AncientBiotics from Leechbooks

By Steven Foster |

Last week’s annual meeting of the Society for General Microbiology held in Birmingham England, announced some really exciting new research or the Society has a really good publicist. Papers presented at the meeting made worldwide news. One paper from researchers at Cardiff Metropolitan University, showed that date syrup a common sweetener in the Middle East, has antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli (the ubiquitous “E. coli”), that was as good as or better than honey as an antibiotic. Okay, like I said the Society has a great publicist. Researchers from the University of York reported on the discovery of a unique set of enzymes that help the bacterium Staphylococcus hominis create compounds called thioalcohols—revealing the chemical key to turning sweat into body odor! Good work publicist!

The study that got the most air, print, and internet play was from researchers at the University of Nottingham who reported that a complex formula teased from a thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon manuscript in the collection of the British Museum—Bald’s Leechbook—was surprisingly effective against methicillin-resistant Staphylococus aureus, better known as MRSA.

GarlicYou don’t want a spacesuit encased physician to walk into your hospital room  to inform you that you have MRSA and that they will have to move you to the hospital’s Ebola wing. . . The irony of this misplaced humor is that eight years ago, my father went to visit my older brother in a hospital after surgery, and just from visiting, my dad got a staph infection that is still with him now. And today, 10 April 2015, I write these words as I sit at my step son’s hospital bed after he had an operation yesterday. As he snores softly while firmly in the embrace of Morphius, the words repeat in my head, “wash your hands often.”

Likely in rural England 1,000 years ago, human immune systems were much more active than today, stimulated by what was undoubtedly a microbial-rich domestic environment. The 9th century recipe studied by the University of Nottingham scientists included two types of onion relatives, combined with wine and oxgall.

Dr. Christina Lee, Associate Professor in Viking Studies and member of the University’s Institute for Medieval Research translated the recipe, the original of which was reportedly a topical eye salve formula. The recipe not only calls for two species of Allium (garlic and onion or leek), wine and oxgall (bile from a cow’s stomach), it also describes a very specific method of making the preparation in a brass vessel, straining it then allowing the mixture to cure for nine days before use. See 30 March  2015 Press Release from the University of Nottingham. A video with interviews with the researchers is embedded in the press release.

The scientists at Nottingham made four separate batches of the remedy using fresh ingredients each time, as well as a control treatment using the same quantity of distilled water and brass sheet to mimic the brewing container but without the vegetable compounds. Microbiologists at the University of Nottingham then recreated and tested the concoction against MRSA, and were astounded to find a more than 90% effective rate against the bacterium.

Dr Lee (quoted in the Press Release linked above) said: “We were genuinely astonished at the results of our experiments in the lab. We believe modern research into disease can benefit from past responses and knowledge, which is largely contained in non-scientific writings. But the potential of these texts to contribute to addressing the challenges cannot be understood without the combined expertise of both the arts and science.

“Medieval leech books and herbaria contain many remedies designed to treat what are clearly bacterial infections (weeping wounds/sores, eye and throat infections, skin conditions such as erysipelas, leprosy and chest infections). Given that these remedies were developed well before the modern understanding of germ theory, this poses two questions: How systematic was the development of these remedies? And how effective were these remedies against the likely causative species of bacteria? Answering these questions will greatly improve our understanding of medieval scholarship and medical empiricism, and may reveal new ways of treating serious bacterial infections that continue to cause illness and death.”

Dr Freya Harrison, a University of Nottingham microbiologist led the work in the laboratory with Dr Steve Diggle and Research Associate Dr Aled Roberts. She presented the findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for General Microbiology  on Monday 30th March 2015 in Birmingham, England.

According to the press release, Dr Harrison commented: “We thought that Bald’s eyesalve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity, because each of the ingredients has been shown by other researchers to have some effect on bacteria in the lab – copper and bile salts can kill bacteria, and the garlic family of plants make chemicals that interfere with the bacteria’s ability to damage infected tissues.  But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was.  We tested it in difficult conditions too; we let our artificial ‘infections’ grow into dense, mature populations called ‘biofilms’, where the individual cells bunch together and make a sticky coating that makes it hard for antibiotics to reach them.  But unlike many modern antibiotics, Bald’s eye salve has the power to breach these defences.”

Denied further funding for the project by a UK government agency, the “AncientBiotics Project” leader Dr. Freya Harrison is using  Crowdfunder.co.uk page to request small contributions to continue the research.

The short video clip accompanying the University of Nottingham press release very briefly mentions the 1865 (Volume 2) of T. O. Cockayne’s translations  from  Bald’s Leechbook (and others). You can access the three volumes (1864, 1865, & 1866, respectively) by clicking on the links below:

Cockayne, T. O., et al. (1864). Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England being a collection of documents, for the most part never before printed, illustrating the history of science in this country before the Norman conquest. Vol. 1. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green.

Cockayne, T. O., et al. (1865). Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England: Being a collection of documents, for the most part never before printed, illustrating the history of science in this country before the Norman conquest. Vol. 2. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green.

Cockayne, T. O., et al. (1866). Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England: Being a collection of documents, for the most part never before printed, illustrating the history of science in this country before the Norman conquest. Vol. 3. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green.

One element missing from most news reports on the AncientBiotics Project is the fact that this type of multidisciplinary research called “text mining” is relatively new. Historians or linguists search historic manuscripts or antiquarian books for targeted words or concepts, then field and laboratory researchers from various disciplines use the data to design experiments. The Internet increases text mining exponentially, since once doesn’t have to be in the physical presence of a manuscript to review it, since many records are now digitized and readily accessible on-line. Similar research is being quietly conducted worldwide.

We all know that Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America, but he gets credit for it. Why? It is because the printing press arrived in Europe in 1440, developed by the German goldsmith, Gutenberg. The Chinese had developed movable type and printing processes 600 years earlier. The printing press allowed news to travel faster. The 1493 letter of Christopher Columbus to his sponsors describing his discoveries was immediately published in several languages and distributed throughout Europe. One can image him bowing before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and with a wink and smile while saying, “It’s all in the P.R.”

Today “P.R.” is a mouse click away.

Springtime Inspired “The Curious Mr. Catesby”

By Steven Foster |

It is a time of renewal—Spring. The spring equinox arrived along with a new moon, a moment of perigee (the moon’s closes point to the sun), and to top it all off, a total of solar eclipse, mostly seen in northern Europe. The cosmos screamed—“time for a change.” Roadsides, woodlands, and yards are beginning to green-up after a dreary winter. We enjoy the delight of jonquils and a chorus of songbirds by sunrise. It’s also a time for new books on natural history topics.

Imagine what European settlers arriving in the early 1700s thought about their first American spring. A wide-eyed, well-educated English naturalist of means, Mark Catesby (1683-1749) arrived in Virginia in 1712. Tuesday March 24th 2015 was his 333rd birthday. Catesby collected plants, particularly seeds, along with specimens of fauna and minerals then sent them back to England received by scientists eager to describe the new finds.

Available from the Catesby Commemorative Trust.
Available from the Catesby Commemorative Trust.

Much of what Catesby saw was new to science. He took up watercolor painting to record his observations. In 1719 he returned to England and wealthy sponsors encouraged his return to America in 1722, this time to South Carolina, where he stayed until 1726. Upon returning to England, he spent the next seventeen years illustrating and writing his monumental large-folia two-volume Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands: Containing the Figures of Birds, Beats, Fishes, Serpents, Insects, and Plants. . . ” (first published in ten parts from 1731-1742). One of the great classics of American natural history literature, it includes watercolors and descriptions of flora and fauna, many depicted for the first time, such as the exceedingly rare or extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and extinct birds such as  the Carolina Parakeet and Passenger Pigeon. The original watercolors are in the Royal art collection at Windsor Castle. The first edition of 160 copies,  with hand-colored plates many from the hand of Catesby himself, are quite precious. You can find an occasional copy for around $640,000.

 

The spring of 2015 brings with it a new book The Curious Mr. Catesby published by the University of Georgia Press. Lavishly illustrated and a fascinating read, it features 23 chapters on various aspects of Catesby’s work. Like a new spring, Catesby’s contribution to American natural history, continue to inspire. Like the first edition of his “Natural History”, The Curious Mr. Catesby, is an enduring example of why e-books will never replace the printed bound book as a physical object to hold and enjoy.

If you don’t have a spare half-million plus, you can view Catesby’s Natural History  Volume 1 and Volume 2 at the Biodiversity Heritage Library. These are just two of the nearly 160,000 volumes available at this incredible resource. Viewing a digital copy is one thing. Seeing the first edition in its physical form is a thrill for anyone interest in natural history. On April 19, 2015 the Lloyd Library and Museum in Cincinnati in partnership with the Cincinnati Nature Center, the Cincinnati Museum Center, and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, will hold an opening and book release party for The Curious Mister Catesby at the Cincinnati Museum Center. The opening will feature panel lectures by leading Catesby experts including Dr. Charles Nelson and David Elliott, editors of The Curious Mr. Catesby, along with botanist Prof. W. Hardy Eshbaugh (Miami University, Ohio) and Leslie Overstree, Curator of Natural History Rare Books at the Smithsonian Library. For more information on the extraordinary life and travels of Mark Catesby visit the Catesby Commemorative Trust.

The Lloyd Library and Museum’s rare first edition of Catesby’s Natural History will be on display along with the Cincinnati Museum’s second edition.

Yaupon Holly — My Cup of Tea

by Steven Foster |

Yaupon Holly, Black Drink, Ilex vomitoriaIt seems that every culture has it’s morning jump-start beverage— coffee, origination in Africa; tea from China; yerba maté imbibed in temperate South America, and chocolate which 500 years ago radiated out to the world from Central America. These plants contain caffeine and chemically-related stimulating alkaloids. Depending on preparation methods, all have their own variations on healthful antioxidants. Europeans adopted these beverages with further refinements.

But what happened to North America’s—yaupon holly? Like other morning beverages, yaupon is loaded with antioxidants, and is the only plant from North America that contains caffeine. Like yerba maté, it is a member of the genus Ilex (hollies). You can buy evergreen, red-fruited yaupon hollies at almost every nursery in the South. Common in forests of south Arkansas, it evolved in the Ouachita Mountains, then spread throughout the Southeast.

If you were pre-revolutionary European explorer entering a native village along the Gulf Coast, elders would greet you with an offering of yaupon holly tea. Native groups cultivated yaupon in naturalized groves beyond the plant’s natural range. The leaves were carefully plucked, dried, then prepared and offered as a sacred ceremonial beverage. Referred to as “black drink” simmered to a thick brew (think “espresso”) it was called “cassine” or “asi.”

English naturalist, Mark Catesby (1682-1749) author of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published from 1731-1742, describes a cleansing ritual in which on one day a year, all of a tribe’s members drank black tea to induce “spring cleaning” (vomiting). Yet, the other 364 days of the year, an infusion of yaupon leaves was drunk like we drink coffee or tea in the morning.

Today yaupon is making a come back. Now you can do an internet search for “asi tea” or “yaupon tea” and instead of references to historic literature, you will discover several small companies offering teas and beverages from the yaupon holly from Texas to Georgia.

Well-established as a beverage tea after the American Revolution, the Civil War seems to have disrupted sourcing in the South and relegated the plant’s use to history until now. Confused botanical nomenclature, finally clarified in 1949, may also have impacted perceptions about the plant. Since 1949, the accepted scientific name, bestowed on the plant in a work by English botanist William Aiton in 1789, lives in infamy— Ilex vomitoria.

More to come.

Here’s my photo gallery of yaupon holly images.

Cold-Blooded Investigator Targets Herbal DNA

| By Steven Foster

Ginkgo leaf; Ginkgo biloba; Ginkgo leaf close-ups horizontal (landscape) aspectTuesday February 3, 2015, the New York Attorney General, Eric T. Schneiderman, issued a press release on an action taken the previous day in which his office delivered “cease and desist” letters to four major retails including GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart alleging that they were selling herbal dietary supplements that did not contain the plant materials listed on the product labels. The herbs included Echinacea, Garlic, Ginseng, St. John’s Wort, and Saw Palmetto. According to the Attorney General’s press release 79% of the products tested, either did not contain the plant material claimed on the label or contained other plant materials not listed on the label. All of the products were “store brands,” made by contract manufacturers.

“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: the old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “The DNA test results seem to confirm long-standing questions about the herbal supplement industry. Mislabeling, contamination, and false advertising are illegal.” “Seem” is the operative word here.

Schneiderman has apparently been watching too many episodes of CSI “city du jour” in which the DNA always solves the crime. DNA analysis for plants is great for botanicals or plant specimens in which intact DNA still exist, but if you are testing an extracted plant ingredient—PRESTO—the DNA except in rare cases no  longer exists!

Every qualified, experienced plant analytical laboratory that authenticates botanicals day-in-and-day-out, knows that DNA alone is unreliable for testing plant extracts. Instead validated chemical analytical methods along with other validated lab methods are used. See link at the end of this article to see the American Herbal Pharmacopeia’s 54-page response to Attorney General Schneiderman which includes the appropriate lab methods to i.d. of the plant extracts in question.

A retired plant scientist friend mused, “if DNA testing is required for validating plant ingredients claimed to be in any product, the supermarket shelves would be empty.” If Schneiderman had applied the same DNA method to the brown liquid in the cup of coffee he might have drunk before his news conference, the test would have likely shown that his cup of coffee contained no detectable DNA of the coffee plant!

This is a case in which a public official, under the guise of science, has made allegations without confirming the validity of the science. Curiously, no plant genomic scientists I know had heard of the lab or researcher who did the testing! Turns out they hired a DNA lab specializing in reptile and dinosaur identification! I suppose that New York Attorney General Eric T.  Schneiderman decided to hire this lab after he had heard that the lab was run by “cold-blooded scientific investigators.”

A version of this story was published in the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper in the Nature of Eureka column on 11 February 2015.

See response to the New York AG from Roy Upton, Founder and Executive Director of The American Herbal Pharmacopeia, which supplies a rational response to an irrational action.

This is a continuing story.

The High-Handed Poinsettia

By Steven Foster |

A poinsettia in Belize
A poinsettia in Belize

The palace of the last Aztec king, Montezuma (1466-1520), was adorned with a gift from the gods—Cutetlaxochitl—“the flower that perishes like all that is pure.” In the 16th and 17th centuries, the  Aztec’s Christian conquerors adopted this plant festooned with  green and red leaves to symbolize the blood of Christ and rebirth of life. We know it today as Poinsettia. Native to Mexico and Central America, Poinsettias are not the neat 1–2 foot tall potted plants familiar to Americans rather they are tropical shrubs 4–15 feet tall!  The red leaf-like bracts or floral leaves beneath the barely noticeable flowers are what attracts our attention. A member of the spurge or euphorbia family (Euphorbiaceae), Poinsettia is known to botanists as Euphorbia pulcherrima Willd. ex Klotsch. A synonym is Poinsettia pulcherrima (Willd. ex Klotsch) Graham. “Pulcherrima” means beautiful.

In 1825 soon after Mexico became independent, President John Quincy Adams offered the new diplomatic post to Tennessee Senator, Andrew Jackson. Jackson declined the position as he aspired to another job—the job that Adams held. The populist Jackson defeated the cerebral John Qunicy Adams in the general election of 1828. President Adams appointed a South Carolina politician with botanical interests to the post of Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary at the U.S. Mission in Mexico City. His name was Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851).

The plant that once adorned Montezuma’s palace intrigued Minister Poinsett. He sent cuttings back to Charleston, South Carolina and to Philadelphia nurseryman Robert Buist. Buist shared Poinsett’s beautiful euphorbia with the first nursery to propagate the plant and offer it for sale—Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, America’s original nursery and botanical garden established in 1728 by John Bertram (1699-1777). In 1829, Bartram’s granddaughter, Ann Bartram Carr and her husband Col. Robert Carr introduced “a beautiful euphorbia” into the commercial trade. In 1834, Buist distributed plants to botanical enthusiasts in the United Kingdom. Then in 1836, Dr. Robert Graham of the Botanic Garden Edinburgh named the plant for Poinsett.  The gangly, weedy greenhouse novelty remained just that until the Ecke family of Encinitas, California developed a proprietary grafting method on dwarf stock and mass-produced the plant for the Christmas trade. They are the seasonal potted plants that we know today by the common name Poinsettia.

If you are a savvy aficionado of Mexican political slang, you may honor America’s first ambassador to an independent Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, as the inspiration for the word poinsettisimo—an expression denoting an obnoxious, arrogant or high-handed government official.

Botanical Photo Workshop with Steven Foster

| By Steven Foster |

I will be conducting a day-long photo workshop at the American Botanical Council’s Case Mill Homestead headquarters in Austin on December 6th. See this link for more information.

_DSC8029We admire them, we love them, we use them. Do we really know them? A great way to consciously spend more time with plants is to photograph them. With photography, what you see is not necessarily what you get. There’s a few things to know about what makes a good photograph, and how to capture it. It doesn’t matter if you are using an iPhone or hauling around 20 pounds of camera equipment. How do we see plants in a way that helps us to better understand them? There’s plenty of information to learn from books, but spending time with plants is a great way to gain more knowledge and understanding of plants and how to see them. Photography is only a tool that allows us to slow down to spend time with plants. Ultimately you photograph what you feel, not just what you see.The great American photographer, Ansel Adams wrote, “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” The objective of this workshop is to give you confidence with your ability to see the plant world through the eye of the camera to produce good photographs.

In shading a 14mm/f2.8 lens, I discovered that I had help.
In shading a 14mm/f2.8 lens, I discovered that I had help.

Photography is about understanding simple concepts such as light and timing—being in the right place at the right time, and patience. Like anything worth doing, photographing plants requires practice, and that gives us the opportunity to learn more about plants at the same time. Learning to keep your photography simple and understanding the equipment you have will enhance the quality of photography and the intrinsic value of your time with plants.

Daniel and Zora Vincek, are keepers of Botanicka Basta in Kolasin, Montenegro, a botanical garden featuring over 400 species of Montenegrin native plants The botanical garden was founded in 1981, and covers an area of 646 sq m, at an elevation of 1,018 m. Photo Workshop in Montenegro, 2011.
Daniel and Zora Vincek, are keepers of Botanicka Basta in Kolasin, Montenegro, a botanical garden featuring over 400 species of Montenegrin native plants The botanical garden was founded in 1981, and covers an area of 646 sq m, at an elevation of 1,018 m. Photo Workshop in Montenegro, 2011.
Shooting Gentiana lutea in Montenegro
Shooting Gentiana lutea in Montenegro

Topics Covered: The focus will be on techniques and ideas for improving photographic skills with practical hands-on fieldwork. It’s more about understanding simple concepts—lighting, being in the right place at the right time, and patience. And like anything worth doing, practice, practice, practice. We will explore working with ambient natural light and making the most of the equipment you have. Nature presents special conditions for photographing in the environment.

Shooting plants at Jim Duke's Herbal Vineyard.
Shooting plants at Jim Duke’s Herbal Vineyard.

Foster-Kansas-PrairieOne key to successfully capturing images is to know and understand your equipment. I’m an equipment geek, so I would recommend a decent digital camera body, close-up lens (macro lens or a diopter for a fixed lens). When people ask me what “my secret” is to getting great plant photographs, I can attribute it to one piece of equipment my a tripod. Photographing plants may require relatively long exposures, so besides the camera itself, a decent sturdy tripod and cable release is very helpful for plant photography. One other very essential piece of equipment is the camera manual. Read, re-read it and read it again until you begin to understand all of the features available and understand your camera’s basic operation. If you don’t have an array of equipment, don’t worry. You can take great photographs with your mobile phone.

Photographing lichens at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Photographing lichens at Rocky Mountain National Park.

As George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak put it, “Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

We will cover essentials helping to understand photographic
concepts such as depth of field, focus, exposure, composition, making the most of ambient light, and macro techniques. This is a hand-on experience.

An Amazon outing with Rosemary Gladstar and Mindy Green
An Amazon outing with Rosemary Gladstar and Mindy Green

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 now, 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 in Douglas County, Missouri. They have goats. One died of what a vet determined was “probably a parasitic infection.” The mother of four children suffered neurological symptoms. The family consumes a gallon of goat’s milk per day. The husbandman stopped drinking milk. He thought he had an allergy to goat’s milk. It made him nauseous. Once he stopped drinking goat’s milk, his health problems were gone. The collection of symptoms of the family and their livestock, as well as 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 or unreported?

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