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.

Cannabis-sativa-083015_1529

Yaupon Holly — My Cup of Tea

by Steven Foster |

Yaupon Holly, Black Drink, Ilex vomitoriaIt 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.

More to come.

Here’s my photo gallery of yaupon holly images.

Ginseng’s Cross-Cultural Virility

By Steven Foster |

When the first published Western description of ginseng appeared in a French journal in 1713, there was no mention of ginseng’s reputation as an aphrodisiac or to enhance virility, likely because the earliest European writers on ginseng were Jesuit priests. In 1725 Pope Benóit XIII received a gift of ginseng from the Chinese Emperor. No comment from the Vatican.

Asian ginseng, Korean Ginseng, Chinese Ginseng, Panax ginseng; 人参; Ren Shen; ren-shenVirginian, Colonel William Byrd II (1674-1744), pictured in a 1725 portrait, with confident swagger was an obvious ginseng nibbler. Writing on 31 May 1737 to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753, British Museum founder ) he muses, “Insomuch that were I to judge the veracity of the Jesuits by this Instance, I shou’d pronounce them very honest Fellows. As for the merry Effects ascribd to it towards obliging the Bashfull Sex, the good [Jesuit] Father[s] say nothing of it, nor dos my Experience reach so far.” In a letter of 20 August 1737 to Sloane, Byrd continues, “I believe ever since the Tree of Life has been so strongly guarded the Earth has never produced any vegetable so friendly to man as Ginseng. Nor do I say this at Random, or by the Strength of my Faith, but by my own Experience. I have found it very cordial and reviving after great Fatigue, it warms the Blood frisks the Spirits strengthens the Stomach and comforts the Bowels exceedingly. All this it performs without any of those naughty Effects that might make men too troublesome and impertinent to their poor Wives.”  Oh, but the mistresses. . .

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng roots,  西洋参, xi yang shen Some 18th century Dr. Oz probably hawked ginseng root on a London street corner with a wink and a smile to the passerby. But where there’s health claims for herbs, there’s always an all-knowing expert to debunk it, like Scottish physician, William Cullen (1710-1790), in his 1789 Materia Medica (vol 2, p.161)—“I have known a gentleman a little advanced in life, who chewed a quantity of this root every day for several years, but who acknowledged that he never found his venereal faculties in the least improved by it.”

Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng; 西洋参; xi yang shenThe protocol of the famed Dr. Cullen was followed for treatment of George Washington’s sore throat on what became his last day in December 1799: blood letting (124 ounces removed), blistering his throat with an irritating beetle, copious evacuation of the bowels—and when all else—fails, a dose of mercury. Two of the three attending physicians achieved their medical degrees under the instruction of Dr. Cullen at the University of Edinburgh.

Cause of death? “Learned quackery,” to quote sectarian rival contemporaries.

References [to follow]

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius

The Beauty of Gardenia

By Steven Foster |

Gardenia-062214__DSC3554aAs our Louisiana refugees from Hurricane Katrina can attest, what’s not to like about gardenias except for the fact that you can’t overwinter them outdoors in Northwest Arkansas? Like many plants in American horticulture, gardenia originates from eastern Asia, particularly warm temperate regions of China, southward, where broad-leaf evergreens thrive. The genus name Gardenia fortunately also serves as the common name for this evergreen shrub with, creamy white, single or double-flowered blossoms whose beauty is surpassed only by their intoxicating, heavenly fragrance. The delightfully-scented flowers are offered by florists in table arrangements, corsages, and boutonnieres. For the better part of two decades, I’ve had gardenias as container plants, bringing them indoors for the winter, taking them out in spring after danger of frost has passed. Photo gallery of single-flowered Gardenia from a plant grown  from seed collected in the wild in mountains near Hong Kong.

Gardenia-062314_DSC3596There are 200 or more species of Gardenia found in tropics and subtropics of the Old World. That which we grow is called florist’s gardenia or cape gardenia Gardenia jasminoides. The cape jasmine arrived in England in the 1750s, and was named in 1761. The name “jasmine” as applied to this plant comes from a painting by one of the most famous of natural history illustrators, George Dionysius Ehret. Ehret, unsure of the plant’s identity, labeled his plate “jasminum” with a question mark next to the caption. Since gardenia flowers superficially resemble those of jasmines (trailing plants of the olive family) it was given the species name “jasminoides.” Gardenia is named for a Scottish physician and naturalist, Alexander Garden (1730–1791), who settled in South Carolina in 1755. During the American Revolution he sided with the British. In 1783, after the war was over, his property was confiscated and he returned to London.

The Chinese history of the plant dates back at least to the first Gardenia-062214_DSC3564crcentury B.C.E., mentioned in the in the oldest Chinese herbal, Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, attributed to the Divine “Plowman Emperor,” Shen Nong. The Chinese name, zhi-zi, applies to the plant as well as the dried fruit, which used in prescriptions in traditional Chinese Medicine for the treatment of jaundice, a use confirmed by recent research, that has continued for more than 2000 years.

Chinese history reminds us that American history by comparison is merely “current affairs.”

Poison Hemlock—“I know that I know nothing.”

By Steven Foster |

Drive along any field-flanked highway in Northwest Arkansas for the next two weeks, and notice the wall of vegetation created by a tall, gangly plant of no particular beauty. Festooned in tiny-white flowers on flat-topped clusters, this annual weed stretches from six to ten feet tall. The stems are smooth and purple-spotted or -streaked, particularly at the stem base, holding fern-like leaves. Crushed leaves smell as if they ought to be poisonous. This is poison hemlock Conium maculatum, a carrot family member (Umbelliferae). If mistaken for wild carrot (Daucus carota), the results can be fatal. Take note: wild carrot has hairy stems; poison hemlock has smooth stems. Both are European weeds.

All plant parts contain highly variable amounts of toxic alkaloids, especially coniine, which is slowly lost from the plant upon drying. Death from poison hemlock is variously described as tranquil to violently delirious.

The name Conium derives from the Greek konos or “cone top” referring to the hats worn by Sufi whirling dervishes, describing the plant’s effects. Soon after ingesting the green plant’s juice, dizziness with a spinning sensation foretells impending death. Ingested purposefully or by accident, the victim will not be able to stand-up or sit. One must lie down. If dosed appropriately, the victim has about 30 minutes before lungs and heart cease to function, remaining alert and conscious ‘til the end.

Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatumIn ancient Athens, poison hemlock, given in sufficient quantities, caused certain and almost immediate death (within an hour). It was the mode of execution by the tribunal of Areopagus, famously administered to the philosopher Socrates, 470-399 B.C.E. whose crime of not believing in the city’s gods and expressing that to others, earned him a death sentence. Before Oklahoma executioners (that would be the judiciary, legislature and governor acting in secret proceedings) get too excited about the potential of poison hemlock, they should be aware that the historical acceptance of Conium maculatum as the actual poison that killed Socrates only dates to the mid-1750s. Earlier writers suggested that it may have be another poisonous plant or a mixture of several poisonous plants. All deaths ascribed to poison hemlock have not been as peaceful as Plato’s description of Socrates’s serene death. “I know that I know nothing,” said Socrates.

How about you elected official executioners?

More images of Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum here.

Adapted from Nature of Eureka Column by Steven Foster in the 28 May Issue of the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper.

Backyard Medicinals Workshop, April 26th

Join me from 10 am to 4 pm at Fire Om Earth, 872 Mill Hollow Rd., Eureka Springs, Arkansas, for a one-day work: Backyard Medicinals: Into the Wild with Steven Foster. This is the only Arkansas event I have scheduled for 2014!

For details go to Fire Om Earth’s workshop page.

Early bird registration deadline extended until April 15th. $75.00. After April 15th, $95.00.

Also checkout Melissa Clare’s Plant Spirit Communications event, and Lorna Trigg’s Creating a Medicine Wheel Garden at Fire Om Earth, April 27th. Make a weekend of it.

What to look for and where to find it

The Ozarks have nearly 3,000 species of plants, which includes about 25% that are edible and medicinal, perhaps 500 species. It is helpful to understand that different plants occur in different habitats. We will look at which plants you might find in a specific habitat. Spring is our best season for wild edibles and medicinal plants, the time when we get dandelion greens, wild onions, pepper grass, plantain, pokeweed, and purslane, among others and a good time of year to enjoy edible flowers such as violets and elderflowers. Come prepared to learn, enjoy, and ask questions.

Weed or Herb?

Japanese honeysuckle, to some a weed, to me a medicinal plant.
Japanese honeysuckle, to some a weed, to me a medicinal plant.

In segments of the conservation community the question has arisen as to whether the possibility exists that some plants considered weeds in the United States may have some kind of economic value in terms of medicinal or food use that could translate into a commercial harvest, and hence an opportunity to control the weeds.
Japanese honeysuckle produces two major ingredients in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The flowers are known as jin yin hua which consists of the dried, unopened buds of Japanese honeysuckle. Another product is the dried stems with leaves attached known as ren dong teng. The Chinese name jin yin hua means gold and silver flower. This refers to the fact that the white flowers turn golden yellow one or two days after blooming. The Chinese name, referring to the stems with the leaves attached, ren dong, means “stand in winter” in reference to the fact that the leaves are evergreen.
more info…….well come to the workshop!!!!

Mayapples Rising

“That botany is a useful study is plain; because it is in vain that we know betony is good for headaches, or self-heal for wounds unless we can distinguish betony and self-heal from one another.” John Hill, The Family Herbal, 1812.

Mayapple; American Mandrake; Podophyllum peltatumNames are reference points, symbols — vehicles for communicating and distinguishing one thing from another. The nature of a person, place, or plant does not change because of its name. As Juliet reminds us, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. . .”.

Although the plant doesn’t care what you call it, people do. Confusion inevitably arises if simultaneously more than one name is applied to a person, place, or plant. Similarly, if the same name is given to several plants or persons over a period of time, ambiguity may persist. With a name like Steven Foster, I lived with quips about “my” songs, taking such comments with a smile and my standard response, “I haven’t written any songs for a hundred years.” What am I to say if someone asks if I’m the real Steven Foster? Yes, I’m real.  But so was the other one.

Recently, a user posted a picture of mayapples beginning to emerge from a Chinese garden in Portland, Oregon. She asked what the plant could be.  It was Himalayan Mayapple! Beyond the identification and taxonomy, several genera in the Berberidaceae (barberry family) are among THE classic examples of disjunctions in plant geography. There are  only two species accepted in the genus Podophyllum, including the American mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and an eastern Asiatic counterpart Podophyllum hexandrum (also known as Podophyllum emodi). In 1979 a Chinese botanist proposed a new separate genus and renamed P. hexandrum  as Sinopodophyllum hexandrum. The most recent expert work on the plant group keeps the Chinese species as Podophyllum hexandrum.  Taxonomy is like law — it is based on expert opinion (and there’s no taxonomic “supreme court”). There are several mayapple cultivars floating around in the nursery trade that have meaningless made-up names. Other small genera in the barberry family with only two to three species ALL have their closest relatives a hemisphere away! For example, in the genera Diphylleia, Jeffersonia, Caulophyllum (blue cohosh) there are only two to three species each and their closet relatives are on the other side of the world! The “interrupted Eastern Asiatic–Eastern North America range, involving up to 150 plant genera” is the classic series of disjunct populations in biogeography.

The resin of mayapple contains the toxic lectin podophyllotoxin which is used as the starting material for three anti-cancer drugs used in chemotherapy. Globally, the drug of choice for topical treatment of HPV (human papillomavirus) genital warts, also known as venereal warts are over-the-counter or prescription drugs (depending upon country and regulations) made from podophyllin resin. Most of the commercial raw podophyllin resin in world wholesale natural product ingredient markets comes from the Asian rather than American mayapple.

Plant identification is always more than meets the eye. It bridges generations; past, present, and future; human diversity and continents!

Mayapple; American Mandrake; Podophyllum peltatum