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.

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.

Plant Profile: Rose History (1)

Plant Profile: Rose History (1)

.’“But he that dares not grasp the thorn, should never crave the rose.” – Anne Bronte

It is almost superfluous to describe such a well-known and much-loved plant as the rose. Everybody knows and loves the thorny, but beautiful rose, although we are most familiar with the cultivated varieties. They have come to be recognized as an almost universal symbol of love and adoration.

Description:

Wild roses can be found in every hedgerow. But they are a much humbler breed. There are about 150 species of wild roses that mostly occur as shrubs and climbers. They are at home in the northern hemisphere. Wild rose species can be recognized by their fragile flowers consisting of 5, quite large white or pinkish petals that guard a profusion of yellow stamen in their center.

By contrast, cultivated varieties can take on many different flowering patterns and color variations – they come large or small, with packed or single flowers, scented or unscented, and in almost every shade of color from burgundy red (almost black) to pink, yellow and white.

Wild Rose shrubs can grow as low as 80 cm or climb some 30m high, sprawling over other plants and trees. They are prickly fellows and although the thorns of natural varieties tend to be much finer than those of the hybrids, they are no less sharp.

The leaves tend to be pinnate, with stalked, ovate leaflets, and finely toothed margins. The stems and leaves bear thorns.

In autumn, they produce bright red, pear-shaped seed-capsules with a hard, thin, outer skin. Their center is filled with small triangular seeds that are embedded in a cozy nest of scratchy fluff, which children utilize as ‘itching powder’. These fruits are known as ‘rose hips’, famous as a rich source of vitamin C.

Ecology:

Wild roses are not as picky as their cultivated cousins. They grow in open woodland, fields, and heaths, or even on dunes and sandy soil. Their thorny bendy bows provide effective shelter for small animals. It’s a habitat with a built-in security system. The thorns effectively ward off predators and human intruders. They are often planted in the hedgerows and provide winter nourishment for many birds and small animals. They are not so keen on the hard shells, but once the frost has bit the hips the cortex turns soft and more palatable for the little critters. Thus, bright red hips can often be seen to adorn otherwise bare hedges, even in the midst of winter. Rose-hips are not a ‘snack-fruit, but the rich content of vitamin C makes them very valuable to humans as well.

Distribution:

Wild roses occur naturally throughout the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, from China to North America. However, Asia boasts the greatest species variety.

 

rose culivarsHistory & Mythology

Roses are most famous as a universal symbol of love. And most of the ancient stories focus on the old cultivated varieties. Rosa gallica, a deep red, fragrant flower, also known as ‘Provins Rose’ has garnered most of the attention. (It has been named after a small town near Paris, France, which was once was a center of Rose cultivation and trade, not to be confused with ‘Provence’, a region in southern France famous for perfumery and vast Lavender fields).

For some reason, the humble rose has long inspired horticultural passions. It has been under cultivation since ancient times (at least since 3000 BC), which makes it extremely difficult to trace the family tree of a specific variety.

Roses were among the first plants (if not THE first plant) that were grown for their beauty’s sake alone, a practice that flourished in Asia and the Middle East long before such a thing had ever been heard of in Europe. A garden surrounded by fragrant roses was the epitome of sanctity – it was seen as an earthly representation of the Garden of Eden itself. Thus, roses adorned the patios and pleasure gardens of palaces, as a floral symbol of female virtue.

In ancient Greece, the Roses was an emblem of the Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. According to some stories, the flower sprang from her tears as they mingled with the blood of her dying lover Adonis. But others have claimed this story for the origin of the Scarlet Pheasant’s Eye, (Adonis annua).  Judging by its ancient associations with various funeral cults, Rose is the more likely candidate.

Rose symbolizes eternal love – beyond the grave. It has long been used to signify the approaching death and a ‘rose garden’ is often regarded as synonymous with the’ final resting place’. This symbolism is echoed in fairy tales, such as the Sleeping Beauty, who is overcome by a ‘magical sleep’ after pricking herself with the spindle. The entire castle and all within it become engulfed in an impenetrable mass of rambling Roses until she is finally brought back to life by the love of her prince.

Ancient myths often mesh the symbolism of life, death, and love – reminding us that they are closely related. The red Rose symbolizes blood, the magical conduit of the life-force itself. In dualistic philosophies, life and death are seen as mutually exclusive opposites rather than different phases of a process that consists of both and is cyclic in nature. Love engenders life and life engenders death. But death is a phase of recomposing, Once rejuvenated the soul returns when love calls.

Since the earliest times, Arab perfumers knew the secrets of this beautiful flower and incorporated its scent into their perfumes and cosmetics. The Damask Rose, a crossing of Rosa gallica with either Rosa phoenicia or Rosa moschata, is the source of Rose Otto, the highly prized ‘perfumer’s gold.

In case you ever wondered why anything to do with roses should be named Otto – the word derives from the original ‘Attar’, which is the western phonetic rendering of the Arab root ‘itr’ – meaning ’essence’. Thus ‘Rose Otto’ means ‘the essence of the rose’. However, these days the term is steam distilled rose oil.

Although it is said that Avicenna invented the art of distillation in the 10th century, remnants of essential oils have even been found in the tombs of the ancient Egyptians, and in pre-historic alembic stills dating back thousands of years BC.

Perhaps the oldest method of oil extraction was to simply macerate fragrant flowers in a fatty oil base, a simple form of enfleurage. Another story claims that rose oil was discovered accidentally – in a most romantic fashion, of course: the waterways that meandered through the palace gardens had been filled with rose petals in preparation of a royal wedding. Engulfed by the heavenly scent, the couple floated through this sea of roses in their barge, when suddenly they noticed a layer of oil on the water – the heat of the midday sun had extracted the oils naturally and thus the essential oil of rose was discovered.

 rose garden

The Ladies in those ancient days were crazy for the heady, warm, sweetly-spiced scent of Roses. Then as now, this sensual aroma is thought to inspire love, a power that even Cleopatra had no shame to exploit as a means of seducing Mark Antony. She filled her bedroom with a carpet of rose petals 2 ft deep and Mark Antony succumbed.

During their most decadent era, the Romans were famous for their lavish (some would say ‘wasteful’) use of rose petals. They used the petals like confetti to shower returning warriors, they poured them over banquets to the point of almost suffocating their guests, and covered floors and beds with the fragrant petals. Perhaps this was the origin of ‘strewing herbs’. They also worked them into a myriad of medicinal concoctions, cosmetic applications, and even culinary treats. Roses had become so important to them that they ripped out the fruit orchards to make way for rose cultivation.

One of the oldest cultivars or rose is R. gallica – the apothecary’s rose. This variety is highly fragrant but only has one flowering season. It seems most likely that the Romans first introduced this Rose to northern Europe, but it may have been lost and forgotten again until the crusaders brought it home with them during the 10th century, as a souvenir from the Holy Land. Monks began to care for them in their monastery gardens, tending to them with devotion. They tried hard to give this most sensuous of flowers, the emblem of female sexuality and love, a chaste Christian image. They presented it as a symbol of pure love, embodied by the Virgin Mary. But the Rose never lost its associations with romantic, and carnal love. Sales figures on St. Valentine’s Day prove the point.

By the 15th century, the rose had turned into a dynastic royal symbol in Britain. That association is commemorated in the tales of the power struggle between two royal houses. Their conflict became known as ‘the War of the Roses’. The house of Lancaster was represented by a red rose (Rosa gallica?),  while the house of York had adopted the white rose (Rosa alba?). After many battles, peace was eventually returned to the land when the two families were joined by the marriage of Henry VII (house of Lancaster) and Elizabeth (house of York),. The joining of their roses begat the Tudor Rose, which has become emblematic as the ‘Rose of Britain’. However, this Rose is an idealized symbol and remains a horticultural fantasy. Although scores of rose breeders have attempted to create a rose that would bear both red and white petals, none have so far succeeded.

At one stage, there was such a fascination with all things ‘rose and beautiful’, it was only natural that the apothecaries of the day developed a Rose cult of their own. They invented an entire pharmacopeia based on the rose. John Gerard, the famous British Herbalist writing in the 15th century devoted some 13 pages to extolling the virtues of roses. Rose petal tea, syrup, jelly and preserve, powders, pomades, pastilles and electuaries, liqueur, tonic wine, and honey, rosewater, and oil were all part of their repertoire. Some of these have survived to this day, although generally roses are no longer used medicinally. However, they do still feature as flavoring agents to sweeten medicines, or as a therapeutic ingredient in manifold cosmetics.

Folk-medicine utilized roses ‘according to ‘to the doctrine  ‘like cures like’, to stay the flow of blood and to soothe inflammation and burns.

Read more about the medicinal uses of Roses next week

All about the Elder-tree – its myths, magic, and medicine

All about the Elder-tree – its myths, magic, and medicine

The Elder tree – medicine cabinet of the country people

This much loved, bushy tree is a common sight throughout Britain (especially in southern England) as well as in most parts of central and southern Europe. Its multiple stems branch frequently, giving it a somewhat sprawling appearance. The light grey bark is fissured and covered with many lenticels (breathing pores). The branches are bendy and contain a core of very light, almost cork-like pith, which can easily be removed. Generations of children have taken advantage of this property, making pipes and pop-guns from hollowed-out twigs. The pinnate leaves have opposite, ovate leaflets with serrated margins and one larger terminal leaflet. The flowers appear in May, forming big umbel-shaped bunches of tiny 5-petaled, cream-colored star-shaped flowers. They exude a heavy, sweet, slightly intoxicating scent, especially at dusk. By the end of the summer they develop into drooping bunches of small purple-black berries that are extremely popular with the birds.

HABITAT:

As a nitrogen loving plant Elder commonly grows near farms and homesteads and thrives near organic waste disposal sites. Elder is often grown as a hedgerow bush, since it takes very fast, bends into shape easily and grows quite profusely, hence its reputation as an ‘instant hedge’. It is not fussy about soil type or pH level and will grow wherever it gets enough light.

HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY, AND FOLKLORE

SYNONYMS:

Pipe tree, Ellhorn, Black Elder, Bore Tree, Bour Tree, Eller, Holler, Hylder, Hylantree, Holunder (German), Sureau (French)

The name ‘Elder’ probably comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Aeld’, for ‘fire’, which starts to make sense when we look at another old name for Elder, ‘Ellhorn’. This name derives from the use of hollowed Elder branches as blow furnaces.

Old names, like Holler, Hylder, Hyllantree, and the German word ‘Holunder’ all refer to an ancient vegetation Goddess known in Denmark as ‘Hylde Moer’. In the old days, Elder was considered sacred to this Goddess. Elders were often thought a little spooky. They were believed to be inhabited by a ‘tree dryad’, a kind of tree spirit that represents the soul of the tree, or even an aspect of the Goddess herself. If treated well and respectfully the dryad appeared as a most benevolent spirit that blesses and protects those who care for it. Elders often grow close to human habitations and since they never get struck by lightning, they were thought to protect the homestead against this danger as well. There has long been a widespread taboo against cutting down Elder trees or burning any of their wood. It was thought that the dryad would take revenge and punish the offender with bad luck – or, toothache (Romania). According to ancient folk beliefs, toothaches are seen as ‘supernatural’ and understood as a form of divine punishment. The only legitimate reason for cutting down an Elder tree or to take any part of it, was to use it for medicine, or as a protective charm. To this end, the dryad was asked reverently and asked for permission.

With the head bared and arms folded, the following was recited:

‘Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood, and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest.’

With the rise of Christianity and the subsequent persecution of any form of tree worship the sacred Elder tree became a witches tree and the old stories were reframed to suit the narrative of the new religion. In Christian mythology, Elder was portrayed as a tree of sorrow, because Judas was said to have hung himself from the branches of an Elder tree and this is supposed to be the reason for its stooped appearance and bendy branches: never again should anyone commit suicide with the help of an Elder tree. And to make matters worse, the cross upon which the Savior was crucified was said to have been fashioned from Elder wood. Such a disgrace the Elder tree could not bear and so it has never again been able to grow upright and tall as other trees do.

Nevertheless, some of the older beliefs have lived on and country folk continued to use Elder for protection of house and barn. They pinned the leaves above the doors to ward off evil witches, daemons, and other nefarious influences.

During the Middle Ages such folk magic was practiced all over Europe and many curious customs evolved as pre-Christian and Christian believes got muddled and merged. But without the proper context of the ancient beliefs they turned into superstitions, For example, it was thought that witches and sorcerers could be revealed if one was to cut the inner pith of the twigs to make flat disks. These were dipped in lamp oil and set alight to float them in a glass of water. However, the magic trick only worked on Christmas Eve.

Conversely, one could also use the Elder to enlist the devil for one’s own purposes. On the January 6th (Bertha Night), when the devil is said to go about ‘with special virulence’, one could try to obtain some of his ‘Mystic Fernseed’, which was believed transfer the strength of 30 or 40 men, to the keeper, protect furniture from woodworm, repel snakes and mosquitoes and cure toothaches. To obtain this magic substance, one must cast a magic circle for protection, the boundary of which one must not be broken under any circumstances. Further protection was offered by carrying some Elderberries that had been gathered on St. John’s night. But since Elderberries are not ripe at this time of the year this practice appears a little spurious. A more likely version of this ritual recommends casting the circle with a magic wand made of Elder wood.

Elderflowers

Elderflowers

Note: In the old religion the 12 nights of Christmas were regarded as the turning point of the year when the battle between light and darkness culminates and the Sun is reborn. They correspond to the 12 days of midsummer, at the summer solstice, which in the Christian calendar is celebrated on St John’s Day. These periods were the most important time in the ancient pre-Christian ritual calendar. It was said that at these times the veils between the worlds are thin and spirits come and go easily between the spheres of existence. It is for this reason that superstitious practices involving clairvoyance and fortune-telling were often practiced at these times.

Elder’s reputation to offer protection against evil spirits seems to be ubiquitous and can be found from Russia to Romania and from Sicily to Scotland. A less common custom comes from Serbia, where Elder twigs used during nuptial rites, were believed to bestow good luck to the newly-weds. More recently, in Victorian Britain, it was thought that a couple who shared a glass of Elder-infused Ale would marry within a year.

The ancient vegetation Goddess presided over the cycle of life, from the cradle to the grave. However, she was also believed to bestow the power of regeneration and ultimately, of rebirth. Her rhythms were reflected in the waxing and waning of the moon and the cycles of the seasons. As above, so below, as within, so without. Naturally, her rhythms were also applied to the human life-span. Thus, the Goddess of life is also the Goddess of the Underworld, who protects and regenerates the souls of the departed. At funerals, green Elder twigs were often placed into the coffin for protection on the journey to the Otherworld. Christian and pre-Christian beliefs often merged into compounded folk customs with elements of both traditions. In Tyrol for example, Elders were planted on graves and trimmed into the shape of a cross. When the tree starts to flower, the soul was believed to be happy.

An interesting custom from Romania illustrates the Goddess’s power of regeneration. At Easter it was customary to sacrifice a pig. The pig’s inedible remains were given a ceremonial burial and an Elder-tree was believed to sprout from its grave in the following year. Easter/ Spring Equinox is the time of regeneration, the time when the Earth-Goddess awakens the land and blesses the people with her abundant gifts. Both pigs (as an emblem of self-sacrificing motherhood and the principle of nurture) and Elder trees were deemed sacred to this ancient Goddess on account of their obvious attributes of abundance and fertility.

In Denmark, Hylde-Moer, as the Goddess was known, presided over the fairy realm. Fairies are creatures of the Otherworld, but from time to time, especially at the summer solstice, they venture into our world. To watch them on their way to their Midsummer night’s feast, one could hide out in a grove of Elder trees. (Drinking ample quantities of freshly made Elderflower champagne whilst hiding in the bushes might enhance the experience).

Elderberries

The Elder tree has often been described as the medicine chest of the country folk. But even today modern herbalists employ many of its medicinal uses. In 1644 a book dedicated entirely to the virtues of the Elder was translated from Latin to English: on 230 pages the author sings its praises. The book was so popular that it ran through several editions in both its English and Latin versions. According to the author, every single part of the plant was deemed medicinally useful. It even references an edible fungus known as ‘Judas Ear’ (alluding to the above-mentioned myth), which grows on Elder trees. It should come as no surprise that its medicinal powers were said to be effective for quinsy, sore throat, and strangulation (!).

Judas-Ear

Judas-Ear fungus

 

The elder itself was considered a panacea capable to relieve almost any ailment, ‘from toothache to the plague’. It seems like a whole apothecary could be stocked solely from the many preparations that could be produced from its various parts: ‘a rob or syrup, a tincture, a compound mixture, an oil, or ointment, a distillation, and a distilled flower water, a liniment, an extract, a salt, or a conserve, a vinegar, an oxymel, a sugar, a decoction, a bath additive, a cataplasm, and a powder’, made from one, several, or all parts of the plant. However, in the old days, it wasn’t just the biochemical activity that was considered medicinally active. The plant’s subtle energy also played an important role, especially in the many folk healing practices that were based on sympathetic magic.

Rheumatism, for example, could be treated with a charm or amulet that was made by tying several knots into a young Elder-twig. This charm had to be kept close to the body to unfold its power. Elder was also believed to cure warts: the wart was to be rubbed with a freshly cut twig, which was not carelessly discarded, but buried in mud, where it was left to rot. Other, more forms of ‘transfer magic’ were also common. The imagination at the root of such practices was that trees in particular are much stronger and resistant than the feeble human body. They were thought capable of absorbing and thereby to neutralize the evil energies that were thought responsible for the disease. Many trees were used similarly, depending on the symptoms of the disease and the availability of various species of trees.

CONTEMPORARY MEDICINAL USES

Elderflowers and berries are still used modern herbal medicine but since heroic medicine went out of fashion, the use of other parts, such as the leaves or inner bark, has been discontinued.

PARTS USED:

Flowersdried or fresh

Berries: best preserved as cordial, syrup or wine

CAUTION:

The fresh roots of the American Elder (Sambucus canadensis), which closely resembles Sambucus nigra, are extremely poisonous and can cause death if ingested.

Native Americans value a close relative of Sambucus nigra known as ‘American Elder’ (Sambucus canadensis), with very similar medicinal properties. Many of its reported uses closely resemble those of S. nigra in the Old World.

elder flower

FLOWERS

HARVEST TIMES: Early summer

CONSTITUENTS: Triterpenes, fixed oil containing free acids, alkenes, flavonoids

ACTIONS: Diaphoretic, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, expectorant

INDICATIONS:

Elderflowers have long been used as a treatment for various inflammatory and congestive conditions of the respiratory system, especially when these are accompanied by fever. An infusion is given for cough, colds and flu, asthma, and hay-fever. The diaphoretic action helps to reduce the fever, which makes it useful in the treatment of infectious diseases such as measles, and scarlet fever. Externally, an infusion of Elder-flowers can be added to the bath-water for a wonderfully refreshing effect, to soothe irritable nerves, and to relieve itchy skin. Cooled, the infusion can be used as an eyewash for sore, itchy and inflamed eyes. Earache may be relieved by means of a poultice made from the flowers. For this purpose a small linen bag is filled with the flowers, dipped in hot water, and squeezed to press out any excess liquid before it is applied to the aching ear.

elderberries

BERRIES

HARVEST TIMES: late summer, early autumn

CONSTITUENTS: Viburnic acid, odorous oil, tyrosin, inverted sugar, tannin, vitamin C and P and B2

ACTIONS: Aperient, diuretic, source of nutrients and vitamins

INDICATIONS:

The berries are rich in vitamins and minerals and are best used as a tonic to ward off winter ailments, which boost the immune system. Vitamin B2  in particular is indicated as effective in the treatment of pneumonia. Elderberries are a valuable alterative remedy that can be used to combat rheumatic conditions. They also soothe sore nerves and help to improve poor circulation.

GENERAL USES

Hedging:

Elder is a familiar hedge plant. The bendy branches can easily be trimmed and laid, thus creating effective protection against wind and erosion.  Such a hedge also makes a wonderful wildlife habitat, especially for birds, who love the berries. Country lore testifies to the popularity of Elder as a hedging plant. An old proverb praises its durability:

‘An Elder stake and a blackthorn ‘ether will make a hedge to last forever.’

Tool-making:

Whilst the branches are bendy and flexible, the heartwood and rootstock are extremely strong and have been used for making handles, stakes, fences, combs, and even instruments. According to country lore, a stake of Elder wood driven into the ground will last longer than an iron stake of the same size. ‘The Latin name of the plant, ‘sambuca’ refers not to the high-octane alcoholic drink of the same name (although this too is a product derived from Elder) but to an ancient musical instrument that resembled a harp. It is likely that Elder wood was once used to make these instruments.

Insect and vermin repellent:

Cattle appreciate the presence of Elder in their pasture and seem to instinctively recognize its insect repellent properties. Cows often rub themselves on the stem and branches and stay in its shade to discourage insects. In the past, when fieldwork was still done with the aid of horses, it was a common practice to fixate some Elder leaves to the harness to ward off flies just as fieldworkers fixed the slightly bruised leaves to their hats for the same effect. A decoction of the leaves can be also be used as an insect repellent. The smell of the leaves has been likened to that of mice nests. Mrs. Grieves (A modern herbal) mentions their use for repelling mice and moles.

Young Elder shoots are thought to be effective against blight. A recipe including Elder leaves, iron and copper sulfate, soft soap, nicotine, methylated spirit and slaked lime has been used for this purpose, although organic gardeners just use a decoction made from the young shoots as an insecticide to combat aphids and small caterpillars.

Cosmetics:

In Victorian times, distilled Elderflower water was a highly valued emollient lotion. It was said to cleanse the skin, keeping it young and free of freckles and blemishes. Hard to find, nowadays, but there has been a revival of interest in Elder products and Elderflower water is once again produced commercially.

Dyes:

The bark, leaves, and berries can all be used for dyeing. The bark yields a black dye, a decoction of the leaves with alum produces a green, whilst the berries with alum, dye purple or, if salt is added to the mix, produce a lilac color.

Fodder:

Not all domestic animals are keen on Elder as forage. Sheep and cows don’t seem to mind it, but horses and goats have no taste for it. Sheep suffering from foot-rot are said to deliberately seek out Elder trees for self-medication. Wild birds love the berries, but chickens do not take to them.

Culinary uses:

The best-known culinary uses of Elderflowers and berries are the many delicious drinks that can be made from them. Numerous recipes for country wines, syrups and cordials have never lost their appeal and are still widely used in country areas in Britain and Europe. Such drinks are not simply delicious but are also medicinally valuable.

Elderflower Fritters

The flower heads, dipped in batter and deep-fried, make delicious fritters and can be served with maple syrup and lemon juice.

Hedgerow Jam

The black, fully ripe berries can be made into a delicious hedgerow jam, but the green, unripe berries are poisonous and should be avoided. Even the ripe, fresh berries retain some of this poison, which it is recommended that the berries are not eaten fresh off the bush. They should be heated to 100°C prior to consumption.

elderflower-fritters
Why Hawthorn is your heart’s best friend

Why Hawthorn is your heart’s best friend

Plant Profile: Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

When the Hawthorn dapples the hedgerows with its pinkish-white blossom, we know that spring is here to stay. Typically, Hawthorn starts to flower at the end of April or the beginning of May, which is why it is also sometimes known as ‘Mayblossom’ or simply as ‘May’. Linnaeus originally named the species Crateagus oxyacantha, a combination of kratos, meaning ‘hardness’ (of wood), ‘oxus’ which means ‘sharp’ and ‘akantha’ for ‘thorn’. But there is ambiguity over which precise species Linnaeus meant and thus this old name has been rejected. The new name is Crataegus monogyna, which refers to the fact that this particular species only has one seed.

Description

Hawthorn grows as a small, hardy tree that rarely grows to more than 30 ft. It is a member of the rose family, in the extensive genus of Crataegus. Taxonomists still argue over the actual number of species that belong to this genus, but conservative estimates range from about 200 to 300 species. Hawthorns are quite ‘promiscuous’ which results in many cross forms that some botanists consider mere variations, while others deem them separate species.

During the flowering season in late April or early May the small, white five-petaled flowers grow in showy clusters that cover up almost every inch of the tree. The deeply cut, 3-lobed leaves are about 3″ long and appear before the flowers. They are dark green on top and paler bluish-green underneath. In September, an abundance of bright red ‘haws’ glow in the hedges, looking very much like ‘mini rose hips’. Although edible and attracting much wildlife they are not especially palatable to humans.

Habitat and Ecology

The genus is most diverse and widespread throughout North America. But it is well represented in the entire Northern Hemisphere, including all parts of Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and even China. Crataegus monogyna is not native to North America.

Hawthorns are most familiar as hedgerow trees. They are undemanding as far as soil conditions are concerned, but prefer full sun. They may be found in open woodlands, along their edges or, most distinctively, as lone trees on open hillsides.

For wildlife, a hawthorn hedgerow is an ideal habitat: the thick, dense and impenetrable tangle of thorns provides a safe habitat for many small animals and birds.

Crataegus monogyna is not native to North America, but it was introduced there as a hedge plant, in the 1800s. Birds have been instrumental in distributing their seeds far and wide. They seem to prefer these berries to those of the native varieties. The advance of industrial farming in North America has pushed Crataegus into decline. No longer valued as a hedgerow plant bordering fields to protect against soil erosion it is now viewed as problematic and invasive.

Hawthorn berries

History

Hawthorn is so common throughout the country that it hardly needs a description. Unassuming and inconspicuous, its petite and straggly appearance does not really inspire awe. Like an old familiar friend it waves its windswept branches from the top of a hillside or greets us as we pass it on the old familiar track. Yet, there is something quintessentially British about this tree. It is hardly surprising that its ancient roots are deeply entwined with the myths and folklore of our ‘Dreamtime’.

Etymologically, the name at first seems to indicate nothing more than a utilitarian function for which indeed it is still very commonly employed: Hawthorn makes a superb and quickly setting natural defense. A dense thorny Hawthorn thicket is quite impenetrable. Its fast development (appropriately it is also known as Quickset or Quickbeam) aids this purpose, as does the fact that its branches become increasingly dense the more they are cut or eaten.

But in the mindset of the ancients, a hedge was more than just a living fence. A hedge signified the boundary between the known, safe, and civilized world and the wild, mysterious wild yonder. The word ‘hedge’ derives from the old English ‘Haga’ also found in Hagathorn’, which is another name for Hawthorn. Both share the same Germanic root ‘hag’.

Etymology

In old English, a ‘hag’ was not just an old, ugly woman, but is cognate with ‘haegtesse’ – a woman of prophetic powers, and ‘hagzusa’ – spirit beings and ‘hedge riders’. These wood sprites were thought to reside in the ‘between worlds’, ie, between the worlds of everyday reality and ‘the otherworld’. As spirit beings, these sprites could easily traverse the boundaries between the worlds. Likewise, their human counterparts were the healers, seers, and soothsayers who were also thought to be able to travel between these worlds. Thus, Hawthorn signifies protection, yet it is also seen as a gateway to the spirit world.

In folk medicine, its primary use is for protection against all manner of evil spirits, and demons who were apt frighten hapless passers-by. Carved hawthorn amulets were worn for protection or hung above doors to keep bad spirits at bay.

Mythology

Hawthorn features in both pre-Christian and Christian symbolism. In Christian mythology, it is said that the crown of Christ was made of Hawthorn. Some authorities have claimed that the Holy Spirit has a certain peculiar affinity with thorn trees. The burning bush apparition mentioned in the Bible is thought to have been a thorn tree.

In British Christian mythology, the most famous Hawthorn is the Glastonbury Thorn, which could long be seen as a lone figure on the slope of Wearyall Hill. (Sadly, vandals have destroyed this tree.) According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea, an uncle of Jesus, had traveled to Britain with the intention of finding a place to bury the holy cup (grail) that had held the blood of Christ at the crucifixion. When he first set eyes on the Holy Isle of Avalon, he struck his staff into the ground on Wearyall Hill. At once it burst into flower. Joseph of Arimathea took this as a sign to establish the first Christian Church of England right there, where today lies the little market town of Glastonbury.

Descendants of that original miraculous walking stick have been transplanted as cuttings and now decorate various Christian sites around the town. To this day, these special trees burst into flower not once, but twice a year: first in May, when it is right and proper for all Hawthorn trees to flower, and then again at Christmas, to mark the birthday of Christ.

Hawthorn Blossom

Folk Traditions

Hawthorn is also associated with the old Beltain custom of ‘fetching the May’. Beltain, which takes place on May 1, is a celebration of spring and the return of the life-force that rejuvenates the land. Hawthorn’s abundance of flowers that burst into blossom just at the right time seems eminently suitable to mark this glorious time of the year. People would tie colorful ribbons into the branches of the tree to symbolize their prayers and wishes.

The flowers exude a peculiar smell that is often likened to the odor of rotting meat. Hawthorn is fertilized by insects that are attracted by the smell of carrion, a smell that has also been associated with the plague. This is why, despite the fact that Hawthorn is very much loved, it is never brought inside the house.

The scent has also been associated with the perfume of sexuality, which better fits its fertility connotations in association with the Beltain celebrations. Whatever one might associate with the scent, it is unlikely it will go unnoticed as the flowers announce their presence from afar.

Food uses

The flowering tops can be used for making a heart-friendly breakfast tea (see below). 

In the autumn, the tree is laden with hard, red berries that look like miniature rose hips. Unfortunately, Crataegus mongyna is rather mealy and not very tasty. The meager pericarp layer is extremely dry and almost devoid of flavor. There are, however, related species with much better-tasting fruits. Some are even juicy enough to process into a jelly. If need be Hawthorn berries can be dried and ground into a kind of flour substitute. However, as they contain no gluten this is not a flour to make bread with. 

Medicinal Uses:

From an ethnobotanical perspective, Hawthorn is a very interesting plant. Since it is a very large and widely distributed genus people from China to Europe to North America have used their specific native species in similar ways.

Parts used:

Flowering tops, ripe fruits, leaves

Collection:

The flowering tops are harvested in May. Dry quickly in the shade to avoid discoloration. The berries are collected in the autumn. Dry quickly and thoroughly to prevent mold.

Constituents:

Fruit: saponins, glycosides, flavonoids, cardioactive glycosides, ascorbic acid, condensed tannins.

Flowers: cardiotonic amines

Crataegus does not contain any single active constituent that phyto-pharmacologists will get excited about – it sports no ‘super compounds’ that can be developed into new drugs. Instead, it is the unique synergy of its composition that creates its marvelous effects – and which so far has defied replication in the laboratory.

Hawthorn is most valued for its tonic action on the heart. It has an undisputed regulatory, or tonic effect that provides an immensely useful and safe remedy for beginning cardio-vascular disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death, particularly in developed countries.

The flowering tops as well as the berries are medicinally active. They regulate the blood-pressure via a dual action: they stimulate both the coronary arteries and the heart muscle itself. They dilate and relax the blood vessels, thus lowering blood pressure, while gently stimulating the heart muscle, increasing the pulse rate. This takes the pressure off the heart muscle and thus improves its overall efficiency.

Hawthorn relaxes the nerves that supply the heart, which helps to relieve the symptoms of stress, tightness in the chest and angina. It also regulates an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and palpitations. Hawthorn is a valuable supportive long-term remedy for the general weakness of the heart caused by infectious diseases such as diphtheria or scarlet fever. It improves the overall function of an aged and tired heart muscle. It may be used preventatively and is especially recommended for people who are under constant pressure and stress, or remedially, for those recovering from a heart attack.

According to Chinese and Japanese studies, Hawthorn clearly shows a positive effect on the whole coronary system and can reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol, one of the most significant contributing factors of heart disease.

Hawthorn improves the peripheral blood flow, thus improving oxygen supply to the limbs and to the head. In combination with Gingko it has a beneficial effect on memory.

Hawthorn has also been used for nervousness and as a digestive tonic to help ‘move’ stagnant food (Chinese medicine) and to aid the digestion of fatty foods. It is also considered useful as a diuretic and a urinary tonic. The old herbalists seemed to value this aspect of Hawthorn’s healing virtues especially highly.

Hawthorn is the best overall heart tonic available in the herbal pharmacopeia. It is even recognized in allopathic medicine and is included in the ‘Commission E’ list of medicinally useful plants. Its gentle, tonic action and safety record make it an ideal and safe herb for conditions afflicting an aging coronary system and heart. But it is an alterative and tonic remedy, which means best results are achieved when it is taken over long periods of time. Instant results should not be expected. It contains no digitalis-like compounds or other cardio-active constituents that build up in the body over time. There is also no record of drug interference, even with other cardio medicines. Thus, Hawthorn tops or berries taken as a tea or tincture can be taken over long periods of time without ill-effects. (Of course, allergies are always possible, but with this herb, they form a very small exception to the rule.)

Ref: Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) in the treatment of cardiovascular disease

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249900/

UPLC-ESI-Q-TOF-MS/MS Characterization of Phenolics from Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus laevigata (Hawthorn) Leaves, Fruits and their Herbal Derived Drops (Crataegutt Tropfen)

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Nikolai_Kuhnert/publication/320325764_UPLC-ESI-Q-TOF-MSMS_Characterization_of_Phenolics_from_Crataegus_monogyna_and_Crataegus_laevigata_Hawthorn_Leaves_Fruits_and_their_Herbal_Derived_Drops_Crataegutt_Tropfen/links/5b1926700f7e9b68b4255af3/UPLC-ESI-Q-TOF-MS-MS-Characterization-of-Phenolics-from-Crataegus-monogyna-and-Crataegus-laevigata-Hawthorn-Leaves-Fruits-and-their-Herbal-Derived-Drops-Crataegutt-Tropfen.pdf

PHENOLIC CONTENT AND ANTIOXIDANT ACTIVITY OF CRATAEGUS MONOGYNA L. FRUIT EXTRACTS

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8193/140b3f344ce5633451fe0e5d63499cd1a40f.pdf

Heilpflanzenpraxis Heute, Siegfried Bäumler, Elsevier 2007

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