Plant Profile: Mistletoe – Viscum album

Plant Profile: Mistletoe – Viscum album

Mysterious Mistletoe (Viscum album L.)

SYNONYMS:

English: Bird Lime, Birdlime Mistletoe, Mystyldene, Lignum Crucis, All-heal,

German: Affolter, Donnerbesen, Heil aller Schäden, Hexenbesen, Nistel, Vogelleimholz, Heiligholz, Heilkreuzholz, Drudenfuss, Wintergrün,

French: Herbe de la Croix, Gui de Chêne

DESCRIPTION:

Mistletoe is an evergreen parasitic plant that sustains its greenish-yellow leaves throughout the winter. It becomes especially apparent once the leaves of its host have dropped. It certainly looks quite strange, this yellowish ball hanging high up in the tree.

Mistletoe’s growing habit is distinctly round. Its twigs bifurcate frequently, and its elongated, oval leaves always grow in opposite pairs. The tiny, inconspicuous yellowish flowers appear in May, but the translucent whitish pea-sized berries don’t ripen until late in the year.

Birds, particularly thrushes, spread the seeds. The fruit flesh of the berries is very sticky (hence the Latin name ‘Viscum album meaning ‘white sticky stuff’). The birds love those berries but the gooey stuff clings to their beaks which they clean by wiping them on the branches they happen to sit on. If the sticky stuff contains a seed then it has found a perfect spot to sprout. Soon it sends out a sucker rootlet that penetrates the bark and taps the sap of the host tree for nutrients and water. The berries, although loved by birds, are toxic to humans.

The Mistletoe is not all that choosey when it comes to its host. Although it is most commonly found on deciduous trees it is also occasionally found on conifers. The belief that it is frequently found growing on Oaks is a misconception that originates in the druidic lore. Druids always collect Mistletoe, which they consider sacred, from Oak trees, but it is actually rare to find it growing there. It is much more commonly found growing on apple trees, poplars, and lime trees.

Mistletoes belong to the family of Loranthaceae, which comprises some 75 genera and about 1000 species. Not all of them are parasitic but many of them are. Three Australian species are even terrestrial.

ECOLOGY:

Although Mistletoe is a parasite and as such is dependent on the host-plant for its nutrients and water, it does not rely on it for carbon dioxide. Since Mistletoe produces green, chlorophyll-containing leaves, it can perform its own photosynthesis. (Technically, it is thus a hemiparasite – it only partially depends on the host plant for its survival.)

As a rule, mistletoe does not kill the host-plant.

Mistletoe berries

HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY, AND FOLKLORE

The mysterious Mistletoe, airborne between heaven and earth, has always been a source of wonder. Where did it come from? How could it sustain itself, without roots, yet bear leaves and fruit, even in the winter, long after the life-force has retreated into the womb of the earth?

The Druids revered the Mistletoe as the holiest of holies, especially when it appeared oaks, their most sacred tree. The Mistletoe was their ‘Golden Bough’, the key to the heavens and to the underworld. The mysterious plant was regarded as the reproductive organs of Thor, the god of thunder, who also presided over the sacred oak tree. In the druidic tree calendar, December 23 belongs to the Mistletoe. It is the day on which it was ceremoniously cut:

Accompanied by prayers the chief druid would ascend into the tree to cut the unearthly Mistletoe with his golden sickle. Utmost care was taken to prevent the herb from touching the ground. The other druids stood below holding up a white cloth on which they caught the branches of the sacred herb. To mark the holy occasion they also sacrificed two white bulls, dressed with garlands.

Thus, the regenerative power of the solar deity was joined in sacrifice to the moon goddess as the female counterpart in this fertility rite. The blessing was meant to bestow abundance and protection against all evil at the birth of the new solar year. On this day the male and female forces of the universe were held in balance by the power of this symbolic union. By extension, this meant a harmonization of all opposites, a state of perfect balance at the turning point of the year. A festival of wild abandon followed the sacred sacrifice.

Much tamer and somewhat superficial remnants of these ancient and long-forgotten ritual enactments have survived even to the 21st century. Mistletoe twigs still hang above the entrance of the home at Christmas time, giving license to kiss even strangers, and thereby receive the blessing of the humble twig – even if nobody remembers why.

In some of the rural, more traditional areas of France young children can occasionally be seen spreading Mistletoe blessings on New Years Day. Running through the village, shouting ‘Au gui l’an neuf’ (gui de chêne – Mistletoe) they dedicate the New Year to the Mistletoe and thus invoke its protective powers.

Mistletoe was believed to fend off all evil, all bad spirits, and harmful witches’ spells. It was sometimes worn as an amulet for protection, fertility, and abundance.

Norse Mythology – Baldur’s Death

Norse Mythology reveals a darker, but related aspect of Mistletoe’s symbolism. The story tells of Baldur, the divine solar hero, son of Frigg and Odin, who was killed by a twig of Mistletoe. It is said that he would not return until after doomsday when he will bring in a new era of light, a new ‘golden age’.

The beautiful young sun god Baldur was plagued by visions of his imminent death. Obviously, he grew concerned. When his parents found out about his troubles they too grew concerned. But his mother Frigg hatched a plan: She would go on a mission to obtain sacred oaths from everything and everybody in Valhalla. And so she went to ask all the elements, all the stones, all the trees, the plants, and even the venomous beasts to promise that they would not kill her beloved Baldur. All swore never to harm the beautiful boy – all except one: the Mistletoe.  Frigg never thought it necessary to ask such a feeble plant not to do any harm. She simply did not think that it would be capable of such a deed.

Satisfied with all these promises Frigg declared her son invincible. Henceforth, shooting arrows and throwing stones at Baldur, none of which could harm him, became a favorite pastime among the gods. Indeed, taking shots at Baldur came to be a way to honor him.

But trouble was brewing in heavenly abode. The jealous God Loki somehow learned that the Mistletoe had never sworn that oath. Thus, he went straight to it and enlisted it in his wicked plan. With a sharpened twig of Mistletoe, he returned to the Gods’ assembly, where everyone was having fun taking shots at the invincible Baldur. Only his blind brother Hodur was left out. Slyly, Loki went up to Hodur, asking ‘why don’t you show honor to your brother and take a shot at him?’ ‘I can’t see and nor do I have anything to throw’, Hodur answered. ‘Here, I will help you’, Loki offered, passing Hodur the Mistletoe twig and helping him to direct his arrow. In an instant, Baldur was slain.

The Gods were aghast and horrified, shocked and angered, swearing to avenge the attack. One of Baldur’s other brothers was quickly dispatched to follow him to the Underworld. He was to plead with the Goddess of death, to allow Baldur to return to the heavens.

His plea was granted but under one condition: all the gods and all the other beings of the earth, living or dead must weep to express their sorrow. Or else Baldur would have to remain in the Underworld until doomsday. After hearing this, all the gods and all the beings of the earth, living and dead wailed and wept – all but Loki. And so it came to pass that we must wait for doomsday before the young sun god may return (which, judging by the way things are going, can’t be too far off…) .

This story follows the classic pattern of the solar hero myth, complete with the promise of resurrection and renewal after a period of darkness – a perfectly appropriate myth for the celebration of the winter solstice, which marks the birth of the Sun God.

Mistletoe in Christian Mythology

Thus it is not surprising that the Mistletoe also found its way into Christian mythology as well. It is said that the wood from which the cross was fashioned came from the Mistletoe and that this so upset the pious plant that it retreated into a hermit-like existence, taking up residency between heaven and earth, and becoming parasitic.

Mistletoe in Greek Mythology – Aeneas Journey to the Underworld

In Greek mythology, Mistletoe was also associated with the Underworld. Here, the sacred bough presented the key with which a living mortal could enter the Underworld and return unharmed to the world of the living. The story is told in the annals of Aeneas.

Using the powers of the golden bough the young hero Aeneas enters the Underworld with the ancient Sybil as his guide. His mission is to seek his father to seek his guidance and advice. Eventually, he finds him and receives his teachings concerning the cycles of life and death, for which he had come. Eventually, he returns safely to the world of the living. Mistletoe is the key to his destiny. It opened the gates to the underworld, where the hero is transformed. He returns to the world of the living, spiritually reborn.

Magical Powers: Protection, the key to life’s mysteries, fertility, abundance, blessings, peace, harmony, the balance of opposites, love, transformation. Astrologically this herb is governed by the Sun and Jupiter.

Mistletoe in trees

MEDICINAL USES

PARTS USED: Leaves and Stems

HARVEST: Autumn, before the berries form

CONSTITUENTS: These may vary depending on the host plant. Viscotoxin, triterpenoid saponins, choline, proteins, resin, mucilage, histamine, traces of an alkaloid

ACTIONS: Anti-tumour, cardioactive, nervine, tonic

INDICATIONS: Stress, nervous conditions, heart problems, epilepsy

Internal Use:

Not only the myths and lore of mistletoe are interesting. This herb is also interesting from a medicinal point of view. Most notably it is recommended as a remedy for epilepsy, particularly childhood epilepsy. There are not many herbs that are indicated for this affliction. This treatment seems to suggest a homeopathic approach, as large doses of the herb, and especially the berries, actually cause fits and convulsions. At one point Mistletoe was considered specific for this affliction and was also used to treat various other nervous conditions, such as hysteria, delirium, convulsions, neuralgia. It was also used for urinary disorders and certain heart conditions, especially those related to nervous conditions (stress). In ancient times, mistletoe amulets were worn to ward off epileptic attacks (thought to be caused by possession).

Mistletoe has cardio-active properties that can strengthen the pulse and regulate the heart rate while simultaneously dilating the blood vessels, thus lowering the blood pressure. This alleviates symptoms related to high blood pressure such as headaches and dizziness. However, from the literature, it is not entirely clear in which form Mistletoe should be administered for this effect. Some sources claim that the cardio-active principle is only effective if applied by injection, while others recommend standard teas, tinctures, and extracts. One source states that the active constituents are destroyed by heat and should be extracted by means of a cold infusion. In recent years another interesting property of Mistletoe has caught the interest of science:  its cancer-fighting properties. Mistletoe is now regularly used as an anti-tumor agent in naturopathic cancer treatment,

Culpeper says:

‘The Birdlime doth mollifie hard Knots, Tumors, and Impostumes, ripeneth and discusseth them; and draweth forth thick as well as thin Humors from the remote places of the Body, digesting and separating them’

Recent research has confirmed Mistletoe’s cytotoxic properties in vitro and to some degree in vivo. It also stimulates the immune system response thus increasing the white blood cell count. Both of these properties have brought Mistletoe into focus as a candidate for Cancer and Aids research, which has lead to the development of a Mistletoe drug used in chemotherapy. Studies have shown both equal and better survival rates in patients treated with certain Mistletoe preparations compared to standard chemotherapy drugs. Most importantly, perhaps, the patients who had received the Mistletoe treatment have reported a better quality of life than the control group who had received standard chemotherapy. Mistletoe does not produce nausea and hair loss associated with other cytotoxic chemotherapy agents. However, a possible negative side effect of subcutaneous treatment is a local infection at the site of injection. For detailed study results check out:

Cancer therapy with phytochemicals: evidence from clinical studies

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4418057/

Mistletoe is also said to regulate digestive functions and able to cure chronic constipation, probably via a stimulating effect on the gall bladder and the metabolic rate in general.

Older sources also recommend it as a treatment for sterility and menstrual difficulties. This would make sense where such problems stem from underlying nervous system issues such as stress, tension, hysteria, or fear.

External Use:

External use of Mistletoe is no longer common, but older sources describe the preparation of a  plaster (mix with wax to make an ointment) which can be applied to hardened swellings and tumors. Mistletoe can also be added to crèmes in order to soothe sensitive or sore skin. Such crèmes are disinfectant and soothing while reducing abnormal cell production. Mistletoe thus suggests itself as an additive for lotions designed to soothe psoriasis and anti-dandruff shampoos.

CAUTION: The berries are poisonous. This potent herb is not suitable as a home remedy. Consult a doctor or herbal practitioner before use.

Plant Profile: Walnut

Plant Profile: Walnut

Walnuts (Juglans regia)

It’s ‘nutty season’! (No, I don’t mean politics, in this case) I have was reminded of the fact by the intermittent popping noises coming from outside my window and by the mass of fuzzy hazelnut balls that are piling up on the front porch. These Turkish hazelnuts are plentiful, for sure, and easy to collect. But they are small and extremely tedious to crack. Thankfully, nature provides plentifully and these are not the only nut trees around. We also have some Walnut trees – English Walnuts, that is! Majestic to behold, Walnut trees, are among my favorite trees, and seeing them laden with nuts is a joy.

The ‘foreign tree’

Walnut trees (Juglans regia) are well integrated foreigners in our northern latitudes. Their home is in the warm, and fertile regions of south-east Europe, northern Greece, northern Italy, and France, where they are widely cultivated. Walnuts reached the ‘Low Countries’ north of the Alps in the pockets of Roman soldiers. But, it took several centuries before they really made themselves at home. Teutonic tribes, who gave them their name, apparently regarded them as an oddity, which is expressed in the name they gave the tree: ‘Walnut’ is derived from the Germanic word ‘welsh’, meaning foreign.

They did not reach Britain until the 16th-century and are only found in the warmer, southern parts. The Roman nut became known as the ‘English Walnut’, perhaps to distinguish it from the American walnut (Juglans nigra), or the Pecan nut (Carya illinoinensis). So, it seems this ‘foreigner’ has not only well adapted to its new home but has also been adopted by the locals, who think of it as one of their own.

A southerner in northern climes

Although in time walnuts adapted quite well to the much harsher northern climate, their southern origin becomes evident in spring. Despite the fact that they come into flower quite late (April), they remain vulnerable to late frosts, which can quickly ruin the prospects of a good harvest.

A generational tree

In previous centuries, walnut trees were considered so valuable that they were specifically itemized in the will. A productive grove could cover a good part of a family’s livelihood. But that aside, planting a walnut orchard was an investment in the future: walnut trees are slow to mature. Although they start to produce nuts from the tender age of 15 years, they don’t become fully productive until they have reached the age of thirty. A mature tree produces about 50kg of nuts per year.

The American Cousin

The American (Black) Walnut is quite a different fellow. They are native to the US and occur wild throughout the eastern United States. However, they are not as well-loved as the ‘English’ variety, since they have the rather unsocial habit of emitting a chemical from their roots that inhibits, and eventually kills other plants in its vicinity.  Besides, they are incredibly hard to shuck. People report placing them on their driveways and driving the truck over them in order to crack their shells. Crows & co have picked up on this trick. The birds strategically place nuts in the flow of traffic (e.g. at stoplights) in order to enlist our help in cracking the nuts.

Foraging

In a good year, a mature walnut tree is laden with nuts, which begin to fall in late September/early October, depending on your growing zone.

The nuts are covered by a hard, green hull that is exceedingly difficult to remove and besides, will stain your hands, clothes, and work surface.  Wear gloves, if you don’t want your hands to look like you have been chain-smoking. It is best to harvest the nuts when they are fully ripe, at which point the green cortex will split open to reveal the nut inside, or sometimes it disintegrates into a black mush, leaving the nut behind.

Remove the black stuff as much as possible. It is very high in tannin and can affect the quality of the nut inside. Once you have removed the outer cortex wash the nuts. Put them into a bucket of water. This will naturally separate the good ones from the rotten ones. Bad walnuts tend to float, while the good ones will sink.

After washing the nuts, you can either shuck them or dry and store them for later use. If dried and stored properly, walnuts can keep for a year. Shucking exposes them to oxygen, which will cause them to turn rancid more quickly, due to their high levels of unsaturated (as well as saturated) fats. Keep the nuts in a cool and dark place where there is no danger of worms or vermin looking for a free lunch.

American Walnuts are much harder to crack than English walnuts. It is said that soaking them in water for 8 hours prior to cracking makes the job much easier. For English Walnuts, this is not necessary. They readily succumb to the persuasive powers of an ordinary nutcracker. Black Walnuts need a more forceful treatment.

Walnuts are very rich in oil – 2 kg of nuts will yield about one liter of oil. which is considered a delicacy. It is not so easy to obtain from your foraged nuts, though. Native Americans are said to have boiled the nuts to extract the oil. But this also destroys some of their nutrients.

Walnut oil has a delicious nutty flavor and is excellent in salad dressings or home backing to impart a delicate nutty flavor.

Most of all, forager appreciate walnuts for their delicious ‘meat’, which can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. (see recipes below)

Medicinal uses

The soft kernel on the half-shell vaguely resembles a brain, surrounded by the protective cover of the cranium. The ancients took this likeness to mean that the nut must be good for the brain.  (according to the doctrine of signatures). Scientists have confirmed that walnuts are indeed beneficial for the brain. This is due to their nutrient content, and especially the omega-3 fatty acids (of which walnuts are a rich source). Omega-3 fatty acids support the body when it comes to dealing with stress and is said to help alleviate depression. (see https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/omega-3-fatty-acids-for-mood-disorders-2018080314414)

Native Americans have used various parts of the tree, not just for food, but also as medicine. The leaves and root bark was used in anti-parasitic preparations and to treat skin diseases. The root bark is very astringent and makes a good anti-inflammatory wash that can be applied to herpes, eczema, and scrofula. Taken internally, it stops diarrhea, stays the flux, and dries up the flow of milk in nursing mothers.

Dyeing

The leaves repel insects and can be used as an ad hoc insecticide. The hulls, husks, leaves, and bark are all used as vegetable dyes to yield various colors ranging from yellow to dark brown or black.

Paints

The oil is drying and can be used in oil paints as an alternative to Linseed oil. Recently, powdered shells have been incorporated into new types of ‘designer paints’ to produce interesting textures or in-floor paints, to produce an anti-skidding effect.

walnuts

Recipes

Pickled Walnuts

If you want to pickle walnuts, you have to pick them while they are still green and hanging in the tree. They have to be in an unripe state so that the inner shell is still soft and hasn’t turned woody yet. Typically, they should be picked in June.

Prepare a brine: 6oz salt to 1 quart of water.

With the help of a long needle poke the walnuts all over (don’t remove the green hulls) and cover with the brine. Steep for about 1 week.

Drain, and repeat: cover with fresh brine for another week.

Drain again. Spread the walnuts on a tray and let the sun dry them. Turn them from time to time.

When the walnuts are dry and have turned black, fill them into pickling jars. (Kilner jars, mason jars))

Prepare a spiced vinegar with:

  • 1oz mixed peppercorns
  • 1oz allspice
  • ¾ inch ginger root (fresh)

Add some dried chilies or coriander seeds, if you like. Lightly crush the spices and place them into a muslin bag. Simmer the bag in the malt vinegar for 10 minutes. Then let the vinegar cool down before removing the spices. Pour the vinegar over the walnuts and make sure the liquid covers them. Close the jar tightly. Macerate for 6 – 8 weeks before tasting them.

Stuffing

Walnuts make an excellent stuffing for mushroom, marrows, or puff pastry parcels.

Ingredients:

  • 12 medium-size mushrooms caps
  • 1 tbs. olive oil
  • 1 tbs. butter
  • ½ cup finely chopped onion
  • 2 tbs. coarsely chopped walnuts
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
  • 5 ounces frozen spinach, thoroughly defrosted and squeezed to remove most of the liquid
  • 1 oz feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 oz Gruyere cheese, crumbled
  • 2 tbs minced fresh dill
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper and nutmeg to taste

Method:

Preheat oven to 400° F. Clean the mushrooms and remove the stems.  In a small skillet, heat the olive oil and butter. Add the onion and cook over medium heat, cover and sauté until soft.

Add walnuts and cook for another minute. Add the spinach and stir continuously for about 5 minutes. Take off the heat and cool slightly. Stir in cheeses, dill, nutmeg, and salt and pepper, to taste.

In an oven-proof pan arrange the mushrooms, cavity side up. Plop a wallop of the spinach/walnut mixture into each mushroom cap and bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until the filling turns brown and the mushrooms are thoroughly heated.

Walnut Liqueur

In Italy and France, walnut liqueur is considered a regional specialty. ‘Nocino’ in Italian –  although there are many versions of the ‘original’ recipe. The idea is simple: macerate green, unripe walnuts in a blend of clear alcohol, (e.g. grain alcohol), and syrup.

Method

In June, when the Walnuts are still green and soft inside (traditionally on St. John’s Day=Midsummer), pick your nuts straight from the tree. Wash and quarter the nuts.

Remember to wear gloves!

Fill a large jar with the nuts and add some spices, such as a couple of cinnamon sticks and a few cloves and perhaps a vanilla bean. Chop up an organic, untreated lemon (or orange, if you prefer) and add to the mixture. Pour in about 1 ½ pound of sugar and cover with 3 liters of grain alcohol. Close the lid tightly and steep for about 6 weeks. Keep in a warm dark place.

Test the liquid and adjust to suit your taste. Strain through filter paper and bottle. Store in a cool place.

Green Walnuts preserved in Syrup – from Mrs. Grieves – A Modern Herbal

‘Take as many green Walnuts as you please, about the middle of July, try them all with a pin, if it goes easily through them they are fit for your purpose;

lay them in Water for nine days, washing and shifting them Morning and Night;

then boil them in water until they be a little Soft, lay them to drain;

then pierce them through with a Wooden Sciver, and in the hole put a Clove, and in some a bit of Cinnamon, and in some the rind of a Citron Candi’d:

then take the weight of your Nuts in Sugar, or a little more; make it into a syrup, in which boil your Nuts (skimming them) till they be tender;

then put them up in Gally potts, and cover them close.

When you lay them to drain, wipe them with a Course cloth to take off a thin green Skin. They are Cordial and Stomachal.’

– (From The Family Physician, ‘by Geo. Hartman, Phylo Chymist, who liv’d and Travell’d with the Honourable Sir Kenelm Digby, in several parts of Europe the space of Seven Years till he died.’)

Walnuts are incredibly versatile – even if they are not the star ingredient, they never fail to give a dish a refining note. I sprinkle them on salads or use them instead of pine nuts in a pesto blend. They are also fabulous in desserts and cakes.

Caution:

People who are allergic to nuts should stay away from walnuts and all products derived from them or containing them. Likewise, people who are scared of calories should treat this nut with respect. However, replacing some of your normal dietary fat with walnut oil can be a very wise choice as walnut oil has an excellent nutritional profile and can help to fight free radicals while lowering cholesterol levels. Walnuts are a good source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Always wear gloves when handling walnuts – especially as long as they are still green. And leave some for the wildlife – it is an important source of food to carry them through the winter.

wildlife

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

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