Santa is a Shaman

The Magic of Santa Claus

By Steven Foster ©2018

The December 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine has a fascinating article called “Masters of Ecstasy” by David Stern on mystical priests, practitioners of intervening between the seen and the unseen in matters of money, health, the future, and the past. These are the shamans of various ethnic traditions of Mongolia, Central Asia, and Siberia. The article tells the story of how these ancient traditions are seeing a strong revival following the downfall of atheistic communist regimes that fell like dominos nearly 25 years ago with the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Shamanistic traditions evolved in what is now Siberia and spread throughout the world thousands of years ago. Suppressed by Christian, Islamic and Buddhist religions, then by communist governments, their traditions went underground for centuries. Now shamans openly practice in north and Central Asia. Many work alone while others have organized, like the 10,000-member-strong trade union at the Golomt Center for Shamanic Studies in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital. The word shaman comes from a Siberian people known as the Evenki. Santa Claus is a shaman.

Aubyn Trevor-Battye is “Ice-Bound on Kolguev” (1895)
Celebrating St. Nicholas

This is the backdrop, the canvas that begins to paint of the visual depiction of the origins of the personage that has morphed into the modern American concept of  Santa Claus. One of the elements adopted in various Western European countries is celebration of a monk named St. Nicholas, who was born into wealth in Patara, in modern-day Turkey around 280 A.D. St. Nicholas, known for helping the poor and sick, celebrated for his kindness and generosity on his feast day of December 6. He was seen as  a protector of sailors and children. The veneration of St. Nicholas, the most popular saint of Renaissance Europe, survived through Dutch traditions.

Celebrations of the anniversary of St. Nicholas’s death (December 6) came to America with Dutch immigrants to New York, and noted in newspapers in 1773 and 1774. The Dutch nickname for St. Nicholas was “Sinter Klaas”, the source of our name “Santa Claus”. The now familiar images of stockings filled with toys come from engraved woodcuts distributed in New York at the annual meetings of the Dutch Sinter Klaas Society in 1804. The tradition was further cemented in America’s mind in the writings of Washington Irving (1783-1859). Best known for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle, he  also wrote A History of New York, From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty under the pseudonym of Diedrich Knickerbocker, published in 1809 which described the New York Dutch immigrant’s celebrations of “Sinter Klaus.”

We don’t know what sources Clement Clarke Moore drew upon to create his fanciful vision of Santa Claus. A 2012-2013 exhibit at the Lloyd Library and Museum in Cincinnatiinformed us of possible influences. The exhibit, “What Makes Reindeer Fly?” was devoted to the role of mushrooms, particularly the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) in cultural traditions. The Fly Agaric is the most iconic of all mushrooms. Its bright red cap, dotted with white cottony spots, is depicted in children’s books such as Alice-in-Wonderland, children’s toys, and even yard ornaments.

Gift giving for children, and the tradition of Christmas shopping were promoted with in newspapers advertisements in the 1820s, and by the 1840s, separate advertisement sections for Christmas shoppers appeared. In 1822, an Episcopal minister, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote a long poem for his three daughters called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”. Initially the poem was not meant for public consumption, but once published it became the iconic “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”  It introduced the concept of the “right jolly old elf” with a red suit, lined with white fur, knee-high black boots, rolled down at the top, and the magical ability to descend chimneys and deliver presents on a sleigh led by eight flying reindeer.

We don’t know what sources Clement Clarke Moore drew upon to create his fanciful vision of Santa Claus. A 2012-2013 exhibit at the Lloyd Library and Museum in Cincinnati informed us of possible influences. The exhibit, “What Makes Reindeer Fly?” was devoted to the role of mushrooms, particularly the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) in cultural traditions. The Fly Agaric is the most iconic of all mushrooms. Its bright red cap, dotted with white cottony spots, is depicted in children’s books such as Alice-in-Wonderland, children’s toys, and even yard ornaments

In Clement Clarke Moore’s day in the early nineteenth century up to the creation of steam pleasure ships, such as the Titanic, readers experienced the world by reading travel literature. One book featured in the Lloyd Library and Museum’s exhibit by English naturalist Aubyn Trevor-Battye is “Ice-Bound on Kolguev” (1895).

Kolguev is a 1900-square mile island in the Barents Sea, at 69 degrees north latitude. In other words its climate is Arctic. Home to an indigenous tribe once called the Samoyed people, today they are properly known as the Nenets. In Trevor-Battye’s day they were nomads whose economy was entirely dependent upon reindeer for food, clothing, shelter, and mobility. Trevor-Battye planned a month-long birding trip to the Island in July of 1894. Arctic ice blocked passage of boats, so his month-long expedition turned into a year’s journey. He described the reindeer as fleet-of-foot, and when crossing a snow-packed ravine at a gallop, the Nenets’ reindeer-drawn sleds would literally become airborne.

Shamans of the Nenets (and other nomadic indigenous tribes of northern Europe) wore red-dyed reindeer coats, with white fur trim along the bottom, neck, and sleeve edges. High black reindeer skin boots, rolled down at the top were their footwear. Today the Nenets wear rubber boots of the same design. Their red caps were also trimmed with white fur. The colors honor their sacred mushroom the Fly Agaric. The Nenets nomadic dwellings, a cross between a teepee and a yurt, called a “choom” had an open smoke hole at the top. During summer months, Nenets shamans collected the red and white Fly Agaric mushrooms. They dried them, and during the deep snow of winter, shared them with the community, entering the choom through the “chimney” hole at the top. They also shared the mushrooms with their reindeer herds, who relished them and would prance and jump under their influence.

Amanita muscaria, plate 79 from Burnett, M. A. and G. T. Burnett (1847). Plantæ utiliores Vol. 3.

Medicinal Plant Workshop, June 17-23 | Sign-up!

June 17-23, 2018 • 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: $497; Lodging: $55-$195; Meal plans: $94-$278 – 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

Surprise or Magic Lilies are just Naked Ladies!

By Steven Foster |

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 eastern North America 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.

From a 9 April 1990 article by Sereno Watson in Garden and Forest_A Journal of Horticulture, Landscape Art and Forestry.

Although not generally considered a medicinal plant, it does have bioactive components. 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 squamigeraAmaryllis 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.

Lycoris squamigera #7547 from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1897.

Our common naked lady is 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.  No doubt many gardeners, horticulturists and botanists have been confused by these relatives in the amaryllis family. It is no surprise that the 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. The plant was introduced into the horticultural trade as “Amaryllis hallii” a fanciful name of no botanical standing, and  distributed to the nursery trade by the the Boston seedsman, Charles Mason Hovey. By the late 1800s, having proven itself hardy in New England, other nurserymen widely distributed the bulbs. 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. © 2013-2017

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

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

Choose Your Poison: Blarney on Cannabis

By Steven Foster |

Dispatch from County Cork, Ireland! Just returned from an Herbal Excursion to the Emerald Isle, sponsored by Cynthia Graham at Nurse Natural Path.  Among the many things that I learned is that what you read into your own expectations may not be true. For example, I did not expect any place on earth at 53 degrees North latitude to be harboring palm trees and herbaceous plants from the Amazon. The warm clothes I brought with me proved mostly superfluous, a pleasant surprise, indeed, while basking in the comfort of temperatures in the low to mid 60°F range.

Blarney-Castle-083015_1467We visited Blarney Castle on 30 August 2015, famous for the Blarney Stone, which one kisses to gain the gift of eloquence and exposure to unknown microorganisms from tourist the world over. The first castle at the site was a wooden hunting lodge built in 1210, which seems old until you consider that some of the stone structures in Ireland were built a thousand years before the great pyramids in Egypt. The present Blarney Castle was built in 1446, so in Irish historical terms, it is a relatively new structure. Please forgive my lack of eloquence as I was too busy looking at the plants around Blarney Castle to stand in line to kiss the Blarney Stone, and as I wrote the intital draft of this article I was well into an evening draft or two of Guinness.

Instead, at Blarney Castle, I spent most my two hours at Cannabis-sativa-083015_1521the site in the Poison Plant Garden, which is the only one of its kind in Ireland. I was somewhat amused by the selection of plants in the garden, which included our Ozark native mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) and skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora). While mayapple has Cannabis-sativa-083015_1561legitimate claims to toxicity, black cohosh and skullcap themselves have no real safety issues except for products bearing their names that have been adulterated with toxic imposters. Nevertheless, by association in the absence of a complete understanding of the literature, the casual observer might think that they have some toxicity. There was a display of our native eastern North American poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) imprisoned in a cage with thick iron bars that a grizzly bear looking for a honey-rich beehive could not break-through.

Cannabis-sativa-083015_1544One of my fellow travelers beckoned, “Steven, look at this.” And there at the other end of the garden, beneath what appeared to be a repurposed geodesic dome playground monkey bar were caged marijuana plants. The warning sign was boldly emblazoned with skull and cross bones, a warning of the potential danger of the plant. Hmmm, I thought. A playground structure as a make-shift cage for marijuana plants? This can only be Irish humor.

Cannabis-sativa-083015_1529

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!

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.

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