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?

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!
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