rhapsodized of one plant that "in one summer, beeing sowne of a seed in Aprill, it hath risen up to the height of fourteene foot in my garden, where one floure was in weight three pound and two ounces, & crosse overthwart the floure by measure sixteen inches broad." He also provided an excellent description of the flower's center, writing that it "is made as it were of unshorn velvet, or some curious cloath wrought with the needle: which brave worke, if you do thorowly view and marke well , it seemeth to be an innumerable sort of small floures. . ."
The sunflower proved especially popular in Russia, since the Orthodox church allowed use of its oil during Lent --when many other fats were forbidden. In War and Peace Tolstoy speaks of fleeing soldiers "filling their bags and knapsacks with wheaten flour and sunflower seed." Russia was soon growing the plant commercially, and exporting its oil to all parts of Europe. To this day, most breads baked in Germany contain sunflower in some form.
Unfortunately most of the sunflower seeds in America still seem to get fed to our feathered friends, who know a good thing when they see it! In fact, I wish the birds would contain their enthusiasm, since they often peck out the centers of my sunflowers before the seeds even ripen.
James Duke writes that sunflower seeds contain two pain-relieving chemicals --SAM and phenylalanine. They also provide a mental lift, calm the nerves, and decrease allergic reactions--much as cigarettes do but without the nasty side-effects. So John Heinerman recommends them for smokers who want to quit. Persons who consume lots of sunflower seeds are less likely to develop prostrate, breast, and colon cancer. According to Duke, males may be more likely to father children since those seeds are high in arginine, an amino acid often prescribed for low sperm count.
Sunflower oil contains phytosterols that actually decrease cholesterol in humans rather than increasing it, like most cooking fats do. As sunflower's turpentine odor indicates, the oil also makes a good thinner for paint and a long-burning lamp oil.
A tincture of sunflower has been used in place of quinine to treat malarial fevers. Folklore even insists that planting sunflowers around your house will keep malaria out!
All parts of sunflower have some use. Its leaves can be chopped as fodder for livestock and don't sour as quickly as the better-know corn silage does. The pith inside the plant's stems is lighter than cork and makes a good stuffing for life vests. Fiber from the stems has also been employed in paper-making. Since those stems turn hard when dry, you can allow your kids to build "log houses" with them --or burn them in your fireplace. If the latter, be sure to save the potassium-rich ashes for your garden.
The sunflower has none of the temperamentalness ascribed to some garden beauties, and will grow almost anywhere there is space and light. As Lord Lytton wrote in The Duchess of Valliere, "The sunflower, gazing on the lord of heaven/ Asks but its sun to shine." In my opinion, therefore, this plant is better described as generous than proud. And mankind has yet to discover a fraction of what it has to offer!
Note: Photos are by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without permission.
Once known as "poor man's ginseng," goldenseal has, unfortunately, become almost as rare and pricey as ginseng itself. Originally a home remedy that settlers learned from their Native American neighbors, the wild plant was simply referred to as yellow root, ground raspberry, wild curcuma, or yellow puccoon.
(Native Americans called several of their dye plants "puccoon". Bloodroot, for example, was known as red puccoon. Those dyes colored clothing--as well as war paint!)
Herbalist Samuel Thomson apparently thought the traditional titles not flashy enough, because he changed the plant's name to goldenseal. Its root scars are supposed to resemble the decorative seals once used to stamp warm wax onto envelope flaps.
Thomson had some strange beliefs, one being that disease was caused by loss of body heat and could be expelled by hot baths, cayenne, and emetics (herbs that cause vomiting). But his remedies probably did less harm than the literal blood-letting popular with "real" doctors at the time!
Thomson peddled his message mainly to the lower classes who couldn't afford physicians. The 19th-Century Eclectics, however, attempted to reform medicine from within. They gave goldenseal its more highbrow name: hydrastis canadensis. Hydrastis derives from the Greek "water" and "to accomplish"–perhaps in reference to goldenseal's ability to thin mucous. Canadensis means "Canadian," although, the herb was native to much of the eastern United States as well.
The price of this natural antibiotic jumped to $1 per pound around the time of the Civil War and has never stopped climbing. Goldenseal's popularity probably lies in the fact that it is an all-purpose healer. James Duke, author of The Green Pharmacy, explains that the berberine in the herb activates white blood seals that kill off bacteria, fungi, viruses, and even tumor cells.
It is much gentler on the stomach than modern antibiotics too. In fact, goldenseal soothes the intestines and stimulates bile to improve digestion. (It may kill off friendly bacteria too, though, so don't use it any longer than necessary.)
Goldenseal inevitably became a popular ingredient in patent medicines and that as inevitably led to its depletion in the wild. Also, ever since a novel falsely implied that goldenseal would conceal the presence of illicit drugs in the urine, it has been a favorite of junkies too!
Although goldenseal won't really help the over-drugged conceal their habit, it will treat a wide variety of maladies --basically any that are caused by bacteria, fungi, viruses, or tumor cells! That includes colds, influenzas, sinusitis, pneumonia, bladder infections, earaches, canker sores, sties, and vaginitis. Amish herbalist, Emma Byler, recommends goldenseal for soothing sore throats and itches and cleaning wounds.
The dried leaves are generally less expensive than the more potent root. Also, there are several other wild plants that contain berberine. They include barberry (berberis vulgaris), Oregon grape (berberis aquifolium), goldthread (coptis trifolia), and yellowroot (xanthorhiza simplicissima). Some of these are bound to be cheaper than goldenseal, but please do research their edibility before trying any of them. Goldenseal itself can be toxic in high doses, so I suspect some of the others can as well. Pregnant women shouldn't take any of them, since berberine may also cause contractions of the uterus.
These days, goldenseal is often grown by the same people who raise ginseng. Both plants require similar conditions, after all (well-drained, woodland-type soil and high shade). Since seed germination is difficult, those growers often purchase 2-year rhizomes to plant and harvest them 3 years later.
Anything as slow-growing as that, is, of course going to cost you. So the "golden" in the name, which originally referred to the color of the herb's root, has become much more literal. These days we self-sufficient country types may either have to grow our own or find a cheaper substitute. Barberry, anyone?
Note: Goldenseal image is from Kohler's Medicinal Plants, courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery .
And shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth, That living mortals, hearing them, run mad. . . Romeo and Juliet iv, iii
The idea that mandrake would scream when uprooted, causing insanity or death to those hearing it, is only one of the strange superstitions ascribed to this herb. But some people believed the fable to the extent that they tried to teach dogs to harvest the roots for them! "There hath beene many ridiculous tales brought up of this plant," sixteenth-century herbalist John Gerard wrote scornfully, "whether of old wives or some runnagate Surgeons and Physicke-mongers, I know not."
Most of those tales arose from the forked root's supposed resemblance to a human figure. "Whereas in truth," Gerard points out, "It is no otherwise than in the roots of carrots, parsneps, and such like. . ."
Still, mandragora, which actually means "hurtful to cattle," also acquired the sinister title of Satan's Apple. It may have earned that nickname because it belongs to the "shady" nightshade family. In small doses, it is a narcotic, and was once used as a sedative and pain-reliever. In Othello, Iago predicts that, "Not poppy nor mandragora,/ Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,/ Shall ever med'cine thee that that sweet sleep/ Which thou owedst yesterday."
In another of Shakespeare's plays, Cleopatra asks for mandragora, "that I might sleep out this great gap of time/ My Antony is away." And Coleridge wrote, "Into the land of dreams I long to go. Bid me forget! Mandragora."
Like most narcotics, however, the plant can also be poisonous --possibly causing delirium and madness before death. An old saying warns, "A small dose makes vain; a large dose makes an idiot."
Mandrake also rendered patients unconscious for surgery. Dioscorides wrote that it was given to "such as cannot sleep, or are grievously pained, and upon whom being cut or cauterized they make a not-feeling pain." It would cause the patient to be "sensible of nothing for three or four hours."
The herb treated depression and convulsions as well, and sedated the mad or demon-possessed. The leaves, boiled in milk, were applied as poultices. One writer claimed that mandrake "cures every infirmity --except only death where there is no help." But you definitely do not want to experiment with it at home, since its poison is believed to be similar to that of atropine (belladonna).
Another superstition which Gerard reports of mandrake is "that it is never or very seldome to be found growing naturally but under a gallowes, where the matter that hath fallen from the dead body hath given it the shape of a man." He rightly dismisses this belief as a "doltish dream."
Some of the more gullible, however, proved eager to purchase the roots as protective amulets called puppettes and mammettes. Unscrupulous merchants shaped bryony roots to look like mandrake, going so far as to add grains for eyes. In France, the dolls, considered elves and known as magloire, were sometimes consulted on important questions. But ownership of one might invite charges of witchcraft! In the Language of Flowers, mandrake stands for "horror" or "rarity."
In a flippant poem which speaks of impossibilities, Donne advises, "Go and catch a falling star,/ Get with child a mandrake root." Gerard added that there were besides "many fables of loving matters, too full of scurrilitie to set forth in print, which I forbeare to speak of." He probably meant mandrake's reputation as a "love apple" or charm.
The herb would supposedly end barrenness or sterility as well. The latter belief is actually mentioned in scripture (Genesis 30:14), but there is some doubt whether the mandrakes indicated were really mandragoras. Gerard points out that "yong Ruben brought home amiable and sweet-smelling floures (for so signifieth the Hebrew word. . .). Now in the floures of Mandrake, there is no such delectable or amiable smell."
Mandrake has a crown of large, unpleasantly scented leaves and primrose-like white flowers tinged with purple. It is possible, however, that what Reuben gathered were the ripe yellow fruits, which boast an apple-like shape and scent and are reputed to be the only non-toxic part of the plant.
The danger is certainly real. As for the superstitions, we might do well to heed Gerard's advice. "All which dreams and old wives tales you shall from henceforth cast out of your books and memory. . .for I my selfe. . .have digged up, planted, and replanted very many, and yet never could either perceive shape of man or woman. . ." Apparently he heard no screams either! But this plant can reinforce the old fairy-tale lesson that it is possible to find golden apples in the most unlikely places.
For pottage and puddings and custard and pies, Our pumpkins and parsnip are common supplies: We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon, If it were not for pumpkins, we should be undoon. Pilgrim rhyme--1630
The pumpkin, with its vivid color and mellow flavor, is an apt symbol of autumn. Its flickering face lights Halloween night and its cinnamon-laced pies scent Thanksgiving morning. As indicated above, this winter squash--technically a fruit--also sustained the Pilgrims through some grueling winters.
Squashes originated, like potatoes and tomatoes, in the Americas. (I am beginning to wonder what Europeans ate before they discovered the New World!) Pumpkin derives from the Greek "pepon" which, depending on whom you believe, means either "ripe," "mellow," "cooked by the sun," or "large melon." Squash derives, more simply, from the Algonquin Indian "askoot asquash" or "eaten green."
So-called "summer" squashes such as zucchini and crookneck are simply those that are harvested at an immature stage, while their skins are still tender. If left to age, they can become almost as thick-skinned and warty as their "winter" counterparts!
Native Americans roasted and dried pumpkin strips and used them to make everything from sleeping mats to flour. They also brewed the crushed seeds into a tea to treat such afflictions as edema, gout, kidneystones, and bladder infections.
Although Columbus carried pumpkin seeds back with him to Europe, the squashes grown from them were initially fed to pigs! Shakespeare himself did not seem much impressed with the new "fruit." In the Merry Wives of Windsor, a character says scornfully of Falstaff, "Go to, then: we'll use this unwholesome humidity, this gross watery pumpion. . ."
The original Jack-O-Lanterns were not carved from pumpkins. They derived from an Irish fable about a wiley lad called Stingy Jack, who tricked the devil into promising not to take his soul. Unfortunately, however, heaven didn't want Jack either! So he was doomed to wander the earth, his way lit only by a coal from hell inside a carved out turnip. Superstitious folks carved scary faces on turnips, potatoes, or beets and set them in their windows to ward off Jack and other wandering spirits. The colonists must have concluded that pumpkins made much more intimidating faces!
Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow contributed to the pumpkin's spooky reputation with the following: ". . .the tracks of horses' hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin."
Settlers also hollowed out pumpkins to fill them with milk, spices, and honey, and roast them in hot ashes. Voila! A pudding very similar to pumpkin pie! The flesh of pumpkin and other winter squashes also flavors delectable and highly nutritious soups, sweet breads, cakes, and muffins. Because they are high in beta-carotene, these tawny treats may even help prevent cancer.
Herbalists also recommend pumpkin for the elimination of intestinal parasites (worms), prostrate problems, and dizziness. John Heinerman touts a syrup made from combining ground up pumpkin seeds --known as pepitas--with honey or molasses to treat the first two maladies. James Duke explains that it is probably the seeds' high levels of zinc, amino acids, and cucurbitacins that makes them effective against prostate problems.
Applied to the skin, cold mashed pumpkin or winter squash soothes mild burns, sunburns, headaches, and neuralgia. The crushed leaves have been used as a poultice for sprains and bruises.
And, of course, in story and rhyme, pumpkins have come in handy for everything from containing pumpkin-eaters' wives, to "coaching" Cinderella, to terrifying irksome schoolmasters. But, to someone like me who is partial to pumpkin "pottage and puddings and custard and pies," that can seem like a dreadful waste of the main ingredient!
Note: Photo is by author, all rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without permission.
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew 2:11
Since this is the time of year when even fast-food fanatics dig out aprons and grandma's recipes, it seems a good time to talk about spices. After all, two of the most exotic appear in the Christmas story itself.
Although we associate frankincense and myrrh with the Child of the New Testament, those resins are actually much more frequently mentioned in the Old. The Ishmeelites, who purchased Old Testament Joseph from his jealous brother, were "bearing spicery and balm and myrrh. . .down to Egypt." And, in Exodus 30, God gave Moses recipes for anointing oil and incense that made frankincense and myrrh prime ingredients.
For the oil, God instructed Moses to mix about 16 pounds of myrrh with the same amount of cassia and half as much each of cinnamon and calamus. For the incense, he was to beat together equal amounts of frankincense, stacte, onycha, and galbanum.
Frankincense (boswellia thurifera), myrrh (commpihora myrrha) and galbanum (ferula galbaniflua) are similar to each other in that they are all trees or shrubby bushes native to Asia and Africa. When slashed, they exude their perfumes as bits of resin called "tears." Frankincense has always been the most esteemed of the three and the most used in worship. To the wise men it could have symbolized Christ's deity, while myrrh, often employed as an embalming spice, may have foretold his early death.
At Christ's crucifixion, the gospel of Mark reports, "they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not." And Nicodemus, who came to help prepare Christ's body for burial "brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pound weight."
Women of ancient times reveled in sweet odors. They painted their eyelids with black kohl, which was actually charred frankincense. The spice burned on braziers along with benzoin and aloeswood. Fragrant resins were sometimes infused into hand creams as well. So when the woman in the Song of Solomon said, "My hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet-smelling myrrh," she may have been speaking literally. These days, myrrh is frequently added to toothpastes and mouthwashes, since its tannins help prevent canker sores and gum disease while its fragrance sweetens the breath.
For three of the other incense spices--cassia, cinnamon, and stacte--the inner bark is harvested. Cassia and cinnamon are closely related, the former being cinnamomum cassia and the latter cinnamomum zeylanicum. (I will cover the cinnamons more extensively with the baking spices later in this article.) Stacte belongs to the same family (liquidambar) as the American sweet gum. Its inner bark is pressed to remove a semi-liquid balsam. Onycha is believed to be cistus ladaniferus, an ornamental whose flowers are as lovely as its scent.
The only one of the incense spices that would be hardy here in PA is acorus calamus or sweet flag. Also known as gladdon, myrtle grass, or cinnamon sedge, it flourishes in swampy conditions and won't flower unless actually growing in water. People once nibbled on bits of its rhizome to soothe their stomachs.
Most of the baking spices are native to Asia or to tropical islands. Some, such as ginger (zingiber officinalis) and turmeric (curcuma longa), are derived from the rhizomes of plants. Those two related roots might almost be considered too good to be true, since they treat a wide variety of ailments.
Both are blood-thinners and antifungals that also relieve indigestion and pain, lower blood pressure, protect the liver, and help prevent cancer and heart disease. Ginger is probably the best remedy around for nausea, vomiting, morning sickness, and motion sickness --one study proving it even more effective than Dramamine! In the good old days people consumed the spice, wrapped in bread, after a big meal to ward off digestion problems. (The ancient version of Tums, perhaps!) Eventually somebody got the bright idea of including the spice in the bread's ingredients, and gingerbread made its debut.
Ginger beer, the forerunner of ginger ale, was also very popular. In my family, we quaff ginger ale as a remedy for nausea. (This only works, of course, if the soda is naturally flavored.) I also pop a couple ginger capsules with any meal that includes baked beans or other hard-to-digest dishes. Ginger breaks fevers and dispels mucous too. As a hot compress, it relieves muscle stiffness and pain as well as congestion.
Turmeric is found in curry powders and prepared mustards. Mixed with a little oil and applied externally, it is the premier herbal treatment for all kinds of skin problems, including acne, dermatitis, and diaper rash.
Most of the other baking spices come from the seeds, fruits, or bark of trees. Almost all of them are antiseptic and antifungal, and many are rich in a compound called eugonol that aids digestion and relieves pain. Among those is pungent cassia, the "inferior" of the two cinnamons, which generally spices meats and curries. Sweeter zeylanicum is the cinnamon we commonly add to desserts and breads.
Both cinnamons will stop vomiting and relieve gas and diarrhea. John Heinerman suggests sprinkling a little cinnamon and cardamom on hot buttered raisin toast as a pleasant remedy for indigestion. Cardamom, a mild stimulant and an ingredient in curry powder, is frequently recommended to those who have celiac disease (an intolerance for gluten). Another curry component, allspice, does not combine several spices. Rather, it comes from the dried and ground green berries of the pimento tree (pimenta officinalis).
A small amount of clove (eugenia caryophyllata) oil, applied with a swab, is an old home remedy for toothache. Since clove also kills germs, it sometimes appears in mouthwashes and your dentist my use it as a disinfectant for root canals. You can also reportedly chew on a couple cloves to curb a craving for alcohol.
Two of the baking spices, nutmeg and mace, are found on the same tree, myristica fragans --mace being the aril that surrounds the seed and nutmeg the seed itself. Although harmless in small amounts, in large doses nutmeg can be a poisonous narcotic.
While I am on the subject of poisons, let me also warn you that the essential oils made from many spices are so concentrated that they can also be toxic if consumed straight. Most of those oils were meant to be used in very small amounts, highly diluted. So please follow directions carefully.
We are very fortunate in that most of the incense and baking spices once made expensive by long caravan treks across dangerous territory are now cheaply available in our local supermarkets or craft stores. We should be careful not to take them for granted, however. The wise men, who appeared mysteriously from the east to offer homage to Christ, knew those sweet scents to be treasures fit for a King!
Note: Myrrh and cinnamon images are from Kohler's Medicinal Plants, courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery . Other images are courtesy of the Southwestern School of Botanical Medicine at http://www.swsbm.com/HOMEPAGE/HomePage.h...
Leo was wide awake and was tickling his brother's leg with a dried cone-flower he had pulled out of the hay. Ambrosch kicked him and turned over. Willa Cather, My Antonia
In the middle of cold and flu season, it seems appropriate to talk about what is probably this country's most popular --and controversial--herbal remedy: echinacea or coneflower. Although I have been in the habit of calling the plant "eh-kin-ay-see-ah," I now read that the proper pronunciation is "eh-kin-ay-sha."
According to which study you believe, coneflower is either one of the most effective disease preventers known to man, or a highly over-hyped remedy. We might consider this disagreement symbolic of the continuing clash between conventional and alternative medicine. Although conventional practitioners have had to accept their patients' preference for gentler herbal remedies, we can sense that many of them do so with the utmost reluctance! And, since echinacea is probably the most used of those remedies, it bears the brunt of the attack.
The herb's name derives from the Greek "echinos" or "hedgehog" (AKA "porcupine"), in reference to the flowers prickly cone. So echinacea has been known as hedgehog coneflower, as well as purple coneflower, purple daisy, and the more racist sampson root --an allusion to the plant's black root.
The wildflower originated in the Plains States and Tennessee, though the Tennessee variety is now endangered. Native Americans used it to treat colds, sore gums, burns, snake and insect bites, etc, and purified themselves in their sweat lodges with echinacea steam. Wiley medicine men numbed their tongues with the plant's chewed leaves before mouthing hot coals --a feat that naturally impressed potential patients!
That tingle, then numbness, that echinacea imparts to the tongue is --according to herbalists --a good sign of the herb's freshness and potency. "Flat" coneflower is supposed to have lost its medicinal effectiveness. (Even that claim is debatable, however. Others believe the element that imparts the tingle decreases the herb's power!)
In the late 1800's, echinacea gained a snake-oil reputation, when it was patented as Meyer's Blood Purifier, supposedly effective against even the bites of rattlers! The plant was able to rise above its unfortunate associations with patent medicine, however, to become exceedingly popular into the 1920's. Once modern antibiotics made their debut, though, the herb was largely forgotten. Now that those antibiotics have been shown to have their drawbacks, echinacea is resurging.
According to Michael Castleman, author of The Healing Herbs, the plant contains a natural antibiotic that fights a wide range of viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Another of its elements stimulates the white blood cells that destroy germs, while yet another resists those germs' tissue-destroying enzymes. Thus, echinacea's strongest reputation is for preventing disease.
It looses its effectiveness if used constantly, however, so it is best to take it only when you know your body to be stressed, or when persons close to you are sick and you want to avoid contracting their illnesses. Since coneflower is also anti-inflammatory and encourages production of new tissue, it can treat cuts, burns, skin problems, and arthritis as well.
Many conventional doctors sneer that such herbs work only because the users believe they will. I suspect that is true of all medicines, though, both conventional and alternative. The Great Physician, after all, emphasized how much healing depends on faith. Because body, soul, and spirit are so interlocked, I suspect that all three have to be open to a remedy before it can help. So, if you trust your doctor and believe in the course of treatment he is prescribing, you are much more likely to benefit from it. If, however, you tell yourself that you are only going to get worse, your body will probably be happy to oblige you! Its job is, after all, to carry out commands from the brain.
Even if you're not into herbal medicine, you will discover that coneflower makes a robust ornamental plant for the garden. It is quite easy to grow in sandy, limey soil and full sun, and will often remain in bloom for a couple months.
Although echinacea does look something like a purple (actually magenta) daisy, its center is more dome-shaped and its petals tend to curve downward. Echinacea augustifolia, or "narrow-leaved coneflower" is the smaller, but more medicinally potent variety. It only grows to about two feet in height with two-inch flowers. Echinacea purpurea or "purple coneflower," on the other hand, can grow taller than three feet. Although its flowers are usually about four inches across one new variety, Ruby Giant, is reputed to produce 7-inch blooms.
Another recent innovation is a double-flowered echinacea known as Razzmatazz which some have called "the Holy Grail of the plant world." (In other words, though much sought-after, it is very expensive!) Although there have always been less well known white and yellow coneflowers as well as purple, a new variety, Orange Meadowbrite, is lauded as the first orange echinacea. Like Razzmatazz, it will probably make all of us gardeners slaver. Our shared mania for attaining new and exotic plants is, perhaps, the only contagion that coneflower won't help us fight!
Note: Echinacea pallida and echinacea purpurea photos are by Mimi Kamp, echinacea augustifolia photo by an unknown photographer, all courtesy of the Southwestern School of Botanical Medicine at http://www.swsbm.com/HOMEPAGE/HomePage.h...
Coy anemone that ne'er uncloses Her lips until they're blown on by the wind. (Unattributed quote from A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve)
Anemones, like auriculas, seem to have been much more popular hundreds of years ago than they are today. Robert Furber's 1730 catalog/calendar, Twelve Months of Flowers, shows some fancy cultivars that would make any modern gardener's eyes pop. (Of course, like all nurserymen, he may have been prone to idealizing the size and/or splendor of his wares!)
In the drawings, those 1730 anemones seem to have large crested centers, with the crest frequently a different color than the outer petals. Although there are many double anemones available now--most of them anemone coronaria (poppy anemone) types--I don't recall seeing any modern crested versions of the flower.
Gerard wrote, in 1597, that "the stock or kindred of the anemones or Wind-floures, especially in their varieties of colours, are without number. . .My selfe have in my garden twelve different sorts. . .every new yeare bringing with it new and strange kindes." He called the double-flowered type "Anemone of Chalcedon."
The plant's name derives from Anemos, the Greek god of wind. He supposedly sent anemone flowers to announce his spring arrival. And, according to popular belief, they would only bloom for him. Gerard wrote that the "floure doth never open it selfe but when the wind doth blow." Another myth contends that anemones sprang from the tears Venus shed over Adonis' death. "Where streams his blood, there, blushing, springs a rose./ And where a tear has dropped, a windflower grows."
Anemone coronaria is widely believed to be the flower Christ indicated when he said, "Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." (Matthew 6:28b-29)
Strangely enough, an anemone's petals are not actually petals at all, but an attractive calyx of 6 to 8 sepals that close at night or during rain. Fairies were believed to shelter inside those ethereal "tents."
Since most anemones have finely-cut foliage, the plant has never had a robust look. Poet Matthew Arnold described one variety as "the frail-leaf'd, white anemone." Due either to the flower's frequently wan color, frail appearance, or the blush on its sepal backs--similar to the flush of fever--ancient Egyptians associated the anemone with sickness. The Chinese went a step farther, calling it the "Flower of Death." Romans, on the other hand, optimistically wore the delicate bloom as an amulet, in hopes that it would help prevent real fever. Although herbalists have made sporadic attempts to find therapeutic uses for the plant, most frequently as a cough remedy, its acrid juice can be toxic. And it doesn't really have enough medicinal value to make up for its bad taste!
Among the anemone's meanings in the Language of Flowers are "abandonment," "expectation," "refusal," or "sickness." We've already seen where "sickness" comes in and can deduce that "expectation" probably derives from the legend of Anemos, "refusal" from the bloom's occasional closing up, and "abandonment" from Venus' bereavement.
Some of the better known types of anemones are anemone hepatica, anemone patens, and anemone japonica. Hepatica derived from the Greek "hepar" or "liver," although the plant's leaves are actually more kidney-shaped. It is also known as liverwort in the U.S., not to mention liver leaf, kidneywort, and liver weed. The wild form is stemless and only about 6 inches tall with blue to white flowers.
Anemone patens is more often called anemone pulsatilla or pulsatilla vulgaris these days. Its common names are pasque flower and meadow anemone, because it blooms near Easter in sunnier areas than most of its kin. Covered with silky hairs, pulsatilla also has an acrid juice that can blister the skin and inflame the eyes. Its name derives from "pulsc" or "I beat," in reference to how its seedpods are flailed by the wind. The wild pasque flower's purple sepals were once used to dye Easter eggs green. Gerard reports that pulsatilla sometimes blooms again in September.
The fall-blooming anemone hupehensis (AKA anemone japonica) was brought back from the Orient by colorful Scottish botanist Robert Fortune in 1845. The adventurous Fortune single-handedly repelled a couple different pirate attacks on the Chinese junk in which he was a passenger. While firing on the pirates with a double-barreled "fowling piece," he also had to hold a pistol on the helmsmen of his own boat--to keep them from retreating below-deck with the rest of the passengers and crew.
The anemone too has proved much tougher than people expected! Although not as popular in our day as it seems to have been in Gerard's, it continues to hang in there. And, from those 1730 pictures I've been mooning over, I suspect that a lot more could be done with this flower than has been attempted in recent years. The first nurseryman to give us some anemones like the ones in the old paintings could make a second Fortune!
Note: High Admiral and Rose Jonker anemone sketches are from the March plate of Robert Furber's 1730 Twelve Months of Flowers. Anemone coronaria photo is by J. R. Manhart and anemone hepatica photo is by Albert Perdeck, both courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery . Anemone patens photo is by Britta Blodorn courtesy of the Southwestern School of Botanical Medicine at http://www.swsbm.com/HOMEPAGE/HomePage.h...
Tradition holds that St. Patrick, the ex-slave who helped convert Ireland to Christianity, used a sprig of white clover to illustrate the three-in-one doctrine of the Trinity. So the shamrock, which derives from the Gaelic seamrog ("summer plant") became the emblem of his feast day --and, eventually, of his adopted country as well.
Occasionally the national symbol turned into a badge of rebellion against Britain, inspiring the dolorous strains of "they're hanging men and women there for the Wearin' o' the Green." It also turned up, as the suit of clubs, on playing cards!
After the evening meal on St. Patrick's Day, the clover was often removed and "drowned" in the first toast of the evening, before being jettisoned over the wearer's left shoulder. The four-leafed clover, considered even luckier than the shamrock, provided the ultimate defense against witchcraft. A young woman who placed one in her left shoe could presumably count on marrying the first man she meant afterwards --or, at least, his brother! Because St. Patrick was believed to have driven all the serpents out of Ireland, clovers were also supposed to defend against snakes.
The shamrock was not the only accepted lapel decoration on St. Patrick's Day. Colored paper crosses were also popular, and considered by some to be less rustic! The clover does bear a resemblance to a cross itself, however, and its three leaves might be said to represent another popular Irish trinity: love, valor, and wit. (Keep in mind that the plant pictured to the right, which is often sold as shamrock this time of year, is not a clover but oxalis, AKA wood sorrel.)
White, or creeping, clover (trifolium repens) is, of course only one member of an extensive family. Almost all of the clovers are considered lucky, perhaps because the hay made from them has always been a necessity to farmers. Their heavenly perfume also helps! In The Fragrant Path, Louise Beeber Wilder wrote of sainfoin honey that "it tastes as white clover smells --and what could be more delicious?" Anyone who has lain in the grass on a splendid summer day, drinking in that scent and watching honeybees hum happily --and almost drunkenly --from blossom to blossom would have to agree.
Another delectable member of the family is melilotus officinalis, also known as sweet or king's clover. Similar to alfalfa but with leaves that are more yellow-green than blue-green, melilotus derives from mel ("honey") and lotus ("a fruit said to induce a dreamy indolence and forgetfulness"). It contains the vanilla-like coumarin that gives both hay and woodruff their perfumes. Gerard called melilotus "suckles" and "hony-suckles," as well, though these days we know another plant by that name.
In days past, sweet clover scented tobaccos and bedsheets. Since its mashed-up leaves also soothed inflammations, melilotus became known as plaster clover too. Its young greens were served in salads or steamed and its seeds, about the size of small peas, flavored soups. The dried leaves can also add a vanilla flavor to desserts. It is important that melilotus be completely dry, however. If fermented, coumarin turns into an anticoagulant (blood-thinner) and has caused hemorrhaging in cows fed improperly cured hay.
Alfalfa, AKA medicargo sativa or Chilean clover, has its dangers as well. Although it lowers cholesterol and sweetens the breath, its seeds contain the toxic amino acid canavanine that can cause miscarriages and reactivate lupus symptoms.
Red clover, trifolium pratense, is probably the most popular variety for medicinal use. Early patent medicines were often known as trifolium compounds, since they contained so much of the plant. It was part of Harry Hoxey's alternative cancer treatment that also included barberry, buckthorn, burdock, cascara sagrada, licorice, poke, prickly ash, and bloodroot. Although skeptics scoffed, all but one of Hoxey's herbs have been shown to contain anti-tumor compounds.
Red clover has four, including daidzen and genistein. It is also relatively high in tocopherol (Vitamin E). Clover is not recommended for cancers that are made worse by estrogen, however. Because the plant, like soybean, belongs to the legume family, clover has effects on the body similar to estrogen. That makes it a possible treatment for menopausal symptoms, but women with a family history of female cancers or persons with heart problems should probably avoid it.
An expectorant, clover also treats asthma, coughs, and bronchitis. It soothes skin diseases like eczema and psoriasis and fights several bacterias, including the one that causes TB.
Since I am a farmer's daughter, my recollections of clover are pleasant ones. Not only does the plant feed our livestock, it naturally fertilizes the ground in which it grows by fixing nitrogen in the soil. I can understand why clover stands for "domestic virtue" and "fertility" in the Language of Flowers. And I can identify with Wilder who "thought the scent the best of all perfumes, and would carry a thick wad of the soft blossoms done up in a none too clean handkerchief. . ."
When you find yourself dreaming of those leaves of three--or four--consider it a good sign. Such visions are supposed to promise success in all aspects of your life. If, like me, you find these superstitions more amusing than convincing, you can still follow clover's example. Like St. Patrick or his symbol, make the spot where you're planted sweeter and richer by your presence, and the world will remember you with pleasure as well!
Note: Trifolium repens image is from Otto Wilhelm Thomé's Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz and melilotus officinalis image if from Köhler's Medicinal Plants, both courtesy of the Texas Vascular Plant Image Gallery at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/gallery . Trifolium pratense photo is by Mimi Kamp courtesy of the Southwestern School of Botanical Medicine at http://www.swsbm.com/HOMEPAGE/HomePage.h... Oxalis deppei photo is courtesy of http://www.thegardenhelper.com . Shamrock image is courtesy of http://IrishHistory.info .