Plant Profile: Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Plant Profile: Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Image by NickyPe from Pixabay
Opium Poppy Papaver somniferum
Synonyms Opium Poppy, Mawseed, Herb of Joy, Mohn, Klapper-Rosen, Mago, Magesamen, Weismagen, wilder Magen, Magensaph, Rosule

Description:

Opium Poppies are nothing if not showy. Their sturdy stems and large leaves make a stark contrast to their large but oddly flimsy flowers. The delicate petals give the impression of a butterfly that is just about to take off. At the base of the flower sits a prominent, many-rayed stigma surrounded by a mass of stamens. After the flower has been fertilized, the petals drop off, leaving the seed capsule exposed as it swells and ripens like a pregnant belly.

Individual plants grow to between 70 cm, and 130 cm tall. The erect stems and large wavy leaves have a tough, rubbery texture. The leaves are indented and clasp the stem. All green parts of the plant are covered by a greyish-blue waxy substance that is easily rubbed off. Botanists describe this feature as glaucous.

When any green part is cut or wounded, a milky latex oozes out and turns brown as it dries. This substance is known as raw opium.

The seed capsule of Papaver somniferum is almost spherical and has a star-shaped, flattened lid. As it dries, the top shrinks and lifts. Tiny holes are formed underneath the rim, allowing the tiny, white or bluish-black seeds can disperse.

Origin and Distribution

It is difficult to establish with any certainty just where Papaver somniferum originated or who its genetic parents might have been. But, most researchers now agree that the Mediterranean region of Asia Minor is its most likely ‘original home’.

From this strategically advantageous position, they spread east into Asia, south into North Africa and north into Central Europe. Today, poppies are even found as far north as Britain. Poppies are popular as ornamentals, and breeders have developed dozens of varieties of different colours and flower arrangements.

The Papaver genus comprises about 100 species that occur throughout the temperate regions of the world. Poppies like to grow in association with corn. In early summer, the related Scarlet Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) can often be seen in cornfields and verges. This species is much smaller, has scarlet-red petals and small, elongated seed capsules. Although the Scarlet Poppy has historically also been used medicinally, its action is much milder than that of Papaver somniferum.

Opium Poppies are not native to the New World. But when they appeared on their shores, Eastern tribes adopted their medicinal uses, which they learned from the Europeans.

Image by Peter Kraayvanger from Cultural History

The delicate Poppy flowers are beautiful to behold. Their papery petals gently waft in the summer's breeze - alas, it is a short-lived beauty. Here one day, gone the next. The fleeting splendour only lasts a few days before the petals fall, revealing a bulging seed pod.

The seed pods hold a myriad of tiny poppy seeds, a familiar item of the kitchen larder. We use them as toppings of bread rolls and bagels, or as cake fillings. Less commonly available is the delicately nutty seed oil, highly esteemed in gourmet cuisines.

But poppy has a secret power, and it flows within its fleshy stems, leaves and unripe seed capsules: its milky latex.

When it oxidizes and dries, the latex turns brown and becomes what the Ancients knew as 'opion'. This substance has been used for thousands of years. In the days of blood and gore, opion was a god-sent pain-reliever. Even today, the most effective pain relievers are still predominantly based on it.

Thanks to its potent analgesic and hypnotic properties, Opium relieves not only physical but also emotional pain. But woe to those who are seduced by it. Taken too regularly, it entraps the body and chains the mind to addiction, causing delusion, apathy, and even death.

Yet, in the words of Paracelsus:

"What is there that is not poison? All things are poison, and nothing is without poison. Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison.”

Our age-old relationship with poppies proves the point. Throughout history, it has brought great relief but also suffering and death.

 

Historical record

Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have used poppies since pre-historic times. Archaeobotanists have found charred remains of poppies and opium at Neolithic settlements, burial sites and even in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs. The latter were even decorated with paintings of Opium Poppy, Mandrake and Blue Water Lily - all considered magical plants connected to the underworld gods.

The earliest written record was found in Sumer and dates back to about 2000 B.C. It refers to poppies as 'Hul Gil' - the Herb of Joy. From Sumer, the knowledge and use of poppies spread throughout the Middle East to Babylonia, Assyria and Egypt, Persia and Greece.

They are mentioned in the famous Egyptian Eber's Papyrus (1500 B.C.), which recommends them as a remedy to calm incessantly crying babies. Remarkably, this use has persisted until the beginning of the 20th century in parts of North Africa and Europe. It certainly kept children quiet, but it also reduced their natural curiosity, thus dimming their wits.

From Hippocrates to Avicenna, Dioscorides and Galen - all the ancient medical texts mention opium as an effective painkiller and sedative.

Dioscorides offers a detailed description of how to obtain the latex:

"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."

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Image by
Andy Faeth from Mythology

Poppies were considered sacred to Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, and they guarded the entrance to his drowsy realm. Hypnos is often depicted holding the seed capsules in his hands and adorning his head. He brought prophetic dreams and soothed emotional pain with forgetfulness.

At the temple of Aesclepius on the Greek island of Cos, poppies were used in a kind of sleep therapy. Aesclepius is a god of healing, but the only medicine he prescribed was a potent brew of opium and other herbs, while the therapeutic recommendations were revealed directly to the patients via visionary dreams.

The Romans identified Hypnos with their god of sleep, 'Somnus', who lent his name to poppies scientific nomenclature. 'Somniferus' comes from the Latin 'somnus ferre', - bringer of sleep.

Poppies had a strong association with the gods of the Underworld. In Greek mythology, they were sacred to Thanatos or Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, and ruler of the realm of the dead. Excessive doses of opium can bring eternal sleep.

But they were also sacred to Demeter, the Earth-Goddess, who taught humankind the art of agriculture and particularly the cultivation of grains such as wheat and barley. Demeter was, of course, inconsolable when Hades abducted her daughter Persephone. Only poppies managed to soothe her pain. Poppies love mingling among the cornfields, and their bulging seed pods, containing an abundance of tiny seeds, serve as a perfect symbol of fertility.

Some scholars believe that opium was a chief ingredient of the secret ritual drink served at the Elysian Mystery rites. Unfortunately, the recipe ranks among the best-kept secrets of the ancient world, so we will never know for sure.

Mythology tells us that poppies sprang from Aphrodite's tears as she mourned the loss of her lover, Adonis. In ancient times, her birthplace, the island of Cyprus, was a major centre of poppy cultivation and trade.

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Folk Magic

Poppy's association with the goddess of love is also reflected in its relaxing aphrodisiac properties. Opium was very popular in folkloristic love magic. During the Middle Ages, it was the ingredient of choice for love charms, philtres and potions. Poppies were also tasked with predicting the fortunes of lovers. To learn the identity of a future spouse or divine the outcome of a love affair, the inquirer would write his question on a piece of parchment and place it inside a poppy seed capsule. The seed pod was then placed under the pillow until a prophetic dream would reveal all.

Naturally, love associates with fertility. The belly-like seed pod full of seeds makes an apt symbol not just of fertility, but also of prosperity. On New Year's Eve, giving gifts of poppy sweetbread served as tokens of prosperity blessings, while the seed capsules were used as a fertility charm.

Invisibility was also considered one of the poppy's magic powers. For this purpose, it was included in a magic potion. This use is probably linked to the myth of Persephone. It is believed that Hades' wore a cap of invisibility that resembled a poppy seed pod when he abducted Persephone.

Yet, poppy seeds are also said to be anti-demonic. If one found such nasty creatures hard on one's heels, all one had to do to get rid of them was to toss some poppy seeds in their direction. Apparently, demons and vampires are compelled to count everything. A handful of scattered poppy seeds would keep them busy long enough to allow you to escape.

From traditional herbal medicine to potent pharmaceutical drug and addiction

 

Opium was widely used in the ancient world, but it was Andromachos, the personal physician of Emperor Nero, who popularized it. One day, Nero challenged Andromachos to create a true panacea, a remedy that would ease all pain and diseases. The physician came up with a potent potion consisting of about sixty different plants and substances, including opium, which he called 'Theriak'. Later, Galen refined the brew and renamed it Galene. It became so popular throughout Europe that it rose to the status of a miracle cure. But the potion was expensive, and some ingredients were difficult to obtain, which led to adulteration.

During the Middle Ages, medicine became 'heroic' - in other words, unsympathetic, and patients were expected to simply bear their pain. The use of opium as a painkiller declined. But eventually, Paracelsus revived it by creating a stripped-down version of the original Theriak recipe, which proved extremely effective and soon surpassed even the success of the original. He compounded his concoction into pill form and called it 'Laudanum Paracelsi'.

 

 

Laudanum

He had managed to make his painkiller even more effective by the simple addition of lemon juice. The acid subtly changes opium's chemistry and enhances its anodyne action. For a long time, Laudanum was a celebrated panacea, believed to be effective for every ailment except leprosy.

The somewhat hyperbolic reputation meant that it was often in short supply. But it also pricked scientific curiosity and inspired numerous experiments. It even gave rise to the groundbreaking invention of the hypodermic needle. In 1656, Sir Christopher Wren first employed a syringe to prove the theory of blood circulation. He injected a dog's hind leg with a solution of opium, and sure enough, the drug rapidly took effect over the dog's entire body.

In 1680, the English Doctor Thomas Sydenham revised Paracelsus' potion once again. His aim was to purify the raw drug and rid it of impurities that seemed to cause 'sickness' when taken in large quantities. He added sherry wine, saffron, cinnamon and cloves to Paracelsus' Laudanum and renamed it 'Sydenham's Laudanum'. It was no more effective than the original, but it kicked off a new wave of enthusiasm for opium-based products. Soon every chemist seemed to market their own blend. Venice Treacle, Mithridate, London Laudanum and Dr Bate's Pacific Pills all became popular household names. But the available raw opium could barely keep up with the demand.

Laudanum was as popular as aspirin is today. Physicians routinely prescribed twice-weekly preventative dosing. Alas, sometimes too much of a good thing proves, well..., too much.

 

 

Overprescription and Addiction

It was at this time that overprescription led to the first cases of serious opium addiction. The problem was compounded by the fact that Laudanum was even overprescribed for children. But the problem with an addictive substance such as opium is that frequent dosing increases the body's resistance, and larger amounts are required to get the same results.

In 1700, Dr John Jones published a book called 'The Mysteries of Opium Revealed'. In the course of about 400 pages, he extolled the properties of opium. Describing its uses and effects, he also reported on its pleasant side effects and symptoms of addiction. Although his work was clearly biased and likely to have been influenced by his own intimate relationship with the subject, it did contain a grain of genius. Jones was the first to intuit that opium actually imitated substances that are already present in the body. But it took another 275 years before scientists discovered these substances, which subsequently became known as endorphins.

 

 

Morphine

Debate and experimentation continued. In 1799, Friedrich Sertürner, a young German pharmacist's 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 varying presence of an active constituent in the raw opium. After only four years of experimentation, he managed to isolate such a substance. In allusion to the Greek god of sleep, he called 'morphine'. But he wrongly believed that this purified compound was free of the unpleasant characteristics of opium. He had assumed that morphine was safer because only a tiny amount of it was necessary to induce far stronger effects than those of raw opium. But neither he nor anyone else at the time realized that it was also far more addictive. Soon, several pharmaceutical companies started to churn out morphine by the boatload. At the same time, Wren's earlier invention for injecting opium was perfected and morphed into what we now know as the hypodermic syringe. The improvement was celebrated as a great success, since the administration of morphine via a syringe tripled its efficacy.

The story of opium epitomizes the risk of relying on science to solve all our problems. Sometimes the solution to one problem engenders new ones that we only fully grasp much later.

(The history of poppy also has a very interesting, dark and thought-provoking political aspect, which, however, is beyond the scope of this article. Those interested in this plant and its impact on world history should read up on the opium wars - the consequences of which still linger.

The Cultural History of Grapes

The Cultural History of Grapes

Grapevine (Vitis vinifera)

Grapes are one of the most important agricultural crops in the world. But they have far more uses than ordinarily meet the palate. There are at least 8000 cultivated varieties of grapes, most of which are grown in the Northern Hemisphere.

Name: Grapevine (Vitis vinifera)
Family: Vitaceae
Synonyms: Grapevine, Vigne, Weintrauben, Rebstock

 

Description:

Grapes are one of the most important agricultural crops in the world. From New Zealand to California, Chile, South Africa and of course, their traditional turf around the Mediterranean Basin, grapes are cultivated in Mediterranean climate zones around the world. Grapevines are surprisingly hardy. They can live on next to nothing. They thrive on poor soils, so long as they are well-draining and don’t mind the heat. The only thing they won’t survive is a cold, wet climate.

When left untended, grapevines can reach a height of about 15 m. As climbers, they will scramble up anything that will give them support. In cultivation, they are often trained on wires and cut back after each season so that only the strongest one or two shoots remain.

The gnarly stem forms finely grained, dense wood. The leaves are palmate (hand-shaped) with deeply indented lobes, with very jaggy serrated margins, depending on the variety. In May or June, they begin to flower, forming bunches of tiny, white, 5-petaled flowers with a very delicate and sweet aroma. Alas, this phase does not last long. Soon, bunches of sweet, juicy berries start to develop.

Depending on the variety, their size and colour vary. The smooth-skinned, yellowish-green to reddish, or purple-black berries usually contain 2 seeds each (except for seedless varieties). Vines can be propagated by seed or cutting. Most European stocks are grafted onto American rootstocks due to a devastating blight that nearly destroyed all European vine stocks.

There are also many wild grape species, which also tend to be a meandering bunch. They can sprawl over an extensive area if left undisturbed. Their berries also grow in bunches, but they are much sparser and consist of much smaller berries, which are usually quite tart. Like their cultivated counterparts, the flowers are small and rather inconspicuous.

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Distribution:

The geographical origins of the vine is still a matter of debate. Various wild varieties can be found in different parts of the world, far beyond the Mediterranean. When the Vikings first arrived in the Americas, they called it ‘Vinland’ for the many wild grape varieties they found there. The type now under cultivation in Europe seems to have originated in Georgia. Under the influence of Greek and Roman expansion, it steadily spread west and north from there. Today grape production is prolific in all warm, temperate regions of the world, from Central and Southern Europe, Northern Africa, Asia Minor, US, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, to New Zealand.

Problems and Pathogens:

Viticulture is a profitable business, which, however, claims a vast amount of land. Wine lovers may appreciate the variety of tastes and textures this diversity produces, but environmentally it is a disaster. Relying almost entirely on just one single cash crop is highly risky. Furthermore, monocultures heavily depend on fertilizers, and pesticides that are highly damaging to the environment.

Various pathogens can threaten grapevines: powdery mildew rots the stalks, shrivels the leaves, splits the grapes and finally kills the vine. Red spider mites suck the sap from the leaf veins, phylloxera vastatrix strikes the roots, and the cochylis moth grub attacks the flowers.

wine press

HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY AND FOLKLORE

The story of viticulture is so old that nobody really knows where and when it all started. The Bible mentions that Noah planted a vineyard, but even he was probably not the first. Wine is mentioned in almost every classical text, with records dating back some 6000 years.
It appears as though the Greeks were the first to popularize fermented grape juice, with the Romans soon following suit. As major trading powers, they spread the art of viticulture all around the Mediterranean Basin. By 600 BC, wine was a sought-after export commodity, especially popular with the Gauls who, in time, became expert growers themselves.
However, in the latter half of the 18th century, tragedy struck. By then, grapes had moved to the Americas along with the colonists. The drama unfolded when a North American grower sent some specimen of his rootstocks back to the old world for further study. Unfortunately, the sample he sent was infested with a devastating blight (phylloxera vastatrix) that threatened to wipe out vineyards across Southern Europe. It was a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions.
Luckily, the cure also came from North America – and just in time. A frantic search for a blight-resistant yielded results, and another sample was sent to Europe. Growers started quickly grafted their ancient varieties onto American rootstocks, which saved them. Although the industry took some time to recover, European wine-growers rank again at the top of the international charts.

The wines of Ancient Greece seemed to have been quite a different kind of brew than what we are used to today. Historical records describe a much thicker and heavier beverage that had to be diluted at a ratio of 1:3 for consumption. Typically, it was infused with other substances such as resins, aromatic herbs and even psychotropic plants. It is not surprising then that the Greeks associated wine with Dionysus, the wild, shamanic god of ecstasy. His rites were frenzied and orgiastic. A menacing mob of Maenads, (his priestesses) pursued the god (or his representative) in a feverish hunt and tore him apart. Eventually, an animal (a fawn or fox) replaced the human sacrifice. In time, Dionysus was tamed and re-cast as a chubby, cheerful, but domesticated deity of wheat and wine. The animal sacrifice was replaced with a ritual sharing of ceremonial bread and unadulterated wine during the annual celebration of the Elysian Mystery play.

The Romans equated Dionysus with Bacchus, their god of wine and intoxication, whom they worshipped in much the same manner. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris is the Lord of wine, and Isis fell pregnant with Horus after eating his grapes.

The Hellenized Syrian satirist Lucian recounts a ‘tall satirical tale’ in his ‘True History’. A strange vineyard once grew on the far banks of a river that ran with wine instead of water. The grapevines grew woody stems, but their upper parts sprouted beautiful maidens whose hair was a tangle of leaves and bunches of grapes growing from their fingertips. Their enchanting song lured passers-by. But woe to those who succumbed to their embrace: instantly drunk and unable to escape, the hapless took root and soon sprouted shoots and leaves themselves.

Aphrodisiac associations:

Wine is a divine gift of the gods. In moderate amounts, it lifts the spirit, exhilarates and inspires. It opens the mind and holds the key to the heart and soul. Innumerable works of art have been inspired, and countless adventures started by a spark of its passionate fire. But in excessive quantities, it stupefies and causes delusion. It is a fine line between ecstasy and frenzied oblivion.

 

Ever tried making homemade wines?

MEDICINAL USES

Both red and white wine was traditionally used as a solvent to extract other substances when making medicinal wines and cordials. But various parts of the plant itself were also used as medicine.

PARTS USED:

Leaves: fresh young leaves
Flowers: dried or fresh flowers
Berries: fresh or dried fruit
Seeds: oil pressed from the seeds

HARVEST TIMES:

The flowers appear in May/June. The leaves should be picked in spring when they are tender, and the grapes ripen from September onwards (in the Northern Hemisphere).

LEAVES

Constituents:
In the summer, the leaves contain a mixture of sugar and glucose, tartaric acid, potassium bi-tartrate, quercetin, quercitrin, tannin, Amidon, malic acid, gum, inosite, a crystallizable fermentable sugar and oxalate of calcium. In the autumn, they contain more
quercetin and less quercitrin.
Actions:
Anti-inflammatory, astringent, styptic
Indications:
An infusion of 1 TSP of fresh, finely cut leaves per cup of water helps with conditions such as rheumatism, gout, nausea and spitting of blood. A preparation known as ‘Papinorum Extract’ made from the leaves is used in Homeopathy to treat epilepsy and inflammatory conditions of the hip. Dried and powdered, leaves were fed to cattle as a treatment for dysentery. A decoction was used to prevent a threatened miscarriage. The astringent properties help to arrest internal and external bleeding, cholera, dropsy, diarrhoea and nausea. The decoction can also be used to treat mouth ulcers and as a douche for vaginal discharge. Grape leaves are used as a treatment for varicose veins and fragile capillaries. For this purpose, leaves are harvested as soon as they turn red and are used either fresh or dried.

FLOWERS

Actions:
Nerve tonic
Indications:
1tsp of dried flowers per cup of boiling water is said to strengthen neuronal dendrons. It also supports the bone marrow to build red blood cells. The infusion can be used internally or applied externally as a rub to aid neuronal function (even for numbness of the lower limbs)

BERRIES

Constituents:
Malic, tartaric, ascetic ascorbic and racemic acids, alanine, alpha-linolenic acid, alpha-tocopherol, arginine. Oxalic acid in unripe fruits, Ca, P, Fe, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and ascorbic acid
Actions:
Fortifying blood tonic, nourishing, stimulates kidney and liver function and thus aids elimination and inner cleansing, gentle laxative
Indications:
A grape-fast is a popular method to rid the body of accumulated metabolic waste products and other toxins. 2 kg of grapes should be eaten throughout the day for two weeks, with little or no other food. It is recommended to do a full day fast one day before embarking on this regime. This is an excellent way to stimulate and tone the kidneys and thus to lose weight by releasing water from the tissues. It reduces fat, regulates bowel function, purifies the blood and cleanses the skin. A grape-fast can alleviate rheumatic pain and heartburn, regulate metabolic processes, water retention, oedema and circulatory complaints. Grapes are restorative and nourishing food that aid recovery from anaemia and debilitating conditions. Dehydrated grapes (raisins) have demulcent, nutritious and slightly laxative properties. Grape sugar (fructose) is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. It almost instantly restores energy levels in case of exhaustion and debility.
 Contraindications:
A grape fast is not recommended for dyspeptic, excitable, hot-blooded individuals, as it may cause palpitations.

SAP:

Grapevine sap, a watery substance that naturally occurs when pruning the vines, was used as a lotion to treat weak eyes and corneal floaters. It has also been used as a skin lotion. Internally, it acts as a diuretic.

 

wine press

 

GENERAL USES

  • Basketry: The annual shoots are pruned in the winter. They are very flexible and have been used for basketry and broom-making.
  • Cosmetics: A lotion made from the flowers has been used for freckles, while the oil (seeds) is used for making soap.
  • Dyes: The berries yield a purplish colour, which is not durable. The fresh or dried leaves dye yellow.
  • Fuel: The old grapevine stocks are popular as firewood, especially for grilling due to the aromatic smoke. The twigs make good kindling.
  • Grapeseed Oil: Grapeseed oil is pressed from the seeds. It is used for culinary and cosmetic purposes. For culinary use, the oil must be refined to make it fit for consumption. Unrefined grapeseed oil is slightly sticky. As a massage oil, it is best to blend it with other oils.
  • Culinary uses: Grapes are wonderfully refreshing, nourishing and cleansing fruits that can be enjoyed straight from the vine. Their sweet and tasty juice makes a refreshing beverage and can also be used to make jelly. Evaporated to produce a concentrate, it makes a good sweetener. But above all, grape juice is fermented to make wine and champagne. Wines come in a staggering variety: reds, rose or white wines, champagne or sparkling wine, are made from hundreds of different grape varieties. A dessert wine is produced by adding alcohol to the ferment to prematurely stop the fermentation process.
  • The young tendrils can be eaten raw or cooked as a vegetable. The flowers are also edible and can be prepared as fritters.
  • The sap tastes sweet and can be used as a drink, but harvesting large quantities weakens the vines. Roasted seeds can be used as a coffee substitute.
  • Pickled leaves are used as a wrapping for finger-food appetizers (dolmas) that are especially popular in Greek and Middle Eastern cuisines.
  • A crystalline salt, cream of tartar, also known as potassium bitartrate, is derived from the residue of pressed grapes. Sediments collected from wine barrels are used for making baking powder.

 

Photographs by Kat Morgenstern

Plant Profile: Moringa

Plant Profile: Moringa

Plant Profile: Moringa (Moringa oleifera Lam.)

Moringa is a tropical tree that is not very well known outside its native habitat, despite offering multiple gifts for the benefit of mankind.

 

Habitat:

Moringa has spread from its native habitat in the sub-Himalayan region of India to tropical and subtropical areas around the world. It is now cultivated on many continents. It is highly adaptive and tolerant to even the most inhospitably arid soil conditions. Prolonged cold spells with temperatures falling to below 20 °C are the only conditions it can not tolerate. Its preferred conditions are temperatures between 25°-30 °C and well-draining soil.

 

Description:

Moringa is a fast-growing subtropical tree native to the Himalayan foothills. In as little as 10 months, it can grow to an astonishing height of three meters – from seed! However, it rarely grows to more than 10 meters in total – a tree of medium stature.

Its feathery leaves and bean-like seed pods give it the appearance of a legume species. But that is not the case. Moringa is the only genus of the Moraginacae family, which comprises 13 species. The pods, which are slightly thickened at one end, are known as ‘drum sticks’. Each pod contains 15-20 winged seeds.

The tree branches freely and produces dark, green feathery tri-pinnate leaves with elliptical leaflets. The flowers grow in bunches of small white or cream-coloured flowers and have a subtle fragrance.

Moringa BlossomImage by Yaayaa Diallo from Pixabay

Moringa Blossom

 

History

Moringa is one of the most important and universally useful plants of the tropics.

The entire plant is edible – leaves, seeds, pods, flowers and even the roots – although some experts warn against eating them. (The British called this tree ‘Horseradish root tree’, an allusion to root’s distinct flavour).

Moringa is remarkably rich in essential nutrients such as vitamin A, C and E, calcium, potassium, iron and, perhaps most importantly, protein. It is recommended as a nutritional supplement for pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and the elderly and infirm. It is one of the few sources of high-quality vegetable protein that contains all essential amino acids.

In India, the young, green and immature pods (the ‘drumsticks’) are a popular ingredient of curries. The seeds yield a high-quality oil used in cooking which is rich in oleic acid. It is very stable, comparable to olive oil in terms of resistance to rancidity and nutritional value. The leaves are the most perishable. Ideally, they should be consumed within a couple of days of harvest. To extend their shelf-life on the market, they need to be bagged and cooled. Alternatively, their nutritional value can be better preserved by drying and powdering them. The powder can then be added as a nutritional supplement to soups, beverages, curries and other foods. But the most miraculous powers are contained within its seeds: Moringa seeds act as ‘flocculants’. They can purify water by causing contaminants to ‘flock together’ and precipitate, i.e. sink to the bottom of the vessel, thus effectively purifying the water. Pharmacologists at Gadja Mada University in Indonesia showed that “one crushed Moringa seed can clear 90% of the total coliform bacteria in a litre of river water within 20 minutes. While an animal study showed that even 2,000 seeds per litre of water had no toxic effects on mice.”

This is powerful and important indeed, especially given the poor water quality in many tropical and subtropical parts of the world. Given that access to clean drinking water is still a problem in many tropical regions, Moringa offers hope. Promoting the planting of Moringa trees could significantly improve water quality, as well as help to boost nutrition in some of the poorest regions of the world.

 

Moringa sticks

Moringa Drum Sticks Image by S V from Pixabay

Medicinal uses:

Medicinally, Moringa is primarily used to address problems arising from malnutrition. It has a tonic effect on the gastric system and can cure diarrhoea. Thanks to its high vitamin A content, it is a great immune system booster. Vitamin A also helps alleviate visual problems, such as night blindness and xerophthalmia.

Despite its impressive nutritional profile, Moringa can not cure severe malnutrition. The body can no longer process iron, protein or fat once severe physiological abnormalities have been triggered (e.g. infections, impaired liver and intestinal function, imbalance of electrolytes and related problems). However, Moringa is the best available ally to prevent such severe cases and correct mild and moderate ones.

Moringa can also reduce blood sugar levels and thus help control diabetes and high blood pressure. Furthermore, it is said to be helpful in the treatment of respiratory problems, tuberculosis and malaria.

The raw seed pods act on the liver and are used as an anthelminthic (deworming) agent.

The seed oil contains antibiotic and anti-inflammatory compounds. It is used in the treatment of bacterial and fungal skin conditions. Topically, it can be applied to aching joints.

Recent research suggests that Moringa may be effective against certain kinds of cancer, particularly skin cancer. Traditional healers have long used Moringa for this purpose, but further studies are needed to evaluate and verify these traditional uses. They also claim that it to be an excellent nutrient to prevent cancer.

It is easy to add Moringa to the diet, and almost anybody could benefit from it. But above all, it should be used to improve the conditions of those who live in extreme poverty. Moringa should be planted in every available patch of public land to make it accessible to all.

 

Lead image by Iskandar Ab. Rashid from Pixabay

Plant Profile: Aloe vera

Plant Profile: Aloe vera

Aloe Vera is no longer an exotic stranger. We see it advertised as a popular ingredient in numerous household products, from washing-up liquid to latex gloves, and even razors. Many of us also know the plant itself.

Aloe Vera is an undemanding, perennial succulent, at home in arid regions of Africa. It is a distant cousin of the century plant, so common in the southwestern United States. Both belong to the order of Asparagales, but do not share the same genus.

Description:

Aloe Vera’s fleshy, succulent leaves contain a clear, gooey gel-like substance. The leaf margins bear ‘sharp teeth’ to deter casually browsing animals. It loves hot and dry conditions and only ‘wilts’ when over-watered, or exposed to freezing temperatures. Grown in the right conditions, (that is, mostly ignored), the plant will do just fine. It may even send up a central shoot with short tubular yellowish flowers sprouting from the upper part of the spike.

The Aloe genus comprises about 400 species, with Aloe Vera considered the most useful for medicinal purposes. Mature plants contain the most potent healing compounds.

Habitat:

Aloe Vera is native to arid regions of the north-eastern and southern parts of Africa and Madagascar. But thanks to its tremendous value as a healing plant, it has spread to arid regions throughout the world. Today it is widely cultivated around the world, including in North America, Japan and China.

Aloe vera plantation

History

Aloe Vera is a truly wonderful plant, with a well-established reputation as a medicinal plant, that is particularly useful for skin conditions, minor cuts, abrasions and burns. The dried latex, a well-known laxative, is distinct from the gel. It derives from a yellow juice that is contained in the pericyclic tubules of the inner leaf.

Although Aloe has been in documented use for at least 3500 years, there is a lot of controversial and contradictory information about it.
It was first mentioned in the famous Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, which dates back to 1500 BC and is widely regarded as one of the earliest documents on what was to become the western Materia Medica. More than likely, Aloe Vera’s use was well-established long before it was recorded. In the hot and dry countries of Northern Africa and the Middle East, Aloe Vera served as a soothing household remedy for sunburns and a ready-to-use moisturizing cosmetic lotion.

Some confusion surrounding this plant stems from the fact that it is still frequently mistaken for lignum Aloes or Wood-Aloes, which is an entirely different species of plant. Although abundantly mentioned in the Bible as an incense ingredient and constituent of embalming oils, Wood-Aloes does not grow in the Mediterranean Basin but is a tree of the genus Aquilaria. Also known as Agar wood, Wood Aloes is native to Southeast Asia. While Aloe Vera latex does transform into a hard substance when dried and is sometimes referred to as ‘Aloe resin’, it is not particularly aromatic and has never been used as incense.

Aloe Vera juice

In recent years, ‘Aloe Vera juice’ (as well as a myriad of spin-off products that contain the juice), has become popular. But by their very nature, products are always processed. Aloe Vera juice is no exception. It always contains flavourings and preservatives. In its natural form, Aloe juice (gel) is not very palatable – it is bitter and gooey – not exactly a pleasure to gulp down. It is not hard to see why the ancients didn’t recommend it and only saw it fit as an emergency measure for the treatment of intestinal parasites.

Careful handling is of utmost importance as oxidation sets in the minute the leaves are cut, and enzymatic activity begins to destroy some valuable compounds. Traditionally, the leaves are taken to a processing facility as quickly as possible after being cut, ideally in a refrigerated truck. At the processing plant, they are filleted by hand to remove the outer skin. Unfortunately, most of the beneficial compounds are concentrated just beneath, and filleting removes much of what makes the plant so valuable.

Aloe vera gel

Modern uses

Aloe Vera is best known for its use in topical skin-care applications. But commercial products are not quite as potent as the gel that can be squeezed from a freshly cut leaf, since the natural jelly-like substance is not very stable and deteriorates quickly upon exposure to the air. To preserve its properties and thus extend its shelf-life, manufacturers must process the gel. But processing rarely enhances a natural product. In the case of Aloe Vera, it reduces a ‘miracle plant’ to a mediocre substance with vastly diminished benefits.

This back-story sheds some light on some rather puzzling research results: Aloe Vera’s glowing reputation in folk medicine is not confirmed by research results under laboratory conditions. The reasons for this are a bit complex and are partly due to the lab conditions and partly to the processing methods that are used to ‘preserve’ the gel or to extract its ‘active compound’.

But plants are highly sophisticated when it comes to their biochemistry. Their healing effect is often not due to one simple compound but rather the result of complex interactions, or ‘synergy’ between a host of different compounds.

Conventional preservation methods involve pasteurization: heating the gel to a high temperature, thus destroying many of the more fragile components. Chemical preservatives are added, further adulterating the original substance. Understandably, the result is rather disappointing, leading researchers to conclude that Aloe’s benefits may have been exaggerated. But one could equally conclude that we simply lack proper processing methods to preserve the natural composition of fresh Aloe Vera gel.

Processing

In recent years, more efficient processing methods have been developed. A cold process that dissolves the green cellulose parts of the leaf, leaves the biochemical activity of the gel substance intact, including the aloin, a yellow bitter laxative compound that is found just underneath the outer skin. Additional processing involves adding various anti-oxidants, as oxygen initiates the deterioration and breakdown of the gel and promotes the development of aerobic bacteria. Finally, the pulp is separated from the liquid part, a carbon compound is added to help filter out the aloin. The carbon compound is subsequently removed. In the last step, the liquid is exposed to ultraviolet light that destroys any bacteria.

This method still requires stabilizing compounds to be added to the final product, but it is a great improvement to conventional extraction processes, which only processed the gel and relied on heat treatment for sterilization.

An alternative whole-leaf extraction method involves the same cold process leaf processing described in the first step above, but then utilizes short duration low temperature-controlled sterilization techniques to kill off bacteria, eliminating the need for additional chemicals. The resulting gel is concentrated in a vacuum chamber and dehydrated to yield a water-soluble compound that retains the biochemical activity indefinitely without using preservatives. This is currently regarded as the most efficient method. Although heat is used in the process, it is closely controlled and never reaches more than 65°C applied for less than 15 minutes at a time. Longer exposure and higher temperatures would deteriorate the final product.

It is easy to see that what you get at the store is not the same as the natural product straight from the plant. It is important to read the label and evaluate the extraction method to determine its quality. There are huge differences between manufacturers.

A self-regulating body of producers certifies Aloe Vera products according to industry standards of quality control. Their seal of approval is meant to reassure consumers. However, due to the different processing methods, certification is not a gold standard.

Aloe vera gel

Medicinal Uses

Parts used: resin, gel extracted from the leaf
Constituents: Hydroxyanthracene derivatives of the anthrone type (principally barbaloin); 7-hydroxyaloin isomers, aloe-emodin, chrysophanol and their glycosides; chromone derivatives (aloesin and its derivatives aloe resins A and C, and the aglycone aloesone. Gel: glucomannan (a polysaccharide), steroids, organic acids, enzymes, antibiotic principles, amino acids, saponins, minerals.
Actions: latex: cathartic, laxative, emmenagogue, digestive stimulant
Gel: immune system stimulant, skin healing, anti-irritant, moisturizing, anti-cancer
Indications

Traditionally, Aloe Vera gel is used as a soothing topical application for sunburns and minor burns, abrasions, acne, psoriasis, shingles and even cold sores. The fresh gel squeezed from the leaf and applied directly to the affected areas is most potent. Its skin repair qualities on burns and sunburns are truly remarkable – healing occurs quickly and without scarring. The gel is also used to reduce stretch marks and scarring in wound care. It even protects the skin against the immune suppressant effect of ultraviolet light – thus it can also be used as a protective sunscreen lotion. Aloe Vera gel is a highly valued additive for moisturizing cosmetic preparations and is praised for rejuvenating the skin by stimulating the synthesis of elastin and collagen.

External application of Aloe gel penetrates the skin directly and produces a soothing, pain-relieving anti-inflammatory effect on arthritic joints and tendonitis.

For internal use, Aloe Vera latex preparations are usually mixed with antispasmodic herbs to reduce the cramping effect of its laxative action. Used by itself, the cathartic action could be rather painful. The latex also stimulates the uterus, thus promoting menstrual flow. Aloe containing laxatives should be avoided during pregnancy.

Laboratory studies on mice have demonstrated high-quality Aloe Vera juice to be an effective immune system stimulant in the treatment of certain types of cancer and HIV. Further studies are underway.

Aloe juice has a healing and balancing effect on the digestive system: it improves the absorption of nutrients and the elimination of toxins. This promotes overall cell nutrition and activates the body’s self-healing powers and enhances energy levels. It can also relieve gastrointestinal problems associated with peptic or duodenal ulcers. It stimulates regular bowel evacuation and soothes colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. Many chronic conditions have a component of digestive imbalance that trigger secondary symptoms due to malabsorption and cellular malnutrition. Aloe Vera juice can help to restore balance to the entire digestive system.

Aloe Vera juice also appears to benefit the liver and kidneys. It lowers levels of blood lipids (cholesterol) that can clog up the arteries and can cause coronary heart disease. And, it also has a positive effect on blood sugar levels, which can make it a useful nutritional supplement for diabetics.

Aloe vera skin care

Home-made cosmetics

If you wish to incorporate Aloe’s healing benefits into home-made skincare products, you can use the gel to replace all or a portion of the liquid in your recipe. However, beware that unprocessed Aloe Vera gel is not very stable and won’t keep long. Make small batches only, and store them in the fridge for a few days. For maximum benefit, skincare preparations should contain at least 20-40% of gel. If you have a fresh plant at your access, you can simply cut off a bit of a leaf and apply it straight to the skin.

 

Grow your own

Aloe Vera is one of those plants that everybody should have at their access as an immediate first aid remedy for burns and minor cuts. Growing it is easy, as it is a very undemanding plant. Just don’t over-water it and protect it against freezing temperatures. It loves the sun but will also grow in the semi-shade, nor does it need particularly rich soil. Well draining, sandy soil will do.

 

Caution:

  • Do not use Aloe Vera based laxatives during pregnancy. The juice may also contain traces of aloin above what would be deemed safe during pregnancy.
  • Consult with your health advisor regarding possible interference with prescription drugs if you intend to use Aloe Vera internally.
  • Rare cases of allergic reactions to the latex have been reported – even for external use.

The quality of Aloe Vera gel or juice very much depends on the manufacturing process. Some products that are currently on the market have little or no medicinal value. Do your research before spending a lot of money on what may turn out to be an inert substance. Whole-leaf extracts are recommended. Look for the International Aloe Science Council certificate for quality assurance.

 

 

 

 

Image credits:

Title Image by Elstef from Pixabay

(1) Image by Françoise BERNARD-NICOD from Pixabay

(2) Image by Franziska Ingold from Pixabay

(3) Image by mozo190 from Pixabay

(4) Image by Jenny Porter from Pixabay

Plantains – Plantago sp.

Plantains – Plantago sp.

Introduction

Most of us are familiar with the broad-leaved plantain, a common weed that seems to grow just about anywhere. Or, perhaps you also know the Ribwort Plantain, with its long, slender leaves. But did you know that this genus of humble weeds comprises some 200 species that occur all over the world? 

 

As masters of adaptation, Plantains are ubiquitous. They have managed to eke out a living in almost every conceivable kind of habitat. Gardeners curse them as intruders when they cannot abolish them from their neat lawns and paths. But they are oblivious to this humble plant’s remarkable healing properties!

 

Name

Linnaeus named the genus, ‘Plantago’ which derives from the Latin word ‘plantar’ meaning ‘foot’. He intended to convey that these plants go wherever they want – or rather, wherever we go and spread their seeds, via the bottoms of our boots. This property was not lost on the Native Americans either. They called it ‘white man’s footprint’ as they watched it spread across their land.

 

History

In neolithic times, the broad-leaved Plantain (Plantago major) was held sacred for it grew nowhere better than on the old straight track, the ceremonial causeway. They were always kept clean and free of weeds, but the plantain proved unconquerable. Hence it was called ‘Wegerich’ or, ‘King of the road’.

The Anglo-Saxons included it in their ‘Nine Herbs Charm’, calling it ‘Waybread’. This name refers to its use as a sacrament. Sacrificial victims were given a gruel of Plantain seeds as a kind of ‘Last Supper’.

 

Its amazing resilience and determination to return eternally, no matter how often it was cut or removed, were a sure sign of its supernatural powers. Thus, Plantain roots were used as a talisman to protect the traveller and its leaves put into shoes was supposed to keep the feet happy and untiring.

Ribwort Plantain
Image credit: Kathy Büscher from Pixabay

Medicinal use

 

Constituents: mucilage, glycoside (Aucubin – an antimicrobial and liver protective agent), ursolic acid, tannins, silicon, vitamin C, K, citric acid, potassium, and zinc

 

Action: bitter, astringent, anti-hepatotoxic, laxative (bulking agent), antispasmodic, antibiotic, expectorant, cooling, soothing drying

 

Plantain has an amazing range of healing properties. The leaf contains an antibacterial glycoside that is effective against many types of bacteria. 

External use

The fresh leaves make a very effective and readily available anti-bacterial band-aid that can be used on all kinds of scrapes, small wounds and insect or even spider bites. Just take a leaf, rub it between your fingers so that the juice comes out and apply it directly to the sting or wound. The roots are said to be similarly effective on scorpion stings and snake bites.

A paste made from the boiled seeds of broad-leaved plantain draws out splinters and thorns.

 

An infusion of the leaves combined with oak bark makes a good mouth-wash for gingivitis or stomatitis or for cleansing wounds (even festering ones. )or to treat varicose veins, haemorrhoids, ulcers. The leaves contain silicon which strengthens and tightens connective tissues.

 

Internal use:

For internal use, it makes an excellent tea or syrup for treating diseases of the respiratory system. The leaves of the Ribwort plantain are particularly effective as they are anti-inflammatory and expectorant. The antibiotic properties of the fresh juice can even be used for the treatment of tuberculosis. But upon drying the antibiotic effect diminishes.

 

The fresh juice also makes a good blood cleansing remedy and can also be used as an anti-inflammatory agent for treating swollen glands.

 

Plantain can support other organ systems as well. Its antimicrobial properties can improve intestinal health (fresh juice) and its anti-hepatotoxic effect protects the liver better than milk-thistle seeds. 

 

An infusion of the leaves helps to control diarrhoea, while the seeds are a great aid for the elimination of waste products and for weigh-loss. As they are water-soluble (especially those of Plantago psyllium), they bulk up the stomach content and absorb and eliminate toxins. This also makes them useful as a safe and effective remedy for constipation. But drink PLENTY of water to facilitate excretion.

 

Recent research has shown the seeds of the broad-leaved plantain to have potent anti-cancer properties.

 

Foraging

Plantains are edible. The young leaves can be added to salads or used as a potherb when combined with other herbs. (Older leaves tend to be rather tough and stringy.) The leaves make a great addition to green smoothies, while the roasted seeds can be mixed into the porridge or muesli, and the birds love them too!

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.

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