Archive for the ‘Herbal Medicine’ 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.

Possomhaw Holly – Ilex deciduas

Possumhaw Holly
Possumhaw Holly

O reader! hast thou ever stood to see
The Holly-tree?
The eye that contemplates it well perceives
Its glossy leaves
Ordered by an Intelligence so wise
As might confound the Atheist’s sophistries.

 

By Robert Southey (1774-1843)

 This native of low, wet woods can be found throughout the southeast United States. It is one of the deciduous hollies, meaning it loses its leaves come winter. It is state listed as Threatened in Florida. The largest specimen found to date is located in South Carolina. It measures 3 feet around, and 42 feet tall!

 

The berries are generally considered toxic to humans. The low level toxicity causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. But all manner of small mammals, songbirds, and gamebirds, as well as deer find parts of this bush good eating. The deer being the only one to eat the twigs; all the others find the berries to be a delicacy.

 

Because of those same berries it is often planted as a winter ornamental, and a wildlife attractant. The branches with the berries have been collected to use in Christmas decorations. The wood of this shrub is not considered useful due to its small size.

 

Hollies in general (including this one) were used by the Alabama Indians. They took the inner bark of the tree, made a decoction from it and applied this to the eyes.  

Persimmons – Diospyros virginiana

Persimmon fruit
Persimmon fruit

Mr. ‘Possom is a farmer
And his crop? Persimmon trees!
Many a woodland stocks his product
And he grows his crop with ease.

How he loves those ripe persimmons
Sweet as syrup, smooth as silk —
Like a gourmet loves his entrees
Like a baby loves his milk.

By Reverend John F. Dorsey (1916- )

This slow growing fruiting tree is native to Eastern North America. It can often be found in dry woods, old fields, and clearings. This deciduous tree is becoming less frequently found in the wild and is listed as of Special Concern in Connecticut and Threatened in New York.

The earliest reference to them that I have found was by Hernando De Sotto who first found them in Florida in 1539. The settlers quickly learned not to eat them until after the first frost, which took away the astringent aspects and rendered the fruit sweet. Later, during the Civil War, when times were tough, the seeds would be used as a coffee substitute by boiling them. And for those of you who like beer and other fermented foods, try a southern Appalachian idea of fermenting the ripe fruit to make beer!

The Cherokee are credited with some of the earliest baked breads using the persimmon fruit, which they served to the Europeans. The Asian persimmon is rarely cooked as they get astringent with heat, but the native American persimmon is often baked into puddings, pies, & breads. Jams and Jellies are also common from the fruit.

This tree also contributed to the ancient medicine wisdom of the south. The unripe, very astringent fruit would be boiled into a decoction and taken internally to stop bloody stools. The Cherokee used a decoction of the inner bark to treat thrush, sore throats and as a wash for warts or cancers. A few twigs boiled and cooled is a good wash for poison ivy and its kin, taking away the itch and finally drying out the blisters.

There is an old use of the persimmon that I have always found fascinating. Take fresh persimmon seeds and split them open. In the center you will find the little whitish sprout…the shape of this sprout was believed to predict the weather for the coming winter. If the sprout looked like a knife it would be an icy, cold winter. If it looked like a fork it would be a mild winter. And if the little sprout resembled a spoon, get the shovels ready ‘cause snow was sure to blow!

Meadowsweet – Spirea alba var. latifolia

White Meadowsweet
White Meadowsweet

Through grass, through amber’d cornfields, our slow Stream–
Fringed with its flags and reeds and rushes tall,
And Meadowsweet, the chosen of them all
By wandering children….

 

By William Allingham (1824-1889)

 

This perennial shrub of the Rose family is native to Northeastern North America and can be found growing in wet areas such as edges of marshes, bogs and ditches, along streams, and wet prairies. In Kentucky, and Tennessee it is considered Endangered. While in Ohio it is listed as Extripated (locally extinct).  The plant was imported into parts of Europe; Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, United Kingdom. In Belgium and Latvia it is listed as Invasive, and in Lithuania as potentially Invasive!

 

In herbal medicine of the Ojibwa Indians a tea of leaves and flowers was used to ease childbirth. Early settlers used the inner bark as a pain killer, much like other early aspirin like herbs (willow. etc). Unlike willow or poplar, which also contains Salicylates, the properties and strength of the aspirin like effects is consistent from plant to plant. In minute amounts Meadowsweet can also be used on stomach issues. The Blackfoot Indians used a tea as an enema and a vagina douche to treat infections.

 

The leaves smell like almonds and have been used to keep linens fresh and nicely scented. The leaves have also been use in making an astringent skin tonic. The leaves have been dried and used as a China tea substitute, supposedly tasting much the same as the original. The early settlers ate the roots.

 

In magic use this plant and its flowers are used to promote love, balance and harmony. Among the Druids the Meadowsweet, Vervain and Verbena were their three most sacred herbs. The use of fresh flowers on the alter has been frequent when casting a love spell, also use the dried petals in love mixtures. The fresh flowers were often included in wedding bouquets. In Welsh Mythology, Gwydion and Math created a woman out of oak blossom, broom, and meadowsweet and named her Blodeuwedd (“flower face”).

Leatherleaf Mahonia – Mahonia bealei

Leatherleaf Mahonia leaflets and fruit
Leatherleaf Mahonia leaflets and fruit

This evergreen is a native of China and brought to the United States in 1848 as an ornamental. In 1848, after the Opium Wars in China had ended which opened up trade, Robert Fortune first found this plant. An interesting story surrounding his first encounter goes like this: Fortune saw the leaves of this plant peeking above the walls of an enclosed courtyard of someone’s home. He didn’t know the people, but apparently that didn’t matter to him. He opened their front door and walked through the house to the courtyard where he considered digging up the shrub, but felt it was too large to survive. In the next town he offered a reward to anyone who would bring him smaller specimens he could carry with him. In short order he received three separate shrubs.

 

This interesting plant is recommended in the southeastern United States as a wildlife attractant, but it is that wildlife that it attracts that has contributed so heavily to its becoming an almost invasive plant there! The fruits are abundant and are greatly relished by the birds, which eat it and spread the seed in their excrement. So this once garden plant is now naturalized throughout the south. The Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council has it listed as a Rank 2 NIS plant (significant threat). This means that it poses a threat of becoming invasive, but as of yet is not spreading easily into native plant communities.

 

The leaves on this plant are very attention-grabbing. They resemble holly leaves in basic shape and in having points on the leaflets, but they are opposite unlike holly leaves that are alternating. The other major difference is that these are not opposite leaves, but leaflets…which make them all together one very large leaf! The flowers are an interesting yellow, growing abundantly in large clusters and appearing in late winter. Walk past on a crisp winter, very early spring day and get a whiff of citrus in the air…those are the Mahonia flowers!

 

The fruit which follows start out green but swiftly turn bluish black with a grayish bloom. If you can beat the wildlife to them (birds will strip the plant bare in a few short days) then they are actually edible. There are many seeds wrapped up in very little flesh, but the taste has a very refreshing, slightly acidic taste. They have been recommended added to cereal. They ripen in April and May and provide Vitamin C.

 

Since this plant is in the Barberry family of plants it has Berberine in the rhizomes which make it a bitter tonic with antibacterial effects. A decoction of the root and stems has been used to treat pulmonary tuberculosis, recurring fever, and cough in rundown body systems, rheumatoid arthritis, backache, weak knees, dysentery, and enteritis.

Ponderosa Lemon – Citrus limon ‘Ponderosa’

Ponderosa Lemon
Ponderosa Lemon

Out of lemon flowers

loosed

on the moonlight, love’s

lashed and insatiable

essences,

sodden with fragrance,

the lemon tree’s yellow

emerges….

 

 By Pablo Nerunda

This lemon cultivar is a chance development on a farm in Hagerstown, Maryland. In about 1887 George Bowman found this cultivar, a hybrid of a citron and lemon, but it was not introduced or named until 1900. The original lemon is believed to have originated in India, but the exact place is difficult to know since this tree has followed man as he explored and settled new areas around the world. The lemon was taken with Christopher Columbus to Hispaniola in 1493, and the Spanish were credited with its early introduction to St Augustine, Florida.

 

This relatively small evergreen tree (only 12-24 ft tall at full growth) has thorns, like so many other citrus relatives, and produces flowers year round. This constant flower production means you are likely to see flowers, and fruit (at any stage of growth) growing on the tree at the same time. These fruit on the Ponderosa Lemon are similar in appearance to the regular lemon; they are just much larger and lumpy! They can be as large as 2 – 5 pounds in weight when fully grown. Their rind or skin is also very thick. One of these Ponderosa Lemons can make several pitchers of lemonade!

 

The taste and aroma of this variety is also almost identical to the regular lemon seen in the grocery store; and can be used in identical situations. The juice can be made into lemonade, or used to flavor any meat of fish dish. It can also be made into desserts (such as lemon meringue pie) and as a flavoring almost anywhere you can imagine it. Often in cooking it is the zest that is desired, and for some dishes is highly prized.

 

The left over plant matter after making juice commercially is used to produce citric oil, pectin, and citric acid. All of these are used in the food industry and by the cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies. Lemon juice can be used to remove stains, and with salt to clean copper pots safely. The peel oil has been used to manufacture furniture polish, and detergents.

In cosmetics it has been utilized in creams for bleaching freckles, for facial cleaning creams, in soaps, and shampoos.

 

In herbal medicine any lemon can be used the same way, it is known as a diuretic, antiscorbutic, astringent, and febrifuge. In Italy it is utilized to treat gingivitis, stomatitis, and inflammation of the tongue. In Cuba the root is used for fever; while in West Africa the root is used for gonorrhea.

Have fun with the kids and make invisible ink! Take the juice of 1 lemon (3 teaspoons if no fresh is available), and add 1 teaspoon of water. Mix these well. Now have the kids ‘write’ with a brush or fingertip a message onto normal paper. Let them watch this dry. As it dries the ‘writing’ disappears! It will only reappear if a candle is passed below the paper. Please do not allow children to do this activity without proper supervision, NO Fires Here!

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.