Naked Ladies!

By Steven Foster |

Naked Lady; Surprise Lily; Resurrection Lily; Magic Lily; Lu cong; Lycoris squamigeraHere’s an update for 2014. Fayetteville, Arkansas’s KUAF Producer, Jacqueline Froelich aired a story on Surprise Lilies on 14 August 2014.   You can listen to the story here.  One of the alkaloids found in Lycoris squamigera is galanthamine, one of several toxic compounds in the plant. It is also  famously known from the related amaryllis family member Galanthus nivalis or snow-drops a common alpine species in mountains of Europe, which is grown as an ornamental in North America, and occasionally naturalized. First isolated in the 1950s, galanthamine, formerly extracted from Galanthus nivalis, is now produced synthetically on an industrial scale. It was used in some parts of the world in the 1950s to treat nerve pain associated with polio. Today, the compound is regarded as a long-acting, selective, reversible and competitive acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitor used in the systematic treatment of mild to moderate cognitive impairment in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

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

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

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

Living plants were introduced from Japan to America by Dr. George Rogers Hall (1820-1899) of Bristol, Rhode Island upon returning from Yokohama, in 1862. New England nurserymen widely distributed the bulbs in the late 1800s. Dr. Hall who co-founded a hospital in China in 1852, grew it in his Shanghai garden before 1860, and noted it was used by the Chinese to decorate cemeteries. Leaving medicine to enter the export business, Hall’s botanical legacy outshined his medical career. He was the first American to send live plants directly from Japan to New England including Japanese yews, Japanese dogwoods, and our vigorous prolific weed once known as Hall’s Honeysuckle. Protecting his good name, today we know it as Japanese Honeysuckle Lonicera japonica.  The rest, as they say, is history. © 2013 & 2014

First published in  the 8 August 2013 issue of The Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper, modified 7 August 2014.

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

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

From Herb to Turf

By Steven Foster |

Greetings from the Southern Maine Coast, as I contemplate my personal and family history in a be-here-now moment. My parents, married in 1951, have lived in the same house since. They are both in their mid-80s and mentally-sharp. “Going home” is going home, to the house in which I was raised.

I turn to memories of vegetation as is my obsession. In the past week I’ve been scanning old family photos. Amongst the files was a long-forgotten newspaper interview with me from the Portland Press Herald published in 1990. The accompanying photo has me ankle-deep in dandelion blossoms on what we called the side lawn at my parent’s home. My dad, Herb, reminded me that my grandmother, Lena Foster, went out every spring and harvested dozens of dandelion crowns—the rosettes of leaves obvious before dandelion flowers. I fondly remember eating my grandmother’s boiled dandelion greens with a dash of vinegar. In his 65-years of maintaining, mowing and improving the side lawn, my dad has proudly managed to turn the entire lawn into a monoculture of neatly mowed grass. “All of the dandelions are gone!” I exclaimed. “Good,” my dad, Herb replied.

I see their absence as a symptom of a greater evil—our society’s insatiable appetite for mowing and mowing machines. The fields surrounding the property, less than 2 acres, are mowed a couple of times during the growing season. Grass takes over a field once thick with wildflowers, such as common milkweed food of monarch butterfly larvae. Oh that pesky word “weed.”

“Why did you have that field cut now?” I asked my mother. “Why? she replies as if I’m daft, “Because the grass was too tall.”

My childhood memory banks flash back to scenes of crouching amidst the un-mowed thicket of common milkweed, aflutter with monarch butterflies. The colors and movement were punctuated by the random symphony of  polyrythmic insect buzzes, hums, and chirps.

My son and his cousin. Now both in their late 20s.
My son and his cousin. Now both in their late 20s.

When I was born in 1957, mowing was done with non-motorized push mowers. The cut was rough, but only a small area was mowed. Tractor-mounted mowers were used only to harvest hay. Now Americans are obsessed with every manner of hand-held, self-propelled, riding, and undoubtedly soon, robotic mowing machines. A Professor at the University of Massachusetts Plant Sciences Department, Lyle E. Craker, reminds me that the best high-paying jobs available for graduates in plant sciences is in the field of “turf management.” I haven’t mowed my yard this year. Interesting mix of grass species going to seed.

“Hey Dad, maybe you should change your name from Herb to “Turf.”

I'm not a weed! See, I'm cultivated, and less than 8 inches tall! I am immune from proposed Ordinance No. 2201.
I’m not a weed! See, I’m cultivated!

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.

Asclepias-syriaca-61414_373

“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 www.archive.org. 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.

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