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.

Backyard Butterfly Weed

By Kaila Blevins

Butterfly weed flowersI, like many other people preparing for the COVID-19 lockdown, frequented my local garden center to purchase vegetable seeds and buy plants for the different backyard projects intended to keep myself occupied as the weather warmed. One of the projects that I tasked myself with involved creating a pollinator garden in a wonky, pain-in-the-butt-to-mow patch of grass in my backyard. While walking through the garden center’s aisles, looking for plants to complement the coneflowers (Echinacea) and bee balm (Monarda) I had already placed in my cart, I came across butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Originally, I was drawn to the numerous orange flowers that would bloom from mid-summer through the fall that would potentially allow me to see a variety of butterflies, moths, and maybe even a hummingbird, when I peer out of the kitchen window while washing dishes. But, once I got home, I researched butterfly weed’s uses outside of being pollinator friendly. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that several Native American tribes in the eastern and southwestern portions of the United States used butterfly weed medicinally.

Butterfly weedBased on the historical texts I read, the seeds and roots of butterfly weed were used in numerous treatments. The seeds harvested from the ripened pods were used to treat diarrhea and dysentery. However, most of the different tribes primarily used the roots, which were applied externally to tighten the skin or smashed to create a paste to treat bruises, cuts, sores, and bites. In addition to topical use, the roots were ingested or steeped to create beverages. Raw roots were consumed to treat pulmonary and respiratory issues; dried roots were administered to treat chest pains as well. Drinks were given to women after childbirth to ease the pain and bring comfort to the new mothers. Lastly, individuals believed that rubbing their legs and running shoes with butterfly weed would enhance their running capabilities.

Butterfly weedSince planting the garden back in May, it has been a delight watching the different insects interact with the butterfly weed, but it was also fun learning how people used it in ways other than just adding pops of orange to their garden. For more information on other native herbs and native herb gardening, check out The Herb Society of America’s Notable NativeTM and GreenBridgesTM web pages.

 

Photo Credits: 1) Butterfly weed flowers; 2) Butterfly weed developing seedpod; 3) Butterfly weed in author’s garden. All photos courtesy of the author.

Sources

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary: Timber Press, 2009.

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.


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. This fall, she will pursue a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. She hopes to expand her knowledge of plants, and how they benefit human health and life. 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. Kaila also likes to stay active in the community through volunteering.

Spicebush to the Rescue

Spicebush to the Rescue

By Kaila Blevins

Author Volunteer TripWhile on a volunteer trip in Orlando, Florida, I was desperate for bug spray. In the middle of December, the mosquitoes nibbled on any exposed skin they could find, leaving me and the rest of the unprepared Maryland native participants with patches of red swollen bumps on our ankles and arms. Our guides, a retired couple who volunteers with the state parks, became our heroes on the second day of the trip. During our lunch break, the husband saunters over to us, carrying a branch from a nearby shrub and states, “This is spicebush. Crush its leaves and rub it onto your arms. Keeps the bugs away and helps the itch.” Immediately, we passed the branch around, ripped the leaves off the branch, crumpled them, and rubbed the lemon-peppery scented oil onto our skin.

A couple years later, I would learn that spicebush (Lindera benzoin) has a multitude of uses. The fragrant multi-stemmed shrub is native to the margins of wetlands and along woodland streams in the Eastern United States. It can grow close to 10 feet tall, and in spicebush flowersApril, yellow flowers begin to appear on the branches. By the end of the summer, the flowers are replaced by cherry red fruits. Spicebush is integral to the native ecosystems, as it serves as the host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, and birds are known to snack on the seeds. However, Native Americans and early settlers relied on spicebush’s herbal properties.

Native Americans would brew tea with the bark, twigs, leaves, and berries. When ingested, the tea would induce sweating. The increased perspiration would help fight off fevers and ease body aches. In addition, ingestion would assist with removing intestinal parasites. The tea could be applied topically as well. Compresses soaked in spicebush tea would be applied to the skin to ease the pain from arthritis, rashes, bruises, and itching. Once settlers arrived in the new world, they sought help from the Native Americans.

The settlers did not know much about the peculiar plants growing in North America, so Native Americans taught them the herbal benefits of the native plants. Lindera benzoin fruitSettlers used spicebush for similar ailments as well as typhoid fever. They also used the plant in culinary dishes. The dried seeds and bark became milder substitutes for allspice and cinnamon, respectively. Beyond its herbal uses, settlers used the presence of spicebush as an indicator for rich soil that could be converted into agricultural land.

Spicebush’s herbal properties may get overlooked by its ecological importance or showy yellow leaves in fall, but it was a staple for Native Americans, early settlers, and my volunteer trip. For more information on spicebush, check out HSA’s Essential Fact Sheet.

 

Photo Credits (from top): Author on field trip; spicebush flowers (courtesy E. Holden); spicebush fruit (courtesy E. Holden)

References

Keiffer, Betsy. “Lindera Benzoin.” Cultivation Notess, Sept. 1998, riwps.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Lindera_benzoin.pdf.

“Lindera Benzoin.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – The University of Texas at Austin, http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=LIBE3.

“Lindera Benzoin.” North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox, plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/lindera-benzoin/.

Nesom, Guy. “Spicebush.” Plant Guide, USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center & the Biota of North America Program , 2003, plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_libe3.pdf.

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.


57348119_2256114837761256_4232634512942563328_n

Kaila 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. This fall, she will pursue a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. She hopes to expand her knowledge of plants, and how they benefit human health and life. 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. Kaila also likes to stay active in the community through volunteering.