Passionflower – Herb n’ Food

© Steven Foster |

Passionflower; Passion flower; Maypop; Purple Passionflower; Passiflora incarnata
Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata

Intent on reaching the swimming hole on a seething July afternoon, my attention was diverted by a loud pop under foot. Relieved by the realization that the object was vegetable rather than animal, the victim plant caught my attention again, this time by the indescribable, intricate beauty of its bloom. I had stepped on a fruit of the passionflower or maypop. Such is the memory of a New England transplant upon first encountering a maypop in the Ozarks. This fast-growing perennial vine is more widely known as passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). In the Southeast it’s also called apricot vine.

Passionflower’s Name

What design of nature or serendipitous evolutionary event could create a flower of such unusual beauty? Such radiance is beyond scientific rationale. Best to describe it in religious terms. The first Europeans to observe the plant did just that. The name is derived from flos passionis, a translation of fior della passione, a popular Italian name which was applied to the plant to signify religious symbolism. The floral structure was seen to symbolize the implements of the crucifixion—the Passion of Christ— his period of suffering following the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. The three spreading styles atop the stigma were thought to represent the three nails by which Christ was attached to the cross. The five hammer-like anthers atop of the stamens exemplify the hammers used to drive the nails, or to others, Christ’s five wounds. Beneath these floral structures is a fringe of colored filaments, known as the corona. It was believed to depict a halo or perhaps the crown of thorns. Beneath it sits the corolla—with ten petals, each representing the ten apostles at the Crucifixion— save Peter and Judas. Some early missionaries envisioned that the bell-shaped, unopened or recently closed flower held these sacred symbols from the view of heathens who had not yet been converted to Christianity. If that’s not enough, the lobed leaves and long green vines further represent the hands and whips of Christ’s prosecutors. And so, both the common and Latin names—passionflower (Passiflora)—speak of these mysteries. Thomas Johnson editor of the 1633 edition of Gerarde’s Herball described these notions for what they were: “The Spanish Friers for some imaginarie resemblances in the floure, first called it Flos Passionis, The Passion floure, and in a counterfeit figure, by adding what was wanting, they made it as it were an Epitome of our Saviors passion. Thus superstitious persons semper sibi somnia fingunt” [always see contrived images]. The species name of passionflower “incarnata” means “made of flesh or flesh-colored.” Maypop, of course, refers to the fruits, the shape and size of a hen’s egg, which open with a resounding pop when squeezed.

 

Passiflora incarnata, Passionflower, or Maypop. Passionflower is variously wildflower, weed, ornamental perennial, delectable edible, or medicinal herb. The fruits, "maypops", are edible. The whole above ground plant is considered a mild nerve sedative and a sleep aid. When tension, restlessness and irritability result in difficulty in falling asleep, passionflower is an herbal remedy of choice.
Passiflora incarnata, Passionflower, or Maypop. Passionflower is variously wildflower, weed, ornamental perennial, delectable edible, or medicinal herb. The fruits, “maypops”, are edible. The whole above ground plant is considered a mild nerve sedative and a sleep aid. When tension, restlessness and irritability result in difficulty in falling asleep, passionflower is an herbal remedy of choice.

Passionflower Diversity

Depending upon your perspective passionflower is wildflower, weed, ornamental perennial, delectable edible, or medicinal herb. The flowers of one hybrid P. x alatocaerulea (a cultivated hybrid between P. alata and P. caerulea) are used in perfumery. That covers all the bases of the definition of an herb— any plant or plant part used for culinary, fragrant or medicinal purposes. Therefore, it deserves a place in herb gardens. Here we will primarily focus on the common maypop, wild passionflower, or apricot vine (P. incarnata) the only native species that is hardy and can be widely cultivated in much of the U.S.

Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, a member of the Passifloraceae or passionflower family, a predominantly Neotropical American plant group of over 400 species, with three temperate North American representatives including, Passiflora lutea one of the most diminutive of all passionflowers, with blooms barely reaching 2cm in diameter, and fruits the size of a pea. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois. Although yellow wild passionflower is very rarely mentioned in the medicinal plant literature, in 1840 Dr. L. Phares of Mississippi is said to have used this small North American vine interchangeably with the common passionflower. I have made a tincture (alcohol extract) of both plants. They have a very similar flavor and fragrance. The fruits are decidedly different, though. Those of P. lutea are globular black berries, about 1/4 inch across. They have a much more acidic flavor than maypop.
Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea one of the most diminutive of all passionflowers, with blooms barely reaching 2cm in diameter. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois.

The passionflower (P. incarnata) is an herbaceous  perennial, trailing or climbing, with tendrils. The white to blue purple flowers are up to three inches across. It occurs in waste ground, along fence rows, roadsides, and fields from Pennsylvania to southern Florida, west to east Texas and north to southern Missouri, and Ohio.  In the United States we have about 25 native or naturalized species of Passiflora, but only the passionflower and its diminutive relative wild yellow passionflower (P. lutea), with tiny yellow flowers about an inch across, are hardy natives. Wild yellow passionflower is rarely grown in gardens.

The genus Passiflora, with only a handful of temperate species, explodes in diversity in the American tropics with about 500 species. An additional 20 species occur in Indomalaysia and the south Pacific islands. Some have edible fruits. Others do not. About 30 species of passionflower have edible fruits. At least 40 species and numerous cultivated varieties are found in American gardens, primarily in warmer areas.

Passiflora edulis, passion fruit, passionfruit is used as a commercial source of passionfruit beverages in the tropics. Since the fruits have poor keeping qualities they are seldom seen outside of local tropical markets. A folk remedy for insomnia, neuralgia, muscle spams and epilepsy. Juice considered a digestive aid.
Passiflora edulis, passion fruit, passionfruit is used as a commercial source of passionfruit beverages in the tropics. Since the fruits have poor keeping qualities they are seldom seen outside of local tropical markets. A folk remedy for insomnia, neuralgia, muscle spams and epilepsy. Juice considered a digestive aid.

The undisputed edible king of passionflowers is passionfruit or purple granadilla (Passiflora edulis) which is cultivated for its edible fruits and juice. It is native to southern Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina. A large passionfruit industry in Brazil grows purple-fruited forms for the fruits, while yellow-fruited cultivated forms are used for juice extraction. Passionfruit is grown commercially in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and other tropical regions. It was introduced into Hawaii in the 1880s, where it became a popular home garden flower and fruit on the islands. By the 1930s it had become wild on every island in the archipelago. Commercial cultivation operations are also found in Kenya, South Africa, India, Pacific islands, and other tropical regions where it thrives. According to Arthur O. Tucker passionfruit has proven hardy in protected situations as far north as Ontario. If you do buy seeds or plants of this species and don’t live in a subtropical area, you will probably want to bring it indoors for the winter. The vast majority of scientific references to Passiflora species refer to the passionfruit and its many cultivars and hybrids. Much of the research has focused on attempting to unlock the unusually complex, sweet, delicate-perfume flavor of the fruits.

Other passionflowers are grown as subtropical food plants as well. The tropical American species running pop (P. foetida), now a weed in the old world tropics, is grown for its fruit, as is the banana passionfruit (P. mollissima). Yellow granadilla, or water lemon (P. laurifolia), also known as Jamaica honeysuckle, is a commercial fruit crop. Its name does not derive from any resemblance to honeysuckle (Lonicera species) but from the fact that the fruits are eaten by sucking out the pulp from the rose-scented fruit.  Sweet calabash (P. maliformis) is grown to produce grape-flavored juice. Giant granadilla (P. quadrangularis) sports a large fruit about eight inches long which is eaten as a vegetable. Individual fruits of cultivated varieties of giant granadilla may weigh as much as several pounds. When still green the rind is boiled and eaten as a vegetable. If ripe, it is eaten iced (with sugar) or the fruit-wall may be candied. Members of the genus Passiflora hybridize readily and have produced numerous cultivated hybrids, primarily grown in the tropics for fruit production.

Passiflora vitifolia, Grapeleaved Passionflower, Crimson Passionflower is a showy native to Central America. The berry-like fruit is sour, then slowly ripens over a month a flavor likened to sour strawberries.
Passiflora vitifolia, Grapeleaved Passionflower, Crimson Passionflower is a showy native to Central America. The berry-like fruit is sour, then slowly ripens over a month a flavor likened to sour strawberries.

Other passionflowers such as red-flowered species P. vitifolia which sports crimson red flowers, or blue passionflower (P. caerulea) are grown as ornamentals. They do not produce edible fruits.  Some cultivars of the blue passionflower such as ‘Constance Elliot’ which sports white flowers, are reported to be hardy in protected situations as far north as central Delaware. The tender ornamental passionflowers can be grown as annuals, taking cuttings in late summer rooting them before the first frost, or growing them in a large container to winter it over.

Native to Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, Passiflora caerulea, is one of three semi-hardy species of passionflowers, and is widely cultivated as a window box plant or gardens in southern Europe, surviving temperatures of -15°C. It was cultivated in France as early as 1625, and first document in London in 1629. Today it is one of the most widely-grown passionflowers in horticulture, and source of many hybrids. These photos were taken in a garden in Podgorica, Montenegro.
Native to Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, Passiflora caerulea, is one of three semi-hardy species of passionflowers, and is widely cultivated as a window box plant or gardens in southern Europe, surviving temperatures of -15°C. It was cultivated in France as early as 1625, and first documented in London in 1629. Today it is one of the most widely-grown passionflowers in horticulture, and source of many hybrids. These photos were taken in a garden in Podgorica, Montenegro.

Growing Passionflower

Subtropical edible or ornamental passionflowers are primarily relegated to the realm of the specialized collector, or those who have access to a greenhouse. But the passionflower (P. incarnata) can be grown by most herb gardeners. While passionflower is commonly regarded as a southern plant, it will grow as far north as the Boston area, and I suspect, if placed in a well-protected situation and mulched through the winter, it would even survive as a perennial in central Maine. Here in the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks, the native passionflower withstands temperatures of -25° F. without any protection. When purchasing seeds or plants it’s probably a good idea to at least inquire where the plant material originated, if the seller knows. Passionflower seeds or plants from south Florida are probably likely to survive in New England, than plants originating from more northerly areas. While dying back to the ground each year, it makes a marvelous fast-growing climbing cover for a fence, or can be trained on a trellis as a focal point for the herb garden. In the South it will grow 20—30 ft. in a single season. In more northerly areas, expect a growth of about 15 feet in a season. Passionflower grows in waste places, thriving in relatively poor, sandy, acidic soils. Good drainage is essential. Full sun is necessary.

Passiflora incarnata, Passionflower herb production in Guatemala
Passiflora incarnata, Passionflower herb production in Guatemala

Propagation is by seeds, cuttings, or layering. Cuttings about six inches in length can be taken from mature plants, then rooted in sand. Maypop grows readily from seed—if one is patient. After harvesting the fruits, clean out the seeds from the mucilaginous fleshy aril surrounding them, then plant immediately. They may germinate late in the summer, or may sit dormant until the following spring. The experience of many who try passionflower from seed for the first time is disappointment, born of expectations that the seeds will germinate in a couple of weeks. Wait a year if you have to. The result of your patience and suspense will be worth it a few years later.

Propagation by layering can be achieved simply by removing the leaves from a small section of a stem in late summer, placing a portion beneath the soil, with a leafy end sticking out of the ground. Water well, and in a few weeks, the buried stem should produce roots. But wait. Keep the layer in the ground through the dormant months, allowing it to develop a full root system before transplanting. The layered cutting can be severed from the mother plant and placed in a new location. With a little luck and persistence, you will soon have your own passionflower planting. Of course, the easiest technique is simply to buy plants from a nursery. Young plants are often slow-growing, taking two or three years to establish. After that, watch out—it can entangle everything else in your perennial beds.

Passionflower as Food

In his “Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf” John Muir speaks of the apricot vine (maypop) has having a superb flower “and the most delicious fruit I have ever eaten.” If you grow passionflower, you must taste the fruits. The fruits of the passionflower ripen from yellowish to light brown in color. The slimy aril covering the seeds is very sweet and fruity when ripe. The hard seeds can be separated from the pulp through a sieve or apple sauce strainer. Or if you are in the garden, you can pop open the ripe fruit and suck the delicious pulp from the fruit. Make sure that the fruit is not over-ripe. Perfectly ripe fruits are delicious . Over-ripe fruits ferment into a foul paste.

Passionflower, Passion flower, Maypop, Purple Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata
Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata

At the annual funding-raising auction of the Arkansas Native Plant Society a few years ago, I was the fortunate high bidder on two jars of maypop jelly. I know of no other native fruit whose flavor is best described as “indescribable.” The best maypop jam recipe can be found in Billy Joe Tatum’s Wildfoods Field Guide and Cookbook (Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York 1976). Billy Joe’s book, which transformed wild edible from the realm of survival food to haute cuisine, also contains a delicious recipe for maypop punch, and maypop ice, a cool refreshing beverage with juiced maypops and pineapple sherbet. To make 10 half-pint jars of maypop jam, she combines 5 cups of gently rinsed maypops, with a 1/2 cup of lemon juice, one box of powdered pectin and 7 1/2 cups of sugar. Enough water is added to barely cover the fruit. Standard procedures for making jam are followed.

Passionflower was a minor food item of American Indian groups in the Southeastern U.S. Archaeological evidence shows that maypop seeds could be found at Indian camp sites over 5000 years old. Seventeenth century visitors to Virginia such as the Englishman William Starchey observed the harvesting of fruits from  corn fields. Calling it maracock, Starchey described it as “of the bigness of a green apple, and hath manie azurine or blew kernells, like as a pomegranat, a good sommer cooling fruit.” It is unclear whether native groups intentionally planted the passionflower as a crop or whether it simply occurred naturally on the disturbed ground at the edge of the plot.  It is clear, however, that native groups of the Southeast enjoyed this late summer fruit for many centuries.

Passionflower as Medicine

Passionflower, Passion flower, Maypop, Purple Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata
Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata

Passionflower never became an important medicinal plant in the U.S. Like many American medicinal plants, however, it is more highly revered in modern Europe than in its native land.  In the second volume of his 1830 Medical Flora or Manual of Medical Botany of the United States the naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque makes one of the earliest reference to medicinal use. He recommends a syrup of the fruits as a cooling agent for fevers. The leaves, he says are used externally, and the juice given to dogs to cure the “staggers or epilepsy.” This use was first recorded in 1787 by a German surgeon, Johann David Schoepf, who served with Hessian mercenaries siding with the British during the Revolutionary War.

In Europe, passionflower products are used as mild nerve sedatives and a sleep aid. The introduction of this medicinal use is credited to  Dr. L. Phares of Mississippi who in an 1840 issue of the New Orleans Medical Journal, recorded its use. Remaining an obscure reference in the literature, Dr. I.J.M. Goss of Atlanta reintroduced passionflower into Eclectic medical practice in the late nineteenth century.

Dr. E. D. Stapleton writing in a 1904 issue of the Detroit Medical Journal summed up his experience in using passionflower tincture to treat insomnia “I would say that its action is best obtained in cases of nervousness due to causes other than pain-that it is slow in acting because it is not a narcotic, but a nervine and sedative. It relieves irritation of the nerve-centers and improves sympathetic innervation, thus improving circulation and nutrition, and is as a rule sure in its results-no bad after-effects, no habits formed”.

In the eighteenth edition of King’s American Dispensatory (1898), authors H.W. Felter and J.U. Lloyd characterize its action. “Its force is exerted chiefly upon the nervous system, the remedy finding a wide application in spasmodic disorders and as a rest-producing agent. . . It is specially useful to allay restlessness and overcome wakefulness, when these are the result of exhaustion, or the nervous excitement of debility. It proves specially useful in the insomnia of infants and old people. It gives sleep to those who are laboring under the effects of mental worry of from mental overwork.”  Sounds like I need some myself.

Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, a member of the Passifloraceae or passionflower family, a predominantly Neotropical American plant group of over 400 species, with three temperate North American representatives including, Passiflora lutea one of the most diminutive of all passionflowers, with blooms barely reaching 2cm in diameter, and fruits the size of a pea. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois. Although yellow wild passionflower is very rarely mentioned in the medicinal plant literature, in 1840 Dr. L. Phares of Mississippi is said to have used this small North American vine interchangeably with the common passionflower. I have made a tincture (alcohol extract) of both plants. They have a very similar flavor and fragrance. The fruits are decidedly different, though. Those of P. lutea are globular black berries, about 1/4 inch across. They have a much more acidic flavor than maypop.
Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, with fruits the size of a pea. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois. Although yellow wild passionflower is very rarely mentioned in the medicinal plant literature, in 1840 Dr. L. Phares of Mississippi is said to have used this small North American vine interchangeably with the common passionflower.

It is interesting to note that while yellow wild passionflower (P. lutea) is very rarely mentioned in the medicinal plant literature, Dr. Phares of Mississippi is said to have used this small North American vine interchangeably with the common passionflower. I have made a tincture (alcohol extract) of both plants. They have a very similar flavor and fragrance. The fruits are decidedly different, though. Those of P. lutea are globular black berries, about 1/4 inch across. They have a much more acidic flavor than maypop.

Herbal Medicine Past and Present by John K Crellin and Jane Philpott (Duke University Press 1990) is based on extensive interviews over a seven year period with an Alabama herbalist, Tommie Bass. Bass, quoted in the text says, “Its the most wonderful sleep and pacifying plant, valuable for a nerve medicine . . . Any good sleeping medicine has passion-flower in it.”

Today the American passionflower is used in a number of proprietary phytomedicines (plant medicines) in Europe, used for “conditions of nervous anxiety.” A dosage of  4-8 g. of the herb per day in infusion (tea) or other methods of preparation such as equivalent extracts for internal use. Products are made from the fresh or dried whole plant (excluding the root). It is usually collected at flowering time. It is also widely used as a sleep aid. The fresh or dried whole plant as well as their preparations are also used in daily dosages equivalent to 0.5 to 2 g. of the herb, or 2.5 g in tea (about a teaspoon of the dried, ground herb). Preparations include tea, tinctures, fluid extracts, solid extracts, and even sedative chewing gums. Passionflower is also combined with valerian and hawthorn in products used in Europe to treat digestive spasms, gastritis, and colitis.

Like many medicinal herbs, the exact chemical components responsible for the plant’s sedative activity have not been definitively identified. Researchers have found small amounts of components known as harmala-type alkaloids in the plant, as well as compounds called flavonoids. In Germany, passionflower preparations were regulated to  contain no more than 0.01 percent of harman alkaloids. Some believe the flavonoids to be active compounds. Still other researchers believe that substances known as maltol and ethyl-maltol may be responsible for the sleep-inducing and muscle relaxant activity attributed to passionflower. Generally it is believed that the sedative effect is probably a result of an interaction between the alkaloids and flavonoids found in the extract.

While the active constituents and mechanism of action of passionflower requires more studies, various studies confirm a sedative effect on the central nervous systems. The degrees of effect is dependent upon dose.. Extracts of the herb inhibit fungi and bacteria. Studies indicate that the herb (or its extracts) relieves spasms, has a sedative effect, allays anxiety, and lowers blood pressure. The experience of numerous medical practitioners and herbalists in Western herbal traditions generally confirm the plant’s safety and efficacy.

Most of the supply of dried passionflower leaves either cultivated or wild-harvested in the U.S. goes to the European market. Farmers treat it as a weed in the South. USDA scientists focus on developing it as a new fruit crop for the U.S. Gardening enthusiasts appreciate the passionflower and subtropical passionflowers for their fantastic, colorful floral assemblage. Wild food enthusiasts, delight in its delicate, delectable flavor. And if you are an herb gardener, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy adding passionflowers to your herbary.

Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, a member of the Passifloraceae or passionflower family, a predominantly Neotropical American plant group of over 400 species, with three temperate North American representatives including, Passiflora lutea one of the most diminutive of all passionflowers, with blooms barely reaching 2cm in diameter, and fruits the size of a pea. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois.
Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, a member of the Passifloraceae or passionflower family, a predominantly Neotropical American plant group of about 500 species, with three temperate North American representatives including, Passiflora lutea.

References:

ESCOP. 1997. Passiflora herba. In ESCOP Monographs on the Medicinal Use of Plant Drugs. vol. 4. Exeter, UK: ESCOP Secretariat.

Felter, H. W. and J. U. Lloyd. 1898 Kings American Dispensatory, 18th ed. 2 vols. Portland, OR: Eclectic Medical Publications, reprinted 1983.

Foster, S.1991. “The Passionflowers.” The Herb Companion (August/September): 18-23.

Foster S. 1993. Herbal Renaissance: Growing, Using and Understanding Herbs in the Modern World. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs Smith.

Foster, S. and J. A. Duke. 2014. Peterson Field Guide To Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co.

Gremillion, K. J. 1989. The Development of a Mutualistic Relationship Between Humans and Maypops (Passiflora incarnata L.) in the Southeastern United States. Journal of Ethnobiology. 9(2):135-158.

Hoch, J. H. 1934. The Legend and History of Passiflora. American Journal of Pharmacy. (May): 166-170.

Krellin, J.K. and J. P{hilpott. 1990. Herbal Medicine Passt and Present. 2 vols. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mabberley DJ. 2008. Mabberley’s Plant-Book. Third Edition ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

McGuire, C.M. 1999. Passiflora incarnata (Passifloraceae): A New Fruit Crop. Economic Botany 53(2):161-176.

Olin, B. R., ed. 1989. “Passion Flower.” The Lawrence Review of Natural Products. (May):1-2.

Speroni, E., and A. Minghetti.1998 Neuropharmacological Activity of Extracts from Passiflora incarnata. Planta Medica 54: 488-491.

Ulmer T, MacDougal JM. 2004. Passiflora: Passionflowers of the World. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Vanderplank J. 1991. Passion Flowers (and Passion Fruit). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Weiss, R.F. 1988. Herbal Medicine (translated from German by A.R. Meuss). Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers Ltd.

Yuccas

Yucca flaccida, Yucca
Yucca flaccida, Yucca

Often when I’m out on a group hike, we come across plants that some are surprised to see in Arkansas. One of those plants is yucca. In fact, that are five species of Yucca recorded from Arkansas, including two or three from Carroll County, depending upon botanical whim. Botanists are so adept at changing plant names, that if they were put in charge of naming planets, we would surely wake-up one morning to discover that we no longer live on a planet called Earth. Telling Arkansas’s five yucca species apart from one another takes a good deal of chin rubbing.

Yucca elata
Yucca elata

Fortunately for lay-folk consumers of botanical knowledge, the common name yucca is the same as the genus name—Yucca. One species of Yucca here in Carroll County has a name that’s easy to remember —Yucca arkansana which is kin to Yucca louisianensis due to inbreeding or some other evolutionary exchange of genes in the pre-human past. In 2014, the late Dr. George P. Johnson, a botanist at Arkansas Tech in Russellville found Yucca freemanii in Miller County. Besides these three native species, Yucca filamentosa and Yucca flaccida occur here but are not native to Arkansas; they are naturalized. In other words, they were planted at some point and now grow and reproduce without the help of humans.

Yucca schidigera, Mojave Yucca
Mojave Yucca

In North America (north of Mexico) there are twenty-eight species of Yucca. Yuccas have been used for thousands of years for food, beverages, detergents, medicines, construction material, and especially as a fiber plant. During the First World War, 80 million pounds of yucca fiber were used to make course bags. The U.S. Navy used a special heavy paper made from yucca fiber during material shortages of the Second World War. Over the centuries, among indigenous groups of the American Southwest, yuccas were the foremost wild plants used for material necessities.

One National Park in California is named after a yucca (Yucca brevifolia) the 792,683-acre, Joshua Tree National Park. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decreed it a National Monument in 1933. In that same year, a cousin of Roosevelt’s, Susan Delano McKelvey, published a paper on yuccas in the Journal of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University where she worked as a research associate and valued patron. So which came first, the President’s decree or his cousin’s interest in Joshua tree and other yuccas? Later, she wrote the definitive two volume work Yuccas of the Southwestern United States. My vote goes to Roosevelt’s cousin.

Yucca brevifolia; Joshua Tree
Yucca brevifolia, Joshua Tree

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

Eat Your Blackeyed Peas

By Steven Foster |

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.

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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.

See:

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.

Wright, W.F. 1907. History of the Cowpea and its Introduction into America. USDA Bureau of Plant Industries Bulletin 102: 43-59.

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Choose Your Poison: Blarney on Cannabis

By Steven Foster |

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

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

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

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

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Swooned by the Sweet Black Locust

By Steven Foster |

Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacaciaSeveral times in the last week, people have asked what is that tree with the white or pinkish pendulous clusters of pea-like flowers? It is Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), a very  early introduction from North America to Europe. Go almost anywhere in Europe or temperate Asia today, and the “Virginia acacia”—our Black Locust—is widely planted as a street tree, and appears as if part of the native landscape. In his 1823 Sylva Florifera, Henry Phillips, tell us that American Indians made a declaration of love by presenting a branch of this tree in blossom to the object of their attachment. No doubt our native Black Locust itself was the object of desire. “Of all exotic trees,” Phillips writes, ” with which we have adorned our native groves, this North American stands first”.

Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia
Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia

Our common Black Locust was fancied by early missionaries to be the Egyptian acacia that supported St. John in the wilderness. They were wrong, so it was called “false acacia,” thus the species designation “pseudoacacia.” It was introduced to Europe at a very early date and planted with religious zeal.

The name Robinia honors Jean Robin (1550-1620) a ParisianBlack Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia apothecary recognized as one of the best French botanists of his time. Henry III appointed him herbalist and arborist at the gardens of the Louvre. His son, Vaspasian Robin (1579-1660) continued his father’s work and planted the tree in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris by 1636. John Parkinson (1567-1650) first described it in his monumental Theatrum Botanicum (Theatre of Plants), published in 1640. By the 1660s our woodland waif was widely planted as a street tree throughout Paris and London.

Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacaciaThe love affair continues over 400 years later. Just last week, I posted a photo of the flowers on Facebook, and a friend from Turkey noted it is common avenue tree there, and that as a child, he ate the flowers. Other chimed in that the sweetly fragrant flowers dipped in cool water are delicious, or that dressed with oil and balsamic vinegar, the flowers are a nice addition to salads, and are great added to pancakes. The heady fragrance was blamed, too, for inducing nausea and headaches, though that accusation has the odor of a swooning Victorian suffering from unrequited love. For better or worse, this is one American tree that we rediscover each spring!


A bee-friended Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia
A bee-friended Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia