Plant Profile: Corn (Zea Maize)

Plant Profile: Corn (Zea Maize)

Corn or Maize, the ‘staff of life’ of the Americas, hardly needs much of a description. Every child recognizes it and it is cultivated so abundantly that it can hardly be overlooked. What few people know, though, is that Corn is just an overambitious grass.

Corn is a giant among grasses. It can grow more than 2m high and covers vast stretches of land dominating rural landscapes. The sturdy, fibrous stalk with its characteristic broad angularly bent-over leaves is a familiar sight. The ears develop in the leaf axils. But they are so well covered by the outer sheathing (husks) that they can barely be seen, were it not for the tuft of ‘hair’, known as corn silk that protrudes from the top of the cobs.

Modern corn was first domesticated in Mexico. It is one of the earliest domesticated plants from the New World. Its wild genetic parents are two species of Teosinte (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teosinte). Today, at least five species of Teosinte exist, but it is not clear whether any of them has been a direct ancestor of our modern corn, or whether the original parent variety has since become extinct.

Although Teosinte resembles modern corn in many ways the differences between wild and domesticated species are quite distinct. Most notably, Teosinte’s cobs are tiny. Its seeds are hard and covered by a tough skin. When ripe, their ears break off and the seeds are released.

Domesticated corn has been bred to hold on to the ears and not to release its seeds voluntarily. In the process, modern domesticated corn has become entirely dependent on humans to sow their seeds. We don’t know exactly when corn first began to morph into the shape and size we know today, but the process must have started a very long time ago. The oldest archaeological record for domesticated corn comes from Guilá Naquitz Cave, near Mitla, which is located in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. It is approximately 6250 years old.

Surprisingly, corn appears to have been known in Asia for much longer than is commonly assumed. It was long assumed that prior to Columbus there was no contact between the Old World and the New. Yet, archaeological findings from southern India and China that feature corn and other New World plants, seems to prove this theory wrong. Carl L. Johannessen stumbled across some very precise carvings at temples in the Karnataka region of India, which were built during the Hoysala Dynasty, between the 10th and 13th centuries.

Carl L. Johannessen and Anne Z. Parker, “Maize Ears Sculptured in 12th and 13th Century A.D. India as Indicators of Pre-Columbian Diffusion,” Economic Botany 43 , 1989, 164-80, argue that stone carvings of maize ears exist in at least three pre-Columbian Hoysala stone block temples near Mysore, Karnataka state, India.

Their article provides 16 photographs that show a few of the sculptures in question.https://www.asc.ohio-state.edu/mcculloch.2/arch/maize.html. The carvings are quite remarkably accurate. Not just one but many distinctive features of maize are represented as true to life as a record cast in stone. Yet, many scholars have found it difficult to accept the idea of pre-Columbian contact and have thus come up with their own alternative interpretations of these sculptures. None of them seems terribly convincing.

Corn hybridizes quite freely and innumerable varieties have been created since it was first domesticated. Today, corn comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and textures: some predominantly starchy varieties, some soft, some hard, some sweet, some long, some short and round, some with large kernels, others with tiny ones, some blue, some white, some yellow or red and even glassy, multi-colored ones exist.

The variety appears sheer endless, yet only about five basic types of corn exist. The rest are variations of these basic types.

DENT CORN

The cobs of this type of corn are white to yellow. It is called ‘dented’ because the kernels become indented as the cob matures. This is the most commonly cultivated species as it is very versatile. Dent corn is used to produce oil, cereals, and flour, as well as animal feed. it is rich in cellulose which can be used to make biodegradable plastics and absorbent material for toiletries such as diapers, while the oil is used in cosmetics, soaps, skincare products, and more.

FLINT CORN

The cobs come in all colors and they shrink as they dry. This type of corn has very hard kernels and is used for similar purposes as Dent corn.

POPCORN

This type of corn is characterized by a hard outer skin and a soft, starchy center. This combination gives it its unique ‘pop-ability’.

SWEET or VEGETABLE CORN

This is everybody’s favorite type of corn. As the name suggests, it is high in sugar and deliciously succulent. It is the well-known ‘corn on the cob’ variety. Most of the carbohydrates in this type come in the form of sugars, which make it so tasty and sweet. It is best enjoyed fresh, as the sugars turn into starch if it is stored for too long.

WAXY CORN

This type of corn has starchy cobs with a waxy appearance. It is mainly used in the Far East for its tapioca-like starch. The food industry makes use of its stabilizing and thickening properties and as an emulsifier, e.g. for salad dressings. Other industrial uses include remoistening adhesives for gummed tape, in adhesives, and in the paper industry and as animal feed.

New varieties of corn are continuously bred. But today, these are born in the test tubes of biotech labs. Such modern cobs are not just hybrids but bio-engineered functional plant agents, designed to produce phytohormones and other substances of value to the pharmaceutical industry.

This type of enterprise is inherently dangerous as there is no way to protect people from inadvertently consuming this type of product. The germplasms of edible and bio-engineers varieties are kept in the same storage vaults, which risks accidental mixing. The germ-plasm bank for corn in Mexico has already been contaminated with genetically altered material. And time and again there are reports of non-approved, gene-manipulated types of corn that have entered the human food chain, often in the form of harmless-looking tortilla chips. These can cause severe and dangerous ‘allergic’ reactions in humans.

Corn is also at the center of another controversy: a considerable amount of corn is used to make ethanol as a bio-fuel. While we urgently need to find more environmentally friendly sustainable biofuel alternatives, we must also realize that they have their own environmental problems. Previously uncultivated land or even forest is turned over to agricultural production to fuel our cars.

In the course of its domestication, Corn has adapted so well to our human needs that it has given up its ability to reproduce independently. Natural fertilization still occurs, but corn depends on humans for all its nurture and care.

NIACIN DEFICIENCY AND NIXTAMALIZATION

Corn is very nutritious and supplies about 20% of the world’s food calories. However, a diet that is completely dominated by corn and corn products is deficient in niacin (vitamin B3). Niacin deficiency can result in serious physical health problems due to niacin deficiency. The condition is known as ‘Pellagra’, which is characterized by the ‘3 D’s’ – diarrhea, dermatitis, and dementia (some say 4 D’s and add ‘death’).

Interestingly, the lack of niacin in corn can be corrected by treating it with lye – a common practice among Native Americans. Such treatment results in a corn product known as hominy or Nixtamal. The process itself is referred to as nixtamalization (from the Nahuatl word ‘nixtamalli’, meaning ‘unformed corn dough’). This forms the basis of many corn products such as tamales, corn tortillas, and masa. The process removes the pericarp or outer skin of the kernel.

The process of nixtamalization also increases the bio-available amount of calcium by 75% – 85%, making it more easily digestible. Other minerals, such as iron, copper, and zinc are also increased. Nixtamalization also counteracts certain mycotoxins present in untreated corn. Fermentation of nixtamalized corn produces even more benefits: increased levels of riboflavin, protein, and niacin in addition to amino acids, such as tryptophan and lysine.

Unfortunately, the purpose of this alchemy was completely lost on the Spaniards, who took some corn back with them to Europe. They also introduced it to Africa, where it soon became an important food crop. However, the people who came to rely on it, but did not have the traditional knowledge to guide their use, soon became sick with pellagra symptoms. The importance of minerals and vitamins had yet to be discovered, so corn soon was eyed with suspicion. It earned a reputation as a poor man’s food that would prevent starvation, but it was not considered wholesome.

CREATION MYTHS

Native Americans of course continued to thrive on it. It is their most important staple food and it is closely tied to all kinds of spiritual traditions and practices.Throughout the Americas, corn is closely associated with various creation myths. According to theses myths it was the Corn God or Goddess him or herself who taught the people how to grow and prepare corn so it may sustain them.

The Mayans revered this God as Yam Kaax, described in the Popol Vuh, the Sacred Book of the Mayans. Corn is linked to the very genesis of creation itself, for when the Gods decided to shape the world, they made different kinds of corn brew, which were to provide vigor and substance to their creation. They formed the first man and the first woman from white and yellow corn masa, which they transmuted into human flesh and blood.

And so it is to this day – corn is part of every meal, whether as tortillas tamales or hominy or one or another type of brew. The Aztecs mixed corn starch and cocoa to make a brew known as ‘Atole’, a kind of original ‘hot chocolate’. However, this did not taste much like what we have enjoy as such. It was mixed with various spices including vanilla and chili. An alcoholic brew made from corn is known as ‘Chicha’. Originally, it was used as sacred brew for ritual purposes, but now it is served at any and all occasions, especially during fiestas.

According to a Peruvian story, only two men survived the primordial deluge. They learned about corn from the ‘Macaw Women’. Every day, when they returned home at night, they found a large vessel filled with Chicha in their house. This went on for some days until one day, one of the men decided to stay at home to watch and see who brought them the mysterious brew.

Soon after the other man had left, two red Macaws flew in, took off their feathers and revealed their female bodies, one an old hag, the other a young girl. At once they started to chew some corn and spitting it into the pot. Finally, they filled it with water. This describes the traditional method of preparing Chicha. The man, being the possessive type, jumped from his hiding place and grabbed one of the women by the hair – of course he caught the young one, while the old woman fled. Thus, he came into possession not only of the first corn seeds, which he duly planted, but also of a wife.

In Peru, corn was associated with the Sun, which in this myth are personified as solar Goddesses. Chicha thus represents the essence of the sun’s magical powers.

In the Americas, Corn silk, the familiar tassel of ‘hair’ at the end of the cob, was considered a valuable medicine. It is believed to support the organs of the lower abdomen and was used to treat a variety of conditions: constipation, diarrhea, urinary retention, bladder infection, as well as infertility, and menstrual pains. It was also used to tone the womb after childbirth.

Although cornsilk is not ‘official’ in most of today’s pharmacopoeias, except in China, herbalists still use it to cleanse the urinary system, and to flush out kidney and bladder sand and gravel. Corn silk is considered a cleansing herb, that can eliminate toxins and thus purify the blood. Thanks to its diuretic effect it can also reduce an elevated blood pressure.

The Mayans considered their sacred plant a medicinal food – when suffering from severe illness they would eliminate all other foods from the diet and let corn alone nurture the person back to health. Mythology becomes reality – the corn reconstituted the patient’s flesh and blood just as in the ancient origin myth.

corn silk

Medicinal Uses:

Part used: Corn Silk, the silky ‘hair’ at the end of and surrounding the cob.

Constituents: allantoin, sterols, saponins, hordenine, plant acids, Vitamins C and K

Action: diuretic, demulcent, tonic,

Indications:

Corn silk is a valuable remedy, both, by itself or as an adjunct to other herbs. It can be used to treat afflictions of the genitourinary system. It is particularly helpful when it comes to alleviating the stinging pain of cystitis. The diuretic action also helps to flush out small urinary gravel and sand. In conditions such as prostatitis, it relieves fluid retention and reduces the frequent urge to urinate. The diuretic effect also lowers the blood pressure.

Native Americans have also used it to treat infertility and menstrual pain. Applied externally, the fresh corn silk can be used to clean wounds. For bacterial bladder infections it is best used in conjunction with an antiseptic herb, such as Uva Ursi or Boldo leaves. Cornsilk also seems to have an indirect effect on the liver, as it increases the flow of bile. This may explain the  traditional indigenous use of this herb in the treatment of gallbladder stones. Increased bile flow also improves digestion and absorption of nutrients from the intestines.

Corn Recipes

Green Chili Corn Bread

  • 1 cup of buttermilk
  • ½ teaspoon of baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons of baking powder
  • 2 eggs, well beaten
  • ¼ cup of flour
  • 1 cup of yellow corn meal
  • ¼ cup of vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 4-ounce can of chopped green chillies (or fresh)
  • 1/2 cup of Cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 8-ounce can of creamed corn

Mix all together. Pour into well-greased 9 x 9 inch pan. Bake at 350ºF. for 1 hour.

Blue Corn Dumplings

  • 1 cup Juniper Ash Water — (See below)
  • 3 ½ cups Water
  • 6 cups Blue Corn Meal
  • Salt to taste

Boil the water.

Add the juniper water and salt.

Add corn meal and knead until soft.

Shape into small balls and drop into the boiling water. Cook for about 15-20 minutes. Remove and drain.

Serving Ideas : good with stews and hearty soups.

The Hopi form round dumplings in the winter and flat ones in the summer to ward off bad weather.

Juniper Ash Water

  • 2 tablespoons Juniper Ash
  • 1 cup Water

Snip off the tips of several juniper twigs and place them on a fine meshed metal screen. The twigs should not be woody. Light the twigs and let the ash settle on the screen. With a fine brush, (broom grass), carefully sift the ash though the screen. Store in an air tight container until needed.

To make juniper water, boil the water, remove from heat and add the ash. Steep 10-15 minutes, strain. Only make as much as is needed immediately, as it does not keep.

Plant Profile: Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Plant Profile: Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Poppies come in almost every color. The flowers have an ephemeral, dreamy appearance, quite otherworldly and mysterious. It matches their ethnobotanical profile rather well!

Synonyms

Opium Poppy, Mawseed, Herb of Joy, Mohn, Klapper-Rosen, Mago, Magesamen, Weismagen, wilder Magen, Magensaph, Rosule

Description:

Opium Poppy is an herbaceous annual that reaches a height of between 70-130cm tall. Their showy flowers are popular with gardeners and many varieties are cultivated throughout the temperate regions. The wild variety has pale whitish-pink petals with a large dark dot at its base. Cultivated varieties are white, pink, orange, red or even dark purple. Some have a single arrangement of petals, others are double. There are even ones with frilly flower heads. The variation is truly amazing.

In the center of the flower is a prominent, many-rayed stigma surrounded by a multitude of stamens. Once the flower is fertilized the petals drop off and the seed capsule begins to swell. The size and shape vary among the different types of poppies.

The seed pod of Papaver somniferum is almost spherical with a star-shaped, flattened top, that lifts off as the capsule begins to desiccate and tiny holes begin to form underneath the rim. When the seed pod is dry and is blowing in the wind the tiny seeds are dispersed through these holes. The color of the seeds varies depending on the specific variety and can be anything from almost white to bluish-black.

The flowers are born on sturdy single stalks. The leaves are indented and clasp the stem. All green parts of the plant are glaucous and contain a milky latex which is the substance known as raw opium.

single poppy

Habitat and Ecology

The genus Papaver comprises about 100 species distributed throughout the temperate regions of the world. Opium Poppies (Papaver somniferum) are often confused with their close relative, the Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) a common wild species that lacks the psychoactive properties of the Opium Poppy. The two species can be distinguished by size and color:

Opium Poppies tend to be much larger. Their flowers are conspicuous, white to purple, forming large, globular seed capsules.

The Scarlet Poppy tends to be rather small, with bright scarlet-red petals and small and slender seed capsules.

In New World, Native Americans have used related species such as the Prickly Poppy (Argemone polyanthemos and A. mexicana) and the State Flower of California, the Californian Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) for medicinal purposes. Although the chemistry of these species is somewhat similar to that of Papaver somniferum, their alkaloid content is much less concentrated. Nevertheless, their ethnobotanical uses have not been entirely dissimilar: Native  Poppies were used as anodynes, antispasmodics, and as sedatives. Externally, they were used to treat burns, sores, and cuts, and as a hair rinse to get rid of lice.

Opium Poppies are not native to the New World, but after they had been introduced, eastern tribes adopted them into their material medica and used them in much the same way as the settlers did who had brought them there.

The exact origin of Papaver somniferum is difficult to trace. But most researchers now agree,, that their original home is likely to have been the Mediterranean parts of Asia Minor. From here they are thought to have spread east, to Asia, south, to northern Africa, and north, into Central Europe. Today, they are even found in British gardens and some have escaped into the wild.

Poppies naturally associate with wheat, and both plants were once considered sacred to the grain-goddess Demeter. In Europe, the closely related Scarlet Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) can still be seen as colorful dots among the wheat. Scarlet Poppies have also been used medicinally, but their action is much milder than that of Papaver somniferum.

History

Beautiful to behold are the delicate Poppy flowers as they waft softly in the summer’s breeze – alas, it is a short-lived beauty. Here one day, gone the next, the fleeting splendor only lasts a few days before the falling petals expose the naked seedpod, the true keeper of the Poppy’s secret*. As the seedpod ripens, it will bulge and become filled with tiny seeds. Eventually, it begins to dry, causing the star-shaped top to lift and thereby release thousands of tiny grey-blue seeds. Every child is acquainted with them as a topping for buns or an ingredient of cakes and other baked goods. The seeds are rich in oil which Gourmet chefs value for its delicate nutty flavor. (1)

But Poppies have another property, which can bring both, great relief or misery. Within their fleshy leaves, stalks and the still green seed capsules flows a white, milky juice, which the ancients knew as ‘opion’ (2). In the ancient world, this substance was highly valued for medicinal, ritual, and recreational purposes. In fact, it has changed the course of history to no small extent. Its analgesic and sedative properties have helped many to better bear their physical or emotional pain. However, it is a highly addictive substance that traps the body and the mind into addiction,  causing destruction, self-delusion, dependence, and even death to those who succumbed to its seductive powers.

But, as Paracelsus said so many centuries ago: ‘all things are poisonous; alone the dosage decides whether a substance will kill or cure’. That dictum is certainly true for Poppy. Throughout history, it has offered a great deal of relief to millions of suffering people.

Archeological evidence suggests that Poppies have been used as far back as Neolithic times.  It seems that over a period of many thousands of years they have played a significant role in human culture. Remains of opium as well as poppy seeds have been found at Neolithic settlements, burial sites, and even in the frescoes on the walls inside the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs, together with images of Mandrake and Blue Water Lily.

Poppies appear to be native to the Mediterranean. The earliest written records come from Sumeria and date to about 2000 BC. In Sumeria, it was called ‘Hul Gil’ – the Herb of Joy. It is thought that Poppy and the knowledge of its powers spread from Sumeria throughout the Middle East to Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt, as well as to Persia and Greece. The famous Egyptian Ebers Papyrus (1500 B.C.) mentions it and recommends it as a remedy for ‘excessively crying of children’ (!). But as incredulous as that may seem, this use has remained popular in parts of Northern Africa and Europe to the beginning of this 20th century. Nevertheless, the drawbacks were also known. While it kept children quiet it was also said to ‘make them dull’. Then as now, physicians knew of the potential dangers, although addiction did not appear to have been as much of a problem in ancient times.

Opium is widely used and highly valued for its medicinal properties. It is considered the single most effective painkiller (although we now use it in a more refined and thus, more potent and more dangerous form). Furthermore, it was used as a sedative to calm hysterics and alleviate melancholy. It was thought to be one of the best remedies for treating colic, diarrhea, and persistent spasmodic coughs.

Opium has also long enjoyed a reputation as a potent aphrodisiac. Most famously, Queen Cleopatra’s reputed love-potion is said to have been a combination of opium and some type of nightshade, (probably mandrake), steeped in palm-wine.

It is mentioned in all the ancient works of medicine, from Hippocrates to Avicenna, Dioscorides, and Galen. Dioscorides described the process of obtaining this latex in detail:

“Those who wish to obtain the sap (of the Poppy) must go after the dew has dried, and draw their knife around the star in such a manner as not to penetrate the inside of the capsule, and also make straight incisions down the sides. Then with your finger wipe the extruding tear into a shell. When you return to it not long after, you will find the sap thickened and the next day you will find it much the same. Pound the sap in your mortar and roll the mass into pills.”

In ancient Greece, Poppy was sacred to Hypnos, the God of Sleep, who is often depicted with Poppy adorning his head and holding the seed capsules in his hands. Poppies guarded the threshold to his drowsy realm. Hypnos brought prophetic dreams and alleviated the pain of emotional trauma. At the temple of Asclepius, on the Greek island of Cos, Poppy was used in a kind of sleep therapy. The patients who came to the temple were given a draft of some kind of opium brew to induce visionary dreams that should reveal the method and agents, that could affect a cure.

The Romans identified Hypnos with their own God of sleep, ‘Somnus’, whose name still echoes in Poppy’s Latin name ‘Papaver somniferus’ – which comes from ‘somnus ferre’ – bringer of sleep.

poppy center

But Poppy was also associated with Thanatos or Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, who rules the realm of the dead.  Excessive use of its milky juice can bring eternal sleep.

Such associations reveal Poppy as a plant of the Underworld, a connection which dates to prehistoric times, as the above mentioned archeological evidence confirms. Presumably, Poppy or opium was intended to help the departed on their journey to the Underworld. (3)

Poppy was also considered sacred to Demeter, the Earth-Goddess, who taught us the art of grain cultivation, especially wheat and barley, that Poppies love to mingle with. The bulging seedpods, containing a myriad of tiny seeds serve as a perfect symbol of fertility. No doubt, the aphrodisiac qualities of opium featured prominently in the rites of this benevolent Goddess of fertility.

Some scholars believe that opium may have played a role as an important ingredient of the secret ritual drink at the Elysian Mysteries. Unfortunately, we shall never know for sure. The recipe for this potion ranks among the best-kept secrets of the ancient world.

Another myth claims that Poppy sprang from Aphrodite’s tears as she mourned the loss of her lover Adonis. In the ancient world, Cyprus, considered Aphrodite’s birthplace, was known as a major hub of Poppy cultivation. It was from here, that Poppy or Poppy products were first shipped to Egypt.

During the Middle Ages, Poppy became very popular as an aphrodisiac agent in folkloristic love magic. It was the herb of choice for love charms, philters, potions, and even some forms of divination. It was thought to reveal the identity of a future lover or foretell the outcome of a love affair. Typically, the inquirer would write a question on a piece of parchment and conceal it in a seed capsule, which he or she would then place underneath the pillow. The charm was supposed to induce a prophetic dream.

The mass of tiny seeds hidden in the round-bellied capsule symbolizes fertility and prosperity. At New Years, it was customary to make sweet-breads with Poppy seeds as a magical token of these properties and a blessing for the New Year.

Alternatively, these properties could be ‘captured’ by making a necklace with gilded Poppy heads, that served as a charm. Interestingly, it was thought that if Poppy seeds had been hidden in the bride’s shoes, it renders her infertile.

Other magical uses included a potion that was thought to infer invisibility – probably an allusion to Hades, who’s ‘cap of invisibility’, (which he had worn to conceal himself when he abducted Persephone), was thought to emulate a Poppyseed capsule.

Perhaps connected to these myths was the belief that Poppy seeds could ward off daemons and vampires – if only by distracting them. Should one of these evil creatures be on one’s heels,  tossing a handful of seeds on the path behind will stop the daemons in their tracks. Forgetting their original purpose, they feel compelled to pick up and count the seeds instead.

As a medicinal agent Poppy was perhaps the most effective ingredient in the panacea known as  Theriak. Emperor Nero had ordered his personal doctor, Andromachos, to produce a potion that would ease all pain and disease. Andromachos came up with ‘Theriak, a potent potion of no less than sixty different plants and substances. Galen later refined this potion and renamed it ‘Galene’. It was hailed a panacea and became popular throughout Europe, despite the fact that is was expensive and some of the ingredients were difficult to obtain.

During the Middle Ages, when ‘heroic medicine’ became the medical approach du jour, the medicinal use of opium declined. Unsympathetic doctors of the time thought of disease as a ‘divine punishment’ and saw no reason to prescribe painkilling medication. Eventually, Paracelsus created a simplified version of the original Theriak recipe. It proved extremely effective and soon surpassed even the popular appeal of the original. His concoction, known as ‘Laudanum Paracelsi’ was available in pill form. What made the pills even more effective as a painkiller was probably the addition of lemon juice, which subtly changes the chemistry of opium and enhances the anodyne action.

Laudanum was said to cure every ailment save leprosy. The glowing reports of its wondrous powers kept mounting, which meant that it was often in short supply. Scientific curiosity spurred experimentation and eventually gave rise to the groundbreaking invention of the hypodermic needle. First employed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1656 in an experiment designed to prove the theory of blood circulation, he injected the hind leg of a dog with a solution of opium. Sure enough, the drug rapidly took effect over the entire body of the dog.

In 1680, the English Doctor Thomas Sydenham revised Paracelsus’ potion once again. He intended to purify the raw drug in order to get rid it of any substances that produced ‘sickness’ if it was taken in excessive quantities. He mixed it with sherry wine, saffron, cinnamon, and cloves and named the brew ‘Sydenham’s Laudanum’.

Suddenly, opium-based products proliferated. Venice Treacle, Mithridate, London Laudanum, and Dr. Bate’s Pacific Pills became increasingly popular and opium supplies could hardly cover the demand. Nevertheless, Laudanum soon became a household name. Physicians prescribed routine dosing twice a week as a preventative remedy. Needless to say – this careless malpractice produced the first wave of mass addiction to opium. The problem was compounded by the fact that Laudanum was over-prescribed for children, which produced certain habituation and drug resistance in adulthood.

In 1700 Dr. John Jones published a book called ‘The Mysteries of Opium Revealed’, in which he extolled the marvelous properties and uses of opium as well as its pleasant side-effects in no less than 400 pages. His work was clearly biased and likely to have been strongly influenced by the author’s own intimate relationship with his subject matter. Yet, it did contain a grain of genius: Jones was the first to intuit that opium actually imitated substances already present in the body. It took another 400 years before scientists actually discovered these substances, which became known as endorphins.

Debate and experimentation continued. In 1799,  Friedrich Sertürner, a young German pharmacist apprentice, observed that the effects of opium seemed to vary considerably from batch to batch. He became convinced that this must be due to the inconsistent presence of one active constituent of the raw opium. It took him only four years to isolate a substance, which he called ‘morphine’, a nod to the Greek God of sleep. Based on the fact that only a tiny amount of morphine was necessary to induce far stronger effects than the same amount of raw opium, he erroneously believed that this purified compound was safer.

Soon, several pharmaceutical companies started to produce morphine in large quantities. Wren’s hypodermic needle became the preferred method to administrate opium. The rationalization was that injecting morphine directly into the bloodstream could triple its potency.

The story of Morphine and later, heroin epitomizes the ill-conceived idea of a science-based attempt to ‘perfect nature’ and the illusion of a ‘miracle cure’, which often produces disastrous results. Nature offers many wonderful gifts, but we must use them with due respect, lest our attempts to manipulate these blessings turn them into demonic forces that are beyond our control.

(There is a dark aspect to the history of the poppy which is also very thought-provoking, especially at this point in time. It is the story of the opium wars and the colonialization of Hong Kong. It is, however, beyond the scope of this article to explore. I would strongly recommend a deep reading of this history to all who are interested in history as well as the current developments.

poppy pods

Medicinal Uses

Parts Used: Seeds, latex, leaves, petals

Constituents: Contains about 40 different alkaloids, most importantly, morphine, codeine, thebaine, papaverine, and narcotine

Actions: Analgesic, narcotic, sedative, antispasmodic, anti-diarrheal, antitussive, diaphoretic, aphrodisiac

Indications:

The dried latex is a well-known and highly effective painkiller and sedative. It has also been used to calm hysteric patients who are mentally or emotionally disturbed.

Its astringency makes it a powerful anti-diarrheal agent for the treatment of colic and dysentery. As an antispasmodic remedy, it can be given to calm cases of gall-bladder colic and spasms. Its anti-tussive action is highly valuable for treating persistent, spasmodic coughs (codeine is the active alkaloid here). In the past, it was much used in the treatment of tuberculosis.

As an aphrodisiac, it plays an important role in the treatment of sexual dysfunctions, such as impotency and premature ejaculation where these are due to stress and performance anxiety.

Caution:

Opium, morphine, and heroin are all highly addictive substances, besides which they are also highly illegal. Excessive use of opium leads to serious health problems and can even cause death.

This article is intended as an educational resource, not as a guide for self-medication or to encourage the use of illegal drugs.

Status: In most countries, it is illegal to cultivate Poppies without a license, although in Europe it is commonly grown as an ornamental. Harvesting opium, however, is strictly prohibited everywhere. The dried seedpods and the seeds are legal and commercially available. The dried seed pods are a popular item for crafts, dried flower arrangements, and ornaments. The seeds are used for cooking and baking. The oil, obtained by pressing the seeds, is used for cooking. In  Neolithic times it was used as a lamp-oil in the lake villages of Lake Constance. The seeds are mostly used in baking.

Let Your Foods Be Medicines

Let Your Foods Be Medicines

It is no longer a secret that proper nutrition plays a vital part in maintaining good health. But when Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, first proclaimed ‘Let Your Foods Be Medicines and Your Medicines Be Food’ he wasn’t just talking about nutrition. Instead, he was implying that the distinction between staple foods, vegetables, spices, herbs, and drugs are often rather arbitrary. He knew very well that many common foods have healing properties, yet, are much safer to use than chemically more potent drugs.

Even today, the kitchen cupboard can be a veritable medicine chest. Let’s consider the medicinal properties of some common staple foods and vegetables:

Grains

Although some regard them as the root of all evil and shun them for their ‘fattening’ properties, grains and starches are an important part of a balanced diet. The operative word here is ‘balance’. Too much of a good thing can be, well, too much. Also, not all starches are created equal. Processed carbohydrates really are empty stuffing. White flour products including bread and pasta, polished rice and fried potatoes have little to commend them and contribute almost nothing but calories to the diet. Yet, the same items, less processed, form ‘the staff of life’.

They not only supply energy in the form of complex carbohydrates but also provide a large range of nutrients. They are rich in fiber, too, which is especially important for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Fibers, especially the water-soluble kind, eliminate toxins and keep cholesterol levels low. However, they should not dominate the diet. The amount of carbohydrates you need depends on how much physical energy you have to put out on a daily basis. People who live a more or less sedentary lifestyle need far fewer carbs to keep their burner going.

Grains also have medicinal properties that are very versatile. They are not used in herbal medicine today, but rather as home remedies:

Barley

Barley (Hordeum vulgare)

Barley gruel is an excellent nutritional food that is useful for throat and stomach problems. Boiled in milk it promotes lactation. Externally, it can be used as a poultice to treat sprained or stiff muscles, rheumatism, and skin afflictions. Simmered in milk it soothes sores and ulcers. Even Barley beer has its virtues: it stimulates the appetite and increases the secretion of digestive juices. It improves the digestion of fatty foods and eases heartburn. Warm beer acts as a demulcent and diuretic and has been used to alleviate urinary complaints.

Oats

Oats (Avena sativa)

Oats are very nourishing and provide an excellent source of energy for those who are recovering from sickness or are in poor health. Plain oat porridge is one of the best foods for stomach and intestinal problems such as ulcers and inflammation. Oat bran is an excellent source of water soluble fibre that acts as an inner cleanser, adding bulk while binding endotoxins for elimination.

Wheat

Wheat (Triticum sativum)

Wheat is one of the most important staple foods of the Western diet. However, the highly refined and bleached form commonly used for bread and pasta provides almost no nutritional value. Moreover, wheat allergies are becoming increasingly common. Spelt offers a good, less allergenic alternative.

Externally, pure, unadulterated wheat starch has been used as a drying agent. The soothing powder can be applied to weeping skin rashes and inflamed sores (poison ivy!). Those who are allergic to wheat should not use it for external applications either.

Wheatgerm is nutritionally the most valuable part. It is rich in vitamin E as well as other nutrients. It has been used to alleviate debilitating or nervous conditions, circulatory problems, digestive troubles, blood impurities, and skin afflictions.

Wheat bran is used as laxative or diet aid since it creates a sense of satiation. But as wheat bran is not water-soluble it does not bind endotoxins. While it adds bulk, the sharp edges of coarse bran can irritate the intestinal lining. Wheat bran offers little to no nutritional benefit. However, externally it can be used as a bath additive for rheumatic, gout, and certain skin problems (put in a muslin bag or similar if you don’t want your drains to clog up). . Mixed with honey it makes a good face-mask for treat blackheads and skin impurities.

Vegetables

Vegetables are the best source of vitamins, amino acids, minerals and other trace substances that are vital to our health. Vegetables are essential, yet too much of a good thing can be too much, in this case too. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body and can be toxic if they accumulate in excessive amounts. Too much asparagus can damage the kidneys and spinach can draw calcium from teeth and bones. But as vegetables are rarely eaten in really excessive amounts, damage is rare.

Onions

Onion (Allium cepa)

The onion family provides a host of wonderful and medicinally potent vegetables. Even the lowly onion has antiseptic and anti-putrefactive properties. It stimulates circulatory system including the heart, has diaphoretic, diuretic and expectorant properties, and increases mucous secretion.

To make an impromptu cough syrup, simply cut up an onion and sprinkle with brown sugar. Cover the dish and leave overnight. The sugar draws out the onion juice and makes a kind of syrup.

Onion juice stimulates the kidneys and helps to dissolve small kidney stones. However, this should not be tried in cases of kidney inflamed or serious kidney disease, as it can be irritating.

garlic

Garlic (Allium sativum)

Garlic is an excellent home remedy. It has antiseptic and antibiotic properties and stimulates the immune system. Garlic is also excellent for keeping the circulatory system healthy as it reduces cholesterol levels, inhibits arteriosclerosis and lowers the blood pressure (vasodilator). It is full of vitamins and healthy nutrients. It can even kill worms (enema). It also stimulates the liver and gallbladder and acts on the metabolism. Cooked in milk it is a powerful expectorant. Garlic juice was once used as a remedy for tuberculosis.

Asparagus

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)

Asparagus stimulates the kidneys and increases the urinary volume. Asparagus contains a lot of purines though, which can contribute to the formation of uric acid crystals. While this is not normally a problem, people who eat a lot of organ meats may already have elevated levels of purines. In that case, it would be better to not overdo it with the asparagus.

White Cabbage

Cabbage (Brassica oleracea capita)

Rich in vitamin C, the lowly cabbage is another wonderful healing plant. Sauerkraut and raw cabbage are great detoxing agents. Fresh cabbage juice, (5x a day for 2 weeks) is an effective remedy for stomach ulcers. Bruised cabbage leaves, applied as a poultice, draws pus and putrid matter from rashes, sores, and boils. Applied to the chest it can be used as a pulmonary plaster for bronchial infections. It can also be applied to engorged breasts. Hot cabbage leaves soothe aching muscle, neuralgia, and rheumatic pain.

Horseraddish

Horseradish (Amoracia rusticana/ Cochlearia armoracia)

Horseradish has a stimulating effect on the circulatory and the digestive systems and boosts the metabolism. It can be used both internally and externally: Applied as a poultice it will act as a rubefacient and soothe aching muscles, gout, rheumatic joints, neuralgic pain, and sciatica. For a more convenient application use the tincture. A dab on the forehead can prevent migraines.

Horseradish mixed with lemon juice can halt an asthma attack – though this remedy is not for the faint of stomach. Added to a pint of ale and sweetened with sugar it makes a powerful diuretic remedy that can be used to treat edema. Steeped in wine and taken in teaspoonful doses it is an anti-catarrhal for the respiratory and digestive system. When using Horseradish internally it is best to start with small quantities. Monitor the effects closely. Too much of it can be rough on the kidneys.

Carrots

Carrot (Daucus carota)

Carrots offer one of the best sources for vitamin A. They are wonderfully vitalizing and boost the immune system. Carrot juice cleanses the intestinal tract and is an excellent remedy for excessive stomach acid and heartburn. It is also good for rheumatism and arthritis and acts positively on sugar metabolism in cases of diabetes. Externally, grated carrots can be applied to bruises, burns, and sores.

Celery

Celery (Apium graveolens)

Celery sticks are an excellent diuretic and are popular as a diet food. The fresh juice stimulates urination, relieves edema, rheumatism, gout and cellulite. It is a good digestive aid, recommended for indigestion, lack of appetite and wind. In Continental Europe it is the root rather than the sticks that is more commonly used in cooking. The water in which celery root has been boiled can be used as a rinse for treating dandruff. The syrup, made by boiling the root juice with sugar, makes an excellent cough remedy. However, avoid celery remedies when in cases of kidney inflammation, since its diuretic action may prove too irritating. The seeds provoke delayed menstruation and should be avoided during pregnancy.

Cucumber

Cucumber (Cucumis sativus)

Cucumber is commonly used in home cosmetics to moisturize dry skin. Used externally, the juice is refreshing, tonic, cleansing, and soothing especially on sunburned, dry, or tired skin.

But Cucumber also has medicinal properties: it regulates hydration, acts as a diuretic, and loosens kidney stones. It is useful in cases of edema and cellulite and stimulates lazy intestines.

Pumpkin

Pumpkin (Curcurbita pepo)

Pumpkin is rich in vitamin A and B. For medicinal purposes it is only used raw. Mashed pumpkin soothes sore feet, inflamed ulcers, sores and varicose veins. It has blood cleansing powers when added raw to a salad, which soothes the symptoms of kidney inflammation. Pumpkin seeds are one of the most effective and non-toxic worming agents. They are also rich in Zinc and as such are particularly beneficial for bladder and prostate problems.

Potatoes

Potato (Solanum tuberosum)

Potatoes are rich in vitamin C and extremely nutritious. A time limited diet, consisting of little more than mashed potatoes (without salt) relieves stomach problems associated with intestinal cramps and constipation. Used externally, raw, mashed potatoes are anti-inflammatory and can be applied to cankerous growths and sores.

Tomatoes

Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum)

Tomatoes stimulate the digestive juices and help to alleviate stomach ulcers and liver complaints. They also have a positive effect on edema, neuritis and circulatory issues, and especially on the peripheral blood vessels. Applied externally, fresh tomato juice applied to wounds can help to prevent infection and relieves inflammation.

Fruit

Delicious and wholesome, but very high in fruit sugar, fruits boost vitality and provide a rich source of nutrients and trace elements.

lemons

Lemon (Citrus medica)

Nothing soothes a cold better than hot lemon with ginger and honey. Lemons are extremely rich in vitamin C and act as a powerful immune system booster. Their diaphoretic action helps to cool a fever. As a gargle, lemon juice is a very useful astringent that can help to soothe a sore throat. Though perhaps not the most pleasant therapy, nose irrigation with diluted lemon juice cures even severe cases of nasal catarrh (e.g. allergies). It also supports the liver (breaks down fats), stimulates digestion and acts as a diuretic to flush out metabolic waste products.

apple

Apple (Fructus malus)

‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away.’ Whoever coined the phrase knew what they were talking about. Apples are nutritious and cleansing. They stimulate the circulatory system and metabolism. Apple therapy is indicated for migraines, gout, acidic stomach complaints, constipation, and biliousness, as well as for gout and rheumatism. Apple juice or apple flower tea is beneficial for coughs and colds, hoarseness, bronchial catarrh, and fever.

Apples soothe the nerves. Eaten at bedtime they promote restful sleep.

Apple cider vinegar is a most remarkable remedy for arthritis, gout, sinus catarrh, high blood pressure, migraine, chronic tiredness, and night sweats. Taken regularly diluted with water (sweeten with honey) it is one of the best anti-rheumatism remedies. It is rich in calcium and helps to improve memory and concentration, muscle strength, circulatory problems, badly healing wounds, itchy skin, joint pains, and lack of appetite. Apple wine has been shown to prevent kidney and bladder stones.

Blueberries, Vaccinium myrtillus

Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Blueberries are a cleansing and tone the digestive system. The dried berries simmered in wine with Cinnamon and Cloves makes a wonderful, fortifying, and warming remedy for indigestion and other stomach and intestinal troubles. Blueberry wine eliminates endotoxins without disturbing the intestinal flora. (Blueberry wine = blueberries steeped in wine for a period of time, usually 4-6weeks) Fresh blueberry juice can be used as a gargle for throat infections and as a mouthwash for periodontal disease. Externally, an infusion of the leaves is a useful aid for treating the loss of hair. Blueberries have antioxidant properties and help to fight tumors by scavenging free radicals. The concentrated extract can help to increase circulation to the small blood vessels and can help to alleviate the retinal degradation caused by diabetes.

This list is by no means a comprehensive guide and should not replace a visit to the doctor. It is only meant to give a small glimpse into the remedial properties of common foods. When using any plant for medicinal purposes make sure you have familiarized yourself thoroughly with its properties and possible side effects.

Further resources:

The worlds healthiest foods (ext. link)

Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus)

There is nothing that beats a bowl of freshly picked wild berries. Bliss courses through my body as I think about happy childhood days of carefree summers spent stuffing my face with bilberries, raspberries, and wild strawberries. Hands, shirt, and face stained purplish-red – I did not care. I was happy as a bear, gorging myself on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of berries. At the age of 5, life couldn’t be any better. The passion for foraging has stayed with me ever since.

Blueberries prefer an acid environment. Their natural habitat is the northern pine forests, as well as heath, and moorland. Although they can be found in the moors of southern England they are more prolific in Scotland and Wales. In the US, a closely related species is mostly found in the Rockies and other mountainous regions of the Western States. High bush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosim) are widely cultivated in the coastal areas of the Northeastern US and Canada, where they are native.

Bilberries are a member of the heather family. The wiry, low-growing plants can completely carpet a forest floor. The leaves are small, elliptical with finely serrated margins. The reddish fairy bell flowers that dangle singly from the low bushes are typical of the heather family. By the end of July/beginning of August, depending on local climate conditions, the bluish-black berries appear.

To be sure, picking the squishy little berries requires a certain degree of patience. Some people use a berry rake, but it damages both the plants and the berries. Cleaning the berries can be a bit of a chore as the little stalks tend to be a bit ‘clingy’, and tedious to pick off. But the effort is well worth it. Nothing quite compares to bilberry bliss.

Blueberries, Vaccinium myrtillus

Medicinal uses:

Although Bilberries are not a prominent part of the materia medica, both berries and leaves have medicinal properties.

Parts Used

Leaves

A tea made from Blueberry leaves can lower blood sugar levels. However, recent animal research suggests that long-term use of large doses can have adverse effects.

Berries

The berries enhance the peripheral blood circulation, which among other things, improve visual acuity. This property helps diabetes sufferers and people who find it hard to adjust to poor lighting conditions. They are also hailed to improve blood supply to the brain and thus make an excellent brain superfood. These findings suggest that Bilberries make an ideal snack fruit.

They have also been found to reduce cholesterol and to fight free radicals. In fact, according to a study by Tufts University, which examined 60 different fruit and vegetables, blueberries demonstrated the highest levels of antioxidant activity due to the high levels of anthocyanin (a common plant pigment). Red wine is another well-known source of this antioxidant that is known to support heart health. However, Bilberries contain 38% more of this compound than red wine. Another antioxidant in their make-up protects against colon cancer.

Bilberries have a pronounced effect on connective tissues, enhancing their strength and stability. They are recommended as a therapeutic food to alleviate varicose veins.

Thus, they are easily not just one of the most delicious fruits, but also one of the nutritionally most valuable. Make the most of them, while the season lasts!

CAUTION:

Blueberry leaves contain oxalates, which, when concentrated in the blood can form crystals that can damage the kidneys. People suffering from urinary problems or kidney disease should avoid oxalate-containing foods. Use blueberry leaves in moderation.

Recipes 

If you are lucky enough to find a plentiful patch, perhaps mixed with other berries, such as wild strawberries, raspberries or blackberries, you can make a cold berry soup – a favorite summer treat in Scandinavian countries, very-berry ice cream, sorbet or yogurt cream, which, when stabilized with vegetarian gelatine, makes an excellent cake filling. Blueberry milkshakes are also delicious. Or, if you want to preserve them for later, try making jam or syrup.

Blueberry juice:

Puree about 1 cup of blueberries.

Add 1 cup of water (or more if you like it thinner). Simmer briefly, add sugar or honey to taste, strain through cheesecloth, and cool.

Blueberry smoothy:

Add one cup of blueberries to 1cup of milk and a ½ cup of yogurt. Whizz in a blender. Add sugar and/or lemon juice to taste.

Blueberry Muffins

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ¾ tsp. salt
  • Pinch of cinnamon
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • ¼ cup butter

Method:

Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease muffin cups.

Tumble blueberries with a little bit of the flour, enough to coat them. Combine the remaining dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Set aside.

Cream the butter with the eggs and buttermilk; stir into flour mixture until just combined (batter will be lumpy). Stir in blueberries until evenly distributed. Fill muffin cups full with batter. Bake about 20 minutes until golden

Blueberry Pie

There are gazillion delicious recipes for blueberry pies and cheesecakes. To maximize the healthful properties of this delicious treat forget the cheesecake and just fill a pie crust with a slightly cooked blueberry mixture.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Crust:

  • 1½ cup graham cracker crumbs (or digestive biscuits)
  • ½ cup melted butter
  • cup of water

Crumble the Graham crackers and mix with melted butter. Add just enough water to create a dough that sticks together. Press into a deep 9″ pie tin.

  • 8 cups of blueberries
  • 7 Tbs cornflour or tapioca
  • 3 Tablespoons water (or grape juice)
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • Cinnamon to taste
  • ¾ cup of sugar

Wash the berries. Combine corn starch, sugar, and optional spices in a mixing bowl. Add lemon juice and water and blend well. Gently combine blueberries with the cornstarch mixture and fill it into the pie crust. They may overfill the tin, but the volume is reduced during baking.

If you like, add a crumb topping:

  • ¼ cup of sugar
  • ½ cup flour
  • ¼ cup butter, flaked
  • Rub together until it becomes a crumbly mixture and spread all over the pie. Cook for about one hour at 375°F or 190°C.

Serve with fresh whipped cream.

Blueberry cream

  • 2 cups of blueberry
  • 2 cups of quark (smooth cottage cheese or fromage frais)
  • ½cup whipped cream
  • Sugar
  • Lemon juice
  • Cassis

Clean and slightly bruise the blueberries, pour a little cassis over them and some sugar.  Marinate for a few hours until the sugar is dissolved and the blueberries have turned a little mushy.

In another bowl blend the fromage frais with the lemon juice and some sugar until smooth. Fold in the whipped cream and stir in the blueberries. If you add a little gelatine to the quark (follow instructions on the package) you can also use this cream as a filling for a pie crust.

Cold Blueberry soup:

Wonderful dessert/dish for a summer’s day.

Take a quart of blueberries, bruise, or mash. Add the same amount of water and a little lemon juice. Simmer, add sugar to taste. If you don’t like the seeds and skins, you can strain the liquid through a fine sieve or cheesecloth. Dissolve a little cornstarch and add to thicken, but take care not to use too much. Simmer a little while longer, then allow to cool and put in the fridge. Whip some cream. When the blueberry soup is cold enough, serve with dabs of fresh whipped cream. Some people like to refine this recipe by adding a little cassis to the soup.

 

What are Essential Oils?

What are Essential Oils?

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are all around us and anyone, who has ever stopped to sniff at the roses has experienced them directly. Essential oils are aromatic compounds of plants, which not only occur in the flowers but may also be found in the leaves, roots, or seeds. Interestingly, essential oils that derive from the same plant, but from different parts of that plant can have quite different scents and very different properties.

Although they are collectively known as ‘oils’, essential oils are chemically very different from fatty oils (such as olive or almond oil). Chemically, essential oils belong to the huge family of terpenes, which are ubiquitous in the plant world. Terpenes are very complex and some form enormously long-chained molecules. Most essential oils tend to have a rather shorter sequence, known as monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes, or form ring-like structures called ‘benzene rings’.

Biologists think of essential oils in terms of their function – they regard them as ‘the chemical weapons’ of the plant world: they repel insects, or fight bacterial or fungal attacks. They may also play a part in the ‘sex-life’ of a plant, acting as ‘plant pheromones’ that are supposed to attract and seduce their pollinators.

Those of us, who see plants as living beings, rather than as chemical factories or sources of raw materials, consider essential oils as the fragrant essence of the plant’s soul. Their ethereal nature, concentrated as scent, is the means by which plants communicate with the world around them.

In human anatomy, the olfactory center is situated in the oldest part of the brain, which has its seat in close proximity to the area that stores emotional memories and instincts. Scents speak to us on a pre-verbal and non-rational level, which is why our reactions to them tend to be so instinctive. This explains why perfumes can be so effective in attracting the opposite sex, or why certain smells can conjure up such intense emotions and memories.

Essential Oils

Medicinal and Therapeutic Properties of Essential Oils

Medical professionals are more interested in the therapeutic properties of essential oils – many oils show antibacterial, fungicidal, relaxant, stimulating, antidepressant, and other effects that have been utilized for thousands of years. But some years ago, essential oil research has given rise to a form of therapy known as Aromatherapy, that relies solely on the use of essential oils.

Aromatherapy offers a very holistic approach since it can affect the mental, emotional, and physical well-being, and a skilled aromatherapist will take all three into consideration when blending their oils.

The specific oils are usually delivered via a massage, but a client may also be instructed to use an oil diffuser or other application to benefit from the scent.

Nowadays, Aromatherapy cosmetic ranges are available for various skin types and conditions. But this practice has become a bone of contention with regulators since fragrance components are regulated under different rules than therapeutic agents.

Antique Perfumery

Ancient Origins of the Uses of Scent

The origins of Aromatherapy date back to ancient Greece, Egypt, and India. Archaeological remains of ancient stills and perfume vials have been found in Egyptian tombs. In the ancient world, fragrances were very important. Long before people had figured out how to capture the ethereal scents of plants, they burnt fragrant resins, roots, and seeds to perfume themselves or to make fragrant offerings to the Gods. The word ‘perfume’ literally means ‘through the smoke’.

It was believed that the Gods derive their nourishment from the scents that were sent to heaven in the form of incense. To burn incense was to honor the Gods and to invite their benevolence and protection. To neglect the ritual of incense burning meant the abandonment of the Gods.

When essential oils were discovered, they were at first primarily used as perfume. Good scents delight the Gods. But just where and who first discovered the art of perfumery is lost in history. There are references to perfumes in the Bible, but they are not the oldest by any means. There are also Babylonian and Sanskrit references, but the most ancient actual archeological evidence has been unearthed in Cyprus at a site that dates back to the Bronze Age. The huge site, that covers about 4000m2 indicates that perfumery was practiced here at an industrial scale.

The Egyptians were also masters of the art and scent was part of every aspect of their culture. (Some claim that this was merely to cover up the stench of rotting food or feces and that strong scents were used to cover up the stench. However, this may say more about our modern prejudice, and may not necessarily fit the ancient reality. It would fit the image of life in Medieval Europe, though.)

In Egypt, fragrant roots, barks, berries, and resins played an important role in their cult of the dead. Huge amounts of these special and precious substances were used to embalm the bodies of the departed royals so they would be well received by the Gods. Perfume vials were even placed with the bodies as funeral gifts.

 

How Essential Oils are produced

Essential oils are very volatile. They can evaporate at room temperature. Some have a very low ‘flashpoint’, which means that they must be extracted very carefully so as not to lose some of their complex aromas, or causing an explosion.

Essential oils are soluble in both fatty oils and in alcohol. they are usually captured by steam distillation. But some can also be cold-pressed.

Although essential oils are ubiquitous and occur practically in all plants and plant parts, the actual quantities they produce tend to be minuscule. Thus, vast amounts of plant materials are required to produce even small amounts of essential oils. Essential oils are extremely highly concentrated and their power should never be underestimated.

Distilling Essential Oil

Extraction methods

Enfleurage

This is the oldest and simplest, but also the least efficient method of extraction. This method is particularly suitable for the fragile flower petals. In this method, the plant materials are macerated in a scentless fatty solvent base. It can be done as a cold or hot process. Heat facilitates the release of the essential oils, but it can also easily destroy them. In this process, a large glass surface is covered with a blend of the solid vegetable fat that has been mixed with the plant material. After three days the spent plant parts are removed and fresh material is added and macerated for another 3 days. The saturated fat is now called a ‘pomade’. To extract the essential oil the fat is ‘washed out’ with alcohol, which is then evaporated in the next step, leaving a pure essential oil behind. Some fragrant parts remain fixed within the solid fat residue which is sometimes used in soap making.

Distillation

This is by far the most common process of essential oil extraction. There are several different methods, although all of them basically involve heat and water. The more elaborate process is done by heating water and passing it as steam through a vessel that contains the plant materials. The steam causes the oil glands to burst and carries the volatile substance with it. A cooling coil is attached to the other end of the vessel, which causes the steam to condense and drip down into a collection vessel. The essential oil and the water separate and the oil, which has a lower density than water, floats on top and can be siphoned off.

The old alchemists used a similar but simpler method. They placed plant materials and water in the same vessel, which was then heated so that the oils would be released into the water. As the water heats up and turns into steam it is captured by the cooling tube, where it condenses and separates as in the example above. This is the oldest method of extraction and some sophisticated versions are still widely used.

The problem with this method is that the heat may be too intense, thus destroying some of the more fragile components of the essential oil, or worse, the kettle can run dry, which would burn the herbs. In the worst case, the still can crack or the resulting oil will smell burnt.

Flowers are almost invariably too delicate to be subjected to this process, as it destroys many of their aromatic components. Sophisticated technological advances have made it possible to distill at very low temperatures, repeating the process several times – a time-consuming process, which makes it expensive.

A byproduct of steam distillation is the so-called hydrosol (flower water): the distilled water, which retains some of the fragrance, is often used in cosmetics.

Solvent Extraction

Some essential oil components are extremely fragile, which makes it very difficult to extract them by distillation. In such cases, a solvent such as hexane is used. The hexane dissolves the essential oils as well as other extractable substances (e.g.wax and pigments). This solution is then filtered and subjected to low-pressure distillation, which produces a highly fragrant, waxy substance known as a ‘concrete’. The hexane has thus been ‘cleaned’ and can be used again.

In a further extraction process, this time using heat and ethanol, the concrete is broken down. The essential oil combines with the alcohol, leaving the wax behind. However, the resulting mixture still contains some waxy parts and other impurities and must be further purified and separated. It is a lengthy process involving freezing and agitating the mixture, which promotes the precipitation of the wax particles. The resulting oil is called an ‘absolute’. Most flower oils are produced by this process and are available as absolutes. But Aromatherapists don’t like working with them as they still contain some solvent particles and impurities. Perfumers are less fussy. They work with alcoholic extracts all the time.

CO2 Extraction

This is a newer method of extraction and much ‘cleaner’ than solvent extraction. CO2 is gaseous at normal pressure, but at high pressure, it transforms into a liquid. In this liquid state, it can be used to extract volatile oils. When the CO2 is depressurized, it reverts to its gaseous state, leaving no trace behind in the essential oil. This process has made it possible to extract oils from plants that previously had never been distilled. It is no possible to extract essential oils from calendula, coffee, or even rosehip seeds, to name but a few. CO2 extracts are more complex as it allows for more of the fragrant components of a given plant to be extracted. Some of the waxes are also extracted, often producing a rather pasty substance.

Potentially this is the cleanest method of extraction, although in some instances the plant material is first subjected to hexane extraction to produce a concrete, which is then processed using the CO2 extraction method. This method is often used in floral CO2 extracts, such as Rose or Jasmine. The equipment needed is also quite expensive, which is reflected in the price CO2 extracted oils.

Cold-Pressed Oils

This process can only be used for plants that literally ooze with essential oils, such as citrus fruits. Their peel is so densely covered with oil glands that mere pressure is sufficient to extract them. In this process, the peels of the citrus fruit, (e.g. orange, bitter orange, lemon, lime, mandarin, tangerine, and grapefruit) are chopped into small pieces and subjected to pressure, while simultaneously being cooled. (Intense pressure produces too much heat, which would destroy the oils). The resulting liquid is a somewhat watery essential oil. This hydrous component is the reason why cold expressed citrus oils don’t keep as long as other oils.

Essential Oil Diffuser

Uses of Essential Oils

Essential oils are used in a myriad of household products: as a flavoring in the food industry, and fragrance for cleaning materials, soaps, detergents, and cosmetics. At the higher end of the market, they are the foundation of perfumery. Unfortunately, many natural oils are replaced by synthetics – which are supposed to be aroma identical, but of course, are not. There is a chemical reason for this that is too complex to explain here. Suffice to say that man has just not yet been able to reproduce nature’s tricks. Although chemicals can be produced with much greater consistency than pure essential oils, they lack the complexities and depths of their natural counterparts.

The specific qualities of the oil vary depending on the growing conditions of the plants that are used, harvesting times, and the weather conditions that a particular batch has been exposed to – much like good wine, essential oils have a ‘vintage’. No two oils will ever smell the same.

Safety

Despite their widespread use, there are a number of safety concerns. Essential oils are very highly potent and some of their components may be carcinogenic, phototoxic, photosensitizing, or allergenic. Currently, there is a raging conundrum over ‘safe levels’ of certain chemical components within various products as well as over particular oils themselves.

This hysteria is due to the fact that scientists have a tendency to regard the action of component parts as equal to the sum total of all parts. In other words, it is assumed that if an oil contains a certain compound, say a ketone, which is lipolytic, mucolytic, and sedative, the oil that contains ketone as a component will also have these characteristics. But in real life, the sum total of the ‘component parts’ creates a unique synergy, which may or may not actually produces any of these effects. As essential oils are extremely complex compounds, containing both known and unknown components, it is impossible to judge their effects and safety from an analysis of its known parts alone. Another problem is the fact that essential oils are tested on animals with the assumption that the metabolism of rats and humans are sufficiently similar to draw parallel conclusions. While that is sometimes true, it is not always the case and some oils that may be toxic to rats can be perfectly safe for humans, or vice versa.

Certain precautions should always be taken:

  • Use oils only in dilution, and, if you are unfamiliar with a particular oil and don’t have any experience with its effects on you (everybody reacts differently), use the skin patch test: dilute the essential oil in base oil and apply to a small area of the inner arm. Wait at least 6 hours to observe your skin reactions. If you notice any adverse signs (e. g. itching, redness, rash), do not use the oil.
  • Some people may even be sensitive to diffused oils. If you notice any ill effects, e.g. difficulties in breathing, headaches, itching, etc. do not use the oil in an infuser either.
  • Remember that a little goes a long way. Even just one drop of essential oil can contain the equivalent power of a kilo of its source plant.
  • People who use essential oils professionally, e.g. perfumers or aromatherapists, or people who make their own cosmetic products should be especially careful:
  • Keep essential oils well away from children or animals
  • Work in a well-ventilated area
  • Wear goggles (to safeguard against splashing)
  • Don’t handle essential oils in the presence of naked flames,
  • Before heating them to any degree take note of their flashpoint.
  • Certain oils must be avoided during pregnancy and while nursing or if suffering from certain medical conditions (e.g. hypertension)
  • Anybody who wishes to use essential oils for medical reasons should consult with a qualified aromatherapist.
Plant Profile: St. John’s Wort

Plant Profile: St. John’s Wort

Hypericum perforatum (Clusiaceae)

St John’s Wort is the kind of herb that gladdens the heart just by looking at it. Many magical and medicinal properties have been ascribed to it and even its name alludes to certain divine connotations: it was named in honor of St. John, the Baptist, who’s saints day is on June 23rd. He presides over the Christianised version of the Midsummer Feast, the most important feast day of the ancient pastoral calendar. Yet, it is often considered a noxious weed, particularly in agricultural circles. Let’s take a closer look.

Description:

St. John’s Wort is a perennial herbaceous plant that can reach a height of up to 2ft. The stem bears two raised lines along their length and branches in the upper parts. The opposite, sessile leaves are ovate to linear and are covered with numerous translucent dots where its essential oil is stored. The margins are entire and show tiny black dots around the edges, the oil glands that produce the red colored oil. The five-petaled, yellow flowers look like little stars or suns. They burst out in clusters that flower from June to September. The tiny seeds are borne in capsules. The taste is aromatic, bitter, balsamic. The flower-bud, when pressed stains red. This is a good way to verify its identity.

Habitat:

St. John’s Wort grows throughout central Europe and the British Isles. Its habitats are verges, meadows, hedgerows, wood clearings, and waste places. It has become naturalized in many parts of the US, where it is regarded as a noxious weed.

HISTORY

The Doctrine of signatures assigns this herb to the Sun, not only because its flowers look so sunny, but also because its flowering-  and gathering season coincides with the zenith of the Sun at Midsummer. At this time its potency is at its peak. The reddish oil has been associated with blood, the sacred juice of life. Saint John’s Wort has long been revered as a magical herb that was said to ward off all kinds of witches and devils and was even often offered as a Midsummer sacrifice to ensure the continuity of life.

Some sprigs were cast on the solstice bonfires, others were blessed and hung above the doors, and into the rafters of stables and barns. This custom was believed to offer protection against the hazards of the burning power of the sun: fires, lightning, and droughts, and to ward off witches and demons.

St John’s Wort enjoyed its greatest glory during the Middle Ages when it was known as ‘Fuga Daemonium’ and it was deemed a protective force against all types of evil.

All efforts of the Church to demonize the herb had failed and so it was absorbed into Christian mythology and given to St. John, the Baptist, who’s Saints Day falls on June 24th, right at the height of the herb’s flowering time. The red oil was said to be a reminder of the Saints martyrdom.

Many of the old Pagan traditions were absorbed into the new faith but reinterpreted to fit its own mythology: It was probably the only herb to have been used in the Witch trials as a means of identifying witches, using talismanic magic:

The formula:

SATOR

AREPO

TENET

OPERA

ROTAS

was written on a piece of paper and placed on a piece of leather along with some St. John’s Wort that had been gathered during the first quarter of the moon. This talisman was supposed to reveal the true identity of a witch since no witch could disguise her identity in the presence of such a forthright and radiant herb. It had the power to banish all evil powers  (Just how it did so is not clear).

Today, St. John’s Wort’s magical associations have largely been forgotten. But it continues to play an important role in medical herbalism, especially as a natural anti-depressant. But not all consider it benevolent. In the US, it is considered a noxious weed that is dangerous to cattle. The allegations are that its photosensitizing properties are hazardous to humans and cattle alike.  

St. Johns Wort does have photosensitizing properties. It is most likely to harm grazing animals that may consume great quantities of it while being exposed to intense heat without access to sheltering shade. This problem can be particularly severe in the overgrazed southwestern parts of the US. Internal use of St. Johns Wort herb (rather than potentized pills) rarely poses this threat to humans, (although it is conceivable). It is therefore recommended to avoid St. John’s Wort if one spends a lot of time in the sun or in the solarium.

Caution is also advised when using it in the treatment of depression. St. John’s Wort affects the serum-levels of the Neurotransmitter Serotonin, which may produce negative effects when it is used in conjunction with other anti-depressant drugs that also impact the metabolism of neurotransmitters. Finally, St John’s Wort is a powerful liver cleanser. It cleanses the liver eliminates all kinds of toxins – including pharmaceutical drugs and birth control pills, rendering them useless. Thus it is always advised to consult with a qualified and knowledgeable practitioner who can advise you on any drug interactions or other ill-effects, before attempting to use St. John’s Wort medicinally.

Medicinal Uses

PARTS USED: Aerial parts, collect when in flower, for the oil usually only the flowering tops are used

CONSTITUENTS: Essential oil – caryophyllene, methyl-2-octane, n-nonane, n-octanal, n-decanal, a-and b pinene, traces of limonene and myrcene, hypericin (photosensitizing), hyperforin, Glycosides (rutin), tannin, resin, pectin

ACTIONS: Antidepressant, sedative, nervine, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, astringent, vulnerary, diuretic

MEDICINAL USES:

Internal Use:

St. John’s Wort is a tonic for the whole body:  a gentle cleansing remedy that improves overall function and tones the vital organ systems. It improves and regulates the metabolism and tones the stomach, liver, and kidneys, thus helping the body to clear out toxins. Internally, a small amount of the oil or better still, the expressed juice, taken on an empty stomach has been used for treating stomach ulcers and gastritis. Freshly pressed St. John’s Wort juice also has a history of use as an astringent to stop internal bleeding, spitting of blood, and (bloody) diarrhea.

St John’s Wort is also an excellent nervine. Its calming and sedative properties soothe the nerves and alleviate headaches and migraines. It can also be used to treat anxiety, melancholy, and irritability, especially during menopause, or PMT. Old herbals also recommend it for ‘shaking and twitching’ (Parkinson? Epilepsy?). It is considered a specific for curing bedwetting in children, especially when this is due to anxiety. For this purpose, 1 tablespoon of the infusion, given at bedtime, is said to suffice.  As a diuretic, St. John’s Wort assists the kidneys to flush waste materials and toxins from the body. The tea is effective for indigestion, stomach catarrh, and as a vermifuge. For therapeutic purposes, it is best to use the fresh herb or tincture, as the dried herb has lost much of its potency.

External Use:

In the past, the external use of St. Johns Wort was much more common. It was cherished as an excellent wound healer that could cleanse the wound and ‘knit the skin together’. It was not only applied to wounds and cuts but also to bruises, varicose veins, and burns. For this purpose, the expressed juice, or a compress made from the fresh bruised herb was used. Modern herbalists tend to prefer a diluted tincture. Tabernaemontana reports that the powdered dried herb can be strewn directly into ‘foul’ wounds to clean and heal them. In his days, midwives also used the herb as a fumigant, to help women who encountered severe problems with their pregnancies or during childbirth.

St. John’s Wort Oil

Traditionally, the flowers were steeped in Poppy seed oil to produce a bright red oil. However, since Poppy Seed oil has become very hard to find, Olive oil can be substituted. After gathering the fresh tops, spread them out on a baking sheet and let them wilt for a few days. This will evaporate most of their water content. Fill a jar with the wilted flowering tops and cover with oil. Macerate for 4 weeks in full sun. Strain the oil, repeat the process using the same oil but adding fresh flowers. This oil is used for treating sunburn, other mild burns, neuralgia, sciatica, and rheumatic pain, as well as sprains and strains, cuts, wounds, as well as muscle aches and nerve pains. It is also said to reduce scarring. Tabernaemontana mentions an elaborate recipe for a compound oil, which, among other things, includes various gums and resins, such as frankincense, myrrh, mastic and other herbs, including Plantain leaves, Yarrow and Tormentil, which he claims, will be a superior oil, effective for treating just about any kind wound.

CAUTION:

Since St. John’s Wort contains the photosensitizing agent hypericin, avoid direct sunlight after either internal and external use of St. John’s Wort. If you are taking pharmaceutical drugs, especially anti-depressants, consult with a knowledgable doctor regarding the possibility of negative drug interactions. The efficacy of birth control pills can not be taken for granted if St. John’s Wort is used orally at the same time.

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