Archive for the ‘Herbs’ Category

Christmas Star – Euphorbia pulcherrima

Christmas Star
Christmas Star

Red leafed flower with poignant history
Reminds of life’s passion at Christmas time
Symbolic of seasonal light, glory

 

By Stephanie Eve Kane Arado

 

This plant, indigenous to Mexico is probably the most recognized flower associated with the Christmas season. It was held in such high esteem by Montezuma, the emperor of the ancient Aztecs that he had the plants potted and brought into the mountains where he reigned. The plant did not do well there (it does not tolerate below 50 degrees Fahrenheit), so had to be brought in frequently!

The Poinsettia has been referred to as the Christmas Star because of the resemblance of the bracts that surround the true flowers to stars. The bracts (or leaves) are pointed and circle the center yellow flowers in a radiant pattern. Among the Aztec the flower represented purity.

 

In Mexico there is a sweet story of how the Poinsettia came to be. According to the legend a young girl was on her way to celebrate the Christ child’s birth, but she was too poor to afford a gift. So she picked a bunch of scraggly green plants to present to him. She placed these before the alter and they blossomed with bright crimson star shaped flowers. This was a reminder that the most humble gift, given in love is perfection.

 

Among the Mayan people (at one time) these flowers were considered sacred. The Aztecs used the red bracts to produce a red dye. As a folk medicine it was used to treat skin issues, warts, and toothaches.

 

There is one other myth that needs dispelled. This plant is not a toxic killer…to people or pets!

In 1919 an urban legend was born after a child died after ingestion of the plant. The cause of death was never proven, but it never happened again! The latex of the plant can cause issues for those sensitive to it causing irritation to the skin, eyes and mucous membranes. If sufficient quantity is consumed it can cause nausea and vomiting, but NOT death.

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Red Birds in a Tree – Scrophularia macrantha

Red Birds in a Tree fruit
Red Birds in a Tree fruit

‘On the mainland the figwort is known for its medicinal properties,

and in the islands for its magical powers.

On the mainland the leaf of the plant is applied to cuts and bruises,

and the tuber to sores and tumours.

In the islands the plant was placed on the cow fetter,

under the milk boyne, and over the byre door,

to ensure milk in the cows.’

 

In  Carmina Gadelica, Volume 2, by Alexander Carmicheal, [1900]

 

This native plant of New Mexico has become rare in nature, growing only in a small area of New Mexico. It carries the common names of New Mexico Figwort and Mimbres Figwort for that reason. It is usually considered Rare or Endangered. A relatively new interest has been given this plant and the nursery industry has assigned the new name of Red Birds in a Tree to it. The new name is due to the striking red flowers it bears from July to October in its native habitat. Here on the east coast I have seen this plant happy and flourishing in the University of Delaware’s Botanical Garden. I saw it in August and the flowers seemed done, but it had great seedpods growing profusely.

 

The Yavapai people of Arizona had at one time used the leaves as spring greens and ate them boiled. No other reference to this variety of figwort being consumed could be found.

 

The genus name, Scrophularia is based on the word scrofula (tuberculosis of the lymph nodes found in the neck) which members of this genus have been used to treat. Although there is no mention of this specific member having been used for anything medicinal!

Love Lies Bleeding Amaranth – Amaranthus caudatus

Love Lies Bleeding Amaranth
Love Lies Bleeding Amaranth

Yet well I ken the banks where Amaranths blow,

Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.

Bloom, O ye Amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,

For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1825)

In Work Without Hope

This native of The Andes region of South America can now be found in India and Africa, as well as being cultivated in modern gardens worldwide. It is an annual plant that was intercropped for many years with cotton, maize, sorghum and beans. The plants that I have personally seen were at the National Herb Garden in Washington, DC. These plants were taller than my husband who is slightly over 6 feet tall. The beautiful, velvety, tassel-like flowering heads drooped all the way to the ground when fully open.

In ancient Egypt the amaranth was sacred to Artemis; it was supposed to have sacred healing properties and was used as a symbol of immortality. It was so sacred that it was used to decorate the tombs and images of the gods themselves. It was also used in the funerary rituals due to its association with immortality.

Back in the 70’s the Rodale Institute (who put out Organic Gardening) ran a study about growing amaranth. I don’t remember if I enrolled in a program ran by them or by the Mother Earth News magazine, but one of them asked their readers to participate in a summer challenge to grow this grain in back yard gardens. I enrolled, but due to unforeseen circumstances (pregnancy and divorce) I never actually grew the seed sent me! My lack of participation didn’t slow the process though, many people participated!

The plant was also evaluated by John Robinson, University of Michigan, and by the National Academy of Sciences (in separate studies) here in the USA. It was concluded that this plant of the American tropics may hold a key to increasing the world’s nutrition. Amaranth is high in protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, zinc, Vitamins E and B.

In South and Central American it was a staple of the diet, reaching its peak usage with the Aztecs around the time of the Spanish invasion.

It has also been used in the treatment of various ailments by the Aztec, Incan, and Mayan healers. They used both the seeds and the leaves for healing purposes.

This plant was also held sacred by many of these cultures. It was so sacred that dough made of the amaranth flour was formed and fashioned into figurines that were offered to the various Gods; these then were eaten to remember their Gods. This practice infuriated the Catholic priests that tried to convert them!

Newborn babies were ritually bathed and named on their fourth day, and then they were given amaranth dough figures to eat. The figures the newborns were offered reflected what they were expected to become; bows and arrows, or kitchen utensils.

Carolina Nightshade – Solanum carolinense var. carolinense

Carolina Nightshade fruit
Carolina Nightshade fruit

This native of the southeast North America has spread to cover most of the United States. It is known to be weedy and invasive spreading through seeds and its underground rhizomes. It is extremely deep rooted, and if the entire root is not removed it will regrow being a perennial. Of the 44 states in which it grows, 7 of them have listed it as a Noxious weed…Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Iowa and Nevada. Even though this plant is list as a noxious weed it cannot be listed as invasive, since it is native of this land.

 

Another reason for the aversion to this plant is that all green parts, but especially the unripe berries carry an alkaloid (solanine) that is very toxic. It has been shown toxic to horses, cattle, sheep, and humans. The symptomology of poisoning is abdominal pain and may potentially cause circulatory and respiratory depression. If sufficient quantity of the plant is consumed it can be deadly.  Although the unripe berries are toxic, the ripe berries are consumed safely by pheasants, quail, prairie chickens and wild turkeys.

 

The fruits have also been consumed by humans safely although it is not recommended. In times past the ripe berries (after turning yellow) have been used in herbal medicine to treat epilepsy, and to work as a sedative and an anti-spasmodic. In fact the Genus name (Solanum) is taken from the Latin, meaning quieting! According to Foster & Duke (A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants Eastern and Central North America Volume 40: Peterson Field Guides) the berries have been use to treat epilepsy and pain, as a diuretic, antispasmodic, and aphrodisiac.

 

The Cherokee Indians used it in their Herbal medicine. Often referred to as the bull nettle, the ripe, yellow berries were used to treat nervous stress and as a mild sedative. It was also used for treating asthma, and all sorts of bronchial conditions. The Cherokee also used the crushed leaves mixed with sweet milk as a fly poison. In another use the root would be strung on a thread or piece of leather latigo and hung around a teething babies neck to easy the pain!

Mexican Rose – Portulaca grandiflora

Mexican Rose
Mexican Rose

Ode to Portulaca

 

Fleshy annuals, colors of the rainbow
Show faces serene, sparkling and steadfast
As they grow and gleam.
Each petal diminutive but stately
Holds firm in sunshine and droughts…

 

By Donald G. Harmande

This annual, succulent, flowering plant is native to South America, ranging from Argentina and Uruguay through southern Brazil. It found there on the hot dry plains. It is an escape in some areas of Europe. In 1828 American botanist W.J. Hooker embarked on a trip to the Rio Desaguardero in Bolivia, South America, there he was the first to describe this plant.

Its cousin the common Purslane has been grown for centuries for use as a potherb, but the Rose Moss or Mexican Rose has oxalates in the stems and leaves which cause issues on consumption. If properly prepared the oxalates effects (tingling and burning sensations in the mouth and throat) can be negated. The seeds, although very small, can be ground and added to soups or even cereals.

The ASPCA reports that these plants are toxic to cats, dogs and horses causing muscle weakness, depression, and diarrhea. The soluble calcium oxalates are the culprit here also!

In herbal medicine the entire plant is depurative (promoting cleansing). It has been used in the treatment of hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, and swelling with pain of the pharynx. The fresh leaves can render a juice that has been utilized in the treatment of snake and insect bites, burns, scalds and eczema.

In the language of flowers the Moss Rose means “confession of love”.

Pinks – Dianthus chinensis

Pinks
Pinks

Flowers blossoming
in autumn fields –
when I count them on my fingers
they then number seven
The flowers of bush clover,
eulalia, arrowroot,
pink, patrinia,
also, mistflower
and morning faces flower.

Yamanoue Okura (C. 660 – 733)

 

This native biennial is grows in a variety of habitats in the Far East, from Mongolia to northern China, to Korea and southeast Russia. In the Far East it has been used for thousands of years in Chinese Tradition Medicine. This small flower resembles the carnation of florist fame, and in fact they are cousins, often being used in similar ways.

 

In herbal medicine the whole plant is considered a bitter and used to aid digestion and the urinary tract system. It has been used internally for the treatment of acute urinary tract infections (especially cystitis), urinary stones, constipation, and failure to menstruate. Externally a decoction is used to treat skin inflammations and swellings.

 

Some of the Dianthus species are edible, but no specific references for this variety can be found at this time. The fact that it has been used in China for medicine probably gives credence to the relative safety of the flowers. If the petals are eaten in excess they can cause some skin irritation issues!

American Marsh Pennywort – Hydrocotyle ranunculoides

American Marsh Pennywort
American Marsh Pennywort

Pennywort.

Pennywort.

Pattern of primrose and pennywort.

Taking me, taking me,

Take me to meadows of childhood…

By Dic Edwards

This creeping, perennial aquatic herb is native to eastern North America where is grows in moist areas such as marshes, springs, and swamps. Here in the east there are places that it is becoming Endangered…Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. But in Europe it is considered an invasive species because of its tendency to develop large colonies!

Here in Delaware in can be found along the edges of ponds, creeks, and swampy areas. It often keeps its deep green color in winter. The small white flowers form in small clusters or umbrells from the leaf base. The flowers are on short stalks in the umbrell, and have 5 tiny, white petals.

The genus name, Hyddrocotyle, comes from the Greek and means water (hydro) cup (or small drinking vessel – cotyle). It is believed to have similar healing properties to its Asian cousin the Hydocotyle asiatica, which has been used to treat leprosy, itch, scrofula, rheumatism, ulcers, and secondary syphilis.

This member of the Carrot family was used by the Cohuilla Indians for greens.