The Other Side of Yew

By Erin Holden

As an herbalist I’m interested in many aspects of plants – from their use in herbal and conventional medicine, to lore that informs us how those in the past viewed the plant. I knew that Taxol was a cancer drug made from the yew tree, but when a friend mentioned its poisonous aspects, I decided to dig a bit deeper.

Taxol, the well-known cancer treatment, was first isolated and studied in the early 1960s into the late 1970s, and approved as a cancer drug in the early 1990s. Paclitaxel, the common chemical name of Taxol, was initially extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia). It was quickly realized that extracting enough paclitaxel to meet demand would wipe out this species in short order, so scientists turned to its faster-growing cousin, the European yew (Taxus baccata), as an alternative. A precursor of Taxol is extracted from the leaves of the European yew and then synthesized into the desired drug. Use of the leaves instead of the bark, as well as its fast growth, means the European yew is a more sustainable source of this cancer treatment.

Taxus baccata by Maigheach-gheal in the Church of St. Mary and All Saints in Great BritainThis all sounds well and good, but if we look at the history of yew, we see that it didn’t always have the best reputation – quite the opposite. Whereas Taxol belongs to a chemical group called taxanes, another group, the taxines, is quite deadly. These toxic compounds are found in every part of all Taxus species, in varying amounts, except for the red, fleshy aril. When ingested, taxines act directly on the heart and inhibit its ability to pump properly, causing a drastic drop in blood pressure, arrhythmias, and death. There is no treatment for yew poisoning, and supportive care is not always successful in saving a patient. A brief peek into the medical literature shows that yew has been used in many suicide attempts, both successful and non-fatal. Even as far back as 53 B.C., Julius Caesar recounts how a king of Eburones, Cativolcus, took his own life by drinking the juice of the yew. This deadly aspect of yew, as well as its evergreen nature, likely contributed to yew being associated with death and immortality in both Druidic and Christian cultures.

Church_of_St_Mary_and_St_Christopher,_Panfield_-_churchyard_yew_treesWhile researching, I stumbled upon an interesting “explanation” for how yews became poisonous, written in the 17th century. Since Druids considered yew sacred, many were planted all over England. Their long association with death likely led to cemeteries of new churches being placed near the trees. It was thought that decaying bodies released noxious gases on the south and west sides of a church yard, which then gathered under and were taken up by the yews. Yew roots were thought to “run and suck nourishment” from the dead, whose flesh is “the rankest poison that could be”, and so the trees themselves became poisonous. Because of this association, the church itself was built on the north or north east side of existing trees (https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/10/31/beneath-the-yew-trees-shade/).

I find it fascinating how facts and lore surrounding a plant can mix and have such an impact on various aspects of human activity – from medicine to community planning. And how a life-saving plant can also have a sinister side. Think about it the next time you pass by your ornamental yew. 

Photo Credits: 1) Taxus baccata arils (Frank Vincentz, Wikimedia); 2)Taxus baccata at The Church of St Mary and All Saints in Great Britain (Maigheach-gheal, geograph.org.uk/p/2209844); 3)Line of yew trees in the churchyard of St. Mary and St. Christopher’s Church, Painfield, Essex, England (Image © Acabashi; Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0; Source: Wikimedia Commons)

 Resources:

Grobosch, T. et al. (2013). Eight cases of fatal and non-fatal poisoning with Taxus baccataForensic Science International, vol. 227, issues 1-3, pgs 118-126. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0379073812005324?via%3Dihub

Laqueur, T. W. (2015). Beneath the yew tree’s shade. The Paris Review. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/10/31/beneath-the-yew-trees-shade/; Accessed 2/22/2021. 

Lee, M.R. (1998); The yew tree (Taxus baccata) in mythology and medicine. Proc. R. Coll. Physicians Edinb. vol. 28: 569-575;  https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/sites/default/files/vol28_4.1_12.pdf

National Cancer Institute; Success Story: Taxol® (NSC 125973) https://dtp.cancer.gov/timeline/flash/success_stories/S2_Taxol.htm; Accessed Jan 22, 2021.

Rickard, J. (26 March 2009); Cativolcus, king of the Eburones, d. 53 B.C.  http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_cativolcus.html; Accessed 1/22/2021.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Erin is the gardener for the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, and a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America.

Tamarind – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

The tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) is one of many tropical herbal trees. Its leaves, bark, wood, roots, and fruits have many uses. The tamarind tree Tamarindus indicais also an evergreen, long-lived landscape tree, reaching a height of 40 to 60 feet tall and a width of up to 25 feet wide. Its pinnate leaves close up at night. The branches droop to the ground, making it a graceful shade tree. A mature tree can produce up to 350-500 pounds of fruit each year. It is native to tropical Africa and is in the Fabaceae family. 

One of the earliest documented uses of tamarind was found in the Ganges Valley of India, where wood charcoal dating back to 1300 BCE was discovered. Tamarind was mentioned in ancient Indian scriptures as early as 1200 BCE. Arab physicians were reported to be the first to use the fruit pulp as medicine. It was the Arabs who named the tamarind, calling it “tamara hindi” or Indian date. It is thought that the Arabs were responsible for the spread of the tamarind through the Persian Gulf region and Egypt. There is documented use of tamarind in Egypt in 400 BCE. The tamarind was brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1600s. A tamarind tree was planted in Hawaii in 1797.

Tamarind-based drinksThe tamarind tree grows well in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11 and therefore, is not commonly seen in the continental United States, except in southern Florida. It produces a showy light brown, bean-like fruit, which can be left on the tree for up to six months after maturing. The sweet-sour pulp that surrounds the seeds is rich in calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, and riboflavin and is a good source of niacin. The pulp is widely used in Mexico to make thirst-quenching juice drinks and even beer. It is also very popular in fruit candies. The fruit is used in Indian cuisines in curries, chutneys, meat sauces, and in a pickle dish called tamarind fish. Southeast Asians combine the pulp with chiles and use it for marinating chicken and fish before grilling. They also use it to flavor sauces, soups, and noodle dishes. Chefs in the United States are beginning to experiment with the sweet-sour flavor of tamarind pulp. Did you know that tamarind is a major ingredient in Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire Sauce? Tamarind CandyThe fruit pods are long-lasting and can be found in some grocery stores, especially those serving Hispanic, Indian, and Southeast Asian populations. 

All parts of this ancient tree have been used in traditional medicines in Africa and Asia and have a long list of maladies that they have treated. According to Purdue’s Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department (https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html), “Tamarind preparations are universally recognized as refrigerants in fevers and as laxatives and carminatives.” The ground-up seeds have been used as a poultice for boils, while the boiled leaves and flowers were used as poultices for sprains and swollen joints. The bark is astringent, tonic, and a fever reducer. An infusion of the roots has been used to treat chest complaints and leprosy. It has also been used to treat sunstroke, Datura poisoning, and alcohol intoxication. According to WebMD®, there is not sufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of tamarind to treat most of these illnesses. However, research has shown that eye drops containing tamarind seed extract do improve dry eye.

Throughout the tropical world, there are many legends and superstitions regarding the tamarind tree. Here are a few:

  • A Buddhist parable about tamarind seeds says that they are the symbol of faithfulness and forbearance. 
  • Some African tribes believe that the tree is sacred, and some Indians believe that one should not sleep under one because of the acid it “exhales” during the night.  
  • Some even believe that nothing will grow under a tamarind tree. However, Maude Grieve, in her 1931 book, A Modern Herbal, claimed that “some plants and bulbs bloomed luxuriantly under the tamarind trees in her garden in Bengal.”
  • The Burmese believe that the tree is the dwelling place of the rain god, and that the tree raises the temperature of the ground beneath it.
  • In Nyasaland, tamarind bark is soaked with corn and fed to livestock as a way of guaranteeing their return if they are lost or stolen.
  • In some Asian countries, it is believed that evil spirits inhabit the tamarind tree and building a house where it grows should be avoided.
  • In the Caribbean, old tamarind trees are believed to have spirits living in them.

The tamarind is an incredibly useful tree. The young leaves and shoots are eaten as a vegetable, and the flowers and leaves can be added to salads. The flowers are also important as a pollen source for bees. The leaves can be tamarind seed podsused as fodder for domestic animals and food for silkworms. The leaves are also used as garden mulch. 

The seeds are ground to make flour, or roasted and used as a coffee substitute or as an addition to coffee. The seeds are also processed to produce a natural pectin and food stabilizer. There are many more uses of the seeds that are too numerous to list. 

The oil produced from the tamarind is culinary grade oil and is also used in specialty varnishes, adhesives, dyeing, and tanning.

The wood of the tamarind is another example of exceptional usefulness as it is very hard and insect resistant. It makes great handles for tools and is prized for furniture and paneling. It is considered a valuable fuel source because it gives off intense heat. The branches of the tamarind are used as walking sticks. The bark contains tannins and is used in tanning hides and is also used to make twine.

Lea & Perrins Worcestershire SauceThe fruit pulp is useful as a dye fixative, or combined with sea water, it cleans silver, brass, and copper. In addition to all of these uses, school children in Africa use the seeds as learning aids in arithmetic lessons and as counters in traditional board games.

The next time you reach for a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, remember the ancient tamarind tree and its usefulness in the tropical parts of our world.

 

 

Photo Credits: 1) Tamarindus indica (JIRCAS); 2) Tamarind-based beverages; 3) Tamarind-based confections; 4) Tamarind seed pods; 5) Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire sauce (Photos 2 – 5, courtesy of the author).

References

Ebifa-Othieno, Esther, et al. “Knowledge, attitudes and practices in tamarind use and conservation in Eastern Uganda. Journal of Ethnobiology & Ethnomedicine. Vol. 13. Jan. 2017. Available from Ebscohost. Accessed 10/16/20. 

El-Siddiq, K., et al. Tamarind, Tamarindus indica. England, Southhampton Centre for Underutilized Crops, 2006. Available from Google Scholar. Accessed 10/18/20.

Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal. Harcourt, Brace, & Company. 1931.

History of tamarind.  Available from https://www.world-foodhistory.com/2011/07/history-of-tamarind.html.  Accessed 10/16/20.

Missouri Botanical Garden. Plant Finder. Available at http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/plantfindersearch.aspx. Accessed 10/16/20.

Tamarind. Purdue University Horticulture and Landscape Department. Available from https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html. Accessed 10/18/20.

Tamarind. WebMD.  Available from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-819/tamarind. Accessed 10/18/20

Tamarind tree. Available from https://www.permaculturenews.org/2009/02/20/tamarind-tree/. Accessed 10/16/20.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Celery Seed – The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

smallage flowersCelery seed comes from a variety of celery that is different from the celery (Apium graveolens) we see in grocery stores. The seed comes from an ancestor of celery called smallage or wild celery. The smallage variety is native to the Mediterranean area and the Middle East and is grown in India, China, and France specifically for the harvesting of its seeds.  The seeds are very small: 760,000 seeds make one pound. They have an aromatic, earthy smell, and a flavor that has a touch of spiciness. The seeds are used whole in brines, pickles, and marinades and in salads like coleslaw and potato salad. They can be added to breads, soups, and dressings, thus giving a celery taste without the bulk of fresh celery stalks. The seeds are used in French, New Orleans Creole, and other cuisines around the world. They are also ground and mixed with other spices to create unique herbal blends like Old Bay Seasoning, celery salt, Products containing celery seedCajun seasonings, etc.

These tiny seeds pack a lot of punch when it comes to nutrition. A teaspoon of the seed has only 8 calories and 0.5 grams of fat. They supply 0.9 milligrams of iron per teaspoon which is 11% of the daily requirement for men and 5% for women. Celery seed supplies trace amounts of zinc, manganese, and phosphorus, too. According to the late Dr. James Duke, an American economic botanist, ethnobotanist, and author of The Green Pharmacy, the seeds contain at least 20 anti-inflammatory properties. He credited his robust life to the celery seed being among his “baker’s dozen” of essential herbs. The seeds also contain coumarins, which help in thinning the blood. This component of celery, as well as its anti-inflammatory properties, has been the subject of recent research, but its effectiveness in treating humans still needs to be investigated. Celery seed is sold as a dietary supplement in many natural-foods stores and other stores specializing in natural remedies. It is available as an extract, as fresh or dried seeds, and celery seed oil-filled capsules.

It is said that celery was first cultivated for medicinal purposes in 850 BC. Ayurvedic physicians throughout history have used the seed to treat colds, flu, water retention, arthritis, and liver and spleen conditions. Celery was considered a holy plant in the Greek classical period and a wreath of smallage leaves was worn by the winners of the Nemean Games, which began in 573 BC. The Greeks also used it to create the wine they called selinites, while the Romans used celery primarily for seasoning. The Italians domesticated celery and developed a plant with a solid stem and without the bitterness of smallage. Thus began the development and popularity of the Pascal celery that we find in grocery stores today.

Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray SodaDr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda is a celery flavored soda that is made from celery seed. This celery inspired soda has been around since 1868, when it was developed as a tonic that was touted to be “good for calming stomachs and bowels.” It paired well with salty, fatty foods, like pastrami, and became popular in New York’s Jewish delicatessens and with Eastern European immigrants whose cuisines already included fermented botanical beverages. Dr. Brown’s is being noticed again as healthy botanical drinks become more popular. Author Stephen King once said “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.”

Oil is extracted from celery seeds to make “celery oil,” which can be added to colognes, perfumes, and soaps. A few drops of the essential oil can be added to water in a spray bottle or a diffuser for use as an effective mosquito repellent.

Some say that celery was an herb associated with death, and that a garland of smallage leaves was placed around King Tut. Some evidence of this association with death later occurred in a Robert Herrick (1591-1674) poem titled:

To Perenna, a Mistress

“DEAR Perenna, prithee come

and with smallage dress my tomb:

And a cypress sprig thereto,

With a tear, and so Adieu.”

Celery is a biennial plant, producing flowers and seeds in the second year of its growth. The flowers are white umbels similar to parsley blooms. It must have a relatively constant temperature of around 70 degrees and a lot of water and nutrients to grow. It needs a long growing season and does not tolerate high heat or frost. This would be a very difficult combination of requirements for me to grow celery in my southern Zone 8b garden! Seeds of the smallage variety of celery can be purchased online, if you are interested in trying your luck in growing celery for the seed and leaves. The stalks of smallage tend to be bitter.

As with using any herbal medicinal products, a health professional should be consulted. Allergic reactions and interactions with medications you may already be taking can be a danger to your health. Celery seed is not recommended for pregnant women.

For more information about celery seed, recipes, and a screen saver, please go to The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

References

American Botanical Council.HerbClip: Interview with Botanist Jim Duke.” April 30, 1999. http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbclip/155/review42307.html

Crowley, Chris. “Celery Forever: Where America’s Weirdest Soda Came From and How It’s Stuck Around.” Serious Eats.  August 2018. https://www.seriouseats.com/2014/10/dr-browns-cel-ray-celery-soda-history.html

Foodreference.com. “Celery History.” http://www.foodreference.com/html/celery-history.html

Kerr, Gord. “Celery Seed Extract Side Effects.”. https://www.livestrong.com/article/369362-celery-seed-extract-side-effects/   August 19, 2020.

Tweed, Vera. “4 Amazing Uses of Celery Seed.” Better Nutrition. September 2019.

Photo Credits: 1) Smallage flowers (Britannica Encyclopedia online); 2) Assortment of products containing celery seed (Maryann Readal); 3) Dr. Brown’s soda (Beverage Direct).


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a Master Gardener and a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Raspberry, Herb of the Year and Herb of the Month: History and Lore

™™™HOM Brambles

By Pat Greathead

Raspberry, Rubus spp., is the International Herb Association’s Herb of the YearTM for 2020 and The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for January (Brambles). The genus Rubus includes both the red and black raspberry and the blackberry as well as almost 700 other species. Rubus is in the Rosacea family.

My Wisconsin Unit of The Herb Society each year examines the IHA Herb of the Year.TM In this blog post, I have mainly focused on red raspberry leaf and have used information from many websites in writing this article. I hope you enjoy reading it as this is the year of the raspberry!

Raspberry leaves are among the most pleasant tasting of all the herbal remedies, with a taste much like black tea, without the caffeine. Raspberries are native to Asia and arrived in North America via prehistoric people, with the first records of domestication coming from the writings of the Roman agricultural writer Palladius in the 5th century. Evidence has been found that early cave-dwelling humans ate raspberries. Seeds were discovered in Roman forts in Britain, so it is thought the Romans and animals spread raspberries throughout Europe.

Red raspberries were said to have been discovered and much loved by the Olympian gods on Mount Ida in northwest Turkey, hence their botanical name Rubus idaeus, which means ‘bramble (branch) bush of Ida’ in Latin. According to Société’s Materia Medica blog, “In the story of Ida, the nursemaid to the infant Zeus pricked her finger while picking the snow-white berries, staining them red for all eternity.” (Société, 2018) Fruits were gathered from the wild by the people of Troy in the foothills of Mt. Ida around the time of Christ.

The leaf was traditionally used in ancient times to prepare the womb for childbirth, to aid delivery and breastfeeding, and some farmers used it for their pregnant goats. Other uses were as a remedy for common ailments due to its abundance of minerals, vitamins, and tannins. (Tannins help to tone and tighten tissue). Chemicals in the leaf were believed to help the blood vessels relax. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and Ayurvedic physicians also used it widely as a treatment for wounds and diarrhea (somewhat interchanged with blackberry).

By Medieval times (5th-15th century), raspberry had a great many uses, including using the juices in paintings and illuminated manuscripts and the leaves as a woman’s tonic. Société’s blog on red raspberry states that, “In early Christian artwork raspberries were used to symbolize kindness. Its red juice invoked the energy of the blood which runs from the heart and carries love, nutrition, and kindness through the body.” (Société, 2018)  King Edward the 1st (1272-1307) was said to be the first to call for mass cultivation of raspberries, whose popularity spread quickly throughout Europe. Raspberry leaf was first described in 1597 in the book The Herbal, or A General History of Plants by John Norton, the Queen’s printer.

By the 17th century, British gardens were rich with berries and berry bushes. Culpeper (1616-1654) in his book The Complete Herbal talked about raspberry leaf as “very binding and good for fevers, ulcers, putrid sores of the mouth and secret parts, for stones of the kidneys and too much flowing of the women’s courses.”  By the 18th century, berry cultivation practices had spread throughout Europe. An old Irish beekeeper’s recipe was to gather foxglove, raspberry, wild marjoram, mint, chamomile and valerian on May day, mix with butter made that day, boil together with honey, and rub the vessel into which you want the bees to gather, both inside and out.  Place it in the middle of a tree, and bees will soon come.  Again from Société’s Materia Medica, “In Germany, raspberry was used to tame bewitched horses by tying a bit of the cane to the horse’s body. In the Philippines, raspberry canes were hung outside homes to protect those who dwelt within from any souls who may inadvertently wander in” (remember the thorns!). (Société, 2018)

When settlers from Europe came to America, they found Native Americans already utilizing and eating berries, some believing raspberry had strong protective powers against unwanted spiritual beings. Teas of raspberry leaves were given to women of the Cherokee, Iroquois, and Mohawk Nations to soothe labor pains, ease contractions, and ease nausea. Due to the nomadic nature of their culture, berries were dried for preservation and ease of transportation.

raspberrySettlers also brought cultivated raspberries that were native to Europe with them to the new colonies. In 1761, George Washington moved to his estate in Mount Vernon where he began to cultivate berries in his extensive gardens. The first commercial nursery plants were sold by William Price in 1771. Jefferson planted raspberries at Monticello on numerous occasions beginning in 1774. In 1735, Irish herbalist K’Eogh described these uses for raspberry: “An application of the flowers bruised with honey is beneficial for inflammations of the eyes, burning fever and boils…the fruit is food for the heart and diseases of the mouth.”

Raspberry tea made political history after England imposed the Boston Port Act, which exacted a tea tax on the American Colonies in 1773 to help the financially troubled East India Company. Tea made from sage or raspberry leaves then became a popular substitute for the colonists’ favorite beverage.

Collected by French botanist André Michaux and included in his Flora Boreali-Americana (1803), our native red raspberry, Rubus strigosus, is now found across much of North America, including all of Canada and the northern half of the US to North Carolina and California. After the Civil War (1861-1865), major production areas emerged in the regions of New York, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. By 1880 approximately 2,000 acres were in cultivation.

By 1867 over 40 different varieties of raspberry were known. “In 1890, JM Hodge, a Scottish solicitor and raspberry grower from Blairgowrie, rented some land specifically to grow raspberries on a larger scale. He formed the Blairgowrie & Rattray Fruit Growers Association, bringing together local producers and beginning industrial production.” (Oxfordshire Gardener, 2019)

In King’s American Dispensatory (1898), it is described that the leaves and fruits are the parts of the plant that are used for medicinal purposes. The leaves impart some of their constituents to water, giving to the infusion an odor and flavor somewhat similar to that of some kinds of black tea, and that raspberry is “of much service in dysentery, pleasant to the taste, mitigating suffering and ultimately affecting a cure.”   According to M. Grieve (1931) experience has shown that raspberry leaf has been used in cases of severe dysmenorrhea. She writes an infusion of Raspberry leaves, taken cold is a reliable remedy for extreme laxity of the bowels. The infusion alone, or as a component part, never fails to give immediate relief and it is especially useful in stomach complaints of children.”

 According to the Telegraph’s Eleanor Doughty, “In the 1950’s, Scotland, known for its raspberry growing, brought raspberries down to London on a dedicated steam train known as The Raspberry Special.” (Doughty, 2015)

Today red raspberry leaf is used for gastrointestinal tract disorders, including diarrhea and stomach pains; also to treat heart problems, fevers, vitamin deficiencies, diabetes; and for respiratory system disorders, swine flu, and common flu. It is also beneficial in promoting urination, sweating, and bile production.

Many people use it for general skin and blood purification. Some use red raspberry leaf to ease painful periods, morning sickness associated with pregnancy, heavy periods, and in preventing miscarriage, as well as to ease labor and delivery. Similar to its ancient use, a strong raspberry leaf tea or tincture will soothe sunburn, eczema, and skin rashes when used externally. Swishing with a tincture or infusion of raspberry leaf is thought to relieve sore throats and the gums, and can help alleviate the symptoms of gingivitis or gum disease. In Europe, small quantities of red raspberry leaf are a source of natural flavoring in food preparation.

The website Practical Herbalist states that “Raspberry is one of the few herbs that must be processed from dry leaves. Fresh leaves contain a substance that causes stomach upset as they wilt. Making a tincture from raspberry leaves is simple. The easiest way to process this tincture is to add dried raspberry leaves to brandy.” The tincture should be shaken regularly for a few months and then strained.

For more information on raspberries and some recipes too, please see The Herb Society of America’s January Herb of the Month web page on Brambles.

Below are websites with more information about raspberries:


Pat Greathead is a very active Life Member of The Herb Society of America and the Wisconsin Unit. She gardens in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.


Herb Society of America Medical Disclaimer … It is the policy of The Herb Society of America not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any medical or health treatment.

The History of the Christmas Tree

By Susan Leigh AnthonyChristmas tree

For the past six years I have worked at a wonderful, high-end garden center.  Among the many seasonal items we sell throughout the holidays are Christmas trees and a wonderful array of cut evergreens. Surrounded by this abundance of holiday décor, I began to wonder about where the idea of bringing the greens inside the home during the winter season originated. Although I had some sense that there was a connection to pagan solstice celebrations, I really didn’t know a whole lot more. I definitely felt compelled to learn more and ended up finding that the notion of decorating with greens reaches back much further than I had realized and there are countless facts and legends associated with the traditional use of evergreens.

The Christmas trees we put up and greens we use to festoon our homes each year evolved from very ancient traditions. The ancient Hebrews, Egyptians, and Chinese used evergreens to symbolize eternal life. In particular, the Egyptians used evergreens as part of their celebration of their god, Ra.

In my research, I have learned that Jews must never incorporate any symbols of Christianity in their celebrations. However, I also read the following which forms a connection, though quite distant, between the ancient Hebrews and what we now know as the Christmas tree.  The following is just one of several stories I read about Nimrod and Semiramus. “Two key figures in the origin of Christmas are Nimrod, a great grandson of Noah, and his mother and wife, Semiramis, also known as Ishtar and Isis. Nimrod, known in Egypt as Osiris, was the founder of the first world empire at Babel, later known as Babylon (Genesis 10:8-12; 11:1-9). From ancient sources such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and records unearthed by archeologists from long-ruined Mesopotamian and Egyptian cities, we can reconstruct subsequent events.

After Nimrod’s death (c. 2167 BCE), Semiramis promoted the belief that he was a god. She claimed that she saw a full-grown evergreen tree spring out of the roots of a dead tree stump, symbolizing the springing forth of new life for Nimrod. On the anniversary of his birth, she said, Nimrod would visit the evergreen tree and leave gifts under it. His birthday fell on the winter solstice at the end of December” (Bibletools, 2019).

Saturnalia, the ancient Roman winter festival, honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture, is where we first hear of decorating the tree with pieces of metal.

“During the Middle Ages, the Paradise Tree, which symbolized man’s fall and salvation, became popular in churches and upper-class homes. Fir trees were hung with apples symbolizing man’s fall, small white wafers representing Holy Eucharist, and sweets symbolizing the sweetness of redemption” (Holiday Legends, 2003).

ball blur christmas christmas balls

Photo by Bruno Joseph on Pexels.com

It is said that in the 16th century, Martin Luther was the first to add candles to Christmas trees after seeing the stars shining through the evergreen trees. He is also credited with bringing the Christmas tree indoors.

The following is a delightful tale from northern Europe. “When Christianity was spreading though Europe, three angels, Faith, Hope, and Charity, were sent to Earth to put lights on the first Christmas tree. Their mission was difficult because they had to find a tree as high as hope, as great as love, and as sweet as charity. The tree also had to contain the sign of the cross. The angels’ search came to an end when they found the fir tree of the frozen north. (If you break off a fir needle and look at the stub on the branch you will see the cross.) They lit the fir with stars to make the world’s first Christmas tree” (Holiday Legends, 2003).

Clearly, whatever the origin of the Christmas tree and greens, they have always been viewed as a symbol of hope and rebirth.

And here’s an odd fact behind the relatively new trend of hanging a Christmas tree upside down, which turns out to be a not-so-new idea after all. “Many early Christmas trees, usually firs, seem to have been hung upside down from the ceiling using chains that were hung from chandeliers/lighting hooks. This tradition goes back to the Middle Ages when Europeans did it to represent the Trinity. But now, Christmas trees are set up with the tip pointing to heaven, as some think an upside-down Christmas tree is disrespectful or sacrilegious” (The Spruce, 2019).Christmas Homer

In England, Christmas trees became popular after the London Illustrated News published a wood engraving of the royal Christmas tree on December 23, 1848.  The issue contained an engraving by Winslow Homer of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, five of their children, and a governess gathered around a decorated evergreen tree on a table full of unwrapped presents. The tree was lit with candles and was topped with an angel. The next year, royal or not, people in England began putting up Christmas trees. Other magazines started writing about the royal Christmas trees each year adding to the popularity of the tradition.

Christmas HaleIn 1850, the Christmas tree phenomenon spread to the United States when Sarah Josepha Hale, who also wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” published a similar engraving in her monthly magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hale “Americanized” the engraving – removing Victoria’s tiara, Albert’s royal sash and moustache, and the boxes of German biscuits from beneath the Christmas tree.

“The Godey’s engraving was one of the first widely circulated illustrations of a decorated Christmas tree in the United States, and it was soon followed by similar depictions in Harper’s and other major American publications. As a result, Christmas trees came into vogue in America as they had in England.” (Leoma Lovegrove, 2017)

And there you have it, some stories and legends to add to your own personal stories about the Christmas tree tradition.

More information can be found on these websites:

“Bible Verses about Semiramis.” Bibletools. Available at https://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Topical.show/RTD/cgg/ID/770/Semiramis.htm

“The Christmas tree: From pagan origins and Christian symbolism to secular status.” ABC. Available at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-19/the-history-of-the-christmas-tree/8106078

“The Christsmas tree came to America in 1850.” Leoma Lovegrove. Available at https://www.thespruce.com/upside-down-christmas-trees-1976407

“Holiday Legends.” University of Illinois Extension. Available at https://web.extension.illinois.edu/hortihints/0312c.html

Hollaway, April. “Christmas tree has its roots in ancient tradition.” Available at https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/christmas-tree-has-its-roots-ancient-customs-001163


Susan Leigh Anthony is a longtime member of the New England Unit of HSA.She runs a garden design business named Doveflower Cottage and is a perennial buyer and expert at Kennedy’s Country Gardens in Scituate, MA.

Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe, and Other Christmas Greens

By Susan AnthonyChristmas greens

 Holly, ivy, and mistletoe are common additions to our Christmas decor.  Read on to learn more about the very interesting meanings some of these traditional greens have.

The Romans first, and later the Christians, began to deck their halls with boughs of holly as it was believed to have protective powers.  Dr. Leonard Perry explains the traditional use of greens at Christmas time in his article “Holiday Greens and Their Traditions.” He said, “Holly was often hung on doors to chase away evil spirits, or else to catch them with their prickly leaves.  The Romans also considered holly sacred, a good omen, representing immortality, and sheltering elves and faeries. This latter belief may have come even earlier from the Teutonic tribes to the north.  Romans gave holly as gifts during the festival of Saturnalia– a week-long party based partly on earlier Greek and Egyptian solstice festivals.

The early Christians in Rome decorated their homes with holly as well, and it gradually became a Christmas symbol as Christianity became the main religion.  To the Christians, the holly with its prickly leaves represented the crown of thorns on Jesus, and their red berries the blood he shed.” (Perry, 2019)

Christmas wreathCommenting on ivy, Perry said, “The song “The Holly and the Ivy” has its roots in an English tradition from the Middle Ages.  The soft ivy was twined around the more prickly holly in arrangements.  Not only was this for aesthetic purposes, but also the holly symbolized males and the ivy females, and their combination represented a good-natured rivalry between the two.

The use of ivy as a decoration once again dates back to Roman times, when it became associated with Bacchus–the god of good times and revelry.  It symbolized prosperity and charity, and so for early Christians, it was used during Christmas– a time to celebrate good times and to provide for the less fortunate.  If ivy was growing on the outside of houses, it was thought to prevent misfortune.  If it died, though, this was a sign of approaching financial problems.”

Perry goes on to explain that “Mistletoe occupies a fascinating place in the folklore of many early cultures, especially those of northern Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Isles. A botanical curiosity, mistletoe is the only complete plant that is a true parasite, often killing the hardwood tree it infests.  For this reason, it was credited with magical properties by ancient societies and held sacred.”

The Druids associated mistletoe with luck and good fortune and used it in their winter solstice celebrations and ceremonies. One ceremony involved Druid priests climbing into trees, cutting the mistletoe and letting it fall to the people below. If the mistletoe hit the ground, it would bring bad luck. It was believed that catching it would ensure fertility for the animals. One can only imagine the scene below as robe-clad people scurried around to catch the falling mistletoe.

“In ancient Scandinavia, mistletoe was believed to symbolize peace.  If enemies happened to meet under trees with mistletoe, they would disarm and call a truce for the day.  With our images of rough Norse soldiers, this paints an interesting and seemingly unlikely picture!” (Perry, 2019)

Perry states that “Mistletoe also grows in the warmer climates, and was used as medicine by the Native Americans.  Also known as “allheal,” it was used to treat dog bites, toothache and measles.” He goes on to explain where the custom of kissing under mistletoe comes from. “Many believe it is an English custom, which dictates that after each kiss, one of its white berries must be plucked from the bunch and discarded.  When the berries are all gone, the kissing must stop.”  Mistletoe bunches with the most berries must have been eagerly sought after by young men and women.

The custom of kissing under mistletoe dates back much further though, once again to Scandinavian mythology, Dr. Perry claims. “An arrow made of mistletoe killed Balder, the son of Frigga who was the Norse goddess of love.  Her tears, falling on the mistletoe, turned into white berries.  In her sorrow she decreed that mistletoe would never again be used for death, but rather for love. Whomever should stand beneath it should receive a kiss.”

Regarding the use of evergreen branches, Perry says that “It was perhaps during the Victorian era in America that the fir and pine we commonly use today became popular.  These, together with hemlock, yew, bay, and the more historic greens, were made into lavish arrangements.  Another tradition of the 19th century was to use these to form wreaths, stars, and crosses to decorate graves at Christmas.  These greens were later brought home to enjoy through the rest of the winter, just as we do now during the holidays.”

“Rosemary is another plant with extensive holiday traditions, symbolism, and legends. Associated with remembrance, friendship, and fidelity, rosemary was used extensively during the Medieval Period. An altar decorated with rosemary ensured special blessings and protection to the worshipers. Floors of churches and homes were strewn with the herb. The traditional boar’s head for the Christmas feast was decorated with rosemary.” (“Holiday Legends,” 2003)  And there is also the legend that when Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were fleeing Egypt, Mary placed her blue cloak on a rosemary bush and the flowers turned from white to blue.

I hope these stories will add to your enjoyment of the Christmas holidays.Christmas fruit

More information about legends surrounding the use of Christmas greens can be found online on these Internet sites:

Briggs, Johnathan. “Mistletoe Legends.” Available at http://mistletoe.org.uk/homewp/index.php/traditions/

“Holiday Legends.” 2003. University of Illinois Extension. Available at https://web.extension.illinois.edu/hortihints/0312c.html

Perry, Leonard. 2019. “Holiday Greens and Their Traditions.” University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science. Available at https://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/greens.html


 

Susan Leigh Anthony is a longtime member of the New England Unit of HSA.She runs a garden design business named Doveflower Cottage and is a perennial buyer and expert at Kennedy’s Country Gardens in Scituate, MA.

 

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