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

A Bright Christmas and Solstice Magic

| By Steven Foster

Ice Beauty

I’m dreaming of a bright Christmas—sunny with temperatures approaching the low 70s. The iconic “White Christmas” is so 1940s! Forget the fact that Bing Crosby’s version of Irving Berlin’s song is the best-selling single of all time. A white Christmas is a historical song from 1941. We must look on the bright side of global warming as it relates to “climate change.” We just need to change our perspective. Speaking with my 87-yr old dad in Maine, he remarked that as a kid, he and his friends were always skating by Thanksgiving. I reminded him, that we—his kids—were also skating by Thanksgiving! During my Maine childhood a white Christmas was a given. Now, ponds and lakes barely hold ice in some Maine winters. But of course, a Maine winter is why this Maine native lives in the Ozarks.

Spring Street, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, Ice Storm 2009

Every time I experience, feel, and see beauty in nature, I am humbled and awed. I love how water changes into myriad forms of beauty in ice. I also love each and every strand of evolving, changing, adapting, mutating DNA that is The creator’s building block of creation.  I don’t believe in DNA, the stuff of The creator’s evolutionary magic. I don’t have to. It exists whether I choose to believe in it or not. Recent religious thought teaches us that the Earth is flat and the Earth is the center of the Universe. And “recent” I define as what historians calls the “early modern era” beginning about 1500. As one historian friend put it, “Anything that happened after 1500 is by definition current affairs.” I don’t believe in global warming. I don’t have to believe in it. Science has blessed me with a magic wand known as a thermometer. Burn me at the stake.

The beauty of snow, sleet and freezing rain

Spring Street, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, Ice Storm 2009

Which brings me to snow, sleet and freezing rain, and what differentiates them. Snow is created when a mass of cold, freezing air is uniformly below freezing from the Earth’s surface to the upper atmosphere. Sleet

Crescent Hotel, Ice Storm, January 29, 2009

is formed when the air aloft is like a sandwich.  In this case, the upper levels of the atmosphere are below freezing and when it snows, the snow passes through an atmospheric layer above freezing, causing the snow to partially melt. It then passes through a relatively shallow layer of below-freezing air at the surface, creating sleet. Freezing rain forms when rain from warm air aloft reaches below-freezing surfaces at ground level, caused by a shallow layer of cold air at the surface. Expect to see plenty of all three types of frozen precipitation this winter—courtesy of global warming.

Hoar Frost Beauty

Hoar frost on the edge of a Sycamore leaf.

And I love the beauty that all that ice in it’s myriad form creates. Take hoar frost for example. We’ve had beautiful hoar frost (also known as hoarfrost this year. But what is hoar frost? I turned to the website of the National Snow and Ice Data Center for a definition “Hoarfrost: A deposit of interlocking ice crystals (hoar crystals) formed by direct sublimation on objects, usually those of small diameter freely exposed to the air, such as tree branches, plant stems and leaf edges, wires, poles, etc., which surface is sufficiently cooled, mostly by nocturnal radiation, to cause the direct sublimation of the water vapor contained in the ambient air.”

Chickweed with hoar frost.

That certainly sounds like definition like that comes from a program with some association with the government. Specifically, the National Snow and Ice Data Center, or NSIDC is part of the University of Colorado Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (UCCIRES), and is affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC). NSIDC also supports the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the Arctic System Science Data Coordination Center (ASSDCC [can you say “I work at ASSDCC”]) and the Antarctic Glaciological Data Center (AGDC) or so Wikipedia says. In other words, the good folks at NSIDC know a good deal about frozen water on or about earth.  An advance degree in acronyms is required for employment there.

Dandelion leaf hoar frost

Hoarfrost, therefore, is like dew, except when it’s cold enough outside to freeze water (that is when it’s 32°F or 0°C), and there’s moisture in the air, then hoar crystals (flat crystals that interlock together), form from the moisture in the air when it comes in contact with the edge of the object that is below freezing (or vice versa?). So if you get up early enough, especially after a clear cold night, you can experience the direct sublime beauty of hoarfrost in all its simplicity.

Hepatica leaf

Glorious Ice Ribbons

American dittany frost flower.

Another winter beauty phenomena I love is frost flowers and ice ribbons. Perhaps new to your natural history vocabulary, we can also call this phenomena “crystallofolia,” a term coined by Bob Harms of the Plant Resource Center, University of Texas, Austin, who has been investigating the phenomena we commonly call “frost flowers”— those beautiful ice formations that are produced at the base of only two native plant species in my Ozark home. Our two native plant species that exhibit this phenomenon are American dittany (Cunila origanoides) and white crownbeard or frostweed (Verbesina virginica) both of which are late-blooming wildflowers. Their frost flowers or twisted ribbons of ice appear for a few days (up to a couple of weeks) after the first hard freezes in autumn. These ephemeral sculptural beauties in ice appear at the base of the plant.

Frost flowers from

The delicate, elegant ice formations emerge laterally from the stem, just above the ground in the case of American Dittany, but from ground level to two feet up the stem in the case of white crownbeard. Why does this phenomenon only occur in a select few plant species instead of all plants? Speculation is that a combination of characteristics unique to the plant in combination with the external physical forces provides a perfect opportunity for the frost flowers to develop. The xylem, vascular tissue within plants that helps conducts water upward in the stem, is probably quite firm, with secondary rays at a right angle that is strong enough to conduct water during a frost event but its tensile strength reaches a point during the first cold frosts, that freezing water burst through the epidermis at a right angle to the stem. As it does so, it ever so slowly punches moisture into the freezing air extruding ribbons of ice. I love these beauties of nature.

Pennsylvania physician, William Darlington (1782-1863) seems to be one of the  first to record observations of frost flowers in Cunila, or as he called it, Maryland Cunila. In the second edition (1837, p. 350) of his Flora Cestrica (an herborizing companion for the young botanists of Chester County, Pennsylvania) he writes: “In the beginning of winter, after a rain, very curious and fantastic ribbands [sic.] of ice may often be observed, attached to the base of the stems of this  plant—produced, I presume, by the moisture from the earth rising in the dead stems by capillary attraction, and then being gradually forced out horizontally, through a slit, by the process of freezing. The same phenomenon has been noticed other plants.”

White Crown-beard frost flower.

Predicting When Hell will Freeze Over

How do you survive a cold winter? Perhaps the best way, short of a long trip to a tropical location or being condemned to a mythical inferno, is to get a comparative perspective on someone else’s cold winter. In the English-speaking world we can turn to England, which has the longest series of monthly temperature observation datasets recorded back to 1659. This dataset is known as the CET (Central England Temperature), recorded in Celsius.

Icy Christian Icon

The winter of 1683-84 is believed to be the coldest winter since records have been kept, with a “great frost” settling in by mid-December for the UK and Central Europe. By January of 1684, the Thames River was frozen all the way up to London Bridge.  The Thames itself remained frozen for over two months, with ice measured to a depth of 11 inches. In southwest England, in Somerset, it is said that the ground froze to a depth of four feet.  Southwest England, has a relatively mild climate, tempered by the Gulf Stream in the winter months, and Azores high pressure systems in the summer. The winter of 1684 had thee coldest CET at –1.2 deg. C.  This period of cold winters lasted for several centuries. From 1408-1814, the Thames froze over 24 times; sometimes the ice was deep enough to support “frost fairs” on the Thames (the last one in 1814).

This is all within a period known as “the Little Ice Age”, a phrase first used in the scientific literature until 1939. It is loosely defined as a period from about 1350-1850, with three particularly cold periods around 1650, 1770 and 1850. Attributed causes include low cycles of solar radiation, increased volcanic activity and variables in ocean circulation.

Goji berry on ice

Fewer sun spots may cause cooling. The years 1645-1715 represent a period of weak solar activity (fewer sun spots) known as the Maunder Minimum period (in which only one-thousandth of “average” expected sun spots occurred). This solar lull is theorized to have trigged regional cooling in the Northern Hemisphere. Since 2008 we have been in a period of “solar maximum” yet only half of the sunspot activity expected has occurred. This has led some scientists to speculate that we could be heading toward a period of “cooler “solar activity within the next 40 years. Add that into the global-warming equation, and you still get climate change

 

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.

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.