An Herbal Obscurity

By Chrissy Moore

If you asked me about my favorite herbs, you’d likely be surprised by my response. I tend to gravitate toward more obscure plants and topics in the herb world. My most recent herbal revelation is no exception.

Train journal and cotton wasteOne of my friends is a complete and total railroad aficionado. I love these kinds of people because they often have gems of obscure information at the ready for anyone willing to listen, and as a naturally inquisitive person myself, I am almost always a willing listener. Recently, this friend–I’ll call him James–was explaining to me the wheel systems on trains, pre-21st century. (I told you it was obscure, but I love it!). Midway through his explanation, he said, “And they packed the journal [part of the wheel system] with cotton waste, and…”

“Wait, what? What did you say? Cotton what?”

“Cotton waste. They’d soak it in oil, pack it under the journal, and the lubrication would help reduce friction between the journal and the wheel bearing.”

“What the heck is cotton waste?” (Clearly I was distracted from the main point of the conversation.)

“You know, scraps of cotton fabric or fiber or whatever.”

Recycled cotton waste“Where did they get it? Did they just tear up old shirts or something? That’s a lot of old shirts for all the trains in the country!”

James cocked his head in response with a quizzical look on his face. I don’t think anyone had ever prodded him about this particular topic before. Leave it to me. Hah!

If you’re not involved in the textile industry in some way, as I am not, you may not be familiar with the term “cotton waste.” James’s wife, who is very familiar with cotton waste, she being a seamstress, intervened in the conversation and explained it to me. Essentially, it is the leftover scraps of fiber or fabric from clothes manufacturing or the like. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of it hanging around.

Gossypium hirsutum 'Mississipi Brown'I was so excited to learn about this use of cotton–as obscure as it may be to most of us–because cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is one of my favorite herbs! The fibers are used in so many applications, it’s hard to recount them all: from clothing (the obvious) to cotton swabs/balls to movie film cellulose (now a thing of the past); from cling film to its use in the food industry (cottonseed)… these are just a few examples. Talk about a jack-of-all-trades. And here was yet another use for this amazing plant: the inner workings of a train. Who knew?! James did, of course.

Because my interest was piqued–as any herbal nerd’s would be–I decided to dig a little deeper into cotton waste’s uses. The waste can be environmentally dodgy and potentially dangerous, since it’s basicallyRecycled cotton waste into housing insulation flammable material laying about (a whole other topic). But as it turns out, there are various companies and non-profit organizations that collect the waste–either the fabric or fiber–and recycle it into things like new garments, furniture, or housing insulation. (You gotta admire people’s ingenuity.) According to one insulation manufacturer, their insulation is fire-retardant, mold/mildew resistant, has no VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and has excellent noise-dampening qualities. While I cannot speak to the veracity of those claims, the mere idea that cotton fiber can be used in a different format, yet again, is a perfect example of what it means for a plant to be “herbal.”

Whether used for culinary purposes, for fragrance or medicine, or in this case, industrially, plants that give and give and give again rank high on my personal list. My thanks go out to James (and the many enthusiasts like him) for inadvertently introducing me to a new use for this hard-working herb. Next time someone asks me about my favorite plants, I now have a great herbal obscurity at the ready to share with any willing listeners!

Photo credits: 1) Train journal with cotton waste packing (Steve Smith, Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway Museum); 2) Cotton waste (Artistic Fabric & Garment Industries); 3) ‘Mississippi Brown’ cotton boll, Gossypium hirsutum ‘Mississippi Brown’ (author’s photo); 4) Recycled cotton waste housing insulation (Bonded Logic).


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. As steward of the NHG, Chrissy lectures, provides tours, and writes on various herbal topics, as well as shepherds the garden’s “Under the Arbor” educational outreach program. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

Pitch Pine- Tar and Pitch for Shipbuilding

By Cipperly Good

2015.5.1

Roll of oakum. Image courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum Collection, PMM2015.5.1

The riches that the British, French, and Dutch explorers found in Maine came not from gold, but in the form of fish and lumber.  Having depleted those resources in Europe by the 1700s, they sent work parties and eventually colonists to extract these materials vital for feeding and shipping goods back to the motherland.   One highly prized resource was Pinus rigida (pitch pine), which provided the tar that preserved the watercraft.  Tar prevented rot in the ship timbers and standing rigging (ropes holding up the masts, yards, and booms).  It sealed the cracks between deck and hull planks from rain coming down and seas washing over them.

When a donor gifted the Penobscot Marine Museum with a roll of tarred oakum, the evocative sweet smell transported me back to tall ship voyages and the attendant memories of fresh sea air, sun, and the mix of peace and adrenaline of sailing.  Oakum is the tarred strands of picked apart rope, wedged into gaps in the planking and sealed with a seam of pine tar to prevent deck and hull leaks. 

Bill of lading

Bill of Lading from the ship ISAAC CARVER. Image courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum Collection, PMM32-575

To extract the pine tar, shipbuilders put pitch pine logs into a kiln, where the lack of oxygen and high heat inside resulted in tar and charcoal.  The oozing tar was collected.  If the tar was boiled, it became pitch, which when spread on hulls hardened into a watertight seal.  Pitch pine could also be tapped, with the resulting “sap”, when distilled, becoming turpentine.

Like the Europeans before them, Maine depleted its stores of pitch pine, despite conservation measures to prohibit the cutting of trees under 12 inches in diameter.  The industry moved to the southeastern US, especially to the Carolinas where longleaf pine  (Pinus palustris) was the tar tree of choice.  Mainers stayed in the market by transporting tar in Maine-built ships to markets throughout the world.


Cipperly is curator of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine.