Exploring Medicinal Plants in Maine

June 18-24, 2017 • Eagle Hill Institute on the Maine Coast with Steven Foster |

Steven_FosterJoin me 18-24 June 2017 at the Eagle Hill Institute in Steuben, Maine, located way downeast, up the beautiful Maine coast in America’s most easterly county. The Eagle Hill Institute (formerly the Humbolt Research Institute) offers fascinating Natural History Science Seminars, and this is one in that series. Sign-up and join me in returning to my Maine roots!

General Registration information at this link (Workshop fee: $485; Lodging: $55-$195; Meal plans: $89-$265 – fees subject to change—check the Eagle Hill website for pricing).

Find registration form here.

Eagle Hill Institute

Pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea
Pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea

“The Eagle History Institute setting is located on the densely forested summit of Eagle Hill, the highest part of Dyer Point, the peninsula between the Schoodic Point section of Acadia National Park and Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge. Trails through its boreal forest lead from the summit of Eagle Hill to a number of overlooks offering inspirational views of the coast of Maine, with its rocky and evergreen-lined shore and its many islands, bays, and peninsulas. Other trails are just a short distance to Dyer Bay and a blueberry field” (from Eagle Hill Institute website). 59 Eagle Hill Road, P.O. Box 9, Steuben, ME 04680 |Phone: 207.546.2821, Fax: 207.546.3042, [email protected]

Rosa rugosa
Rosa rugosa

The campus features residential accommodations, classrooms facilities, dining facility, the extensive Eagle Hill Library with a specialized natural history collection, with on-line access to several thousand journals. With wi-fi available throughout the campus, the internet becomes an ocean of information via a high-speed connection.

Ecological Habitats at Eagle Hill

Wolfs-Neck-39996“Eagle Hill is the highest point on one of a series of peninsulas that extend into the Atlantic Ocean along the coast of eastern Maine. To the immediate west is the Schoodic Point section of Acadia National Park and to the immediate east is Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge. The Institute lies within a coastal fringe of northern boreal forest with mostly spruce and fir and a mix of maples, birches, and other species. Most of the coastal area is sparsely inhabited. To the north, the land is used for logging but is still essentially wilderness. An unusually rich variety of habitats can be found within a short distance of the station: many different marine habitats as well as marshes, fens, bogs and heaths, blueberry barrens, lakes and ponds, rivers and streams, and extensive forested lands.” From Eagle Hill Institute website The Ecological Habitats in the Vicinity of Eagle Hill.

Waves1-061609-7119

 

Medicinal Plants of Maine

Whether you’re a seasoned natural history professional or curious outdoor enthusiast, a working knowledge of medicinal plants promises new appreciation of how humans relate to plants. The use of plants for medicinal purposes has preoccupied humankind for millennia, across all cultures and every conceivable geographic region and landscape. Better known for lobsters than ginseng, Maine is home to a hidden treasure trove of pharmacologically active, useful and

Underwater herbs in tidal pool
Underwater herbs in tidal pool

fascinating plants with a story to tell about human experience, past and present. We will emphasize field identification, tradition and current scientific understanding of medicinal plants in eastern Maine (and beyond), both in the classroom and the field, stopping along the way for a photography or two.

Syllabus: Exploring Maine’s Medicinal Plants

With Steven Foster

The Diversity of Medicinal Plant Exploration

Butterfly weed with Monarch Butterfly
Butterfly weed with Monarch Butterfly

In any given temperate flora, upwards of 25 percent of vascular plants can be documented as medicinal plants at least in a historical context, and a high percentage of those plants have a rational scientific basis for their traditional medicinal use. Maine has a flora of about 2,100 species of vascular plants (compare that to 940± bird species for North America, north of Mexico). About a third of the Maine flora is represented by non-native species. Theoretically upwards of 500 species could be included in the total number of medicinal plants in Maine.

 Eupharia strica, Eyebright
Eupharia strica, Eyebright

Medicinal plant research by its very nature is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. It includes numerous academic disciplines such as taxonomy, genetics, biogeography, ethnobotany, history, classic field systematics, phytochemistry, emerging analytical fields such as metabolomics, and broad-ranging disciplines encompassing pharmacology and medicine. Whether a member of an uncontacted Amazonian indigenous group or a patient undergoing leading-edge chemotherapy treatments, medicinal plants touch our daily lives in surprising ways.

Focus on the Plants Around Us

Exploring medicinal plants in a particular locale, such as Washington County, Maine, affords use the opportunity to focus in on the local flora and immerse into a microcosm of discovery.

IMG_0195To understand modern utilization of medicinal plants, the past must blend with the present. Our survey of medicinal plants found in Maine (and beyond) begins with the human experience of discovery. Given that in the twentieth century American society became largely separated from day-to-day knowledge and use of plants as medicines, we can approach the vast subject with with a sense of discovery and awe at the sheer volume of information available to us in the digitized twenty-first century. A word of caution, when it comes to authoritative information on herbal medicine “www” can stand for the “world wide wasteland” where anyone can “publish” anything without the benefit of editors, fact-checking or peer review. That said, however, the internet is an extraordinary source of detail. One must learn how to sift through relevant resources, just as an herb harvester must learn how to garble recently harvested plant material to produce a raw material for use.

A New Era of Discovery

Since the mid-1450s well over 130 million books have been published, many in the last 100 years. Any book published more than 100 years ago can reasonable be placed in the public domain, meaning that any copyright restrictions have expired. Through an extensive international effort, many of the world’s extraordinary libraries are digitizing their collections. To date over ten million books have been digitized.

Gerarde's Herball 1597 title page
Gerarde’s Herball 1597 title

Josselyn-J-1672-New-Englands-Rarities-Discovered_Page_01Millions of books such as the important classic English herbals of the 16th and 17th centuries can be downloaded to your computer, tablet or smart phone as portable pdfs. For example, it is known that the Pilgrims who landed at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 carried with them a copy of the 1597 edition of The Herball of John Gerarde. A scanned, digital copy of the original book which looks just like the printed volume as a searchable pdf resides on my iPad.  One of the first books to enumerate food and medicinal plants found in Maine is by John Josselyn (1630-1675)—New England Rarities Discovered: In Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, and Plants of That Country published in 1672. You can buy an original from an antiquarian book dealer for about $17,500. Or you can download a pdf copy for free from www.biodiversitylibrary.org or from www.archive.org.

John Gerarde-1636-HerballThe new digital reality give us access to the world’s great libraries and rare books that heretofore required an appointment, credentials, and significant time in a rare book room in a major library. This creates the opportunity to discovery where a particular use for a plant may have originated. For example, a folk preventative and remedy for gout, passed down through generations, is eating copious amounts of wild strawberries in early summer. As fate would have it, this was a serendipitous discovery of the founder of modern botanical and zoological taxonomy, Carlos Linnaeus (1707-1778) who suffered from a severe gout attack in 1749, and by chance ate a handful of wild strawberries which relieved his gout (as noted in his diary). Almost all of the published works of Linnaeus are now on-line as downloadable pdfs.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolum
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium

Once we have a sense of traditional or historic use, modern print literature and database resources such as internet search engines such as PubMed (the database of the National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest medical library), Google Scholar, and other free resources will help us to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Questions to Explore

S-Foster-6-14-14In a week’s time, we can reasonable expect to explore about 50 medicinal plant species found in Washington County near Eagle Hill. We will attempt to discover how to find answers to a series of questions, including and not limited to:

 

  • 1). What is the plant’s identity and pertinent morphological features for field i.d.?
  • 2). Where does the plant originate and what is its habitat? Is the plant indigenous to Maine? Is it rare or widespread? Is it an invasive alien? What is the plant’s geography in Maine and elsewhere?
  • 3). What do we know about medicinal use in a historical sense, and is that relevant today?
  • 4). What types of scientific information, such as chemical, pharmacological, or human studies are available to suggest confirmation of, or perhaps refute traditional use?
  • 5). How is the plant prepared for use?
  • 6). What dosage forms are used traditionally or in modern medicine?
  • 7). Is there anything we can learn from other cultures about present or potential use?

Activities

Wntergreen
Wntergreen

We will emphasize field identification, traditional and current scientific understanding of medicinal plants in eastern Maine (and beyond), both in the classroom and the field, stopping along the way for photographic opportunities and collection, if appropriate. Weather permitting, mornings will be spent in the field collecting when possible and identifying plants. Along the way we will take time to hone our photographic and observation skills, learning to “see” what me might otherwise overlook had we been paying attention.

Afternoon and evening class sessions will include photo-illustrated presentations on field collection and observation techniques, plant i.d., and exploring information resources on plants that we observe in the field.

Plantago maritima var. juncoides; goosetongue plantain
Plantago maritima var. juncoides; goosetongue plantain

No library of books, electronic network or database of information can replace the knowledge gained from the tactile experience inherent in being human—touching, tasting, observing and smelling the plants that grow around us. A walk in the woods is a chance to get to know the plants around us.

Reference materials:

Duke, James A. 1986. Handbook of Northeastern Indian Medicinal Plants. Lincoln, Mass.: Quarterman Publications.

Duke, James A., Mary Jo Bogenschutz-Godwin, Judi duCellier, and Peggy-Ann K. Duke. 2002. CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Boca Raton, Fla: CRC Press.

Foster, Steven. 1995. Forest Pharmacy — Medicinal Plants in American Forests. Durham, N.C.: Forest History Society.

The all new third edition of a Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: eastern and Central North America.

Foster, Steven. and James A. Duke. 2014. Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America. 3rd edition. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Foster, Steven, and Christopher Hobbs. 2002. A Field Guide Western to Medicinal Plants and Herbs. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Foster, Steven, and Rebecca L. Johnson. 2006. National Geographic’s Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Foster, Steven, and Varro E. Tyler. 1999. Tyler’s Honest Herbal. 4th ed. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press.

Foster, Steven, and Yue Chongxi. 1992. Herbal Emissaries — Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West. Rochester, Vt.: Healing Arts Press.

Desk Ref-PaperGrieve, Maude. 1931. A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses. London: Jonathan Cape.

Haines, Arthur. 2010. Ancestral Plants: A Primitive Skills Guide to Important, Edible, Medicinal, and Useful Plants. Vol. 1. Turner, ME: Anaskimin (www.anaskimin.org)

Haines, Arthur. 2011 Higher Vascular Plants of New England. Framingham, MA: New England Wildflower Society; New Haven: Yale University Press.

Haines, Arthur. 2015. Ancestral Plants: A Primitive Skills Guide to Important, Edible, Medicinal, and Useful Plants. Vol. 2. Turner, ME: Anaskimin (www.anaskimin.org)

Haines, Arthur and Charles Vining. 1998. Flora of Maine. Bar Harbor, Maine: V.F. Thomas Co.

Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney and Jill E. Weber. 2010. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono: ME: University of Main Press.

Moerman, Daniel E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, Ore.: Timber Press.

Josselyn Botanical Society. 1995. Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Maine. Josselyn Botanical Society of Maine Bulletin 13. Orono, ME: Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station, Bulletin 844.

Scribner, F. Lamson. 1874. Useful and Ornamental Plants of Maine. Pp. 157-237 in: Nineteenth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Maine Board of Agriculture for the Year 1874. Augusta, ME: Sprague, Owen & Nash.

Yanovsky, E. 1936. Food Plants of the North American Indians. U.S. Dep. Agric., Misc. Publ. 237, pp. 1-88.

Portland Headlight-039

Persimmons—Ripe at Last

| By Steven Foster

Diospyros virginiana, persimmon, was widely used as food and medicine by native groups, who made a paste of the ripe fruits, baked it into loavess about the thickness of the finger. Mixed with cornn meal, it made an excellent bread. Colonial physicians used the dried ripe fruit, the powder of the unripe fruit, the powdered inner bark or the bark of the root taken in wine for treatment of dysentery, diarrhea, fevers, hemorrhoids and other conditions. Used historically for making beer, spirits and wine.
Diospyros virginiana, persimmon, was widely used as food and medicine by native groups, who made a paste of the ripe fruits, baked it into loaves about the thickness of the finger. Mixed with corn meal, it made an excellent bread. Colonial physicians used the dried ripe fruit, the powder of the unripe fruit, the powdered inner bark or the bark of the root taken in wine for treatment of dysentery, diarrhea, fevers, hemorrhoids and other conditions. Used for making beer, spirits and wine.

Fall colors are popping, and piles of pumpkins remind us that cold weather is soon upon us. I love the autumn colors for how they differentiate one tree from another.  A few native trees show-off their fruits this time of year like orange-brown persimmons dangling like holiday ornaments. Persimmons are delicious if they are ripe, which begs the question, which came first, the season’s first frost or the first ripe persimmon? Conventional wisdom is that persimmons ripen once they are hit by a frost. This year, we have yet to have a frost, but I’ve been plucking ripe persimmons for two weeks.  I enjoy their sweet flavor and mealy texture, projecting the seeds with a purse of the lips like one ejects watermelon seeds. Given the timing, I can only conclude that the first frost and the ripening of persimmons occur at about the same time each year no matter what the weather.

Experience teaches any wild food enthusiast that you bite into an unripe persimmon only once. The high astringency sucks every bit of moisture from one’s mouth! This year as I’ve tested persimmons for ripeness with a gentle squeeze to determine their softness, my curiosity leads me to inspect each persimmon. I notice s that those persimmons that are ripe show signs of interest by small creatures. Maybe it’s a small hole or the remnants of a web on the outside, or some other little evidence of a bug. My theory is that when a bug bites a persimmon, they inject or induce some enzymatic reaction that hastens the fruit’s ripening; a twist of coevolution.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmon As I ponder information that I’ve collected on persimmons, all roads lead back to the time of George Washington’s presidency. In 1792, a physician and chemist, James Woodhouse (1770-1809) completed his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania, with publication of “An Inaugural Dissertation, on the Chemical and Medical Properties of the Persimmon Tree, and the Analysis of Astringent Vegetables.

 

The persimmon tree, called piakimine, we learn from early explorers, wewoodhouse-james-1792-persimmon-dissertation_page_01re widely used as food and medicine by native groups, who made a paste of the ripe fruits, baked it into flat cakes about the thickness of the finger. Mixed with flour from other food sources, it made an excellent bread. Colonial physicians used the dried ripe fruit, the powder of the unripe fruit, the powdered inner bark or the bark of the root taken in wine for treatment of dysentery. Woodhouse records a treatment for hemorrhoids “as useful as any, in the cure of the disease.” It is a mixture of the juice of unripe persimmons with hog’s lard, “sugar of lead” [lead acetate which actually has a sweet taste] and opium.

The potential of the unripe juice of persimmons in tanning leathers excited Thomas Jefferson. Woodhouse suggested that three Diospyros virginiana, persimmonhundred persimmon trees, producing an average of four bushels of fruits could produce six pounds of gum resin per tree which would be far superior to oak bark for tanning. It would require less labor, less capital and be far cleaner [for the environment] than the standard tannery of the day which relied upon oak bark. For a time, North Carolina commercially cultivated persimmons. In the South, when forests were cleared, persimmon trees were preserved, which is perhaps why we have an abundance of persimmon trees around old Ozark farmsteads today.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmonRipe fruits can be collected and squeezed through a strainer to remove the seeds and as much of the skin as possible, then put away in the freezer until needed. A wide variety of products can be made from the dried, frozen or fresh fruits. This is best reflected in the pages of Billy Joe Tatum’s Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook (Workman Press, 1976.) Billy Joe transformed wild edibles from the realm of survival foods to haute cuisine. In her popular book she includes recipes for Persimmon breads, cookies (with chocolate chips), Persimmon and corn meal muffins, custard, fruit cake, Indian-style pudding, jam, jelly, pie, pinwheels, sherbet and even Persimmon soufflé.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmon

During Civil War years rebel soldiers used Persimmon seeds as a coffee substitute. In attempts to find substitute products unavailable because of Union blockades on southern ports, the southern fields and forests became creative sources of replacement commodities. Recipes were developed for Persimmon syrups, vinegar, coffee, and beer.

In D.J. Browne’s Sylva Americana (1832) the author relates:

“The fruit is sometimes pounded with bran, and formed into cakes which are dried in an oven, and kept to make beer, for which purpose they are dissolved in warm water with the addition of hops and leaven. It was long since found that brandy might be made from this fruit, by distilling the water, previously fermented, in which they have been bruised. This liquor is said to become good as it acquires age.”

Diospyros virginiana, persimmonPersimmon is a member of the Ebony Family (Ebenaceae). The genus Diospyros, the largest in the family, has 500 or more species widely distributed in Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean Region, South and North America. Though primarily a genus of tropical regions with just a few species enduring colder climates, the fossil remains of ancient Diospyros species are recorded from the Miocene deposits of Alaska and Greenland, and the Cretaceous formations of Nebraska.

Diospyros virginiana – Persimmon, Possumwood, Possum Apple, Date Plum, or Virginia Date Plum as it is variously known, is the species found in eastern North America. A second North American species Diospyros texana occurs in river valleys of southwestern Texas, extending into Mexico.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmonDiospyros kaki and D. lotus, two east Asian species, have been cultivated for centuries in China as a fruit crop. Many new cultivated sweet and seedless varieties have been developed over the years. The Asian fruit-producing species are sometimes grown in warmer regions of the U.S. as a minor cash crop. It is interesting to note that the temperate North American Diospyros virginiana is much more closely related to the East Asian D. lotus (occurring from the northwestern Himalayas through eastern China to Japan), than it is to South American relatives. The leaves of the two species are strikingly similar. Some botanists have asserted that unlabeled specimens of the two species could be laid side-by-side, and an expert would be hard-put to determine which was which.

The generic name Diospyros means “fruit of Zeus”, apparently referring to the life-giving properties of the fruits. The specific epithet “virginiana” obviously refers to the region from which it was first collected.

 

What will the future hold for Persimmons? The fruits have an endless possibility for variety and development of new products. A curious natural product scientist might follow the lead of studying the use of Persimmon seeds for kidney stones. Wood workers might find novel uses for the tough, tight-grained material. And maybe one or two of you will stop at a fruit-laden Persimmon tree on your way to the supermarket and collect a few pounds of a divine native fruit.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmon

White Snakeroot—History Blooming

By Steven Foster |

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Nature Touch You—A Botanical Photo Workshop

Praying Mantis; Costa Rica
Praying Mantis; Costa Rica

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

Turmeric
Turmeric

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

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

Arenal-Volcano-6162909

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

Red-eyed Tree Frog
Red-eyed Tree Frog

Continue reading Let Nature Touch You—A Botanical Photo Workshop

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.

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.