Ginseng’s Cross-Cultural Virility

By Steven Foster |

When the first published Western description of ginseng appeared in a French journal in 1713, there was no mention of ginseng’s reputation as an aphrodisiac or to enhance virility, likely because the earliest European writers on ginseng were Jesuit priests. In 1725 Pope Benóit XIII received a gift of ginseng from the Chinese Emperor. No comment from the Vatican.

Asian ginseng, Korean Ginseng, Chinese Ginseng, Panax ginseng; 人参; Ren Shen; ren-shenVirginian, Colonel William Byrd II (1674-1744), pictured in a 1725 portrait, with confident swagger was an obvious ginseng nibbler. Writing on 31 May 1737 to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753, British Museum founder ) he muses, “Insomuch that were I to judge the veracity of the Jesuits by this Instance, I shou’d pronounce them very honest Fellows. As for the merry Effects ascribd to it towards obliging the Bashfull Sex, the good [Jesuit] Father[s] say nothing of it, nor dos my Experience reach so far.” In a letter of 20 August 1737 to Sloane, Byrd continues, “I believe ever since the Tree of Life has been so strongly guarded the Earth has never produced any vegetable so friendly to man as Ginseng. Nor do I say this at Random, or by the Strength of my Faith, but by my own Experience. I have found it very cordial and reviving after great Fatigue, it warms the Blood frisks the Spirits strengthens the Stomach and comforts the Bowels exceedingly. All this it performs without any of those naughty Effects that might make men too troublesome and impertinent to their poor Wives.”  Oh, but the mistresses. . .

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng roots,  西洋参, xi yang shen Some 18th century Dr. Oz probably hawked ginseng root on a London street corner with a wink and a smile to the passerby. But where there’s health claims for herbs, there’s always an all-knowing expert to debunk it, like Scottish physician, William Cullen (1710-1790), in his 1789 Materia Medica (vol 2, p.161)—“I have known a gentleman a little advanced in life, who chewed a quantity of this root every day for several years, but who acknowledged that he never found his venereal faculties in the least improved by it.”

Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng; 西洋参; xi yang shenThe protocol of the famed Dr. Cullen was followed for treatment of George Washington’s sore throat on what became his last day in December 1799: blood letting (124 ounces removed), blistering his throat with an irritating beetle, copious evacuation of the bowels—and when all else—fails, a dose of mercury. Two of the three attending physicians achieved their medical degrees under the instruction of Dr. Cullen at the University of Edinburgh.

Cause of death? “Learned quackery,” to quote sectarian rival contemporaries.

References [to follow]

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius

The Beauty of Gardenia

By Steven Foster |

Gardenia-062214__DSC3554aAs our Louisiana refugees from Hurricane Katrina can attest, what’s not to like about gardenias except for the fact that you can’t overwinter them outdoors in Northwest Arkansas? Like many plants in American horticulture, gardenia originates from eastern Asia, particularly warm temperate regions of China, southward, where broad-leaf evergreens thrive. The genus name Gardenia fortunately also serves as the common name for this evergreen shrub with, creamy white, single or double-flowered blossoms whose beauty is surpassed only by their intoxicating, heavenly fragrance. The delightfully-scented flowers are offered by florists in table arrangements, corsages, and boutonnieres. For the better part of two decades, I’ve had gardenias as container plants, bringing them indoors for the winter, taking them out in spring after danger of frost has passed. Photo gallery of single-flowered Gardenia from a plant grown  from seed collected in the wild in mountains near Hong Kong.

Gardenia-062314_DSC3596There are 200 or more species of Gardenia found in tropics and subtropics of the Old World. That which we grow is called florist’s gardenia or cape gardenia Gardenia jasminoides. The cape jasmine arrived in England in the 1750s, and was named in 1761. The name “jasmine” as applied to this plant comes from a painting by one of the most famous of natural history illustrators, George Dionysius Ehret. Ehret, unsure of the plant’s identity, labeled his plate “jasminum” with a question mark next to the caption. Since gardenia flowers superficially resemble those of jasmines (trailing plants of the olive family) it was given the species name “jasminoides.” Gardenia is named for a Scottish physician and naturalist, Alexander Garden (1730–1791), who settled in South Carolina in 1755. During the American Revolution he sided with the British. In 1783, after the war was over, his property was confiscated and he returned to London.

The Chinese history of the plant dates back at least to the first Gardenia-062214_DSC3564crcentury B.C.E., mentioned in the in the oldest Chinese herbal, Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, attributed to the Divine “Plowman Emperor,” Shen Nong. The Chinese name, zhi-zi, applies to the plant as well as the dried fruit, which used in prescriptions in traditional Chinese Medicine for the treatment of jaundice, a use confirmed by recent research, that has continued for more than 2000 years.

Chinese history reminds us that American history by comparison is merely “current affairs.”

Of Butterflies on Milkweed

By Steven Foster |

Butterflyweed Asclepias tuberosa in Lawrence, Kansas
Butterflyweed Asclepias tuberosa in Lawrence, Kansas

It’s milkweed season in the Ozarks and elsewhere in North America. There are over 100 species of milkweeds, members of the genus Asclepias, named by Linnaeus in 1753 after the Greek god of healing, Asclepius. Conspicuous among milkweeds now blooming is Asclepias tuberosa—butterflyweed, pleurisy root, or chiggerweed—with its brilliant showy orange flowers. I assume the name chiggerweed refers to the fact that our friendly little flesh-eating spider-relatives enjoy living on the plant. The larger tuberous root is used medicinally to treat inflammatory lung conditions, hence the name pleurisy root. If you spend time around one of the plants with camera in hand, inevitably one of the most beautiful of our native wildflowers attracts butterflies in addition to photo seekers.

Butterflyweed, and a couple dozen other North American species of milkweeds attracted widespread media attention last fall when monarch butterflies failed to show-up in the winter home of oyamel fir forests in Central Mexico. The spectacle of millions of monarchs

Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca
Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca

covering trees in their winter home in Mexico since time immemorial was replaced last year by a few thousand monarchs fluttering about trees. Monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweeds, sequestering bitter and potentially toxic cardenolides which deter predators from feeding on the butterflies as they make the journey south each winter. Monarch numbers declined by 59% from 2012 to 2013. One of the major factors relative to the decline is the dramatic loss of habitat for milkweeds, with 160 million acres consumed by agricultural or suburbia over the last 17 years alone.

Asclepias-syriaca-61414_408Public awareness about the decline of monarch butterflies has translated into awareness of milkweeds — the food of monarch larvae. In 2014 various organizations have been distributing seed or plants of the dozen or more species of Asclepias found in our area and coaxing them to plant milkweeds. One of the main milkweeds found in the eastern U.S., is called appropriately common milkweed Asclepias syriaca. This species seems to be the favorite food of monarch larvae.

The analogy of chaos in nature as characterized by the flapping of a butterfly’s wing in the Amazon affecting weather elsewhere demonstrates the interconnectivity of all living things. Without habitat we have no milkweed. Without milkweeds we have no monarch butterflies. Without humans nature maintains balance. Pay attention to life on earth.


“I cannot live without books”

By Steven Foster |

“I cannot live without books”, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to John Adams. On May 29th National Public Radio aired a segment on Thomas Jefferson’s library. In 1814 the British burned the 3,000 books in the Library of Congress. Devastated by the loss, Thomas Jefferson offered the American people his own library —6,487 titles — then the largest library in North America. Another fire in 1851 destroyed all but 2,000 books from the Jefferson collection. For the last decade the Library of Congress has quietly been rebuilding the original collection of 6,000+ titles and now has all but the last 250. I searched for a list of those titles on the internet, but instead found an 1989 Library of Congress publication of a manuscript with Jefferson’s notes on the titles in the library: “Thomas Jefferson’s Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order“.

What was Jefferson reading? I looked at the list of 46 botany titles. Darwin’s The Botanic Garden? Never heard of it. The author is Erasmus Darwin (1731-1803), physician, philosopher, poet and grandfather of Charles Darwin. I downloaded that title and over half of the other books at I can read them on my iPhone as PDF files. Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815) was tasked by Jefferson to describe the plants collected on the Lewis and Clark expedition. He was unable to do so because of poor health. Instead, Lewis took the premier edition of Barton’s “Elements of Botany” (1803), the first botany textbook published in America. Barton writes on the value of recording the time of natural events such as flowering seasons, bird migration and weather in the form of a Calendaria Florae:

“Calendaria Florae, if they be properly kept, form some of the most interesting notices in the natural history of a country. They form, next to the living, the best, picture of the country. They show us, in the most beautiful and impressive manner, the relations of the vegetable and the animal kingdoms to each other, and to the various agents by which they are surrounded, and by which they are affected. They enable us to compare together the climates of different countries or places, which are included within nearly the same latitudes, such as Florida and Palestine, Philadelphia and Pekin, New-York and Rome, not to mention many others. In the hands of future ages, they will be deemed among the most precious monuments of natural history that can be bequeathed by an inquisitive and enlightened people. For, to apply the observation to the countries of the United- States:  if our climates have (as is by many asserted) already undergone considerable changes, our winter in particular becoming much more mild and open, will it be doubted, that a great alteration is to take place in respect to the periods of the germination, frondescence, the flowering , the defoliation, &c., of many of our vegetables? And as the migrations of birds are essentially governed by the state of the climate, which governs vegetation, and the changes of insects, will it be doubted, that the seasons of the movements of our birds may, at some future period, be essentially varied from their present ones?” [Barton, B.S. 1812. Elements of Botany or Outlines of the Natural History of Vegetables. 2nd ed., Philadelphia: Printed for the author. pp. 300-301. Link to 3rd edition, 1827]

Indeed, Professor Barton.

Here’s an on-going student project for an enterprising school teacher: Go to Jefferson’s own catalogue and see how many of the 6,487 books in his library can be downloaded from or read on the internet? My guess is at least 50 percent. Catalog link.

Poison Hemlock—“I know that I know nothing.”

By Steven Foster |

Drive along any field-flanked highway in Northwest Arkansas for the next two weeks, and notice the wall of vegetation created by a tall, gangly plant of no particular beauty. Festooned in tiny-white flowers on flat-topped clusters, this annual weed stretches from six to ten feet tall. The stems are smooth and purple-spotted or -streaked, particularly at the stem base, holding fern-like leaves. Crushed leaves smell as if they ought to be poisonous. This is poison hemlock Conium maculatum, a carrot family member (Umbelliferae). If mistaken for wild carrot (Daucus carota), the results can be fatal. Take note: wild carrot has hairy stems; poison hemlock has smooth stems. Both are European weeds.

All plant parts contain highly variable amounts of toxic alkaloids, especially coniine, which is slowly lost from the plant upon drying. Death from poison hemlock is variously described as tranquil to violently delirious.

The name Conium derives from the Greek konos or “cone top” referring to the hats worn by Sufi whirling dervishes, describing the plant’s effects. Soon after ingesting the green plant’s juice, dizziness with a spinning sensation foretells impending death. Ingested purposefully or by accident, the victim will not be able to stand-up or sit. One must lie down. If dosed appropriately, the victim has about 30 minutes before lungs and heart cease to function, remaining alert and conscious ‘til the end.

Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatumIn ancient Athens, poison hemlock, given in sufficient quantities, caused certain and almost immediate death (within an hour). It was the mode of execution by the tribunal of Areopagus, famously administered to the philosopher Socrates, 470-399 B.C.E. whose crime of not believing in the city’s gods and expressing that to others, earned him a death sentence. Before Oklahoma executioners (that would be the judiciary, legislature and governor acting in secret proceedings) get too excited about the potential of poison hemlock, they should be aware that the historical acceptance of Conium maculatum as the actual poison that killed Socrates only dates to the mid-1750s. Earlier writers suggested that it may have be another poisonous plant or a mixture of several poisonous plants. All deaths ascribed to poison hemlock have not been as peaceful as Plato’s description of Socrates’s serene death. “I know that I know nothing,” said Socrates.

How about you elected official executioners?

More images of Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum here.

Adapted from Nature of Eureka Column by Steven Foster in the 28 May Issue of the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper.

Catbriers, Sarsaparilla and Transcontinental Transmission |

By Steven Foster |

You know the plant. If you’ve ever walked in the woods in the Ozarks, you trip over it. It tears your clothing. It rips into your flesh as you unwittingly trudge along. When hiking or clearing brush at your yard’s edge, you talk to this plant—generally in loud expletives.

Catbrier tips can be eaten like asparagus, though this one was too beautiful to pick.
Catbrier tips can be eaten like asparagus, though this one was too beautiful to pick.

We call it catbrier, greenbrier, bullbrier—members of the genus Smilax in the greenbrier family (Smilacaceae). The genus Smilax has upwards of 350 species, mostly a tropical plant group with outliers extending into temperate climates. There are 20 species in North America (north of Mexico). I suspect 7 or 8 of them occur in Northwest Arkansas. I’ve never known a botanist who could give me a clear explanation of the differences between one catbrier and another. If you look at the books covering the flora of this part of the country, not one of them agree on scientific names, descriptions, illustrated characteristics or keys to identifiable features.

Some species of Smilax from Central and South America are familiar at least in name as the source of sarsaparilla. In the commercial trade this includes bulk materials called Mexican sarsaparilla, Honduras sarsaparilla, Jamaican sarsaparilla, and so forth. We will call those “Smilax officinalis” as a means of expressing the fact that nobody really seems to know what is the true source of sarsaparilla.

Smilax hispida, a well-armed vine.
Smilax hispida, a well-armed vine.

Sarsaparilla was first exported from South and Central America to Seville around 1550. Like sassafras it was touted as a “blood purifier”. Columbus introduced smallpox to the Americas, but in turn may have brought back a disease once known as “French pox”. Coincidentally, a disease not known to classical medical writers made it’s first appearance in the form of an epidemic in the year 1495—the same year Columbus returned from the Americas. The disease is called syphilis. In the 1500s and 1600s shiploads of sassafras bark and sarsaparilla roots were exported from the Americas to Europe, and made into a tonic blood purifier called root beer to treat syphilis, a gift from New World indigenous peoples to their European conquerors. Think about that continental karma the next time you trip over a catbrier.

Smilax hispida. Note the irregular small teeth on leaf edge.
Smilax hispida. Note the irregular small teeth on leaf edge.

Adapted from Nature of Eureka column in the 21 May 2014 issue of the Eureka Springs Independent Newsletter

Will the Real Stinging Nettle Please Stand Down!

By Steven Foster |

Most of us go into the fields and forests, and absent a flower, a fruit, a nut,, essentially we see abstract green. Some plants capture our attention when we are not focused on them. That’s how I discovered a very common woodland plant in the Ozarks, particularly common in wooded river bottoms. I was walking through forests along the Bryan Creek watershed in Ozark County, Missouri. Ouch. . .what the _____ is that, I said aloud as I strolled through undifferentiated, non-descript greenery in the river bottom. I had shorts and discovering the source of the pain, I found myself in the middle of a giant population of Laportea canadensis, a member of the Urticaceae (stinging nettle family). The plant had captured more than my attention. It caught my curiosity.

Wood Nettle - Laportea canadensis
Wood Nettle – Laportea canadensis

Interestingly, if you search the USDA Plants database  for stinging nettle Urtica dioica, it is striking to click on the map of the U.S. and see that only one state of the lower 48 does not have a record for stinging nettle and that is Arkansas.  Ah, hah, I thought, it will be in the recently published Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Arkansas. Not there either. OK, so maybe we don’t have the common stringing nettle Urtica dioica in Arkansas (or no botanist wanted to collect specimens of it), but we have plenty of wood nettle Laportea canadensis to make up for the absence of common stinging nettle. It serves the same purposes, as the root and leaves were used as a diuretic, spring green, and a fiber plant.

The wood nettle alarmed Thomas Jefferson. A Scottish immigrant, Charles Whitlaw (1771-1850) described variously as “celebrated botanist” and “an itinerant quack”, patented the use of our lowly wood nettle as a fiber plant in 1812, even coaxing a colleague to name it for himself — Urtica whitlowii.

Thomas Jefferson in a letter to William Thornton, Superintendent of the Patent Office, April 24, 1812,  “Your description of the plant, a substitute for hemp & flax for the exclusive use of which mr Whitlow has a patent, has thrown all the boys of our neighborhood into great alarm, lest they should not be allowed hereafter to make their trap strings from what they call Indian hemp, which, boys have been in the practice from time immemorial, of applying to their purposes. . . “

And so, just when you think you’ve discovered something new, you find that you only observe what other humans did before.

Adapted from “Eureka Nature” column in the 14 May 2014 Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper.

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