Nasty Plants and the Reasons to Love Them

by Erin Holden

Scrunched up faces. Tongues sticking out. Sounds of choking and disgust. Unfortunately this is the usual reaction when I’m finally able to coax someone into trying medicinal herbs. When we move past the more pleasant plants like lavender, chamomile, and peppermint and delve into the deeper waters of herbal medicine, not everything is so user-friendly. Many plants taste bitter, smell like old socks, or even feel slimy. But often, it’s these same nasty characteristics that provide the therapeutic benefits we’re looking for. Let’s take a look at a few plants and see what makes them so “nasty” as well as useful.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Many people may be familiar with the distinctive aroma of valerian root; old socks, wet dog, and horse manure are just a few things to which the odor has been affectionately compared. In fact, the constituent responsible for the smell, valeric acid, is also one of the components that causes swine manure to smell so badly (Chi, Lin, & Leu, 2005). Despite its odiferous qualities, valerian has been used for its sedative effects for over 2000 years. Valerian root is taken to relieve anxiety, promote sleep, and relax gastrointestinal spasms (Braun & Cohen, 2006). Some research shows that another compound, valerenic acid, may mediate anxiety by binding to GABA receptors in the brain, although the exact medicinally active compounds haven’t yet been pinpointed (Benke et al., 2009).  It’s possible that valeric acid also has a role to play, as multiple constituents acting together may account for these effects (Spinella, 2002).

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)
marsh-mallow-jcs-althaea-officinalis-54735 from biopix dot comGlycosaminoglycans, the medicinally active polysaccharides found in marshmallow root, have an appropriate abbreviation: GAGs. Mixing the powdered root with water or preparing an infused tea results in a slimy, mucilaginous mess that can be difficult to choke down. But it’s this very sliminess that causes marshmallow to work so well at soothing irritated tissue. Marshmallow is used for coughs, as a urinary demulcent, and for irritated skin. The mucilage forms a bioadhesive layer that acts as a barrier, protecting the tissue and allowing it to heal (Deters et al., 2010). Extracts of the root have also demonstrated antibacterial properties (Lauk, Lo Bue, Milazzo, Rapisarda, & Blandino, 2003; Watt, Christofi, & Young, 2007).

Gentian (Gentiana lutea)
Gentiana_lutea_090705 by Bernd Haynold via wikimedia commonsNo pub or bar would be complete without a bottle of bitters, with Angostura® being among the more popular brands. Although the recipe for Angostura® Bitters is a well-guarded secret, gentian is listed on the label as an ingredient and is likely a major contributor to the bitter flavor. By itself, gentian is considered extremely bitter and has been used as a yardstick when rating the bitterness of other herbs (Olivier & van Wyk, 2013). Bitter compounds in general have been shown to stimulate the secretion of saliva and digestive juices by activating the vagus nerve (Bone, 2003). The active constituents in gentian, gentiopicroside and amarogentin, are no exception.  These molecules account for gentian’s use in improving digestion, increasing appetite, and relieving flatulence (Braun & Cohen, 2006).

Lobelia (Lobelia inflata)
Lobelia_inflata_8820er_1586426759 by Paul Rothrock from SERNEC websiteWhat list of nasty herbs would be complete without pukeweed? This alternate common name for lobelia says it all. The emetic qualities of this plant were made (in)famous by Dr. Samuel Thomson in the 19th century. As a boy, Thomson would cause his friends to vomit by tricking them into eating lobelia leaves. Later in life, he founded the Thomsonian medical movement and employed lobelia and its purging properties as his main treatment (Loyd & Loyd, 1930). This unpleasant effect is attributed to lobeline, an alkaloid found in the above ground parts of the plant (Miller & Ruggiero, 1994). Lobeline is also responsible for lobelia’s therapeutic use as a bronchodilator and muscle relaxant (Hanson, 2005). This herb has been taken to relieve asthma, ease tense skeletal muscles, and calm nervous anxiety (Snow, 2009).

As you can see, even though some plants might make you want to “lose your lunch” or plug your nose and run for the hills, we should embrace them as they might be the very thing needed to help us feel better. Perhaps this perspective will help make ingesting nasty herbs a bit easier to swallow.

Photo Credits: 1) Valerian (Morton Arboretum, via Sernecportal.org); 2) Marshmallow (Biopix.com); 3) Gentian (Bernd Haynold, via Wikimedia Commons); Lobelia (Paul Rothrock, via Sernecportal.org)

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

Benke, D., Barberis, A., Kopp, S., Altmann, K.H., Schubiger, M., Vogt, K.E., Rudolph, U., & Möler, H. (2009). GABA A receptors as in vivo substrate for the anxiolytic action of valerenic acid, a major constituent of valerian root extracts. Neuropharmacology, 56(1), 174-181. 

Bone, K. (2003). A clinical guide to blending liquid herbs. St. Louis: Churchill Livingston.

Braun, L. & Cohen, M. (2006). Herbs and natural supplements (2nd ed.). Sydney, Australia: Churchill Livingstone.

Chi, F.H., Lin, P.H., & Leu, M.H. (2005). Quick determination of malodor-causing fatty acids in manure by capillary electrophoresis. Chemosphere, 60(9), 1262-1269.

Deters, A., Zippel, J., Hellenbrand, N., Pappai, D., Possemeyer, C., & Hensel, A. (2010). Aqueous extracts and polysaccharides from Marshmallow roots (Althea officinalis L.): Cellular internalisation and stimulation of cell physiology of human epithelial cells in vitro. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 127(1), 62-69.

Hanson, Bryan A. (2005). Understanding medicinal plants, their chemistry and therapeutic action. New York: The Haworth Herbal Press.

Lauk, L., Lo Bue, A.M., Milazzo, I., Rapisarda, A., & Blandino, G. (2003). Antibacterial activity of medicinal plant extracts against periodontopathic bacteria. Phytotherapy research, 17(6), 599-604.

Loyd, J.U. & Loyd, C.G. (1930). Drugs and medicines of North America, 1884-1887. Cincinnati, Ohio.

Miller, A.D. & Ruggiero, D.A. (1994). Emetic reflex arc revealed by expression of the immediate-early gene c-fos in the cat. The Journal of Neuroscience, 14(2), 871-888.

Olivier, D.K. & van Wyk, B.-E. (2013) Bitterness values for traditional tonic plants of southern Africa. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 147(3), 676-679.

Snow, J. (2009). Materia medica: Lobelia inflata. Personal Collection of J. Snow, Maryland University of Integrative Health, Laurel, MD.

Spinella, M. (2002). The importance of pharmacological synergy in psychoactive herbal medicines. Alternative Medicine Review, 7(2), 130-137

 Watt, K., Christofi, N., & Young, R. (2007). The detection of antibacterial actions of whole herb tinctures using luminescent Escherichia coli. Phytotherapy Research, 21(12), 1193-1199.

 

 

Medlar – Herb of the Month

By Chrissy Moore

meldar line drawing croppedMedlar (Mespilus germanica) isn’t the first tree you think of to include in your herb garden, but it certainly gets high marks for obscure and unusual. At least by today’s terms. While we may not hear its name invoked in modern conversation with anything close to regularity, medlar has, in fact, had a long association with humans for thousands of years.

Its center of origin is somewhat in question, with various taxonomists and botanists shifting the borders this way and that, but in general, medlar can be considered a southwest Asia native, including the Balkan Peninsula. Though comfortable in that location, the Romans and Greeks spread the tree far and wide in their travels through Europe. Beyond that, botanists freely point to the tree’s adaptability, noting all of the countries from southern to central Europe in which medlar has naturalized. Mespilus can even be found growing as far north as The Netherlands, where specimen trees were planted in parks and gardens. In its native range, it can be found growing in elevations up to ~5500 feet in forest clearings. 

Medlar Range mapMedlar is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae), apparent when you look at its ripe fruit, which showcases a persistent calyx typical of other rose family members, such as rose hips and apples. Hardy in Zones 5 to 8, it is generally considered a small tree, growing up to 20 feet by 20 feet, with pleasantly Medlar's twisting canopy, Netherlandstwisting canopy branches as the tree matures. The five-inch-long leaves are lance-shaped and somewhat coarse in texture owing to the hairs on the upper and lower surfaces. Their dark green hue makes an attractive backdrop for its blossoms. Medlar’s fall color is a mix of green, yellow, and burnished orange, giving it that coveted “three season” appeal. All else being equal, its fall color can make it a superb horticultural addition even in smaller gardens.

Medlar’s approximately two-inch wide, dainty, white flowers—the petals of which are reminiscent of mildly wrinkled fabric—appear in mid- to late-spring, depending upon the region in which it is grown. The flower’s center is a flurry of anthers much like a single-petaled rose blossom, though it lacks any noticeable scent. Because the flowers are showy, it may be worth siting this unfamiliar tree a bit closer in to allow for more in-depth inspection. Speaking of siting, medlar prefers full sun to partial shade with some protection from strong winds. It does not like full-on drought conditions, but fairs well throughout much of the temperate region.

Mespilus germanica flower (1)All formalities aside regarding its growing habits, medlar is most famous for its fruit, which, in all honesty, can be a quandary to the uninitiated. The brown pome ripens in the fall, but if one were to try eating it right away, they would be faced with a hard, bitter thing about the size of a large gumball (but not nearly so fun to eat). Medlar fruit is similar to native persimmons in that they must go through a prep-stage before consumption. Persimmons need a frost before becoming edible, while medlars need a go-sit-by-yourself-in-the-corner-for-a-few-weeks regimen before the fruit becomes palatable. This process is called “bletting,” and it isn’t until after the fruits have been fully bletted that the interiors become soft and edible with no trace of their bitter tannins remaining.

Unripe and bletted (or ripe) medlar fruit

The medlar was well known in Europe during the Middle Ages, where it was said to have held a high place among cultivated fruits. Today in Europe it is passing into obscurity. Though very generally cultivated in England in the 1600s and 1700s and “common in [English] gardens in the south” even in the 1800s (the fruits regularly brought to market), it was recently characterized as “neglected and forgotten” and “difficult to locate” there. In continental Europe, too, its increasing rarity has been noted, the fruit being “of no more interest” (Baird and Thieret, 1989).

medlar_jelly_el_ltdPrior to the widespread use of sugarcane, medlar was a preferred sweet ingredient, but owing to the difficulty in processing, it likely fell out of favor, even in Europe, in deference to more easily obtainable fruit from the tropics, such as bananas and oranges. Even so, a few determined individuals, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, are trying to revive interest in the tree, and some have made great strides in bringing back the requisite foodstuffs, like medlar cheeses and jams, that can sometimes be found in boutique stores or online markets. 

Speaking of the United States, medlar never became popular in this country for unknown reasons. Baird and Thieret, in their review of the literature, state:

In the United States the medlar has never been well known. Indeed, it is hardly even known here. Among those individuals who ought to have heard of it—botanists and horticulturists—many have not. Among those who have heard of it, only a few have actually seen the plant—“probably not one…among one hundred”; fewer yet have seen the fruit—“not one in five hundred”; and almost none has eaten the fruit (Baird and Thieret, 1989).

It is unfortunate to think that a once-prized fruit tree is near impossible to locate, even horticulturally, but so it is. Despite its relative obscurity, if you are up for a jaunt around Europe, there are certainly specimens of medlar that can be found growing on estates or in parks, where one might get up close and personal to examine this apparent horticultural anomaly. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) has mapped out the locations of medlar trees within its boundaries, and the Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora gives a brief description of the tree with a link to BSBI’s map. Going even farther afield, the Mespilus germanica 9-9-2021 (1)organization, Monumental trees, has compiled a web site (www.monumentaltrees.com) replete with documented locations of various “monumental” tree species, including Mespilus germanica, throughout Europe. You’d be hard-pressed to find a similar compilation of medlar sites in the United States, but it is more than likely that specimens and cultivars (of which there are a few) of medlar may be located in various botanical gardens and arboreta around the country, depending on climate. There is a 40+ year old specimen in the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., but its structure is not nearly as expressive (or impressive) as those in Europe, a result of its original siting in the garden, which has become cramped over time.

16th century painting of medlar, poppy anemone, and pear by Hoefnagel and BocskayTurning the page, figuratively speaking, all one needs is a quick search of the literature to discover that references abound discussing medlar’s less than proper common names. Owing to the fruit’s somewhat bawdy appearance, numerous authors in centuries past, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, de Cervantes, and various other 19th century writers, as well as everyday people in Europe, thought to nickname the fruit “cul de chien” (French for dog’s arse) or some iteration thereof in one’s native tongue. Shakespeare took it one step further, calling medlar an “open-arse.” Thank goodness no one ever pointed that out in my high school literature class. We’d never have heard the end of it! (No pun intended.) In contrast to my more prudish sensibilities, Shakespeare scholar and avowed medlar lover Gerit Quealy explained to me during her recent visit to see the National Herb Garden’s medlar specimen, that the medlar is one of her “favorite botanical references in all of Shakespeare’s works,” because, as she states appreciatively in her book, Botanical Shakespeare, it is “a fruit fraught with metaphor (Quealy, 2017).” No kidding! Readers, you can take it from there….

In researching medlar, I asked former National Herb Garden intern, Zainab Pashaei, who is of Persian heritage, if she was familiar with the tree, it being native to her father’s home country, Iran. Though not personally familiar with it, according to Zainab, medlar is mostly consumed by northern Iranians, and those that travel north near the Alborz Mountain Range will be very familiar with it. (Zainab’s relatives live farther south.) She explained further that muşmula is the Turkish word for the medlar fruit, while the Persians may call it marmala or azgil (Farsi), although I have since learned that azgil is often confused with loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), which is also eaten in Iran.

This distinction is certainly with a difference, as they are two separate plants, and reiterates the importance of using correct nomenclature. On the other hand, it vividly demonstrates that correctly identifying species across languages, cultures, and hundreds of years of usage is not for the faint-hearted. Despite its literary and culinary assignments in other parts of Europe, the medlar has also been employed medicinally in some cultures. For example, the Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden located in Istanbul, Turkey, reports that the fruit is used as an antidiarrheal, and the seed’s diuretic properties are incorporated into a medicinal tea.

Given medlar’s curious, though extremely interesting, history of use in culinary traditions, in medicine, and certainly in the creative arts, it is definitely a tree worthy of investigation, and perhaps even more so, of growing. Just be prepared to explain its many virtues to your garden guests, as it is highly likely that few, if any, of them will have encountered this unique herbal tree before.

Photo Credits: 1 & 2) Mespilus germanica line drawing and map (Baird and Thieret); 3) Medlar twisting branches (www.monumentaltrees.com); 4) Medlar flower (C. Moore); 5) Bletted medlar fruit (Creative Commons); 6) Medlar jelly (www.partridges.co.uk); 7) Medlar fruit (C. Moore); 8) Medlar, Poppy, and Pear painting (Joris Hoefnagel and Georg Bocskay, J. Paul Getty Museum); 9) Medlar fruit/fall color (Creative Commons, ngawangchodron) and Loquat fruit (Creative Commons, Andres Bertens).

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

Baird, J. R. and J. W. Thieret. The Medlar (Mespilus germanica, Rosaceae) from antiquity to obscurity. Economic Botany. Vol. 43, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1989), pp. 328-372. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4255177?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed 8/13/2021.

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Interactive map. https://bsbi.org/maps?taxonid=2cd4p9h.vnw. Accessed 8/16/2021.

Harvey, P. D. A. Garden History, vol. 10, no. 2, 1982, pp. 172–175. JSTOR. www.jstor.org/stable/1586748. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.

Monumental Trees. Mespilus germanica. https://www.monumentaltrees.com/en/europe-mespilusgermanica/. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.

Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Mespilus germanica. https://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/plant/mespilus-germanica. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.

Pashaei, Zainab (personal communication). 8/3/2021.

Quealy, Gerit. (personal communication). 5/2021.

Quealy, Gerit. 2017. Botanical Shakespeare: An illustrated compendium of all the flowers, fruits, herbs, trees, seeds, and grasses cited by the world’s greatest playwright. New York: Harper Design.

Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden. Book No. 35. 2015. Page 237. https://ztbb.org/. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

Horehound – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

Horehound leavesThe fuzzy, light gray, deeply-wrinkled leaves of horehound (Marrubium vulgare) offer a nice contrast to other colors and textures in the garden. I love that contrast around the base of the red roses in my garden. Horehound is a perennial herb that grows from one to two feet tall, and can spread in the garden. It prefers dry sandy soil and a sunny location, tolerates poor soil, and is hardy in USDA Zones 4‒8. It may be started from seed in the spring, although germination is slow and sometimes not reliable. Cuttings can be taken from a mature plant or the established plant can be divided. Its leaves have a very bitter taste. Horehound produces whorls of small white flowers at the top of the stalk in the second year. The flowers are very attractive to bees, which makes for a tasty honey. The barbed seeds attach to grazing animals and clothing, enabling their spread to other locations.

Horehound is in the mint family. It has the same square stem and prolific growth habit as other mints. It is native to southern Europe, central and western Asia, and North Africa. It has naturalized in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Horehound will reseed itself naturally to the point that it has become invasive in some areas. It is considered invasive in parts of Australia and New Zealand.  

History

As is the case with so many other herbs, horehound has been used as a medicine since ancient times. Horehound was important in Israeli and Arabic medicinal folk traditions. The Hebrew word for bitter juice is marrub, which could be a possible origin of horehound’s botanical name. Some writers claim that it was one of the bitter herbs used during Passover, though other writers dispute this claim.

Claeys Horehound candyThe Egyptians and the Greeks used it to treat respiratory problems, while the Romans used horehound as an antidote to poisons. Columella, a 1st century Roman agricultural writer, stated that horehound was useful in treating worms in farm animals (Columella, 1941).

In the Middle Ages, horehound was thought to ward off evil spirits, and charms containing horehound were worn for protection (Small, 2006). Hildegard von Bingen, an 11th century mystic and healer, said in her book, Physica: “The horehound is warm and has enough juice, and it helps against various illnesses….And who is ill in the throat, boil horehound in water and strain boiled water through a cloth and add twice as much wine, and let it boil again in a bowl with some fat, and drinks it often, and he will be cured in the throat (von Bingen, 1998).” Later herbalists, such as Gerard (14th-15th century), Culpepper (17th century), and  Grieve (20th century), all recommended the use of horehound for respiratory ailments.

Indigenous tribes of North America use horehound as a medicine, treating mainly respiratory issues but also breast complaints, gynecological problems, and skin problems (Moerman, 1998).

In early England, horehound was not only used for its medicinal properties, but it was also used to brew a horehound ale (Botanical.com, 2021).

rock and rye alcohol beverage with horehoundAt the end of the 19th century, rock and rye liqueur–a combination of rock candy dissolved in rye whiskey and a touch of horehound and citrus—managed to survive Prohibition because it was marketed as a medicinal tonic; it was labeled as a cure for colds, congestion, and other illnesses. The liqueur could be purchased in pharmacies in the United States and was initially taxed at a lower rate owing to its “medicinal properties (Mayhew, 2021).”

Current Uses

Today, horehound ales and drinks are still being made, as well as candies and syrups, to alleviate cold symptoms. Horehound throat lozenges are easily found anywhere that cold remedies are sold.

Ricola throat dropsMarrubiin, a component of horehound, gives the herb its bitter taste. It is also thought to be responsible for its expectorant action and for increasing saliva and gastric juices, which stimulate the appetite. This explains its traditional use as a cough suppressant, expectorant, and bitter digestive tonic (Kaiser, 2015).

“The German Commission E approved horehound herb for loss of appetite and dyspepsia, such as bloating and flatulence” (American Botanical Council, 2021), and the USDA has given horehound GRAS (Generally Recognized  as Safe) status (USFDA, n.d.). However, there have not been any clinical trials to definitively prove the effectiveness of the traditional uses of horehound for respiratory and other ailments.

Horehound, Marrubium vulgare, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for September. Visit the webpage for more information, recipes, and an attractive screen saver.

Photo Credits: 1) Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) leaves; 2) Horehound candy; 3) Rock and rye cocktail; 4) Ricola throat drops. All photos courtesy of the author.

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.  2021. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Accessed 8/3/21.

Barnes, Joanne, Linda A. Anderson, J. David Phillipson. 2007. Herbal medicines. Great Britain: Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

Botanical.com. 2021. Horehound. Accessed 8/3/21. http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/h/horwhi33.html

Columella, Lucius Junius Moderatus. 1941. On agriculture, with a recension of the text and an English translation by Harrison Boyd Ash. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Internet Archive.  Accessed 8/9/21. https://archive.org/details/onagriculturewit02coluuoft/page/n17/mode/2up.

Kaiser Permanente. 2015. Horehound. Accessed 8/12/21. https://wa.kaiserpermanente.org/kbase/topic.jhtml?docId=hn-2109003

Mayhew, Lance. 2021. Rock and rye whiskey. The Spruce Eats. Accessed 8/3/21. https://www.thespruceeats.com/how-to-make-rock-and-rye-whiskey-760286

Moerman, Daniel E. 1998. Native American ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Siegelbaum, Rebbetzin Chana Bracha. 2018. Was horehound one of the bitter herbs of the Pesach Sedar? Women on the Land Blog. Accessed 8/3/21. https://rebbetzinchanabracha.blogspot.com/2018/03/was-horehound-one-of-bitter-herbs-for.html

Small, Ernest. 2006. Culinary herbs. Ottawa: National Research Council of Canada.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (n.d.) Accessed 8/14/21. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/food-additive-status-list#ftnH

Von Bingen, Hildegard. 1998. Translated by Pricilla Throop. Physica: The complete translation of her classic work on health and healing. Google Books. Accessed 8/3/21. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her … – Google Books


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

Hawaiian Herbal Medicine: Rooted in Family and Tradition

By Kaila Blevins

Hawaiian Healer Po‘okela Papa Henry AuwaeMy grandmother grew up in Hawai’i, so my childhood was filled with trying traditional dishes like poi, and my vocabulary is peppered with Hawaiian words. But, I did not know much about traditional Hawaiian herbalism and began researching.

La’au lapa’au is one of several traditional healing methods practiced by Native Hawaiians, and it is rooted in the use of plants. A traditional healer’s job goes beyond just prescribing plants. They use a holistic approach to ensure that the body, mind, and spirit are in harmony to promote good health. The lack of harmony between the three elements results in illness. Beyond assessing the harmony between the body, mind, and spirit, healers follow traditional practices to ensure harmony with the environment as well.

Traditionally, the plants were harvested in the lush forests or were planted near heiaus, or sacred temples, if a healer resided there. Today, foraging at the temples is forbidden due to the sacredness and cultural significance of them. heiausHowever, healers from then and now continue to follow the same principles when approaching plants. They revere the plants for the gifts that they offer through their medicinal properties and act as stewards by tending to their needs and promoting sustainable foraging practices. This process acknowledges the innate intelligence of plants. As the healer approaches the required plant needed for healing, they think of the person who enlisted their help before kneeling and praying, sharing their gratitude for the plant, and asking permission to harvest. If permission is granted, the harvest begins. Once the necessary amount is gathered, the healer never turns their back to the plant–a societal norm that is also practiced when near elders–backing away, giving thanks for the gift. In some cases, the healer may not be the one to gather the medicine. Instead, this may be prescribed as part of the healing journey, and the client will forage and perform the ceremony of giving thanks to the required plants. 

Furthermore, since the plants are Earth’s gifts for humans to use, traditional healers will not charge for their services. The lack of payment ensures a lifelong commitment to the practice and prevents greed from tainting the practice. 

Between each island, the plant palette changes, so the island on which the healer resides dictates the plants used in their practice. However, some plants are indigenous to the majority of the islands, or they’ve been naturalized. Below is a brief list of plants and some of their herbal uses:

Aleurites moluccanus (kukui, candlenut)

Declared the state tree in 1959, kukui leaves are crushed into poultices, and the roasted nuts are pounded into salves to treat sores and external ulcers. Historically, mothers chewed the flowers and gave them to their children to heal sores. After recovering from an illness, the nut meat is often combined with fish and ‘uala (sweet potato) for a nutrient-rich meal. Culturally, the nuts were used in candles, and the ash collected from burned nuts was used for tattoos and canoe paint. 

Morinda citrifolia flowers and fruitMorinda citrifolia (noni, Indian mulberry)

Introduced in 1941 from Fiji, noni has naturalized across the islands and is also cultivated due to its numerous herbal benefits. The leaves are used to treat a variety of skin problems, including cuts, boils, growths, and even lice. Traditional healers use all parts of the tree as a laxative.  

Saccharum officinarum (kō, sugarcane)

Saccharum officinarum sugar caneChewing on the sugary stalk can strengthen the teeth and gums, while the juice is used to sweeten other medicines, or is combined with Ipomoea alba (tropical white morning glory) and salt to treat deep cuts and wounds. In folklore, the juice of kō is used to create a love potion. However, the correct species must be utilized since others are used to block love potions.

After I completed the draft of this blog post, I called my grandmother and discussed the topic with her. While she was not familiar with the uses of the plants, it did remind her of the landscape of her youth. Furthermore, I enjoyed learning about the Native experience and interactions they had with the environment, since their practices are rooted in respect for their environment and plants.

Photo credits: 1) Hawaiian Healer Po‘okela Papa Henry Auwae (Jeanella and Kehaulani Keopuhiwa, National Library of Medicine); 2) Heiaus (National Park Service); 3) Aleurites molucanna flowers and fruit (Hawaiian Plants and Tropical Flowers); 4) Morinda citrifolia (Plants of Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park); 5) Saccharum officinarum (National Tropical Botanical Garden).

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

Aleurites moluccanus (kukui). (n.d.). Accessed 7/2020. https://www.kapiolani.hawaii.edu/aleurites-moluccana

Kalama, H. (n.d.).: Healing With Spirituality And Herbs. Accessed 7/2021.  http://heyokamedicine.com/laau-lapaau

Lincoln, N. K. (2017). Description of Hawaiian Sugarcane Varieties. Accessed 7/2021. http://cms.ctahr.hawaii.edu/cane

National Park Service. Wailua Complex of Heiaus. Accessed 8/13/2021. https://www.nps.gov/places/wailua-complex-of-heiaus.htm

Timboy, M. (n.d.). La‘au Lapa‘au: Medicinal Plants and Their Healing Properties. Accessed 7/2021. https://keolamagazine.com/agriculture/medicinal-plants/

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Medicine Ways: Traditional Healers and Healing. Accessed 7/2021. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/exhibition/healing-ways/medicine-ways/healing-plants.html


57348119_2256114837761256_4232634512942563328_nKaila Blevins is the 2020-2021 National Herb Garden intern. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Technology and a minor in sustainability. She is pursuing a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. In her spare time, she likes to read, paint, brew kombucha, and experiment with its flavors, as well as spend time with her family and pets.

Subterranean Treasures: the Beneficial Roots of Native Vines

By Angela Magnan

As I pulled into the parking lot next to the native plant collection at work one day, I noticed our intern up in a tree cutting down a native honeysuckle vine. Uh-oh, I thought. Not again! Working at a public garden, our attempts to grow vines can often be frustrated by well-meaning visitors and volunteers, and yes, overly enthusiastic interns, who automatically think that all vines are weeds and cut or pull out the vines we have planted there. 

Apios in August by Angela MagnanOne strategy to avoid such tragedies is to plant vines that are less obtrusive and that produce underground structures from which they will resprout. One such vine is Apios americana, or groundnut. This leguminous, sprawling perennial vine grows up to 10 feet long and produces clusters of maroon pea-type flowers. Used by native peoples east of the Mississippi as a food source, it has both edible seeds and edible tubers.  The seeds are in long pods that can be harvested in the fall when dry and contain as much protein and fiber as pinto beans. Although not commonly grown in the US, it has been commercially farmed in Japan for more than a hundred years. 

The tubers, which grow every 10-12 inches along the rhizomes, need to be cooked and can be eaten in similar ways to potatoes. Research has also shown that dried and powdered tubers have some promise as an additive to gluten free bread products, increasing the protein content and improving the texture. If you harvest the tubers, the plant won’t come back, but it does seed around; you can maintain its presence in your garden by harvesting sparingly. The tubers are a good source of proline, an amino acid that helps build collagen. Groundnuts have been made into a poultice and used by New England tribes to treat proud flesh, a skin condition caused by inadequate healing of wounds that is particularly common in horses. 

Another native vine with a subterranean edible is hog peanut or ground bean. Also a legume, this is a great plant for botany geeks. Its scientific name, Amphicarpaea bracteata, refers to its production of more than one type of flower, a characteristic known as amphicarpy. It has two types of aboveground flowers and a third type underground. One of the aboveground flowers and the underground flower are cleistogamous, meaning they are permanently closed and self-fertile. The second aboveground flower is a delicate white or light purple pea-like flower that is pollinated by bumblebees. This annual or short-lived perennial produces edible underground seeds, but the aboveground seeds are not edible.

In the wild, this plant typically grows along streams and given enough moisture in the garden, it can run rampant and smother nearby plants. If grown strictly for ornamental purposes, this could be undesirable, but if you want to eat the seeds, you can harvest it aggressively and it will still come back. Because it gets a late start during the growing season, it is a great companion for early spring plants that go dormant by mid-summer. If it has something to twine around, it will, but it will also sprawl along the ground as a groundcover. 

In the US, Cherokee and Iroquois people used the plant for intestinal distress. The Cherokee also used it as a snake bite remedy and the Iroquois used it to treat tuberculosis. In Mexico, indigenous peoples grow it amidst maize and beans, allowing it to twine up the maize stems and intermingle with the climbing beans. Referred to as talet beans, they harvest the underground seeds in early spring before planting that year’s maize crop and then roast the beans as a snack. The aboveground seeds are plowed into the soil for next year’s crop. 

Yet another native vine with useful underground structures is Dioscorea villosa, a wild yam whose tubers contain diosgenin. In the 1940’s, scientists figured out how to synthesize human steroid compounds from diosgenin, a process that was then used to manufacture oral contraceptives and cortisone. Today scientists can synthesize diosgenin in the laboratory, but prior to 1970, wild yam was the sole source of diosgenin and most steroid hormones used in modern medicine were developed from this plant. Although diosgenin can be converted into such steroids in a lab, this process does not occur naturally and consuming wild yam would not have the same effect. 

The flowers of Dioscorea villosa are inconspicuous, but it has attractive heart shaped leaves. Even though its long runners can lead it to pop up in unexpected places, it is not aggressive like some of its non-native relatives. The tubers have an unpleasant, bitter taste, and you wouldn’t want to eat them, but they have been used medicinally for various ailments. Native Americans used a root-based tea to treat menstrual cramps, labor pains, inflammation, asthma, and rheumatism. European settlers used it to treat colic, which led to one of its other common names of colic root. It continues to be used in modern herbal medicine as an anti-inflammatory, either dried in capsule form or as a liquid extract to be made into an herbal tea.

The best thing about all three of these vines is that if a well-meaning individual cuts one down, you might still be able to use the underground treasures or leave them be and let the vine grow back. And what about the native honeysuckle cut down by our intern? It was not so lucky; it never came back. 

Photo credits: 1) Apios americana in August (courtesy of author); 2) Amphicarpaea bracteata flowers (Fritzflohrreynolds via Wikimedia Commons); 3) Amphicarpaea bracteata foliage (R. A. Nonenmacher via Wikimedia Commons); 4) Dioscorea villosa twining up hemlock (courtesy of author)

References:

Foster, S. & Johnson, R. (2006). Desk reference to nature’s medicine. National Geographic.

Frey, D. & Czolba, M. (2017). The food forest handbook. New Society Publishers.

Ichige, M., Fukuda, E., Miida, S., Hattan, J., Misawa, N., Saito, S., Fujimaki, T., Imoto, M., & Shindo, K. (2013). Novel isoflavone glucosides in groundnut (Apios americana Medik) and their antiandrogenic activities. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 61 (9), 2183-2187. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/jf305233t

Ito, S. & Arai, E. (2021). Improvement of gluten-free steamed bread quality by partial substitution of rice flour with powder of Apios americana tuber. Food Chemistry, 337, 127977. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2020.127977

Pena, F.B., Villalobos, G. Martinez, M.A., Sotelo, A., Gil, L., & Delgado-Salinas, A. (1999). Use and nutritive value of talet beans, Amphicarpaea bracteata (Fabaceae: Phaseoleae) as human food in Puebla, Mexico. Economic Botany, 53 (4), 427-434. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4256226

Salmon, E. (2020). Iwigara: The kinship of plants and people. Timber Press.

Schnee, B.K. & Waller, D. M. (1986). Reproductive behavior of Amphicarpaea bracteata (Leguminosae), an amphicarpic annual. American Journal of Botany, 73 (3), 376-386. https://bsapubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/j.1537-2197.1986.tb12051.x

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.


Angela grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and has degrees in biochemistry, horticulture, and science writing. She now lives in Maryland and has worked in the Gardens Unit at the US National Arboretum since 2012.

Who Was That Guy?

By Chrissy Moore

wp-LostAmazon_backcoverWe’ve likely all had the experience of never having heard of something your whole life, and then suddenly you hear about that thing everywhere. A while back, I was putting together a presentation on cacao research but couldn’t find a photo of the botanist I would be discussing. So, I had to use a placeholder image of some random fellow who happened to be looking at plants with a couple of Indigenous tribesmen in the Amazon. “That’ll have to do for now!” I thought, as I had no idea who the stand-in fellow was and didn’t have time to research him prior to delivering the presentation. But, I acknowledged my photographic hack to the audience and moved on, not giving it another thought.

A week later, one of the audience members emailed me the exact picture I had used, which she stumbled upon in an old copy of The Herbarist (No. 53., 1987), the annual publication of The Herb Society of America. What a coincidence! Come to find out, that “random fellow in the Amazon” was Dr. Richard Evans Schultes. But, still…who was that guy? Clearly, he was someone of importance, but for what? I tabled the inquiry for the time being. Shortly thereafter, one of my volunteers happened to forward me a link to a blog post about the Oakes Ames Herbarium at Harvard University. And whose name appeared in the post? Yep. Richard Evans Schultes. Him again? I decided it was time to go on my own hunt, and lo’ and behold, I found his name practically everywhere in the botanical world. Little did I know that Schultes was a famous 20th century taxonomic botanist and ethnobotanist; Harvard University professor of economic botany; curator, then executive director, of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University; and the one who is considered the father of modern ethnobotany. In other words, plantsman extraordinaire! How had I not come across his name after all these years in the herb world? Boy, did I feel silly. But, you don’t know what you don’t know until you know it! 

rivea_corymbosaSchultes was born in 1915 in Boston, Massachusetts, but spent many years of his life studying plants used by Indigenous peoples, primarily in the Americas. He is known for his work on medicinal and toxic plants, particularly those with hallucinogenic and entheogenic properties. (Hallucinogenic “refers specifically to plants or drugs which induce true hallucinations through the action of deleriant anticholinergic substances such as naturally occurring tropane alkaloids,” while entheogenic refers to “plants and substances which can induce transcendent mystical or spiritual experiences nearly always involving visions….It is associated with a range of psychoactive plants, specifically when used in religious or spiritual…contexts, be they hallucinogens, psychedelics, dissociatives, or others” (Hay et al., 2012).) His deep dive into Amazonian plants began while seeking out wild, disease-resistant Hevea (natural rubber) species in the Western Hemisphere for the United States government during World War II. (During the war, the Southeast Asian rubber sources were cut off, and new sources were needed.) Though he worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for twelve years, Dr. Schultes’ research branched out to include many other plants with varying economic or ethnobotanical uses. All the while, he maintained a focus on hallucinogens of plant origin. During his career, Schultes collected over 24,000 herbarium specimens and is credited with introducing 300 plants not previously known to science. 

In one of his papers, Schultes notes, “In view of the number of plant species, variously estimated at from 400,000 – 800,000 species, those that have been used as hallucinogens are few; probably no more than 60 species of cryptogams [spore-producing] and phanerogams [seed-producing]….Only 20 may be considered important” (Schultes, 1969).

Lophophora williamsiiSome of his most well-known research subjects were peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii), used for ritual by the Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma; ayahuasca, an entheogenic botanical brew used by Indigenous tribes of South America; and the numerous plants used to make curare, “a mixture of naturally occurring alkaloids found in various South American plants and used as arrow poisons” (ScienceDirect, 2021). After decades of research into its mode of action by many scientists around the world, curare was applied to surgical procedures in the 20th century, along with anesthesia, as a muscle relaxant during operations until safer synthetic analogues were discovered (Burr and Leung, 2014).

“I have tried several of the Indian hallucinogens, in part because the Indians consider them sacred plants and it would have been an unpardonable rudeness to refuse them when the Indians were kind enough to offer them to me during a ceremony” (Schultes, 1994).

By all accounts, Schultes was a die-hard ethnobotanist, who defined it thusly:

 “[It is] the complete registration of the uses of and concepts about plant life in primitive societies… comprising aspects of botany, anthropology, archeology, plant chemistry, pharmacology, history, geography, and sundry other tangential fields of the sciences and arts” (Schultes, 1988).

Schultes5-572x768His knowledge of the field went beyond just the cultural or botanical, but also landed squarely in the geographical as he sought to document the locations of plants and people. His journal notes and maps were indispensable for recording hard-to-get-at information, including language documentation of the tribes with whom he worked.

After living with and learning from the Indigenous populations in Amazonia for more than ten years (he concentrated on the northwest Amazon region of Colombia), Dr. Schultes returned to the United States and taught economic botany classes at Harvard University for decades, inspiring hundreds of students with his understanding of people and the plants they use. He also contributed hundreds of papers to various scientific publications, as well as authored eight books.

During his career, Schultes noted the rapid destruction of the Amazon rainforest and strongly advocated for its conservation, not just for the plants themselves, but for the knowledge that the Indigenous peoples held of those plants, both of which were disappearing at an alarming rate.

“It is therefore our responsibility – nay, our duty – to put ourselves in the forefront of ethnobotanical conservation. We cannot allow such precious funds of knowledge to become extinct” (Schultes, 1988).

He also understood the potential loss of knowledge yet to be discovered and encouraged continued botanical, pharmacological, and ethnobotanical research throughout the Amazonian basin.

Schultes_amazon_1940s-593x768Schultes was a lover of people, whether they were the tribespeople with whom he forged friendships or the students he mentored at university. His knowledge was profound, and scores of plants share his name. His conservation efforts were acknowledged through numerous awards during his lifetime, including the World Wildlife Fund’s Annual Gold Medal in recognition of ethnobotanical conservation, as well as a 2.2-million-hectare tract of land in Colombia. Dr. Schultes was also an honorary member of the New England Unit of The Herb Society of America! Not surprisingly, his impact has been felt the world over. I may have only recently heard of this tremendous ethnobotanist, but he’s definitely taken me on a botanical journey I’ll not soon forget.

Photo credits: 1) R.E. Schultes in South America (Wade Davis/Earth Aware Editions); 2) Turbinia corymbosa (syn. Rivea corymbosa) botanical illustration (R.E. Shultes); 3) Lophophora williamsii (peyote cactus) (Wikimedia Commons); 4) Schultes’ hand drawn map in his field notebook (Harvard University Botany Libraries); 5) Schultes with Salvador Chindoy (left), a renowned Kamëntsá healer from Sibundoy Valley of Colombia (Archives of the Economic Botany Library of Oakes Ames, Harvard University).

References

Burr, S.A. and Y.L. Leung. 2014. Curare (d-Tubocurarine). Encyclopedia of Toxicology (Third Edition). Academic Press.

Curare – An Overview. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/veterinary-science-and-veterinary-medicine/curare. Accessed 14 June, 2021.

Davis, Wade. The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004. 160 pp. ISBN# 0-8118-4571-0

Hay, A., Gottschalk, M., & Holguín, A. 2012. Huanduj: Brugmansia. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: Richmond, United Kingdom

Kahn, E. J. “Jungle Botanist [Richard Evans Schultes]”. The New Yorker. v. 68: pp. 35-58. 1992.

Schultes, Richard Evans. “Burning the Library of Amazonia.” Sciences 34, no. 2, pp. 24. 1994.

Schultes, Richard Evans. “Hallucinogens or Plant Origin.” Science, New Series, Vol. 163, No. 3864 (Jan. 17, 1969), pp. 245-254. www.jstor.org/stable/1725088, accessed 08 Jan 2020.

Schultes, Richard Evans. “The Medicine Man: Herbalist Superb.” The Herbarist, No. 53. 1987.

Schultes, Richard Evans. “Primitive Plant Lore & Modern Conservation”. Orion Nature Quarterly; v. 7, No. 3, Summer 1988. New York, NY: Myrin Institute, 1988b.

https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2003/09/richard-evans-schultes/. Accessed 3/31/2021.

https://blog.biodiversitylibrary.org/2020/08/richard-evans-schultes.html. Accessed 3/31/2021.

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.


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

Herbal Medicine vs. Homeopathy

By Erin Holden

Herbs in jarsThe world of natural and alternative medicine encompasses many modalities, and for the layperson, the different approaches and schools of thought can be confusing. When I tell people I’m an herbalist, they invariably think I practice homeopathy, acupuncture, Ayurveda, aromatherapy, you name it. And while many herbalists are also knowledgeable in these areas, they are very different subjects that each take additional study to practice safely and effectively. In my experience, most people think that herbal medicine and homeopathy are one and the same. Although there are similarities, they’re separate ways to approach natural healing, and I wanted to help people distinguish between the two. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say that I don’t practice homeopathy and only have a little bit of knowledge on the topic – lectures touching on homeopathy are not uncommon in classes and at herbal conferences I’ve attended, so it’s easy to passively acquire tidbits of a more complex picture. 

According to the American Institute of Homeopathy, there are three principles of homeopathy. The first, “let likes cure likes,” means that “a substance taken in small amounts will cure the same symptoms it causes if taken in large amounts.” To illustrate that point, a preparation from the strychnine tree (Strychnos nux-vomica), nux vomica, is used for nausea. The second principle is “the minimum dose.” stockvault-homeopathy-medicines211519 FREE TO USETo maximize effectiveness while decreasing side effects, a full strength medicine (which can be herbal, mineral, or animal) is subjected to a series of dilutions and agitations (called succussions), until the original medicine is no longer detectable. The number of dilutions and succussions are noted on the remedy. For example, a 6X remedy is one part tincture to nine parts alcohol (the X here denoting 10), then succussed six times (National Center for Homeopathy). The third principle, “the single remedy,” dictates that practitioners suggest only one remedy at a time, although some homeopathic preparations contain a combination of remedies. Practitioners take a holistic approach, and match the specific remedy to the overall clinical picture of the client. Homeopathic remedies come in a variety of formulations, from sublingual pellets to liquids and topical ointments. Overall, homeopathy is considered safe for just about everyone, including babies, children, and those who are pregnant and breastfeeding.

Herbal medicine is also a holistic modality, where the practitioner looks at the client’s physical and emotional health, and herbalists also use herbs (obviously!), but that’s about where the similarities end. When selecting remedies, herbalists often choose those that oppose, and therefore balance, what’s going on with the client. For example, if a person runs cold or is feeling slow and sluggish, then warming herbs, like ginger, may be recommended. Many times herbalists make recommendations based on thousands of years of traditional uses, which are being increasingly validated by scientific study. Herb infused oilDosing and formulation are also very different between the two modalities. Herbalists use full strength preparations, often multiple grams of different herbs in formulas developed specifically for the client. I’ve formulated teas for clients that range anywhere from 4g to 15g of herbs per day; it all depends on what symptoms they’re presenting and how they respond to the herbs.  Formulas can be teas, powders, tinctures, glycerites, or topical preparations such as salves, poultices, and liniments. Sometimes the type of preparation depends on the active constituents in an herb – some are water soluble and call for a tea, while others are alcohol soluble and are only effective via tincture. Since herbs, as used by herbalists, are not used at the dilutions employed by homeopaths, there’s a potential for side effects and interference with medications, and some herbs are not recommended for babies, children, or pregnant/breastfeeding people. However, since herbalists do take the whole person into account, they can adjust dosing or herb choice to safely and effectively work with these populations and medications. 

In the end, the goal of both of these modalities is the same – overall wellness. They are just two different points on a continuum of natural healing.

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.

Heartsease–Herb of the Month

A Tiny Herb Worth Knowing

by Maryann Readal

Heartsease, Viola tricolor, also called Johnny-jump-up, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for March. It is the perfect time to learn about this delicate little woodland herb that will be popping out of the warming earth very soon. You may know V. tricolor by one of its many other names. There are dozens of names for it including wild pansy, hearts delight, come-and-cuddle-me, love-in-idleness, call-me-to-you, and kiss-me-at-the-garden-gate, etc. 

Viola_tricolor_aggr Muriel Bendel. Wikimedia CommonsV. tricolor is in the violet family (Violaceae). The flowers can be purple, yellow, or white but are most commonly all three colors. The herb is native to Europe and Eurasia and was thought to be brought to the United States by colonists. It can be an annual, biennial, or a short-lived perennial. It will reseed itself and thrives in cooler weather.

This unassuming little herb is rich in folklore. In both Greek and Roman mythology, Viola tricolor was associated with love. The Romans believed that Cupid, the god of desire, hit the flower of Viola tricolor with his arrow by mistake, causing the white flower to become tricolored and the juice to become a love potion. A Greek legend tells of the love that Eros had for the white flowers. Aphrodite, being jealous of his love for the flower, turned it into the three colors to stop his love. Early Christians thought that the three-colored flowers of heartsease symbolized the Holy Trinity. The Druids made magical potions with it and used it in purification rituals. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table believed the lines on the petals foretold their future. 

Viola tricolor was Queen Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) favorite flower. She embroidered the flower on gifts to her family, and some of her elaborate dresses had the flower woven into the fabric. 

Elizabeth I (the Hardwick House portrait) 1592 or c. 1599-02 by nicholas hilliardShakespeare (1564-1616) used the love potion legend of V. tricolor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1, saying about heartsease that the “the juice of it, on sleeping eyelids laid, will make a man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees.” Viola tricolor appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as well as in Taming of the Shrew Act 1, Scene 1.

 But my favorite story comes from Germany, where heartsease is called “Stiefmütterchen” (little stepmother). The story is that the large bottom petal (the stepmother) sits on two sepals, the two petals on either side of the bottom petal are the daughters and they each have their own sepal. The two petals at the top are the stepdaughters and they share a single sepal and are in the back of the other petals.

V. tricolor is the mother of the beautiful pansies with huge, striking faces that we plant in our gardens in the spring. These pansies were introduced as hybrids of the wild pansy in 1813 in Britain by Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet, who hybridized them with her gardener, William Richardson. Around the same time in England, Lord Gambier was working with his gardener on hybridizing the wild pansy as well. By 1833, there were over 400 named pansies developed from the tiny viola that we call heartsease.

An interesting and observable characteristic of heartsease was noted by Maud Grieve in her book The Modern Herbal: “The flower protects itself from rain and dew by drooping its head both at night and in wet weather, and thus the back of the flower and not its face receives moisture.” V. tricolor is self-fertile and readily reseeds itself. Fritillary butterflies lay their eggs on the plant, and various bees, thrips, and flies visit it.

Viola tricolor and V. arvensisThe flowers of V. tricolor are edible and are used in salads, butters, and in ice cubes to dress up a beverage. They make a colorful garnish. The leaves are mucilaginous and can be used to thicken soup. A tea is made from the leaves.

Other uses include using the leaves as a litmus test and using the flowers to make a yellow, green, and blue-green dye.

Viola tricolor has a long history of use in traditional medicines. Its use is documented in the Pharmacopoeia of Europe. Its anti-inflammatory properties have made it a traditional medicinal remedy for skin diseases such as psoriasis, eczema, scabs, and itchy skin. It has also been used to treat inflammation and chest conditions such as bronchitis and asthma. Research shows that the cyclotides in V. tricolor may have promise in the treatment of cancers. However, more research still needs to be done. 

When I see the dainty little flowers of V. tricolor, I remember the gardens of my sweet mother and grandmother who always had them growing in their gardens. I also think of this quote from William Bullein, an early English physician, who said in 1562, “Pray God give thee but one handful of Heavenly Heartsease which passeth all the pleasant flowers that grow in this worlde.” 

May you be inspired to plant some heartsease in your garden this spring.

For more information of heartsease, Viola tricolor, please visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month web page https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html

Photo Credits: 1) Viola tricolor (Muriel Bendel, Wikimedia Commons); 2) Elizabeth I, Hardwick portrait, with Viola tricolor on bottom left (Nicholas Hilliard); 3) Viola tricolor and V. arvensis (C.A.M. Lindman (1836-1928), Wikimedia Commons)

References

Grieve, Maud. A Modern Herbal. Dover Publications. 1971. (reprint)

Hellinger, Roland, et al. Immunosuppressive activity of aqueous Viola tricolor herbal extract . Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2014. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24216163/

Hodgson, Larry. The Year of the Pansy. 2017. https://laidbackgardener.blog/tag/icicle-pansy/

Lim, T.K. Edible Medicinal and Non Medicinal Plants: Volume 8, Flowers. Springer. 2014. https://books.google.com/books?id=-nvGBAAAQBAJ&pg=PA815#v=onepage&q&f=false

Plants for a future. https://pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?latinname=Viola+tricolor, 

North Carolina Plant Toolbox. Viola Tricolor. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/viola-tricolor/

Wells, Diana. 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 1997.

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.

Get Warmed Up with “Fire Cider”

By Karen O’Brien

DSC06193At this time of year, people often investigate remedies for winter ailments, be it the flu, colds, or even just warming brews. Many herbalists make a version of a vinegar-based drink called “fire cider,”* guaranteed to warm you up and may just possibly help with warding off upper respiratory infections. I always have a batch brewing, as I don’t want to be caught without this when the winds blow and the winter descends.

Made with apple cider vinegar, this drink is sure to wake you up and wow your taste buds. DSC06194(Apple cider vinegar is made by adding yeast to apple juice, which breaks down the sugars into alcohol. Then, other bacteria are added to turn the alcohol into acetic acid. These bacteria are what’s referred to as the “mother.” Some brands of apple cider vinegar have had the “mother” filtered out for clarity; some brands retain it. The best kind of cider to use is one that has retained the “mother.”) I like it straight, but many add a spoonful of honey to “help the medicine go down.” You can add or subtract to the recipe as you see fit, or you can find many versions online. The typical ingredients are horseradish, garlic, onions, ginger, and hot pepper. I add turmeric to mine as I like the anti-inflammatory nature of that rhizome. Enjoy!

FIRE CIDER

DSC027331 large horseradish root, peeled

3 medium size fresh ginger rhizomes

5 – 6 fresh turmeric rhizomes

5 – 10 small hot peppers

2 small onions 

4 heads of garlic, peeled

Apple cider vinegar, enough to cover the ingredients, approximately 2 ½ quarts

Directions          

DSC01054Grate the horseradish in a food processor and place in a large bowl. Shred the turmeric, onions, garlic, ginger, and hot peppers and add to the bowl. Mix well. Place ingredients into two large (2-quart) canning jars and cover with apple cider vinegar. I used 2 1/2 quarts of vinegar with the “mother,” being sure I covered the shredded roots. If you don’t have the large jars, you can use any extra large wide-mouthed jar, or use several smaller ones. If using metal lids, be sure to place a layer of wax paper between the lid and jar, as vinegar will corrode the metal over time. Place in a dark place for 4-8 weeks, shake frequently, then strain and re-bottle. The strained fire cider will last several months in a cool place, but is best stored in the fridge. 

*There was a huge controversy in the herbal community some years ago when three herbalists were sued for marketing their own version of this herbal blend. A company had trademarked the term “fire cider” and went after these herbalists in order to protect their investment. After a long trial, it was determined that the words “fire cider” were, indeed, a generic term and could not be trademarked. See the following article on the herbalists’ fight in court: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/10/20/herbalists-defended-their-brew-court-they-won/r94hvWnBghLvdwsnw7W7JN/story.html

Further Reading: Gladstar, Rosemary. Fire Cider!: 101 Zesty Recipes for Health-Boosting Remedies Made with Apple Cider Vinegar. 2019. Storey Publishing, LLC.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the author.

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.


Karen O’Brien is a Master Gardener and owner of  “The Green Woman’s Garden” (www.greenwomansgarden.com) in Richmond, New Hampshire. She lectures and presents workshops on all aspects of herbs and gardening. Karen is also the Northeast District Member Delegate for The Herb Society of America (HSA), was the Botany and Horticulture Chair of HSA, past Chair of The New England Unit of HSA, was past Secretary of the International Herb Association (IHA), and is Past President of the Greenleaf Garden Club of Milford, MA. She is the editor and contributing author to several Herb of the Year™ books, including Capsicum, Satureja, Artemisia, and Sambucus, produced by the IHA. Karen also writes a gardening column for the Richmond Rooster and is an alternate Agriculture Commission member for Richmond.

Not Just for Teatime: The Herbal Significance of Camellias

By Matt Millage

It never ceases to amaze me how much tea is consumed daily. An estimated 2.16 billion cups of tea are drunk every day around the world, which puts it Panda_Tea_Green_Teasecond only to water in most consumed beverages (DeWitt, 2000). I, myself, have become a tea drinker over the years, and as a plant nerd, I wanted to know more about how the tea leaves were farmed. What I ended up learning is that while tea (Camellia sinensis) is by far the most well known and widely used product of the genus Camellia, it is by no means its only contribution to the herbal marketplace.

Some of you may know the genus Camellia for the wonderful ornamental show that it puts on from fall through spring. Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua have been putting on shows in USDA hardiness zones 7-9 for decades, if not centuries, in the deeper south. These species have an even more prominent herbal significance in the Eastern Hemisphere, where they have been cultivated for millennia in their native ranges.

Four species of Camellias are most widely known, and all four have both traditional and contemporary herbal uses. C. sinensis is by far the most used globally, as it produces both green and black teas. C. japonica is most often considered an ornamental plant best known for its showy spring blooms, but in its native range of Japan, it has been used as both an anti-inflammatory and a conditioner for hair and skin. C. oleifera is the source of  tea seed oil, which is used in cooking oils, cosmetics, and lubrication. Camellia sasanquaAnd finally, C. sasanqua has a long history of being used for both tea and tea seed oil in Japan, both of which go back centuries. Let us look at each of these four species in a bit more detail to better understand their contributions to both Asia and the world.

The Chinese legend of how tea was discovered is a mainstay of Chinese folklore and history. In the year 2737 BC, the herbalist Emperor Shen Nung was awaiting his drinking water to be boiled by a servant when a few leaves from a large Camellia sinensis shrub fell into the boiling water. Known for his propensity to sample new herbs, the Emperor decided to try the brew and found that it produced “vigor of body, contentment of mind, and determination of purpose” (DeWitt, 2000). Thus, the first written account of humans enjoying the benefits of caffeine was recorded. The rest of the world would have to wait a few thousand years for tea to find its way west, but after its discovery by European traders in the 18th century, it would quickly become one of the most popular drinks on the globe. Most tea-harvest-at-charlestontea production is now centered mainly in the Eastern Hemisphere, however some tea is produced in America. Several states in the U.S. have small tea growers, but most American tea is grown in South Carolina, primarily at the 127-acre Charleston Tea Plantation—arguably one of the most historic tea plantations in the country.  

Camellia japonica seeds, when pressed, produce an oil referred to in Japanese as tsubaki-abura, widely used for hair and skin care. It is very rich in oleic acid, which helps keep skin and hair moisturized. It was said to be geisha_retro_vintage_japanese_asia-1335041.jpg!dused by the geisha to remove make-up and act as an antioxidant. C. japonica is famous for its anti-inflammatory activity in the field of medicine and ethnobotany. It is reported as a bioactive plant in folk medicine of South Korea, Japan, and China. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities of the leaves are already reported, and this plant is proved to be a source of triterpenes, flavonoids, tannin, and fatty acids having antiviral, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory activities. The seeds are also used as a traditional medicine in folk remedies for the treatment of bleeding and inflammation (Majumder, 2020).

Before the discovery of whale oil, Camellia sasanqua seed oil was used to fuel lanterns in both Japan and Korea. In fact, it was used for lighting homes, lubrication of machines, cooking oil, and cosmetics. Its use as a tea leaf persists today, with some regions of Japan and Korea preferring it to the traditional teas made from C. sinensis. Due to the difficulty of pressing the seeds, it has dwindled to a cottage industry in most regions, with some seeds now being used for many novelties of the souvenir trade, including dolls’ eyes (RBGSYD, 2012).

Camellia oleiferaNative to China, Camellia oleifera also produces tea seed oil. It is known as a cooking oil to hundreds of millions of people in east Asia, and is one of the most important cooking oils in southern China as it has a very high smoke point of 252 degrees Fahrenheit—perfect for deep frying. It has also been used to protect Japanese woodworking tools and cutlery from corrosion (Odate, Reprint Edition 1998). Sometimes also used in soap making, it is said to add a supple conditioner for the skin. Overall, the importance of it as a cooking oil cannot be overstated for large regions of Asia, as this remains to be C. oleifera’s most valuable contribution today.

While you may have to live in the Eastern Hemisphere of our globe to notice the many uses that the genus Camellia offers on a daily basis, you now hopefully have a better understanding of the many herbal benefits that it has offered humanity over the centuries. Next time you sit down to steep a cup of tea, maybe offer up a toast to the shrub that makes it all happen: the Camellia.

References

DeWitt, P. (2000, March 8). Harvard.edu. Retrieved from A Brief History of Tea: Rise and Fall of the Tea Importation Act: https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/8852211/Dewitt,_Patricia.pdf

Majumder, S. G. (2020, August 27). Bulletin of The National Research Centre. Retrieved from Springer Open Corporation Website: https://bnrc.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s42269-020-00397-7#citeas

Odate, T. (Reprint Edition 1998). “Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use” page 174. Tokyo: Linden Publishing.

Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. (2012, February 4). Internet Archive- The Wayback Machine. Retrieved from Royal Botanic Garden Sydney NSW AU: https://web.archive.org/web/20120204064125/http://www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/welcome_to_bgt/tomah/garden_features/blooming_calendar/Camellias

Photo Credits: 1) Green tea (Creative Commons); 2) Camellia sasanqua (Matt Millage); 3) Tea harvesting on Charleston, SC, tea plantation (tripadvisor.be); 4) Geisha (Creative Commons); 5) Camellia oleifera (Matt Millage).

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.


Matt MillageMatt has worked in public gardening for a little over six years and is currently the horticulturist in the Asian Collections at the U.S. National Arboretum. He previously worked at Smithsonian Gardens in a variety of capacities. Matt is an ISA-certified arborist and an IPM manager certified with both Virginia and DC.