Santa is a Shaman

Santa is a Shaman: The Magic of Santa Claus

© 2012-2017 Steven Foster

Reindeer-facing page237_1The December 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine has a fascinating article called “Masters of Ecstasy” by David Stern on mystical priests, practitioners of intervening between the seen and the unseen in matters of money, health, the future, and the past. These are the shamans of various ethnic traditions of Mongolia, Central Asia, and Siberia. The article tells the story of how these ancient traditions are seeing a strong revival following the downfall of atheistic communist regimes that fell like dominos nearly 25 years ago with the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Shamanistic traditions evolved in what is now Siberia and spread throughout the world thousands of years ago. Suppressed by Christian, Islamic and Buddhist religions, then by communist governments, their traditions went underground for centuries. Now shamans openly practice in north and Central Asia. Many work alone while others have organized, like the 10,000-member-strong trade union at the Golomt Center for Shamanic Studies in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital. The word shaman comes from a Siberian people known as the Evenki. Santa Claus is a shaman.

This is the backdrop, the canvas that begins to paint of the visual depiction of the origins of the personage that has morphed into the modern American concept of  Santa Claus. One of the elements adopted in various Western European countries is celebration of a monk named St. Nicholas, who was born into wealth in Patara, in modern-day Turkey around 280 A.D. St. Nicholas, known for helping the poor and sick, celebrated for his kindness and generosity on his feast day of December 6. He was seen as  a protector of sailors and children. The veneration of St. Nicholas, the most popular saint of Renaissance Europe, survived through Dutch traditions.

Celebrations of the anniversary of St. Nicholas’s death (December 6) came to America with Dutch immigrants to New York, and noted in newspapers in 1773 and 1774. The Dutch nickname for St. Nicholas was “Sinter Klaas”, the source of our name “Santa Claus”. The now familiar images of stockings filled with toys come from engraved woodcuts distributed in New York at the annual meetings of the Dutch Sinter Klaas Society in 1804. The tradition was further cemented in America’s mind in the writings of Washington Irving (1783-1859). Best known for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle, he  also wrote A History of New York, published in 1809 which described the New York Dutch immigrant’s celebrations of “Sinter Klaus.”

Gift giving for children, and the tradition of Christmas shopping were promoted with in newspapers advertisements in the 1820s, and by the 1840s, separate advertisement sections for Christmas shoppers appeared. In 1822, an Episcopal minister, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote a long poem for his three daughters called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”. Initially the poem was not meant for public consumption, but once published it became the iconic “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”  It introduced the concept of the “right jolly old elf” with a red suit, lined with white fur, knee-high black boots, rolled down at the top, and the magical ability to descend chimneys and deliver presents on a sleigh led by eight flying reindeer.

Still with me? We don’t know what sources Clement Clarke Moore drew upon to create his fanciful vision of Santa Claus. A 2012-2013 exhibit at the Lloyd Library and Museum in Cincinnati informed us of possible influences. The exhibit, “What Makes Reindeer Fly?” was devoted to the role of mushrooms, particularly the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) in cultural traditions. The Fly Agaric is the most iconic of all mushrooms. Its bright red cap, dotted with white cottony spots, is depicted in children’s books such as Alice-in-Wonderland, children’s toys, and even yard ornaments.

In Clement Clarke Moore’s day in the early nineteenth century up to the creation of steam pleasure ships, such as the Titanic, readers experienced the world by reading travel literature. One book featured in the Lloyd Library and Museum’s exhibit by English naturalist Aubyn Trevor-Battye is “Ice-Bound on Kolguev” (1895).

Kolguev is a 1900-square mile island in the Barents Sea, at 69 degrees north latitude. In other words its climate is Arctic. Home to an indigenous tribe once called the Samoyed people, today they are properly known as the Nenets. In Trevor-Battye’s day they were nomads whose economy was entirely dependent upon reindeer for food, clothing, shelter, and mobility. Trevor-Battye planned a month-long birding trip to the Island in July of 1894. Arctic ice blocked passage of boats, so his month-long expedition turned into a year’s journey. He described the reindeer as fleet-of-foot, and when crossing a snow-packed ravine at a gallop, the Nenets’ reindeer-drawn sleds would literally become airborne.

Amanita muscaria, plate 79 from Burnett, M. A. and G. T. Burnett (1847). Plantæ utiliores Vol. 3.

Shamans of the Nenets (and other nomadic indigenous tribes of northern Europe) wore red-dyed reindeer coats, with white fur trim along the bottom, neck, and sleeve edges. High black reindeer skin boots, rolled down at the top were their footwear. Today the Nenets wear rubber boots of the same design. Their red caps were also trimmed with white fur. The colors honor their sacred mushroom the Fly Agaric. The Nenets nomadic dwellings, a cross between a teepee and a yurt, called a “choom” had an open smoke hole at the top. During summer months, Nenets shamans collected the red and white Fly Agaric mushrooms. They dried them, and during the deep snow of winter, shared them with the community, entering the choom through the “chimney” hole at the top. They also shared the mushrooms with their reindeer herds, who relished them and would prance and jump under their influence.

Inspired by the good deeds and benevolence of the second century saint, St. Nicholas, and obscure travel literature that described the shamans and material cultures of ancient indigenous tribes of Arctic Europe, give use the vision of Santa Claus that we know today, transformed into reality by the best traditions of American writers peppered with a high dose of American commerce.

I know for a fact that Santa Claus is real. As an eight-year-old, on Christmas eve, awake in my bed in an old house in Maine with a snow-covered roof, I am positive, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I heard Santa’s sleigh land on the roof. I will never forget the sound of the sleigh bells jingling as he took off.

Top image caption: A Nenets (Samoyed) man throwing a di-zha (lasso) to capture reindeer. Reproduced from Ice-bound on Kolguev: A Chapter in the Exploration of Arctic Europe to Which is Added a Record of the Natural History of the Island by Aubyn Trevor-Battye, published in Westminster by Archibald Constable and Company, 1895.

Field Guide to Medicinal Plants Available NOW

The Third Edition of the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Eastern and Central North America by Steven Foster (me) and James A. Duke are available at your favorite bookstore. | ISBN-10: 0547943989 | ISBN-13: 978-0547943985 | 456 pp., paperback | $21.00 | 

The all new third edition of a Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: eastern and Central North America.
The all new third edition of a Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Eastern and Central North America.

Roger Tory Peterson (1919-1996) wrote and illustrated A Field Guide to Birds: Eastern and Central North America, now in its 6th edition, first published in 1934. He invented the modern 20th century concept of field guides, introducing generations of Americans to the flora, fauna and natural features of North America. Peterson Field Guides have now been for published 80 years.

The third edition of the Foster and Duke Field Guide to Medicinal Plants is  expanded to include 60 new species not found in previous editions. The book includes 531 species accounts with information on 588 medicinal plant species. With 705 color photographs by Steven Foster, over 88% of the images are new. Over 66% of the plants in the book are native species, while 33% represent non-native, mostly European and Asian aliens.

Medicinal plants and herbs are all around us

  • Whether hiking along a remote Appalachian mountain trail or simply observing plants in one’s own yard, medicinal plants can be found everywhere humans live and travel.
  • Can we control invasive alien weeds by finding a use for them? Many homeowners attempt to eliminate weeds from their yards—dandelions, English plantain, and chickweed. Some call them weeds. We call them medicinal plants.
  • Some garden plants, such as English Ivy, are registered as ethical drugs in Europe, in this case for the treatment of coughs and upper respiratory tract infections.

Inspiring Conservation awareness:

  • A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs provides a glimpse of the human experience with plants. Native medicinal plants from the eastern deciduous forest, including black cohosh, goldenseal, and American ginseng are among more than 150 native species that are still harvested from the wild and enter international commerce. Sustainable use of these valuable resources is paramount for future generations.
  • Conservation of these important genetic resources is informed by awareness of their medicinal value.
  • “Without knowledge there is no appreciation. Without appreciation there is no conservation.”

New Research, New Details—Reconciling tradition with science:

  • Uses have been thoroughly updated and revised, with more nuanced detail on historical use in pre-21st century America and elsewhere, including ethnobotanical details by specific native American groups, traditional use by American physicians and herbalists, and information on historic or modern use in Europe, China, and elsewhere.
  • Details on the latest scientific developments that in many cases reveal a rational scientific basis for traditional use.
  • Rather than use the internet or secondary references, the authors went to great lengths to scour the original references from which the information is derived, whether a 17th century renaissance herbal or the latest original scientific studies.
  • Since the publication of the second edition in 2000, worldwide research on medicinal plants has increased by a factor of at least 5-fold. Prior to the year 2000 a PubMED search for Echinacea in the title of a scientific paper returns 80 unique studies. A search for Echinacea in the title between 2000-2013 yields  443 studies.

Names, Distribution, Descriptions, and Flowering Times Updated:

  • The last decade  produced a dramatic increase in the study of plant genetics leading to changes in plant taxonomy and family associations. New taxonomic designations are provided along with the synonyms of familiar scientific names from earlier works.
  • Plant biology and plant geography is dynamic, not static. We have revised and updated geographical distribution and occurrence details. Many non-native species have greatly increased in distribution, a disturbing but important data set.
  • A surprising aspect of revising data was the need to readjust the range of blooming periods. With the effects of climate change, some plants are blooming earlier (or in some cases later), which may reduce or extend flowering or fruiting, depending upon species and distribution range.

Updated Information on safety, toxicity and drug interactions:

  • The book contains appropriate warnings on those plants that can lead to poisoning or toxic reactions, sometimes even by handling the plant. Some plants, such as St. John’s wort are known to interact with enzyme systems that interfere with the absorption of prescription drugs, sometimes increasing or decreasing the drug’s effective dose. Important examples such as St. John’s wort are update to reflect that new research.
Cover of the 1st edition published in 1990.
Cover of the 1st edition published in 1990.

First published in 1990 Steven Foster and Jim Duke’s A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (Softcover: ISBN 0-395-46722-5) featured information on the identification and use of about 500 medicinal plants of eastern and central North America. It was the first modern comprehensive field guide to medicinal plants. The book  included pen and inks by Roger Tory Peterson, Lee Peterson and Jim Blackfeather Rose. A 48-page color insert had nearly 200 photographs.  With 366 pages it was the 40th title in The Peterson Field Guide® Series. If you have the first edition, you don’t have the third edition. Simple as that.

Cover of the 2nd edition published in 2000.
Cover of the 2nd edition published in 2000.

In 2000 we produced a new edition of the title, this time calling it A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Eastern and Central North America, with no line drawings, illustrated with photographs. Herbs had come of age by the year 2000. In 1990, annual herb product sales were about $250 million, and by 1990 they had surpassed $3 billion largely the result of the dietary health and supplement act on 1994, which created the regulatory category of “dietary supplements” and moved herb products from health and natural food stores into the mass market. A few years earlier, the infant internet also began to play a role in marketing and distribution. If you have the second edition, we think you will enjoy the all new third edition.

Surprise or Magic Lilies are just Naked Ladies!

By Steven Foster |

Naked Lady; Surprise Lily; Resurrection Lily; Magic Lily; Lu cong; Lycoris squamigeraNaked ladies or Surprise lilies trumpet their pink splendor in mid to late summer. These beautiful ladies are part of our foreign diversity in Eureka Springs and eastern North America generally, but alas they are just plants. Known as surprise lily, resurrection lily, magic lily or naked ladies, this pretender is laid bare not as a lily at all but a member of the Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae). These late blooming beauties produce unnoticed leaves in the spring, which soon die back. Out of the hot bosom of steamy August air a whorl of large showy flowers atop a leafless (naked) stalk pops from the ground.

From a 9 April 1990 article by Sereno Watson in Garden and Forest_A Journal of Horticulture, Landscape Art and Forestry.

Although not generally considered a medicinal plant, it does have bioactive components. Fayetteville, Arkansas’s KUAF Producer, Jacqueline Froelich aired a story on Surprise Lilies on 14 August 2014.   You can listen to the story here.  One of the alkaloids found in Lycoris squamigera is galanthamine, one of several toxic compounds in the plant. It is also  famously known from the related amaryllis family member Galanthus nivalis or snow-drops a common alpine species in mountains of Europe, which is grown as an ornamental in North America, and occasionally naturalized. First isolated in the 1950s, galanthamine, formerly extracted from Galanthus nivalis, is now produced synthetically on an industrial scale. It was used in some parts of the world in the 1950s to treat nerve pain associated with polio. Today, the compound is regarded as a long-acting, selective, reversible and competitive acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitor used in the systematic treatment of mild to moderate cognitive impairment in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Naked Lady; Surprise Lily; Resurrection Lily; Magic Lily; Lu cong; Lycoris squamigeraAmaryllis and it relatives cause plant name consternation. The genus Lycoris (to which our naked ladies belong) is native to eastern Asia, while Amaryllis is native to the Western Cape of South Africa. In 1753 Linnaeus named Amaryllis belladonna. Another closely related genus in the Amaryllis family is Hippeastrum from tropical America. The “amaryllis” that bloom around Christmas, available wherever bulbs are sold, are mostly hybrids of South American Hippeastrum species.

Lycoris squamigera #7547 from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1897.

Our common naked lady is the Asian species Lycoris squamigera, an inelegant scientific name for an elegant plant. It superficially resembles the South African Amaryllis belladonna but differs in significant botanical characteristics as well as continent of origin. The first European illustration comes from a periodical famous for its unabashed Victorian paintings of reproductive organs (of plants)—Curtis’s Botanical Magazine volume 123, August 1, 1897.  No doubt many gardeners, horticulturists and botanists have been confused by these relatives in the amaryllis family. It is no surprise that the surprise lily itself has lived under three scientific names over the decades including Hippeastrum squamigerum and Amaryllis hallii as well as the name used for more than a century—Lycoris squamigera.

Living plants were introduced from Japan to America by Dr. George Rogers Hall (1820-1899) of Bristol, Rhode Island upon returning from Yokohama, in 1862. The plant was introduced into the horticultural trade as “Amaryllis hallii” a fanciful name of no botanical standing, and  distributed to the nursery trade by the the Boston seedsman, Charles Mason Hovey. By the late 1800s, having proven itself hardy in New England, other nurserymen widely distributed the bulbs. Dr. Hall who co-founded a hospital in China in 1852, grew it in his Shanghai garden before 1860, and noted it was used by the Chinese to decorate cemeteries. Leaving medicine to enter the export business, Hall’s botanical legacy outshined his medical career. He was the first American to send live plants directly from Japan to New England including Japanese yews, Japanese dogwoods, and our vigorous prolific weed once known as Hall’s Honeysuckle. Protecting his good name, today we know it as Japanese Honeysuckle Lonicera japonica.  The rest, as they say, is history. © 2013-2017

All photos in this piece were taken at The Belladonna Cottage, Eureka Springs, Arkansas | 479-253-1836

Photographed at the 2010 Naked Ladies party at the Belladonna Cottage, Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Photographed at the 2010 Naked Ladies party at the Belladonna Cottage, Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Medicinal Plants of Maine, June 18-24 | Sign-up!

June 18-24, 2017 • Eagle Hill Institute on the Maine Coast with Steven Foster |

Steven_FosterJoin me 18-24 June 2017 at the Eagle Hill Institute in Steuben, Maine, located way downeast, up the beautiful Maine coast in America’s most easterly county. The Eagle Hill Institute (formerly the Humbolt Research Institute) offers fascinating Natural History Science Seminars, and this is one in that series. Sign-up and join me in returning to my Maine roots!

General Registration information at this link (Workshop fee: $485; Lodging: $55-$195; Meal plans: $89-$265 – fees subject to change—check the Eagle Hill website for pricing).

Find registration form here.

Eagle Hill Institute

Pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea
Pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea

“The Eagle History Institute setting is located on the densely forested summit of Eagle Hill, the highest part of Dyer Point, the peninsula between the Schoodic Point section of Acadia National Park and Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge. Trails through its boreal forest lead from the summit of Eagle Hill to a number of overlooks offering inspirational views of the coast of Maine, with its rocky and evergreen-lined shore and its many islands, bays, and peninsulas. Other trails are just a short distance to Dyer Bay and a blueberry field” (from Eagle Hill Institute website). 59 Eagle Hill Road, P.O. Box 9, Steuben, ME 04680 |Phone: 207.546.2821, Fax: 207.546.3042, [email protected]

Rosa rugosa
Rosa rugosa

The campus features residential accommodations, classrooms facilities, dining facility, the extensive Eagle Hill Library with a specialized natural history collection, with on-line access to several thousand journals. With wi-fi available throughout the campus, the internet becomes an ocean of information via a high-speed connection.

Ecological Habitats at Eagle Hill

Wolfs-Neck-39996“Eagle Hill is the highest point on one of a series of peninsulas that extend into the Atlantic Ocean along the coast of eastern Maine. To the immediate west is the Schoodic Point section of Acadia National Park and to the immediate east is Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge. The Institute lies within a coastal fringe of northern boreal forest with mostly spruce and fir and a mix of maples, birches, and other species. Most of the coastal area is sparsely inhabited. To the north, the land is used for logging but is still essentially wilderness. An unusually rich variety of habitats can be found within a short distance of the station: many different marine habitats as well as marshes, fens, bogs and heaths, blueberry barrens, lakes and ponds, rivers and streams, and extensive forested lands.” From Eagle Hill Institute website The Ecological Habitats in the Vicinity of Eagle Hill.

Waves1-061609-7119

 

Medicinal Plants of Maine

Whether you’re a seasoned natural history professional or curious outdoor enthusiast, a working knowledge of medicinal plants promises new appreciation of how humans relate to plants. The use of plants for medicinal purposes has preoccupied humankind for millennia, across all cultures and every conceivable geographic region and landscape. Better known for lobsters than ginseng, Maine is home to a hidden treasure trove of pharmacologically active, useful and

Underwater herbs in tidal pool
Underwater herbs in tidal pool

fascinating plants with a story to tell about human experience, past and present. We will emphasize field identification, tradition and current scientific understanding of medicinal plants in eastern Maine (and beyond), both in the classroom and the field, stopping along the way for a photography or two.

Syllabus: Exploring Maine’s Medicinal Plants

With Steven Foster

The Diversity of Medicinal Plant Exploration

Butterfly weed with Monarch Butterfly
Butterfly weed with Monarch Butterfly

In any given temperate flora, upwards of 25 percent of vascular plants can be documented as medicinal plants at least in a historical context, and a high percentage of those plants have a rational scientific basis for their traditional medicinal use. Maine has a flora of about 2,100 species of vascular plants (compare that to 940± bird species for North America, north of Mexico). About a third of the Maine flora is represented by non-native species. Theoretically upwards of 500 species could be included in the total number of medicinal plants in Maine.

 Eupharia strica, Eyebright
Eupharia strica, Eyebright

Medicinal plant research by its very nature is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. It includes numerous academic disciplines such as taxonomy, genetics, biogeography, ethnobotany, history, classic field systematics, phytochemistry, emerging analytical fields such as metabolomics, and broad-ranging disciplines encompassing pharmacology and medicine. Whether a member of an uncontacted Amazonian indigenous group or a patient undergoing leading-edge chemotherapy treatments, medicinal plants touch our daily lives in surprising ways.

Focus on the Plants Around Us

Exploring medicinal plants in a particular locale, such as Washington County, Maine, affords use the opportunity to focus in on the local flora and immerse into a microcosm of discovery.

IMG_0195To understand modern utilization of medicinal plants, the past must blend with the present. Our survey of medicinal plants found in Maine (and beyond) begins with the human experience of discovery. Given that in the twentieth century American society became largely separated from day-to-day knowledge and use of plants as medicines, we can approach the vast subject with with a sense of discovery and awe at the sheer volume of information available to us in the digitized twenty-first century. A word of caution, when it comes to authoritative information on herbal medicine “www” can stand for the “world wide wasteland” where anyone can “publish” anything without the benefit of editors, fact-checking or peer review. That said, however, the internet is an extraordinary source of detail. One must learn how to sift through relevant resources, just as an herb harvester must learn how to garble recently harvested plant material to produce a raw material for use.

A New Era of Discovery

Since the mid-1450s well over 130 million books have been published, many in the last 100 years. Any book published more than 100 years ago can reasonable be placed in the public domain, meaning that any copyright restrictions have expired. Through an extensive international effort, many of the world’s extraordinary libraries are digitizing their collections. To date over ten million books have been digitized.

Gerarde's Herball 1597 title page
Gerarde’s Herball 1597 title

Josselyn-J-1672-New-Englands-Rarities-Discovered_Page_01Millions of books such as the important classic English herbals of the 16th and 17th centuries can be downloaded to your computer, tablet or smart phone as portable pdfs. For example, it is known that the Pilgrims who landed at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 carried with them a copy of the 1597 edition of The Herball of John Gerarde. A scanned, digital copy of the original book which looks just like the printed volume as a searchable pdf resides on my iPad.  One of the first books to enumerate food and medicinal plants found in Maine is by John Josselyn (1630-1675)—New England Rarities Discovered: In Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, and Plants of That Country published in 1672. You can buy an original from an antiquarian book dealer for about $17,500. Or you can download a pdf copy for free from www.biodiversitylibrary.org or from www.archive.org.

John Gerarde-1636-HerballThe new digital reality give us access to the world’s great libraries and rare books that heretofore required an appointment, credentials, and significant time in a rare book room in a major library. This creates the opportunity to discovery where a particular use for a plant may have originated. For example, a folk preventative and remedy for gout, passed down through generations, is eating copious amounts of wild strawberries in early summer. As fate would have it, this was a serendipitous discovery of the founder of modern botanical and zoological taxonomy, Carlos Linnaeus (1707-1778) who suffered from a severe gout attack in 1749, and by chance ate a handful of wild strawberries which relieved his gout (as noted in his diary). Almost all of the published works of Linnaeus are now on-line as downloadable pdfs.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolum
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium

Once we have a sense of traditional or historic use, modern print literature and database resources such as internet search engines such as PubMed (the database of the National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest medical library), Google Scholar, and other free resources will help us to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Questions to Explore

S-Foster-6-14-14In a week’s time, we can reasonable expect to explore about 50 medicinal plant species found in Washington County near Eagle Hill. We will attempt to discover how to find answers to a series of questions, including and not limited to:

 

  • 1). What is the plant’s identity and pertinent morphological features for field i.d.?
  • 2). Where does the plant originate and what is its habitat? Is the plant indigenous to Maine? Is it rare or widespread? Is it an invasive alien? What is the plant’s geography in Maine and elsewhere?
  • 3). What do we know about medicinal use in a historical sense, and is that relevant today?
  • 4). What types of scientific information, such as chemical, pharmacological, or human studies are available to suggest confirmation of, or perhaps refute traditional use?
  • 5). How is the plant prepared for use?
  • 6). What dosage forms are used traditionally or in modern medicine?
  • 7). Is there anything we can learn from other cultures about present or potential use?

Activities

Wntergreen
Wntergreen

We will emphasize field identification, traditional and current scientific understanding of medicinal plants in eastern Maine (and beyond), both in the classroom and the field, stopping along the way for photographic opportunities and collection, if appropriate. Weather permitting, mornings will be spent in the field collecting when possible and identifying plants. Along the way we will take time to hone our photographic and observation skills, learning to “see” what me might otherwise overlook had we been paying attention.

Afternoon and evening class sessions will include photo-illustrated presentations on field collection and observation techniques, plant i.d., and exploring information resources on plants that we observe in the field.

Plantago maritima var. juncoides; goosetongue plantain
Plantago maritima var. juncoides; goosetongue plantain

No library of books, electronic network or database of information can replace the knowledge gained from the tactile experience inherent in being human—touching, tasting, observing and smelling the plants that grow around us. A walk in the woods is a chance to get to know the plants around us.

Reference materials:

Duke, James A. 1986. Handbook of Northeastern Indian Medicinal Plants. Lincoln, Mass.: Quarterman Publications.

Duke, James A., Mary Jo Bogenschutz-Godwin, Judi duCellier, and Peggy-Ann K. Duke. 2002. CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Boca Raton, Fla: CRC Press.

Foster, Steven. 1995. Forest Pharmacy — Medicinal Plants in American Forests. Durham, N.C.: Forest History Society.

The all new third edition of a Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: eastern and Central North America.

Foster, Steven. and James A. Duke. 2014. Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America. 3rd edition. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Foster, Steven, and Christopher Hobbs. 2002. A Field Guide Western to Medicinal Plants and Herbs. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Foster, Steven, and Rebecca L. Johnson. 2006. National Geographic’s Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Foster, Steven, and Varro E. Tyler. 1999. Tyler’s Honest Herbal. 4th ed. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press.

Foster, Steven, and Yue Chongxi. 1992. Herbal Emissaries — Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West. Rochester, Vt.: Healing Arts Press.

Desk Ref-PaperGrieve, Maude. 1931. A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses. London: Jonathan Cape.

Haines, Arthur. 2010. Ancestral Plants: A Primitive Skills Guide to Important, Edible, Medicinal, and Useful Plants. Vol. 1. Turner, ME: Anaskimin (www.anaskimin.org)

Haines, Arthur. 2011 Higher Vascular Plants of New England. Framingham, MA: New England Wildflower Society; New Haven: Yale University Press.

Haines, Arthur. 2015. Ancestral Plants: A Primitive Skills Guide to Important, Edible, Medicinal, and Useful Plants. Vol. 2. Turner, ME: Anaskimin (www.anaskimin.org)

Haines, Arthur and Charles Vining. 1998. Flora of Maine. Bar Harbor, Maine: V.F. Thomas Co.

Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney and Jill E. Weber. 2010. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono: ME: University of Main Press.

Moerman, Daniel E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, Ore.: Timber Press.

Josselyn Botanical Society. 1995. Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Maine. Josselyn Botanical Society of Maine Bulletin 13. Orono, ME: Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station, Bulletin 844.

Scribner, F. Lamson. 1874. Useful and Ornamental Plants of Maine. Pp. 157-237 in: Nineteenth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Maine Board of Agriculture for the Year 1874. Augusta, ME: Sprague, Owen & Nash.

Yanovsky, E. 1936. Food Plants of the North American Indians. U.S. Dep. Agric., Misc. Publ. 237, pp. 1-88.

Portland Headlight-039

A Bright Christmas and Solstice Magic

| By Steven Foster

Ice Beauty

I’m dreaming of a bright Christmas—sunny with temperatures approaching the low 70s. The iconic “White Christmas” is so 1940s! Forget the fact that Bing Crosby’s version of Irving Berlin’s song is the best-selling single of all time. A white Christmas is a historical song from 1941. We must look on the bright side of global warming as it relates to “climate change.” We just need to change our perspective. Speaking with my 87-yr old dad in Maine, he remarked that as a kid, he and his friends were always skating by Thanksgiving. I reminded him, that we—his kids—were also skating by Thanksgiving! During my Maine childhood a white Christmas was a given. Now, ponds and lakes barely hold ice in some Maine winters. But of course, a Maine winter is why this Maine native lives in the Ozarks.

Spring Street, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, Ice Storm 2009

Every time I experience, feel, and see beauty in nature, I am humbled and awed. I love how water changes into myriad forms of beauty in ice. I also love each and every strand of evolving, changing, adapting, mutating DNA that is The creator’s building block of creation.  I don’t believe in DNA, the stuff of The creator’s evolutionary magic. I don’t have to. It exists whether I choose to believe in it or not. Recent religious thought teaches us that the Earth is flat and the Earth is the center of the Universe. And “recent” I define as what historians calls the “early modern era” beginning about 1500. As one historian friend put it, “Anything that happened after 1500 is by definition current affairs.” I don’t believe in global warming. I don’t have to believe in it. Science has blessed me with a magic wand known as a thermometer. Burn me at the stake.

The beauty of snow, sleet and freezing rain

Spring Street, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, Ice Storm 2009

Which brings me to snow, sleet and freezing rain, and what differentiates them. Snow is created when a mass of cold, freezing air is uniformly below freezing from the Earth’s surface to the upper atmosphere. Sleet

Crescent Hotel, Ice Storm, January 29, 2009

is formed when the air aloft is like a sandwich.  In this case, the upper levels of the atmosphere are below freezing and when it snows, the snow passes through an atmospheric layer above freezing, causing the snow to partially melt. It then passes through a relatively shallow layer of below-freezing air at the surface, creating sleet. Freezing rain forms when rain from warm air aloft reaches below-freezing surfaces at ground level, caused by a shallow layer of cold air at the surface. Expect to see plenty of all three types of frozen precipitation this winter—courtesy of global warming.

Hoar Frost Beauty

Hoar frost on the edge of a Sycamore leaf.

And I love the beauty that all that ice in it’s myriad form creates. Take hoar frost for example. We’ve had beautiful hoar frost (also known as hoarfrost this year. But what is hoar frost? I turned to the website of the National Snow and Ice Data Center for a definition “Hoarfrost: A deposit of interlocking ice crystals (hoar crystals) formed by direct sublimation on objects, usually those of small diameter freely exposed to the air, such as tree branches, plant stems and leaf edges, wires, poles, etc., which surface is sufficiently cooled, mostly by nocturnal radiation, to cause the direct sublimation of the water vapor contained in the ambient air.”

Chickweed with hoar frost.

That certainly sounds like definition like that comes from a program with some association with the government. Specifically, the National Snow and Ice Data Center, or NSIDC is part of the University of Colorado Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (UCCIRES), and is affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC). NSIDC also supports the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the Arctic System Science Data Coordination Center (ASSDCC [can you say “I work at ASSDCC”]) and the Antarctic Glaciological Data Center (AGDC) or so Wikipedia says. In other words, the good folks at NSIDC know a good deal about frozen water on or about earth.  An advance degree in acronyms is required for employment there.

Dandelion leaf hoar frost

Hoarfrost, therefore, is like dew, except when it’s cold enough outside to freeze water (that is when it’s 32°F or 0°C), and there’s moisture in the air, then hoar crystals (flat crystals that interlock together), form from the moisture in the air when it comes in contact with the edge of the object that is below freezing (or vice versa?). So if you get up early enough, especially after a clear cold night, you can experience the direct sublime beauty of hoarfrost in all its simplicity.

Hepatica leaf

Glorious Ice Ribbons

American dittany frost flower.

Another winter beauty phenomena I love is frost flowers and ice ribbons. Perhaps new to your natural history vocabulary, we can also call this phenomena “crystallofolia,” a term coined by Bob Harms of the Plant Resource Center, University of Texas, Austin, who has been investigating the phenomena we commonly call “frost flowers”— those beautiful ice formations that are produced at the base of only two native plant species in my Ozark home. Our two native plant species that exhibit this phenomenon are American dittany (Cunila origanoides) and white crownbeard or frostweed (Verbesina virginica) both of which are late-blooming wildflowers. Their frost flowers or twisted ribbons of ice appear for a few days (up to a couple of weeks) after the first hard freezes in autumn. These ephemeral sculptural beauties in ice appear at the base of the plant.

Frost flowers from

The delicate, elegant ice formations emerge laterally from the stem, just above the ground in the case of American Dittany, but from ground level to two feet up the stem in the case of white crownbeard. Why does this phenomenon only occur in a select few plant species instead of all plants? Speculation is that a combination of characteristics unique to the plant in combination with the external physical forces provides a perfect opportunity for the frost flowers to develop. The xylem, vascular tissue within plants that helps conducts water upward in the stem, is probably quite firm, with secondary rays at a right angle that is strong enough to conduct water during a frost event but its tensile strength reaches a point during the first cold frosts, that freezing water burst through the epidermis at a right angle to the stem. As it does so, it ever so slowly punches moisture into the freezing air extruding ribbons of ice. I love these beauties of nature.

Pennsylvania physician, William Darlington (1782-1863) seems to be one of the  first to record observations of frost flowers in Cunila, or as he called it, Maryland Cunila. In the second edition (1837, p. 350) of his Flora Cestrica (an herborizing companion for the young botanists of Chester County, Pennsylvania) he writes: “In the beginning of winter, after a rain, very curious and fantastic ribbands [sic.] of ice may often be observed, attached to the base of the stems of this  plant—produced, I presume, by the moisture from the earth rising in the dead stems by capillary attraction, and then being gradually forced out horizontally, through a slit, by the process of freezing. The same phenomenon has been noticed other plants.”

White Crown-beard frost flower.

Predicting When Hell will Freeze Over

How do you survive a cold winter? Perhaps the best way, short of a long trip to a tropical location or being condemned to a mythical inferno, is to get a comparative perspective on someone else’s cold winter. In the English-speaking world we can turn to England, which has the longest series of monthly temperature observation datasets recorded back to 1659. This dataset is known as the CET (Central England Temperature), recorded in Celsius.

Icy Christian Icon

The winter of 1683-84 is believed to be the coldest winter since records have been kept, with a “great frost” settling in by mid-December for the UK and Central Europe. By January of 1684, the Thames River was frozen all the way up to London Bridge.  The Thames itself remained frozen for over two months, with ice measured to a depth of 11 inches. In southwest England, in Somerset, it is said that the ground froze to a depth of four feet.  Southwest England, has a relatively mild climate, tempered by the Gulf Stream in the winter months, and Azores high pressure systems in the summer. The winter of 1684 had thee coldest CET at –1.2 deg. C.  This period of cold winters lasted for several centuries. From 1408-1814, the Thames froze over 24 times; sometimes the ice was deep enough to support “frost fairs” on the Thames (the last one in 1814).

This is all within a period known as “the Little Ice Age”, a phrase first used in the scientific literature until 1939. It is loosely defined as a period from about 1350-1850, with three particularly cold periods around 1650, 1770 and 1850. Attributed causes include low cycles of solar radiation, increased volcanic activity and variables in ocean circulation.

Goji berry on ice

Fewer sun spots may cause cooling. The years 1645-1715 represent a period of weak solar activity (fewer sun spots) known as the Maunder Minimum period (in which only one-thousandth of “average” expected sun spots occurred). This solar lull is theorized to have trigged regional cooling in the Northern Hemisphere. Since 2008 we have been in a period of “solar maximum” yet only half of the sunspot activity expected has occurred. This has led some scientists to speculate that we could be heading toward a period of “cooler “solar activity within the next 40 years. Add that into the global-warming equation, and you still get climate change

 

Persimmons—Ripe at Last

| By Steven Foster

Diospyros virginiana, persimmon, was widely used as food and medicine by native groups, who made a paste of the ripe fruits, baked it into loavess about the thickness of the finger. Mixed with cornn meal, it made an excellent bread. Colonial physicians used the dried ripe fruit, the powder of the unripe fruit, the powdered inner bark or the bark of the root taken in wine for treatment of dysentery, diarrhea, fevers, hemorrhoids and other conditions. Used historically for making beer, spirits and wine.
Diospyros virginiana, persimmon, was widely used as food and medicine by native groups, who made a paste of the ripe fruits, baked it into loaves about the thickness of the finger. Mixed with corn meal, it made an excellent bread. Colonial physicians used the dried ripe fruit, the powder of the unripe fruit, the powdered inner bark or the bark of the root taken in wine for treatment of dysentery, diarrhea, fevers, hemorrhoids and other conditions. Used for making beer, spirits and wine.

Fall colors are popping, and piles of pumpkins remind us that cold weather is soon upon us. I love the autumn colors for how they differentiate one tree from another.  A few native trees show-off their fruits this time of year like orange-brown persimmons dangling like holiday ornaments. Persimmons are delicious if they are ripe, which begs the question, which came first, the season’s first frost or the first ripe persimmon? Conventional wisdom is that persimmons ripen once they are hit by a frost. This year, we have yet to have a frost, but I’ve been plucking ripe persimmons for two weeks.  I enjoy their sweet flavor and mealy texture, projecting the seeds with a purse of the lips like one ejects watermelon seeds. Given the timing, I can only conclude that the first frost and the ripening of persimmons occur at about the same time each year no matter what the weather.

Experience teaches any wild food enthusiast that you bite into an unripe persimmon only once. The high astringency sucks every bit of moisture from one’s mouth! This year as I’ve tested persimmons for ripeness with a gentle squeeze to determine their softness, my curiosity leads me to inspect each persimmon. I notice s that those persimmons that are ripe show signs of interest by small creatures. Maybe it’s a small hole or the remnants of a web on the outside, or some other little evidence of a bug. My theory is that when a bug bites a persimmon, they inject or induce some enzymatic reaction that hastens the fruit’s ripening; a twist of coevolution.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmon As I ponder information that I’ve collected on persimmons, all roads lead back to the time of George Washington’s presidency. In 1792, a physician and chemist, James Woodhouse (1770-1809) completed his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania, with publication of “An Inaugural Dissertation, on the Chemical and Medical Properties of the Persimmon Tree, and the Analysis of Astringent Vegetables.

 

The persimmon tree, called piakimine, we learn from early explorers, wewoodhouse-james-1792-persimmon-dissertation_page_01re widely used as food and medicine by native groups, who made a paste of the ripe fruits, baked it into flat cakes about the thickness of the finger. Mixed with flour from other food sources, it made an excellent bread. Colonial physicians used the dried ripe fruit, the powder of the unripe fruit, the powdered inner bark or the bark of the root taken in wine for treatment of dysentery. Woodhouse records a treatment for hemorrhoids “as useful as any, in the cure of the disease.” It is a mixture of the juice of unripe persimmons with hog’s lard, “sugar of lead” [lead acetate which actually has a sweet taste] and opium.

The potential of the unripe juice of persimmons in tanning leathers excited Thomas Jefferson. Woodhouse suggested that three Diospyros virginiana, persimmonhundred persimmon trees, producing an average of four bushels of fruits could produce six pounds of gum resin per tree which would be far superior to oak bark for tanning. It would require less labor, less capital and be far cleaner [for the environment] than the standard tannery of the day which relied upon oak bark. For a time, North Carolina commercially cultivated persimmons. In the South, when forests were cleared, persimmon trees were preserved, which is perhaps why we have an abundance of persimmon trees around old Ozark farmsteads today.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmonRipe fruits can be collected and squeezed through a strainer to remove the seeds and as much of the skin as possible, then put away in the freezer until needed. A wide variety of products can be made from the dried, frozen or fresh fruits. This is best reflected in the pages of Billy Joe Tatum’s Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook (Workman Press, 1976.) Billy Joe transformed wild edibles from the realm of survival foods to haute cuisine. In her popular book she includes recipes for Persimmon breads, cookies (with chocolate chips), Persimmon and corn meal muffins, custard, fruit cake, Indian-style pudding, jam, jelly, pie, pinwheels, sherbet and even Persimmon soufflé.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmon

During Civil War years rebel soldiers used Persimmon seeds as a coffee substitute. In attempts to find substitute products unavailable because of Union blockades on southern ports, the southern fields and forests became creative sources of replacement commodities. Recipes were developed for Persimmon syrups, vinegar, coffee, and beer.

In D.J. Browne’s Sylva Americana (1832) the author relates:

“The fruit is sometimes pounded with bran, and formed into cakes which are dried in an oven, and kept to make beer, for which purpose they are dissolved in warm water with the addition of hops and leaven. It was long since found that brandy might be made from this fruit, by distilling the water, previously fermented, in which they have been bruised. This liquor is said to become good as it acquires age.”

Diospyros virginiana, persimmonPersimmon is a member of the Ebony Family (Ebenaceae). The genus Diospyros, the largest in the family, has 500 or more species widely distributed in Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean Region, South and North America. Though primarily a genus of tropical regions with just a few species enduring colder climates, the fossil remains of ancient Diospyros species are recorded from the Miocene deposits of Alaska and Greenland, and the Cretaceous formations of Nebraska.

Diospyros virginiana – Persimmon, Possumwood, Possum Apple, Date Plum, or Virginia Date Plum as it is variously known, is the species found in eastern North America. A second North American species Diospyros texana occurs in river valleys of southwestern Texas, extending into Mexico.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmonDiospyros kaki and D. lotus, two east Asian species, have been cultivated for centuries in China as a fruit crop. Many new cultivated sweet and seedless varieties have been developed over the years. The Asian fruit-producing species are sometimes grown in warmer regions of the U.S. as a minor cash crop. It is interesting to note that the temperate North American Diospyros virginiana is much more closely related to the East Asian D. lotus (occurring from the northwestern Himalayas through eastern China to Japan), than it is to South American relatives. The leaves of the two species are strikingly similar. Some botanists have asserted that unlabeled specimens of the two species could be laid side-by-side, and an expert would be hard-put to determine which was which.

The generic name Diospyros means “fruit of Zeus”, apparently referring to the life-giving properties of the fruits. The specific epithet “virginiana” obviously refers to the region from which it was first collected.

 

What will the future hold for Persimmons? The fruits have an endless possibility for variety and development of new products. A curious natural product scientist might follow the lead of studying the use of Persimmon seeds for kidney stones. Wood workers might find novel uses for the tough, tight-grained material. And maybe one or two of you will stop at a fruit-laden Persimmon tree on your way to the supermarket and collect a few pounds of a divine native fruit.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmon

Chaste tree — Vitex agnus-castus

 

© Steven Foster |

Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus) has been used for gynecological conditions since the days of Hippocrates (2500 years ago). With a rich traditional of use, modern research supports historical wisdom, and has made chaste tree fruit preparations a phytomedicine of choice by European gynecologists for treatment of various menstrual disorders, PMS, and other conditions.

Origins and Botany

Vitex, Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree, chastetree, chasteberry, chaste berry, monk's pepperThe genus Vitex until recently has been associated for centuries with the verbena family (Verbenaceae), and includes about 250 species, primarily tropical shrubs and trees. Only a few Vitex species occur in temperate regions. Vitex agnus-castus L., commonly known as chaste tree, is the sole species to occur in Europe. Native to West Asia and southwestern Europe, the shrub was introduced throughout Europe at an early date. It was known in English gardens as early a 1570, and now occurs throughout the European continent.

Vitex, Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree, chastetree, chasteberry, chaste berry, monk's pepperChaste tree is a shrub growing from nine to seventeen feet tall, though specimens twenty-five feet high, with trunks eight inches in diameter, have been recorded. It has palmate leaves, usually with five to nine (rarely three) leaflets, white hairy beneath, with densely hairy, resinous leaf stalks. The flowers are in a pyramidal-shaped showy cluster, with seven inch spikes, sporting tiny blue to lilac blooms. Chaste tree has a long blooming period, as early as April in the deep South, lasting into October in more northerly areas in the United States. Typically it blooms from June through August. The small round fruits (seeds) have a pungent scent and flavor. Introduced to American gardens by European immigrants in the early nineteenth, the shrub has become naturalized in much of the Southeastern United States, occurring in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, southeast Oklahoma, north to Maryland.

The genus name Vitex derives from an ancient designation, vei, meaning to “wind, bend or twine,” referring to the once common use of the tough, flexible branches in constructing woven (wattle) fences. Pliny was the first to apply the name Vitex to the plant, perhaps derived from the Latin “vitilium” (wicker-work). The species name “agnus-castus” derives from a historical mis-interpretation of the original Greek name, “ágnos,” first applied by Dioscorides, and translated as “holy, pure or chaste,” Castus derives from the Latin castitas, meaning chastity. Agnus the Latin for lamb, at some point in history, replaced the original Greek “agnos” in reference to this plant (Böhnert and Hahn 1990).

History

Chaste tree has been used for the treatment of menstrual difficulties for at least 2,500 years. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) wrote, “If blood flows from the womb, let the woman drink dark wine in which the leaves of the chaste tree have been steeped. A draft of chaste leaves in wine also serves to expel a chorion held fast in the womb” (as quoted by Bleier 1959). Use for gynecological conditions are also noted in the works of Pliny and Dioscorides (1st century A. D.), as well as Theophrastus (3rd century A.D.). “The trees furnish medicines that promote urine and menstruation,” wrote Pliny, “They encourage abundant rich milk. . .” (Jones 1966).

John Gerarde, (1545–1612) Dioscorides, quoted from Goodyer’s 1655 English translation, recognizes effects on females, “It doth brings downe the milke, and expells ye menstrua, being drank to ye quantity of a dragme in wine” (Gunther 1934). These recommendations survive to the time of Gerarde, “The decoction of the herbe and seed is good against pain and inflammations about the matrix, if women be caused to sit and bathe their privy parts therein; the seed being drunke with Pennyroiall bringeth downe the menses, as it doth also both in a fume and in a pessary. . .” (Gerarde 1633).

Chasteberry
Chasteberry

The tree was associated with ancient Greek festivals. In the Thesmophoria, a festival held in honor of Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, fertility and marriage, women (who remained “chaste” during the festival), used the blossoms for adornment, while bows of twigs and leaves, were strewn around Demeter’s temple during the festival (Böhnert and Hahn 1990). Pliny wrote, “the Athenian matrons preserving their chastity at the Thesmophoria, strew their beds with its leaves.” (Jones 1966). In Rome, vestal virgins carried twigs of chaste tree as a symbol of chastity. According to Greek mythology, Hera, sister and wife of Zeus, regarded as protectress of marriage, was born under a chaste tree. Ancient traditions associating the shrub with chastity were adopted in Christian ritual. Novitiates entering a monastery walked on a path strewn with the blossoms of the tree, a ritual that continues to the present day in some regions of Italy (Böhnert and Hahn 1990).

The shrub’s ancient association with chastity led to later use of the fruits as an anaphrodisiac, quieting the desires of the flesh, especially of celibate clergy. “These seeds have been celebrated as antiaphrodisiacs, and were formerly much used by monks for allaying the venereal appetite; but experience does not warrant their having any such virtues,” wrote Andrew Duncan in the 1789 edition of the Edinburgh Dispensatory.

Robert John Thornton (1768–1837)Robert John Thorton (1814), put it more eloquently, “As there are provocatives to procreations, as shell-fish, eggs, and roots of orchises made into salep for the male, and spare dict and use of steel for the female, so it is possible the chaste tree may have a contrary effect; and hence the seeds have been called Piper monachorum (Monk’s pepper), who flew to them when they found the spirit to be willing, but the flesh weak.”

Vitex, Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree, chastetree, chasteberry, chaste berry, monk's pepperMany of the common names of the shrub refer to this use of the plant, including, Abraham’s Balm, Chaste Lamb-Tree, Safe Tree, Monk’s Pepper-Tree. It has also been called Indian-Spice, and Wild-Pepper, referring to the use of the fruits as a pepper substitute. The small round fruits (seeds) have a pungent scent and flavor reminiscent of black pepper. The fragrant leaves have also been used as a substitute for hops in brewing beer.

Through the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the fruits were little used by European medical practitioners. In the late nineteenth century, Felter and Lloyd (1898) suggested use of a tincture of the fresh berries to Eclectic medical practitioners to increase milk secretions and useful as an agent in menstrual disorders. In small doses, it was said to be useful in the treatment of impotence, and perhaps useful for nervousness or mild dementia.

Early Modern Research (1938-1960)

Madaus (1938) was the first to initiate use of chaste tree in the twentieth century. Recognizing the long-recognized value of the plant in gynecological disorders, he designed a series of animal experiment to determine which part of the plant had the greatest biological activity. Madaus found that extracts of the leaves, fruits, and bark retarded estrus (heat) in female rats, without evidence of adverse effects on reproductive performance. The fruits had the greatest activity.

Chasteberry
Chasteberry

During the Second World War, medical practitioners in Germany recognized a stress-induced lactation repression in women, prompting a search for effective galactogogues (milk stimulating substances). Clinical confirmation of the efficacy of chaste tree fruit preparations in stimulating lactation were published in three separate papers by Janke, Hofmeir and Noack and Noack in 1941, 1942 and 1943 respectively (as reviewed by Böhnert and Hahn 1990). Later animal studies in the late 1950s further confirmed an experimental lactation-stimulating action. In 1954, Mohr reported on a study of 1000 maternity patients, comparing vitamin B1 and a chaste tree fruit preparation in stimulating lactation to a placebo. The author concluded that the chaste tree fruit preparation resulted in more successful lactation than vitamin B1 or the control group. Increased lactation has been attributed to an increase in prolactin secretion, increased progesterone synthesis, reducing estrogen secretions (which tend to inhibit milk production).

Active constituents and Actions

Vitex, Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree, chastetree, chasteberry, chaste berry, monk's pepperResults of these early studies led investigators to postulate that either the plant contained a component that replaced hormones produced by the body, or plant extracts, acting through the pituitary, might regulate hormone production (Haller 1961). Various studies, reviewed by Böhnert and Hahn (1990), indicate that a tincture of the seeds produces an effect on the hypothalamus-pituitary system, showing a gonadotropic function and causing an increased release of lutenizing homone with consecutive increase of progesterone level. Prolactin secretion is inhibited because of a dopaminergic action. In other words it acts on the pituitary gland to regulate the production of and induce normalization of the ovarian hormones, changing the ratio of estrogens and gestagens in favor of gestagens. The timing of the release of pituitary hormones, regulate menstruation, fertility, and other processes. Hence, an agent that will produce a balance of hormones can help to regulate these processes.

The biological activity of chaste tree cannot be attributed to a single chemical component. The fruits contain flavonoids including the major flavonoid casticin, as well as orientin and isovitexin (Belic et al., 1958, 1961, 1962). Other flavonoids include 3,6,7,4’-tetramethyl ether of 6-hydroxykaempferol, and quercetagetin (Wollenweber and Mann 1982). The dried fruits also contain an essential oil (up to 1.22%), as well as iridoid glycosides including aucubin, eurostoside and agnuside among others (Görler et al., 1985, Gomma et al. 1978). A recent study detected the probable presence of delta-3-ketosteroids in flower extracts include progesterone, 17-a-hydroxyprogesterone, testosterone, and epitestosterone; leaf extracts yield andostenedione. However, the reported results of this study were ambiguous (Saden-Krehula, et al. 1990). The vast majority of chemical, pharmacological and clinical studies have involved a proprietary extract, Agnolyt®, (capsules and liquid) manufactured by Madaus AG, Cologne, Germany.

Chasteberry, like the rest of the 250 species of Vitex, long-placed in the verbena family (Verbenaceae) now in a genetic surprise twist are placed in the mint family (Lamiaceae). In medieval Europe chasteberry was a symbol of chastity. Branches were strewn at the feet of novices as they entered a monastery or convent. Research has focused on the use of seed extracts for regulating excessive menstrual bleeding or too frequent menstruation.
Chasteberry, like the rest of the 250 species of Vitex, long-placed in the verbena family (Verbenaceae) now in a genetic surprise twist are placed in the mint family (Lamiaceae).

Modern Clinical Use

An imbalance of estrogen and progesterone has also been associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS).  Symptoms appear seven to ten days before the beginning of menstruation, and cease once the cycle begins. Physical symptoms include painful breasts, abdominal discomfort and fullness, flatulence, edema (especially of the lower extremities, as well as the hands and the face), and headache. Mental symptoms may include mood swings, nervous irritability, depression, restlessness, and aggressiveness. It is estimated that between 5 and 30% of women may be affected by PMS. Therapeutic choices by health care professionals are based on severity of symptoms. In severe cases, the treatment of choice is likely to be steroidal hormones. In Europe, however, gynecologists have another choice, preparations made from the fruits of the chaste tree (Feldmann).

A clinical survey of German gynecologists published in 1992 evaluated the effect of a chaste-tree preparation (Agnolyt®) on 1542 women diagnosed with PMS. Treatment of 40 drops daily lasted an average of 166 days. Both physicians and patient assessed efficacy, with 90 percent reporting relief of symptoms, after an average treatment duration of 25.3 days. Two percent reported side effects, mostly gastrointestinal in nature (Dittmar et al 1992, Brown 1994).

Vitex, Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree, chastetree, chasteberry, chaste berry, monk's pepperIn one clinical drug monitoring study of the efficacy and safety of long-term treatment with a chaste tree fruit tincture, 1571 women with menstrual disorders including corpus-luteum insufficiency and PMS were followed for a period of 7 days to six years (average 147.6 days). The preparations was 1:5 tincture, with a 58% alcohol content. The dose was 40 drops once a day taken on an empty stomach in the morning with water. In 90 percent of patients, the treatment eliminated or alleviated symptoms of PMS. Results for 465 patients were rated very good, 714 good, 220 satisfactory, 110 unsatisfactory, and in 62 cases no data was available. Adverse reactions were reported for 30 patients (1.9 percent), including 12 cases of nausea, malaise, gastric symptoms and diarrhea, and a single allergic reaction (Feldmann, et al., 1990).

Coeugniet, et al (1986), in a three month trial with 36 patients with PMS reported positive results in physical and psychological symptoms. A dose of 40 drops a day, taken over a three month period, produced a reduction in headaches, breast tenderness and pressure, bloating, and fatigue. Improvement in anxiety, mood swings, and other psychological symptoms were also reported. Given the positive results of experimental studies in the 1940s and 50s coupled with clinical experience, has lead to the use of chaste tree extracts in European phytotherapy in several major areas including: management of menstrual disorders, PMS, treatment of infertility produced by mild corpus luteum insufficiency, and hot flashes at the initial stages of menopause, among other conditions.

In Europe, the use of phytomedicines in the treatment of menstrual disturbances is often preferred over conventional treatment, if no contraceptives are indicated. Steroidal hormones are often considered unnecessary, and individual treatment initiated once differentiation has been made between cyclic and acyclic bleeding difficulties (Loch 1989). A benefit of chaste tree treatment is the relative lack of side effects compared with treatment with steroidal hormones. Another benefit is that the price of chaste tree preparation therapy is far below that of conventional treatment methods.     The 1992 German Commission E monograph (now irrelevant as a regulatory document) on chaste tree fruits allowed use of preparations for menstrual disorders due to rhythmic disorders of menstruation, mastodynia (pressure and swelling in the breasts), and premenstrual syndrome. Preparations include alcoholic extracts of the pulverized fruits (tincture) formulated to an average daily dose equivalent to 30-40 mg of the seeds. No contraindications were listed. While no interactions with other drugs are reported, animal experiments indicate the possibility of interference with dopamine-receptor antagonists. Side effects noted include too early menstruation following delivery (resulting from activation of the pituitary), as well as rare instances of itching and rashes. Chaste tree preparations are contraindicated during pregnancy (Monograph Agni casti fructus).

In a review on the relationship between phytotherapy and orthodox medicine, Schilcher (1994) reports that an important reason for the acceptance of phytotherapy by many German physicians is the existence of the scientifically supported Commission E monographs (as cited above). He also notes that acceptance of phytotherapy rests with the fact that in Germany, their use is consider a component of orthodox medicine and not an alternative approach. In Germany chaste tree fruit preparations are considered a safe, effective, and low-priced tool available to, accepted by, and widely used by gynecologists.

Summary

Vitex, Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree, chastetree, chasteberry, chaste berry, monk's pepperChaste tree, recognized for nearly 2,500 years in the treatment of gynecological conditions, has been widely used in European phytotherapy for over fifty years. The majority of clinical reports in that period have been non-controlled studies by gynecologists in clinical practice, who report positive results. Chaste tree preparations are frequently used in the safe and effective treatment of PMS, heavy periods, too frequent periods, acyclic bleeding, infertility, suppressed menses, and other conditions, many of which are linked to corpus luteum insufficiency. Vitex is an excellent example of a phytomedicine which serves as a low-priced tool in orthodox European gynecological practice, rather than an “alternative” treatment.

References:

Attelmann, H., K. Bendis, H. Hellenkemper, J. Reichert, and H.-J. Warkalla. 1972. Agnolyt® in the Treatment of Gynecological Complaints. Zeitschrift für Präklinische Geriatrie. 2:239.

Belic, I, J. Bergant-Dolar, ad R. A. Morton. 1961. Constituents of Vitex Agnus-castus Seeds. Part 1. Casticin. J. Chem. Soc . London: 2523-2525.

Belic, I., J. Bergant-Dolar, D. Stucin, and M. Stucin. 1958. A Biologically Active Substance from the Seeds Vitex Agnus-castus Seeds. Vestnik Slovenskega Kemijskega Drustva. 63-67.

Belic, I. and B. Cerin. 1962. The Occurrence of Casticin in Seeds of Vitex Species. Vestnik Slovenskega Kemijskega Drustva. 33-34.

Bleier, W. 1959. Phytotherapy in Irregular Menstrual Cycles or Bleeding Periods and Other Gynecological Disorders of Endocrine Origin. Zentralblatt für Gynaekologie. 81(18):701-709.

Böhnert, K.-J. and G. Hahn. 1990. Phytotherapy in Gynecology and Obstetrics – Vitex agnus-castus (Chaste Tree). Acta Medica Emperica. 9:494-502.

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