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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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!
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.
Several 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”.
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 Parisian 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.
The 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!
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.
You 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:
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.”
It seems that every culture has it’s morning jump-start beverage— coffee, origination in Africa; tea from China; yerba maté imbibed in temperate South America, and chocolate which 500 years ago radiated out to the world from Central America. These plants contain caffeine and chemically-related stimulating alkaloids. Depending on preparation methods, all have their own variations on healthful antioxidants. Europeans adopted these beverages with further refinements.
But what happened to North America’s—yaupon holly? Like other morning beverages, yaupon is loaded with antioxidants, and is the only plant from North America that contains caffeine. Like yerba maté, it is a member of the genus Ilex (hollies). You can buy evergreen, red-fruited yaupon hollies at almost every nursery in the South. Common in forests of south Arkansas, it evolved in the Ouachita Mountains, then spread throughout the Southeast.
If you were pre-revolutionary European explorer entering a native village along the Gulf Coast, elders would greet you with an offering of yaupon holly tea. Native groups cultivated yaupon in naturalized groves beyond the plant’s natural range. The leaves were carefully plucked, dried, then prepared and offered as a sacred ceremonial beverage. Referred to as “black drink” simmered to a thick brew (think “espresso”) it was called “cassine” or “asi.”
English naturalist, Mark Catesby (1682-1749) author of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published from 1731-1742, describes a cleansing ritual in which on one day a year, all of a tribe’s members drank black tea to induce “spring cleaning” (vomiting). Yet, the other 364 days of the year, an infusion of yaupon leaves was drunk like we drink coffee or tea in the morning.
Today yaupon is making a come back. Now you can do an internet search for “asi tea” or “yaupon tea” and instead of references to historic literature, you will discover several small companies offering teas and beverages from the yaupon holly from Texas to Georgia.
Well-established as a beverage tea after the American Revolution, the Civil War seems to have disrupted sourcing in the South and relegated the plant’s use to history until now. Confused botanical nomenclature, finally clarified in 1949, may also have impacted perceptions about the plant. Since 1949, the accepted scientific name, bestowed on the plant in a work by English botanist William Aiton in 1789, lives in infamy— Ilex vomitoria.
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.