Exploring Medicinal Plants in Maine

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: $475; 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

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.

Brown, D. 1994. Vitex agnus-castus Clinical Monograph. Quarterly Review of Natural Medicine (Summer):111-121.

Coeugniet, E., E. Elek and R. Kühnast. 1986. Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) and its Treatment. Ärztezeitschr. für Naturheilverf. 27(9):619-622.

Dittmar, F. W., K.-J. Böhnert, M. Peeters, M Albrecht, M. Lamertz, and U. Schmidtet al. 1992. Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS): Treatment with a Phytopharmaceutical. TW. Gynäkol. 5(1):60-68.

Duncan, A. 1789. The Edinburgh New Dispensatory. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: C. Elliot and T. Kay.

Feldmann, H. U., M. Albrecht, M. Lamertz, and K.-J. Böhnert. 1990. The Treatment of Corpus Luteum Insufficiency and Premenstrual Syndrome: Experience in a Multicentre Study under Practice Conditions. Hgyne 11(12):421.

Felter, H. W. and J. U. Lloyd. 1906. King’s American Dispensatory. 2 vols., 18th ed. Reprint. Portland, Oregon: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1983.

Foster, S. 1989. The Chaste Tree. Business of Herbs. 7(4):16–20.

Gerarde, J. 1633. The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. (revised and enlarged by Thomas Johnson) Reprint. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1975.

Gomma, C. S., M. A. El-Moghazy, F. A. Halim, and A. E. El-Sayyad. 1978. Flavonoids and Iridoids from Vitex agnus-castus. Planta Medica 33:277.

Görler, K., D. Oehlke, and H. Soicke. 1985. Iridoids from Vitex agnus-castus. Planta Medica 40: 530-531.

Gunther, R. T. 1934. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides. Reprint. New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1968.

Haller, J. 1961. The Effect of Extracts on Hormonal Interrelations Between Hypophysis and Ovary — An Endocrinological Study with Animal Experiments. Zeitschrift für Geburtshilfe und Gynäkologie. 158(6):274-302.

Jones, W. H. S. 1966. Pliny Natural History with an English Translation in Ten Volumes. Vol. VII. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Loch, E.-G. 1989. Diagnostik und Therapie dyshormonaler Blutungsstörungen. TW Gynäkologie. 6(2):379-385.

Madaus, G. 1938. Lehrbuch der Biologischen Heilmittel. 3 vols. reprint ed. 1979. Leipzig: Georg Thieme Verlag.

Milewicz, A. E. Gejdel, H. Sworen, K. Sienkiewicz, J. Jedrzejak, T. Teucher, and H. Schmitz. 1993. Vitex agnus-castus Extract in the Treatment of Luteal Phase Defects Due to Hyperprolactinemia: Results of a Randomized, Placebo-controlled Double-Blind Study. Arzneim.-Forsh. Drug Res. 43(7): 752-756.

Monograph Agni casti fructus, Bundesanzeiger. No. 90 (15 May 1985; replaced 2 Dec. 1992).

Propping, D., Th. Katzorke, and L. Belkien. 1988. Diagnosis and Therapy of Corpus Luteum Deficiency in General Practice. Therapiewoche. 38:2992–3001.

Propping, D. and Th. Katzorke. 1987. Treatment of Corpus Luteum Insufficiency. Zeitschrift für Allgemeinmedizin. 63:932-933.

Saden-Krehula, M., D. Kustrak, and N. Blazevic, 1990. ∆4-3-Ketosteroids in Flowers and Leaves of Vitex agnus-castus. Short Reports of Short Lectures and Poster Presentations, Bonn BACANS Symposium, P177, p.59 (17-22 July 1990).

Schilcher, H. 1994. Phytotherapy and Classical Medicine. Journal of Herbs, Spices, and Medicinal Plants 2(3):71-80.

Thorton, R. J. 1814. A Family Herbal. London: B.&B. Crosby and Co.

Wollenweber, E. and K. Mann. 1983. Flavons from the Fruit of Vitex agnus-castus. Planta Medica. 48(2):126-127.

Vitex, Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree, chastetree, chasteberry, chaste berry, monk's pepper

 

 

Passionflower – Herb n’ Food

© Steven Foster |

Passionflower; Passion flower; Maypop; Purple Passionflower; Passiflora incarnata
Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata

Intent on reaching the swimming hole on a seething July afternoon, my attention was diverted by a loud pop under foot. Relieved by the realization that the object was vegetable rather than animal, the victim plant caught my attention again, this time by the indescribable, intricate beauty of its bloom. I had stepped on a fruit of the passionflower or maypop. Such is the memory of a New England transplant upon first encountering a maypop in the Ozarks. This fast-growing perennial vine is more widely known as passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). In the Southeast it’s also called apricot vine.

Passionflower’s Name

What design of nature or serendipitous evolutionary event could create a flower of such unusual beauty? Such radiance is beyond scientific rationale. Best to describe it in religious terms. The first Europeans to observe the plant did just that. The name is derived from flos passionis, a translation of fior della passione, a popular Italian name which was applied to the plant to signify religious symbolism. The floral structure was seen to symbolize the implements of the crucifixion—the Passion of Christ— his period of suffering following the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. The three spreading styles atop the stigma were thought to represent the three nails by which Christ was attached to the cross. The five hammer-like anthers atop of the stamens exemplify the hammers used to drive the nails, or to others, Christ’s five wounds. Beneath these floral structures is a fringe of colored filaments, known as the corona. It was believed to depict a halo or perhaps the crown of thorns. Beneath it sits the corolla—with ten petals, each representing the ten apostles at the Crucifixion— save Peter and Judas. Some early missionaries envisioned that the bell-shaped, unopened or recently closed flower held these sacred symbols from the view of heathens who had not yet been converted to Christianity. If that’s not enough, the lobed leaves and long green vines further represent the hands and whips of Christ’s prosecutors. And so, both the common and Latin names—passionflower (Passiflora)—speak of these mysteries. Thomas Johnson editor of the 1633 edition of Gerarde’s Herball described these notions for what they were: “The Spanish Friers for some imaginarie resemblances in the floure, first called it Flos Passionis, The Passion floure, and in a counterfeit figure, by adding what was wanting, they made it as it were an Epitome of our Saviors passion. Thus superstitious persons semper sibi somnia fingunt” [always see contrived images]. The species name of passionflower “incarnata” means “made of flesh or flesh-colored.” Maypop, of course, refers to the fruits, the shape and size of a hen’s egg, which open with a resounding pop when squeezed.

 

Passiflora incarnata, Passionflower, or Maypop. Passionflower is variously wildflower, weed, ornamental perennial, delectable edible, or medicinal herb. The fruits, "maypops", are edible. The whole above ground plant is considered a mild nerve sedative and a sleep aid. When tension, restlessness and irritability result in difficulty in falling asleep, passionflower is an herbal remedy of choice.
Passiflora incarnata, Passionflower, or Maypop. Passionflower is variously wildflower, weed, ornamental perennial, delectable edible, or medicinal herb. The fruits, “maypops”, are edible. The whole above ground plant is considered a mild nerve sedative and a sleep aid. When tension, restlessness and irritability result in difficulty in falling asleep, passionflower is an herbal remedy of choice.

Passionflower Diversity

Depending upon your perspective passionflower is wildflower, weed, ornamental perennial, delectable edible, or medicinal herb. The flowers of one hybrid P. x alatocaerulea (a cultivated hybrid between P. alata and P. caerulea) are used in perfumery. That covers all the bases of the definition of an herb— any plant or plant part used for culinary, fragrant or medicinal purposes. Therefore, it deserves a place in herb gardens. Here we will primarily focus on the common maypop, wild passionflower, or apricot vine (P. incarnata) the only native species that is hardy and can be widely cultivated in much of the U.S.

Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, a member of the Passifloraceae or passionflower family, a predominantly Neotropical American plant group of over 400 species, with three temperate North American representatives including, Passiflora lutea one of the most diminutive of all passionflowers, with blooms barely reaching 2cm in diameter, and fruits the size of a pea. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois. Although yellow wild passionflower is very rarely mentioned in the medicinal plant literature, in 1840 Dr. L. Phares of Mississippi is said to have used this small North American vine interchangeably with the common passionflower. I have made a tincture (alcohol extract) of both plants. They have a very similar flavor and fragrance. The fruits are decidedly different, though. Those of P. lutea are globular black berries, about 1/4 inch across. They have a much more acidic flavor than maypop.
Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea one of the most diminutive of all passionflowers, with blooms barely reaching 2cm in diameter. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois.

The passionflower (P. incarnata) is an herbaceous  perennial, trailing or climbing, with tendrils. The white to blue purple flowers are up to three inches across. It occurs in waste ground, along fence rows, roadsides, and fields from Pennsylvania to southern Florida, west to east Texas and north to southern Missouri, and Ohio.  In the United States we have about 25 native or naturalized species of Passiflora, but only the passionflower and its diminutive relative wild yellow passionflower (P. lutea), with tiny yellow flowers about an inch across, are hardy natives. Wild yellow passionflower is rarely grown in gardens.

The genus Passiflora, with only a handful of temperate species, explodes in diversity in the American tropics with about 500 species. An additional 20 species occur in Indomalaysia and the south Pacific islands. Some have edible fruits. Others do not. About 30 species of passionflower have edible fruits. At least 40 species and numerous cultivated varieties are found in American gardens, primarily in warmer areas.

Passiflora edulis, passion fruit, passionfruit is used as a commercial source of passionfruit beverages in the tropics. Since the fruits have poor keeping qualities they are seldom seen outside of local tropical markets. A folk remedy for insomnia, neuralgia, muscle spams and epilepsy. Juice considered a digestive aid.
Passiflora edulis, passion fruit, passionfruit is used as a commercial source of passionfruit beverages in the tropics. Since the fruits have poor keeping qualities they are seldom seen outside of local tropical markets. A folk remedy for insomnia, neuralgia, muscle spams and epilepsy. Juice considered a digestive aid.

The undisputed edible king of passionflowers is passionfruit or purple granadilla (Passiflora edulis) which is cultivated for its edible fruits and juice. It is native to southern Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina. A large passionfruit industry in Brazil grows purple-fruited forms for the fruits, while yellow-fruited cultivated forms are used for juice extraction. Passionfruit is grown commercially in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and other tropical regions. It was introduced into Hawaii in the 1880s, where it became a popular home garden flower and fruit on the islands. By the 1930s it had become wild on every island in the archipelago. Commercial cultivation operations are also found in Kenya, South Africa, India, Pacific islands, and other tropical regions where it thrives. According to Arthur O. Tucker passionfruit has proven hardy in protected situations as far north as Ontario. If you do buy seeds or plants of this species and don’t live in a subtropical area, you will probably want to bring it indoors for the winter. The vast majority of scientific references to Passiflora species refer to the passionfruit and its many cultivars and hybrids. Much of the research has focused on attempting to unlock the unusually complex, sweet, delicate-perfume flavor of the fruits.

Other passionflowers are grown as subtropical food plants as well. The tropical American species running pop (P. foetida), now a weed in the old world tropics, is grown for its fruit, as is the banana passionfruit (P. mollissima). Yellow granadilla, or water lemon (P. laurifolia), also known as Jamaica honeysuckle, is a commercial fruit crop. Its name does not derive from any resemblance to honeysuckle (Lonicera species) but from the fact that the fruits are eaten by sucking out the pulp from the rose-scented fruit.  Sweet calabash (P. maliformis) is grown to produce grape-flavored juice. Giant granadilla (P. quadrangularis) sports a large fruit about eight inches long which is eaten as a vegetable. Individual fruits of cultivated varieties of giant granadilla may weigh as much as several pounds. When still green the rind is boiled and eaten as a vegetable. If ripe, it is eaten iced (with sugar) or the fruit-wall may be candied. Members of the genus Passiflora hybridize readily and have produced numerous cultivated hybrids, primarily grown in the tropics for fruit production.

Passiflora vitifolia, Grapeleaved Passionflower, Crimson Passionflower is a showy native to Central America. The berry-like fruit is sour, then slowly ripens over a month a flavor likened to sour strawberries.
Passiflora vitifolia, Grapeleaved Passionflower, Crimson Passionflower is a showy native to Central America. The berry-like fruit is sour, then slowly ripens over a month a flavor likened to sour strawberries.

Other passionflowers such as red-flowered species P. vitifolia which sports crimson red flowers, or blue passionflower (P. caerulea) are grown as ornamentals. They do not produce edible fruits.  Some cultivars of the blue passionflower such as ‘Constance Elliot’ which sports white flowers, are reported to be hardy in protected situations as far north as central Delaware. The tender ornamental passionflowers can be grown as annuals, taking cuttings in late summer rooting them before the first frost, or growing them in a large container to winter it over.

Native to Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, Passiflora caerulea, is one of three semi-hardy species of passionflowers, and is widely cultivated as a window box plant or gardens in southern Europe, surviving temperatures of -15°C. It was cultivated in France as early as 1625, and first document in London in 1629. Today it is one of the most widely-grown passionflowers in horticulture, and source of many hybrids. These photos were taken in a garden in Podgorica, Montenegro.
Native to Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, Passiflora caerulea, is one of three semi-hardy species of passionflowers, and is widely cultivated as a window box plant or gardens in southern Europe, surviving temperatures of -15°C. It was cultivated in France as early as 1625, and first documented in London in 1629. Today it is one of the most widely-grown passionflowers in horticulture, and source of many hybrids. These photos were taken in a garden in Podgorica, Montenegro.

Growing Passionflower

Subtropical edible or ornamental passionflowers are primarily relegated to the realm of the specialized collector, or those who have access to a greenhouse. But the passionflower (P. incarnata) can be grown by most herb gardeners. While passionflower is commonly regarded as a southern plant, it will grow as far north as the Boston area, and I suspect, if placed in a well-protected situation and mulched through the winter, it would even survive as a perennial in central Maine. Here in the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks, the native passionflower withstands temperatures of -25° F. without any protection. When purchasing seeds or plants it’s probably a good idea to at least inquire where the plant material originated, if the seller knows. Passionflower seeds or plants from south Florida are probably likely to survive in New England, than plants originating from more northerly areas. While dying back to the ground each year, it makes a marvelous fast-growing climbing cover for a fence, or can be trained on a trellis as a focal point for the herb garden. In the South it will grow 20—30 ft. in a single season. In more northerly areas, expect a growth of about 15 feet in a season. Passionflower grows in waste places, thriving in relatively poor, sandy, acidic soils. Good drainage is essential. Full sun is necessary.

Passiflora incarnata, Passionflower herb production in Guatemala
Passiflora incarnata, Passionflower herb production in Guatemala

Propagation is by seeds, cuttings, or layering. Cuttings about six inches in length can be taken from mature plants, then rooted in sand. Maypop grows readily from seed—if one is patient. After harvesting the fruits, clean out the seeds from the mucilaginous fleshy aril surrounding them, then plant immediately. They may germinate late in the summer, or may sit dormant until the following spring. The experience of many who try passionflower from seed for the first time is disappointment, born of expectations that the seeds will germinate in a couple of weeks. Wait a year if you have to. The result of your patience and suspense will be worth it a few years later.

Propagation by layering can be achieved simply by removing the leaves from a small section of a stem in late summer, placing a portion beneath the soil, with a leafy end sticking out of the ground. Water well, and in a few weeks, the buried stem should produce roots. But wait. Keep the layer in the ground through the dormant months, allowing it to develop a full root system before transplanting. The layered cutting can be severed from the mother plant and placed in a new location. With a little luck and persistence, you will soon have your own passionflower planting. Of course, the easiest technique is simply to buy plants from a nursery. Young plants are often slow-growing, taking two or three years to establish. After that, watch out—it can entangle everything else in your perennial beds.

Passionflower as Food

In his “Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf” John Muir speaks of the apricot vine (maypop) has having a superb flower “and the most delicious fruit I have ever eaten.” If you grow passionflower, you must taste the fruits. The fruits of the passionflower ripen from yellowish to light brown in color. The slimy aril covering the seeds is very sweet and fruity when ripe. The hard seeds can be separated from the pulp through a sieve or apple sauce strainer. Or if you are in the garden, you can pop open the ripe fruit and suck the delicious pulp from the fruit. Make sure that the fruit is not over-ripe. Perfectly ripe fruits are delicious . Over-ripe fruits ferment into a foul paste.

Passionflower, Passion flower, Maypop, Purple Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata
Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata

At the annual funding-raising auction of the Arkansas Native Plant Society a few years ago, I was the fortunate high bidder on two jars of maypop jelly. I know of no other native fruit whose flavor is best described as “indescribable.” The best maypop jam recipe can be found in Billy Joe Tatum’s Wildfoods Field Guide and Cookbook (Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York 1976). Billy Joe’s book, which transformed wild edible from the realm of survival food to haute cuisine, also contains a delicious recipe for maypop punch, and maypop ice, a cool refreshing beverage with juiced maypops and pineapple sherbet. To make 10 half-pint jars of maypop jam, she combines 5 cups of gently rinsed maypops, with a 1/2 cup of lemon juice, one box of powdered pectin and 7 1/2 cups of sugar. Enough water is added to barely cover the fruit. Standard procedures for making jam are followed.

Passionflower was a minor food item of American Indian groups in the Southeastern U.S. Archaeological evidence shows that maypop seeds could be found at Indian camp sites over 5000 years old. Seventeenth century visitors to Virginia such as the Englishman William Starchey observed the harvesting of fruits from  corn fields. Calling it maracock, Starchey described it as “of the bigness of a green apple, and hath manie azurine or blew kernells, like as a pomegranat, a good sommer cooling fruit.” It is unclear whether native groups intentionally planted the passionflower as a crop or whether it simply occurred naturally on the disturbed ground at the edge of the plot.  It is clear, however, that native groups of the Southeast enjoyed this late summer fruit for many centuries.

Passionflower as Medicine

Passionflower, Passion flower, Maypop, Purple Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata
Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata

Passionflower never became an important medicinal plant in the U.S. Like many American medicinal plants, however, it is more highly revered in modern Europe than in its native land.  In the second volume of his 1830 Medical Flora or Manual of Medical Botany of the United States the naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque makes one of the earliest reference to medicinal use. He recommends a syrup of the fruits as a cooling agent for fevers. The leaves, he says are used externally, and the juice given to dogs to cure the “staggers or epilepsy.” This use was first recorded in 1787 by a German surgeon, Johann David Schoepf, who served with Hessian mercenaries siding with the British during the Revolutionary War.

In Europe, passionflower products are used as mild nerve sedatives and a sleep aid. The introduction of this medicinal use is credited to  Dr. L. Phares of Mississippi who in an 1840 issue of the New Orleans Medical Journal, recorded its use. Remaining an obscure reference in the literature, Dr. I.J.M. Goss of Atlanta reintroduced passionflower into Eclectic medical practice in the late nineteenth century.

Dr. E. D. Stapleton writing in a 1904 issue of the Detroit Medical Journal summed up his experience in using passionflower tincture to treat insomnia “I would say that its action is best obtained in cases of nervousness due to causes other than pain-that it is slow in acting because it is not a narcotic, but a nervine and sedative. It relieves irritation of the nerve-centers and improves sympathetic innervation, thus improving circulation and nutrition, and is as a rule sure in its results-no bad after-effects, no habits formed”.

In the eighteenth edition of King’s American Dispensatory (1898), authors H.W. Felter and J.U. Lloyd characterize its action. “Its force is exerted chiefly upon the nervous system, the remedy finding a wide application in spasmodic disorders and as a rest-producing agent. . . It is specially useful to allay restlessness and overcome wakefulness, when these are the result of exhaustion, or the nervous excitement of debility. It proves specially useful in the insomnia of infants and old people. It gives sleep to those who are laboring under the effects of mental worry of from mental overwork.”  Sounds like I need some myself.

Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, a member of the Passifloraceae or passionflower family, a predominantly Neotropical American plant group of over 400 species, with three temperate North American representatives including, Passiflora lutea one of the most diminutive of all passionflowers, with blooms barely reaching 2cm in diameter, and fruits the size of a pea. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois. Although yellow wild passionflower is very rarely mentioned in the medicinal plant literature, in 1840 Dr. L. Phares of Mississippi is said to have used this small North American vine interchangeably with the common passionflower. I have made a tincture (alcohol extract) of both plants. They have a very similar flavor and fragrance. The fruits are decidedly different, though. Those of P. lutea are globular black berries, about 1/4 inch across. They have a much more acidic flavor than maypop.
Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, with fruits the size of a pea. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois. Although yellow wild passionflower is very rarely mentioned in the medicinal plant literature, in 1840 Dr. L. Phares of Mississippi is said to have used this small North American vine interchangeably with the common passionflower.

It is interesting to note that while yellow wild passionflower (P. lutea) is very rarely mentioned in the medicinal plant literature, Dr. Phares of Mississippi is said to have used this small North American vine interchangeably with the common passionflower. I have made a tincture (alcohol extract) of both plants. They have a very similar flavor and fragrance. The fruits are decidedly different, though. Those of P. lutea are globular black berries, about 1/4 inch across. They have a much more acidic flavor than maypop.

Herbal Medicine Past and Present by John K Crellin and Jane Philpott (Duke University Press 1990) is based on extensive interviews over a seven year period with an Alabama herbalist, Tommie Bass. Bass, quoted in the text says, “Its the most wonderful sleep and pacifying plant, valuable for a nerve medicine . . . Any good sleeping medicine has passion-flower in it.”

Today the American passionflower is used in a number of proprietary phytomedicines (plant medicines) in Europe, used for “conditions of nervous anxiety.” A dosage of  4-8 g. of the herb per day in infusion (tea) or other methods of preparation such as equivalent extracts for internal use. Products are made from the fresh or dried whole plant (excluding the root). It is usually collected at flowering time. It is also widely used as a sleep aid. The fresh or dried whole plant as well as their preparations are also used in daily dosages equivalent to 0.5 to 2 g. of the herb, or 2.5 g in tea (about a teaspoon of the dried, ground herb). Preparations include tea, tinctures, fluid extracts, solid extracts, and even sedative chewing gums. Passionflower is also combined with valerian and hawthorn in products used in Europe to treat digestive spasms, gastritis, and colitis.

Like many medicinal herbs, the exact chemical components responsible for the plant’s sedative activity have not been definitively identified. Researchers have found small amounts of components known as harmala-type alkaloids in the plant, as well as compounds called flavonoids. In Germany, passionflower preparations were regulated to  contain no more than 0.01 percent of harman alkaloids. Some believe the flavonoids to be active compounds. Still other researchers believe that substances known as maltol and ethyl-maltol may be responsible for the sleep-inducing and muscle relaxant activity attributed to passionflower. Generally it is believed that the sedative effect is probably a result of an interaction between the alkaloids and flavonoids found in the extract.

While the active constituents and mechanism of action of passionflower requires more studies, various studies confirm a sedative effect on the central nervous systems. The degrees of effect is dependent upon dose.. Extracts of the herb inhibit fungi and bacteria. Studies indicate that the herb (or its extracts) relieves spasms, has a sedative effect, allays anxiety, and lowers blood pressure. The experience of numerous medical practitioners and herbalists in Western herbal traditions generally confirm the plant’s safety and efficacy.

Most of the supply of dried passionflower leaves either cultivated or wild-harvested in the U.S. goes to the European market. Farmers treat it as a weed in the South. USDA scientists focus on developing it as a new fruit crop for the U.S. Gardening enthusiasts appreciate the passionflower and subtropical passionflowers for their fantastic, colorful floral assemblage. Wild food enthusiasts, delight in its delicate, delectable flavor. And if you are an herb gardener, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy adding passionflowers to your herbary.

Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, a member of the Passifloraceae or passionflower family, a predominantly Neotropical American plant group of over 400 species, with three temperate North American representatives including, Passiflora lutea one of the most diminutive of all passionflowers, with blooms barely reaching 2cm in diameter, and fruits the size of a pea. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois.
Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, a member of the Passifloraceae or passionflower family, a predominantly Neotropical American plant group of about 500 species, with three temperate North American representatives including, Passiflora lutea.

References:

ESCOP. 1997. Passiflora herba. In ESCOP Monographs on the Medicinal Use of Plant Drugs. vol. 4. Exeter, UK: ESCOP Secretariat.

Felter, H. W. and J. U. Lloyd. 1898 Kings American Dispensatory, 18th ed. 2 vols. Portland, OR: Eclectic Medical Publications, reprinted 1983.

Foster, S.1991. “The Passionflowers.” The Herb Companion (August/September): 18-23.

Foster S. 1993. Herbal Renaissance: Growing, Using and Understanding Herbs in the Modern World. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs Smith.

Foster, S. and J. A. Duke. 2014. Peterson Field Guide To Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co.

Gremillion, K. J. 1989. The Development of a Mutualistic Relationship Between Humans and Maypops (Passiflora incarnata L.) in the Southeastern United States. Journal of Ethnobiology. 9(2):135-158.

Hoch, J. H. 1934. The Legend and History of Passiflora. American Journal of Pharmacy. (May): 166-170.

Krellin, J.K. and J. P{hilpott. 1990. Herbal Medicine Passt and Present. 2 vols. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mabberley DJ. 2008. Mabberley’s Plant-Book. Third Edition ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

McGuire, C.M. 1999. Passiflora incarnata (Passifloraceae): A New Fruit Crop. Economic Botany 53(2):161-176.

Olin, B. R., ed. 1989. “Passion Flower.” The Lawrence Review of Natural Products. (May):1-2.

Speroni, E., and A. Minghetti.1998 Neuropharmacological Activity of Extracts from Passiflora incarnata. Planta Medica 54: 488-491.

Ulmer T, MacDougal JM. 2004. Passiflora: Passionflowers of the World. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Vanderplank J. 1991. Passion Flowers (and Passion Fruit). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Weiss, R.F. 1988. Herbal Medicine (translated from German by A.R. Meuss). Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers Ltd.

Yuccas

Yucca flaccida, Yucca
Yucca flaccida, Yucca

Often when I’m out on a group hike, we come across plants that some are surprised to see in Arkansas. One of those plants is yucca. In fact, that are five species of Yucca recorded from Arkansas, including two or three from Carroll County, depending upon botanical whim. Botanists are so adept at changing plant names, that if they were put in charge of naming planets, we would surely wake-up one morning to discover that we no longer live on a planet called Earth. Telling Arkansas’s five yucca species apart from one another takes a good deal of chin rubbing.

Yucca elata
Yucca elata

Fortunately for lay-folk consumers of botanical knowledge, the common name yucca is the same as the genus name—Yucca. One species of Yucca here in Carroll County has a name that’s easy to remember —Yucca arkansana which is kin to Yucca louisianensis due to inbreeding or some other evolutionary exchange of genes in the pre-human past. In 2014, the late Dr. George P. Johnson, a botanist at Arkansas Tech in Russellville found Yucca freemanii in Miller County. Besides these three native species, Yucca filamentosa and Yucca flaccida occur here but are not native to Arkansas; they are naturalized. In other words, they were planted at some point and now grow and reproduce without the help of humans.

Yucca schidigera, Mojave Yucca
Mojave Yucca

In North America (north of Mexico) there are twenty-eight species of Yucca. Yuccas have been used for thousands of years for food, beverages, detergents, medicines, construction material, and especially as a fiber plant. During the First World War, 80 million pounds of yucca fiber were used to make course bags. The U.S. Navy used a special heavy paper made from yucca fiber during material shortages of the Second World War. Over the centuries, among indigenous groups of the American Southwest, yuccas were the foremost wild plants used for material necessities.

One National Park in California is named after a yucca (Yucca brevifolia) the 792,683-acre, Joshua Tree National Park. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decreed it a National Monument in 1933. In that same year, a cousin of Roosevelt’s, Susan Delano McKelvey, published a paper on yuccas in the Journal of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University where she worked as a research associate and valued patron. So which came first, the President’s decree or his cousin’s interest in Joshua tree and other yuccas? Later, she wrote the definitive two volume work Yuccas of the Southwestern United States. My vote goes to Roosevelt’s cousin.

Yucca brevifolia; Joshua Tree
Yucca brevifolia, Joshua Tree

White Snakeroot—History Blooming

By Steven Foster |

The autumn of 1818 was a difficult period for families in the small Indiana settlement of Little Pigeon Creek. Dennis Friend Hanks, a 19-year old, lived with his maternal grandparents, Thomas and Elizabeth Sparrows who died that fall from the milk sickness. The Sparrows lived on the homestead of their young niece whom they had raised, Nancy Hanks Lincoln along with her husband Thomas,  and their children 11-year-old, Sarah, and 9-year-old Abraham. On October 5, 1818, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, also died from the “milk sickness” a disease that had only been described in 1810 by Daniel Drake as a brief notice of a “new disease” in Cincinnati. The “milk sickness” was a perplexing fatal disease that took the lives of thousands in the Western frontier in the nineteenth century. It often affected entire families and destroyed communities. The only way to contract the disease was by drinking milk or eating butter. The cause of the disease confounded science into the 1920s.

Ageratina altissima, Eupatorium rugosum, Ageratum altissimum, White Snakeroot, Milk Poison Plant

Attempting to secure milk for his party camped north of St. Louis in 1827, T. L. M’Kenny, Chief of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was told by a settler that after early spring, people stopped using milk. M’Kenny was among the first to speculate that the milk must be tainted from the cows eating a poisonous weed.  By the late nineteenth century one plant, a wildflower, with white, button-like flowerheads less than a 1/2-inch across emerged as a suspect—White Snakeroot. Blooming in late summer and early fall, this native weedy wildflower once called Eupatorium rugosum is now known as Ageratina altissima.

In 1908 a USDA researcher, A. C. Crawford authored a U.S.D.A Bulletin “The supposed relationship of white snakeroot to milksickness or trembles.” He had proven that the dried plant produced no symptoms of milk sickness. Science is not always as it seems. He missed an important clue. Milk sickness only occurred during the growing season before the first frost of autumn. He only tested dried plant material and only proved that the dried plant was inert.

In 1926, another USDA chemist, James F. Couch, showed that fresh—not dried—White Snakeroot caused milk sickness. The following year he isolated the chemical complex—tremetol—as the toxic component. The mystery of milk sickness which claimed Abraham Lincoln’s mother and countless thousands of other settlers had finally been solved.

A version of this story was published in my weekly “Eureka Nature” column in the October 17, 2013 edition of the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper. I visited friends in Missouri on October 20th. They homestead a rich 80-acre Ozark farm in Douglas County, Missouri. They have goats. One died in the spring of 2013 of what a vet determined was “probably a parasitic infection.” The mother of four children suffered neurological symptoms. The family consumed a gallon of goat’s milk per day. Her husband stopped drinking goat’s milk that spring. It made him feel ill, leading him to the conclusion that he may have an allergy to goat’s milk. It made him nauseous. Once he stopped drinking goat’s milk, his health problems disappeared. The family’s and their livestocks’ collective symptoms, along with the presence of white snakeroot around their farm made me wonder—is milk sickness still with us, confined to small homesteads of back-to-the-landers, with symptoms of both livestock and humans completely unrecognized in modern medicine and thus unreported?

Let Nature Touch You—A Botanical Photo Workshop

Praying Mantis; Costa Rica
Praying Mantis; Costa Rica

Join me for a botanical photo workshop sponsored by Finca Luna Neuva Lodge in Costa Rica, 9-15 April 2016. Spend six nights at the beautiful eco-lodge and Certified Biodynamic herb farm, Finca Luna Nueva. Located just miles from one of the world’s most active volcanoes, the Arenal Volcano, Finca Luna Nueva is nestled in the heart of the country’s most pristine rainforests. Sign-up deadline is 8 March 2016.

Turmeric
Turmeric

The workshop will focus on techniques for improving plant and nature photography while exploring tropical beauty and attaining a deeper understanding of how to relate to plants. The fee is $1300 (double occupancy) and $1600 (single room) that includes six nights accommodation, all meals and airport transfer. Round trip airfare from your originating airport to San Jose Costa Rica (SJO) is additional. To reserve your space email: [email protected].

Finca Luna Nueva Lodge features the best of tropical comfort including an ozonated swimming pool and solar heated Jacuzzi along with spa services. Delightful meals of Costa Rican-Asian fusion cuisine, served three times a day are included with the package. Much of the food is produced on the farm.

Arenal-Volcano-6162909

Finca Luna Nueva Lodge features well-groomed hiking trails, along with the Sacred Seed Sanctuary Semillas Sagradas, an ethnobotanical garden harboring over 250 medicinal herbs. The garden, first established in 1994, has evolved under the guidance of New York Botanical Luna-Nueva-5151901Garden ethnobotanist, Michael Balick, America’s herbalist-in-chief, Jim Duke, and Costa Rican ethnobotanist, Rafael Ocampo.  This extraordinary collection of neotropical medicinal plants is under the care of Steven Farrell, President of Finca Luna Nueva and Biodynamic farmer extraordinaire.  The garden serves as a model for the creation of other Semillas Sagradas ethnomedicinal gardens elsewhere, in an effort to preserve not only local biodiversity, but the indigenous traditions that are keepers of the knowledge.  Rafael Ocampo and Michael Balick co-authored Plants of Semillas Sagradas: An Ethnobotanical Garden in Costa Rica (2009). The book can be downloaded as a pdf file at the Finca Luna Nueva website. And that’s just a taste of the botanical offerings. Turn around at any moment and you could see a three-toed sloth, emerald basilisk lizard, green iguana, red-eyed frog, toucan or morpho butterfly!

Red-eyed Tree Frog
Red-eyed Tree Frog

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