Describing her first visit with Steven Foster in 1977, Harvard University botanist, Dr. Shiu Ying Hu (1908-2012), wrote, “Our conversation reminded me of something that Confucius said two thousand years ago. ‘In any company of three persons, there must be one who can be my teacher’. . . I found in Steven Foster a teacher who could share a profound knowledge of economic botany, particularly in the cultivation and uses of herbs.” In 1974, at age 17, Steven Foster, began his career at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community Herb Department —America's oldest herb business, dating to 1799. There he established three acres of production gardens and managed 1700 acres for the commercial harvest of botanicals.
For forty-three years, Steven has photographed and researched herbs from the Amazon rainforest to the highlands of Vietnam. Foster has over 900 photo-illustrated articles published in a wide range of media. Steven also served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, and a Contributing Editor to the organization's journal, HerbalGram.
Steven is the author, co-author and photographer of eighteen books, including the NEW 2014 Third Edition of A Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke), along with National Geographic’s Complete Guide to Medicinal Herbs (2010), and A Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (2006, with Rebecca Johnson), awarded a 2007 New York Public Library “Best of Reference.” He is senior author of three other Peterson Field Guides, including A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs (with Dr. James A. Duke), 1st & 2nd editions, 1990, 2000; A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs with Dr. Christopher Hobbs, (2002); and A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1995). Other titles include Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Prof. Yue Chongxi, 1992); Herbal Renaissance (1994); among others. Foster makes his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
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.
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, were 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 hundred 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.
Ripe 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.
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.”
Persimmon 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 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.
Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus) has been used for gynecological conditions since the days of Hippocrates (2500 years ago). With a rich traditional of use, modern research supports historical wisdom, and has made chaste tree fruit preparations a phytomedicine of choice by European gynecologists for treatment of various menstrual disorders, PMS, and other conditions.
Origins and Botany
The genus Vitex until recently has been associated for centuries with the verbena family (Verbenaceae), and includes about 250 species, primarily tropical shrubs and trees. Only a few Vitex species occur in temperate regions. Vitex agnus-castus L., commonly known as chaste tree, is the sole species to occur in Europe. Native to West Asia and southwestern Europe, the shrub was introduced throughout Europe at an early date. It was known in English gardens as early a 1570, and now occurs throughout the European continent.
Chaste tree is a shrub growing from nine to seventeen feet tall, though specimens twenty-five feet high, with trunks eight inches in diameter, have been recorded. It has palmate leaves, usually with five to nine (rarely three) leaflets, white hairy beneath, with densely hairy, resinous leaf stalks. The flowers are in a pyramidal-shaped showy cluster, with seven inch spikes, sporting tiny blue to lilac blooms. Chaste tree has a long blooming period, as early as April in the deep South, lasting into October in more northerly areas in the United States. Typically it blooms from June through August. The small round fruits (seeds) have a pungent scent and flavor. Introduced to American gardens by European immigrants in the early nineteenth, the shrub has become naturalized in much of the Southeastern United States, occurring in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, southeast Oklahoma, north to Maryland.
The genus name Vitex derives from an ancient designation, vei, meaning to “wind, bend or twine,” referring to the once common use of the tough, flexible branches in constructing woven (wattle) fences. Pliny was the first to apply the name Vitex to the plant, perhaps derived from the Latin “vitilium” (wicker-work). The species name “agnus-castus” derives from a historical mis-interpretation of the original Greek name, “ágnos,” first applied by Dioscorides, and translated as “holy, pure or chaste,” Castus derives from the Latin castitas, meaning chastity. Agnus the Latin for lamb, at some point in history, replaced the original Greek “agnos” in reference to this plant (Böhnert and Hahn 1990).
Chaste tree has been used for the treatment of menstrual difficulties for at least 2,500 years. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) wrote, “If blood flows from the womb, let the woman drink dark wine in which the leaves of the chaste tree have been steeped. A draft of chaste leaves in wine also serves to expel a chorion held fast in the womb” (as quoted by Bleier 1959). Use for gynecological conditions are also noted in the works of Pliny and Dioscorides (1st century A. D.), as well as Theophrastus (3rd century A.D.). “The trees furnish medicines that promote urine and menstruation,” wrote Pliny, “They encourage abundant rich milk. . .” (Jones 1966).
Dioscorides, quoted from Goodyer’s 1655 English translation, recognizes effects on females, “It doth brings downe the milke, and expells ye menstrua, being drank to ye quantity of a dragme in wine” (Gunther 1934). These recommendations survive to the time of Gerarde, “The decoction of the herbe and seed is good against pain and inflammations about the matrix, if women be caused to sit and bathe their privy parts therein; the seed being drunke with Pennyroiall bringeth downe the menses, as it doth also both in a fume and in a pessary. . .” (Gerarde 1633).
The tree was associated with ancient Greek festivals. In the Thesmophoria, a festival held in honor of Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, fertility and marriage, women (who remained “chaste” during the festival), used the blossoms for adornment, while bows of twigs and leaves, were strewn around Demeter’s temple during the festival (Böhnert and Hahn 1990). Pliny wrote, “the Athenian matrons preserving their chastity at the Thesmophoria, strew their beds with its leaves.” (Jones 1966). In Rome, vestal virgins carried twigs of chaste tree as a symbol of chastity. According to Greek mythology, Hera, sister and wife of Zeus, regarded as protectress of marriage, was born under a chaste tree. Ancient traditions associating the shrub with chastity were adopted in Christian ritual. Novitiates entering a monastery walked on a path strewn with the blossoms of the tree, a ritual that continues to the present day in some regions of Italy (Böhnert and Hahn 1990).
The shrub’s ancient association with chastity led to later use of the fruits as an anaphrodisiac, quieting the desires of the flesh, especially of celibate clergy. “These seeds have been celebrated as antiaphrodisiacs, and were formerly much used by monks for allaying the venereal appetite; but experience does not warrant their having any such virtues,” wrote Andrew Duncan in the 1789 edition of the Edinburgh Dispensatory.
Robert John Thorton (1814), put it more eloquently, “As there are provocatives to procreations, as shell-fish, eggs, and roots of orchises made into salep for the male, and spare dict and use of steel for the female, so it is possible the chaste tree may have a contrary effect; and hence the seeds have been called Piper monachorum (Monk’s pepper), who flew to them when they found the spirit to be willing, but the flesh weak.”
Many of the common names of the shrub refer to this use of the plant, including, Abraham’s Balm, Chaste Lamb-Tree, Safe Tree, Monk’s Pepper-Tree. It has also been called Indian-Spice, and Wild-Pepper, referring to the use of the fruits as a pepper substitute. The small round fruits (seeds) have a pungent scent and flavor reminiscent of black pepper. The fragrant leaves have also been used as a substitute for hops in brewing beer.
Through the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the fruits were little used by European medical practitioners. In the late nineteenth century, Felter and Lloyd (1898) suggested use of a tincture of the fresh berries to Eclectic medical practitioners to increase milk secretions and useful as an agent in menstrual disorders. In small doses, it was said to be useful in the treatment of impotence, and perhaps useful for nervousness or mild dementia.
Early Modern Research (1938-1960)
Madaus (1938) was the first to initiate use of chaste tree in the twentieth century. Recognizing the long-recognized value of the plant in gynecological disorders, he designed a series of animal experiment to determine which part of the plant had the greatest biological activity. Madaus found that extracts of the leaves, fruits, and bark retarded estrus (heat) in female rats, without evidence of adverse effects on reproductive performance. The fruits had the greatest activity.
During the Second World War, medical practitioners in Germany recognized a stress-induced lactation repression in women, prompting a search for effective galactogogues (milk stimulating substances). Clinical confirmation of the efficacy of chaste tree fruit preparations in stimulating lactation were published in three separate papers by Janke, Hofmeir and Noack and Noack in 1941, 1942 and 1943 respectively (as reviewed by Böhnert and Hahn 1990). Later animal studies in the late 1950s further confirmed an experimental lactation-stimulating action. In 1954, Mohr reported on a study of 1000 maternity patients, comparing vitamin B1 and a chaste tree fruit preparation in stimulating lactation to a placebo. The author concluded that the chaste tree fruit preparation resulted in more successful lactation than vitamin B1 or the control group. Increased lactation has been attributed to an increase in prolactin secretion, increased progesterone synthesis, reducing estrogen secretions (which tend to inhibit milk production).
Active constituents and Actions
Results of these early studies led investigators to postulate that either the plant contained a component that replaced hormones produced by the body, or plant extracts, acting through the pituitary, might regulate hormone production (Haller 1961). Various studies, reviewed by Böhnert and Hahn (1990), indicate that a tincture of the seeds produces an effect on the hypothalamus-pituitary system, showing a gonadotropic function and causing an increased release of lutenizing homone with consecutive increase of progesterone level. Prolactin secretion is inhibited because of a dopaminergic action. In other words it acts on the pituitary gland to regulate the production of and induce normalization of the ovarian hormones, changing the ratio of estrogens and gestagens in favor of gestagens. The timing of the release of pituitary hormones, regulate menstruation, fertility, and other processes. Hence, an agent that will produce a balance of hormones can help to regulate these processes.
The biological activity of chaste tree cannot be attributed to a single chemical component. The fruits contain flavonoids including the major flavonoid casticin, as well as orientin and isovitexin (Belic et al., 1958, 1961, 1962). Other flavonoids include 3,6,7,4’-tetramethyl ether of 6-hydroxykaempferol, and quercetagetin (Wollenweber and Mann 1982). The dried fruits also contain an essential oil (up to 1.22%), as well as iridoid glycosides including aucubin, eurostoside and agnuside among others (Görler et al., 1985, Gomma et al. 1978). A recent study detected the probable presence of delta-3-ketosteroids in flower extracts include progesterone, 17-a-hydroxyprogesterone, testosterone, and epitestosterone; leaf extracts yield andostenedione. However, the reported results of this study were ambiguous (Saden-Krehula, et al. 1990). The vast majority of chemical, pharmacological and clinical studies have involved a proprietary extract, Agnolyt®, (capsules and liquid) manufactured by Madaus AG, Cologne, Germany.
Modern Clinical Use
An imbalance of estrogen and progesterone has also been associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Symptoms appear seven to ten days before the beginning of menstruation, and cease once the cycle begins. Physical symptoms include painful breasts, abdominal discomfort and fullness, flatulence, edema (especially of the lower extremities, as well as the hands and the face), and headache. Mental symptoms may include mood swings, nervous irritability, depression, restlessness, and aggressiveness. It is estimated that between 5 and 30% of women may be affected by PMS. Therapeutic choices by health care professionals are based on severity of symptoms. In severe cases, the treatment of choice is likely to be steroidal hormones. In Europe, however, gynecologists have another choice, preparations made from the fruits of the chaste tree (Feldmann).
A clinical survey of German gynecologists published in 1992 evaluated the effect of a chaste-tree preparation (Agnolyt®) on 1542 women diagnosed with PMS. Treatment of 40 drops daily lasted an average of 166 days. Both physicians and patient assessed efficacy, with 90 percent reporting relief of symptoms, after an average treatment duration of 25.3 days. Two percent reported side effects, mostly gastrointestinal in nature (Dittmar et al 1992, Brown 1994).
In one clinical drug monitoring study of the efficacy and safety of long-term treatment with a chaste tree fruit tincture, 1571 women with menstrual disorders including corpus-luteum insufficiency and PMS were followed for a period of 7 days to six years (average 147.6 days). The preparations was 1:5 tincture, with a 58% alcohol content. The dose was 40 drops once a day taken on an empty stomach in the morning with water. In 90 percent of patients, the treatment eliminated or alleviated symptoms of PMS. Results for 465 patients were rated very good, 714 good, 220 satisfactory, 110 unsatisfactory, and in 62 cases no data was available. Adverse reactions were reported for 30 patients (1.9 percent), including 12 cases of nausea, malaise, gastric symptoms and diarrhea, and a single allergic reaction (Feldmann, et al., 1990).
Coeugniet, et al (1986), in a three month trial with 36 patients with PMS reported positive results in physical and psychological symptoms. A dose of 40 drops a day, taken over a three month period, produced a reduction in headaches, breast tenderness and pressure, bloating, and fatigue. Improvement in anxiety, mood swings, and other psychological symptoms were also reported. Given the positive results of experimental studies in the 1940s and 50s coupled with clinical experience, has lead to the use of chaste tree extracts in European phytotherapy in several major areas including: management of menstrual disorders, PMS, treatment of infertility produced by mild corpus luteum insufficiency, and hot flashes at the initial stages of menopause, among other conditions.
In Europe, the use of phytomedicines in the treatment of menstrual disturbances is often preferred over conventional treatment, if no contraceptives are indicated. Steroidal hormones are often considered unnecessary, and individual treatment initiated once differentiation has been made between cyclic and acyclic bleeding difficulties (Loch 1989). A benefit of chaste tree treatment is the relative lack of side effects compared with treatment with steroidal hormones. Another benefit is that the price of chaste tree preparation therapy is far below that of conventional treatment methods. The 1992 German Commission E monograph (now irrelevant as a regulatory document) on chaste tree fruits allowed use of preparations for menstrual disorders due to rhythmic disorders of menstruation, mastodynia (pressure and swelling in the breasts), and premenstrual syndrome. Preparations include alcoholic extracts of the pulverized fruits (tincture) formulated to an average daily dose equivalent to 30-40 mg of the seeds. No contraindications were listed. While no interactions with other drugs are reported, animal experiments indicate the possibility of interference with dopamine-receptor antagonists. Side effects noted include too early menstruation following delivery (resulting from activation of the pituitary), as well as rare instances of itching and rashes. Chaste tree preparations are contraindicated during pregnancy (Monograph Agni casti fructus).
In a review on the relationship between phytotherapy and orthodox medicine, Schilcher (1994) reports that an important reason for the acceptance of phytotherapy by many German physicians is the existence of the scientifically supported Commission E monographs (as cited above). He also notes that acceptance of phytotherapy rests with the fact that in Germany, their use is consider a component of orthodox medicine and not an alternative approach. In Germany chaste tree fruit preparations are considered a safe, effective, and low-priced tool available to, accepted by, and widely used by gynecologists.
Chaste tree, recognized for nearly 2,500 years in the treatment of gynecological conditions, has been widely used in European phytotherapy for over fifty years. The majority of clinical reports in that period have been non-controlled studies by gynecologists in clinical practice, who report positive results. Chaste tree preparations are frequently used in the safe and effective treatment of PMS, heavy periods, too frequent periods, acyclic bleeding, infertility, suppressed menses, and other conditions, many of which are linked to corpus luteum insufficiency. Vitex is an excellent example of a phytomedicine which serves as a low-priced tool in orthodox European gynecological practice, rather than an “alternative” treatment.
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Milewicz, A. E. Gejdel, H. Sworen, K. Sienkiewicz, J. Jedrzejak, T. Teucher, and H. Schmitz. 1993. Vitex agnus-castus Extract in the Treatment of Luteal Phase Defects Due to Hyperprolactinemia: Results of a Randomized, Placebo-controlled Double-Blind Study. Arzneim.-Forsh. Drug Res.43(7): 752-756.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 Garden 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!
People often ask me if they can grow something here in the Ozarks that was the same plant or group of plants that they could grow wherever it was that they came from, be it New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, Florida or California. In almost every instance one of the major limiting factors between the Ozarks and wherever you came from, is that back there—wherever “there” might be—they had soil. Here in the Ozarks, that dirt underfoot is a poor excuse for soil.
We live in a tough landscape, despite our abundance of water and somewhat intact forests. The hot, dry summers and marginally productive soils challenge survival skills especially in times of food insecurity. Among the agricultural plants that provided a food source when all else fails are beans collectively known as cowpeas or field peas (Vigna unguiculata) which includes acre peas, blackeyed peas, cream peas, crowder peas, southern peas, table peas and whippoorwills, among others. In the South these are grown by home gardeners and seed collectors, replaced by soybeans in mega-agriculture as a small dry bean with high protein content that grows on marginal land.
All of these small, dry peas or beans come from Vigna unguiculata, which is believed to originate in dry lands in Africa, and was grown in Arabia and Asia Minor before the Christian era and found in northwestern India, present-day Pakistan and adjacent Persia (Iran) in ancient times. It was known in China by at least the fourteenth century. It arrived in Jamaica somewhere between 1672 and 1687, and one might speculate that captive African slaves managed to smuggle the seeds with them from West Africa. It was known in Florida by 1775. George Washington acquired seeds and grew it out at Mount Vernon around 1797.
George Washington Carver (whose birthplace is a National Monument in Diamond, Missouri, south of Joplin) promoted the planting and development of black-eyed peas, now associated with Southern cuisine and soul food.
The tradition of eating black-eyed peas for good luck to celebrate the New Year is synonymous with American Southern tradition. Coming from Maine originally, I never heard of it until moving to Arkansas. However, it is not a tradition that originated in the American South, but stems from a tradition to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year as recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (from about the year 500). Black-eyed peas swell when cooked, symbolizing prosperity. On New Year’s day, remember to eat black-eyed peas before you buy a lottery ticket.
Campbell, B.C. 2014. Just Eat Peas and Dance: Field Peas (Vigna unguiculata) and Food Security in the Ozark Highlands, US. Journal of Ethnobiology 34(1):104-122.
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.
We 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 the 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 legitimate 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.
One 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.