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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Cold-Blooded Investigator Targets Herbal DNA

| By Steven Foster

Ginkgo leaf; Ginkgo biloba; Ginkgo leaf close-ups horizontal (landscape) aspectTuesday February 3, 2015, the New York Attorney General, Eric T. Schneiderman, issued a press release on an action taken the previous day in which his office delivered “cease and desist” letters to four major retails including GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart alleging that they were selling herbal dietary supplements that did not contain the plant materials listed on the product labels. The herbs included Echinacea, Garlic, Ginseng, St. John’s Wort, and Saw Palmetto. According to the Attorney General’s press release 79% of the products tested, either did not contain the plant material claimed on the label or contained other plant materials not listed on the label. All of the products were “store brands,” made by contract manufacturers.

“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: the old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “The DNA test results seem to confirm long-standing questions about the herbal supplement industry. Mislabeling, contamination, and false advertising are illegal.” “Seem” is the operative word here.

Schneiderman has apparently been watching too many episodes of CSI “city du jour” in which the DNA always solves the crime. DNA analysis for plants is great for botanicals or plant specimens in which intact DNA still exist, but if you are testing an extracted plant ingredient—PRESTO—the DNA except in rare cases no  longer exists!

Every qualified, experienced plant analytical laboratory that authenticates botanicals day-in-and-day-out, knows that DNA alone is unreliable for testing plant extracts. Instead validated chemical analytical methods along with other validated lab methods are used. See link at the end of this article to see the American Herbal Pharmacopeia’s 54-page response to Attorney General Schneiderman which includes the appropriate lab methods to i.d. of the plant extracts in question.

A retired plant scientist friend mused, “if DNA testing is required for validating plant ingredients claimed to be in any product, the supermarket shelves would be empty.” If Schneiderman had applied the same DNA method to the brown liquid in the cup of coffee he might have drunk before his news conference, the test would have likely shown that his cup of coffee contained no detectable DNA of the coffee plant!

This is a case in which a public official, under the guise of science, has made allegations without confirming the validity of the science. Curiously, no plant genomic scientists I know had heard of the lab or researcher who did the testing! Turns out they hired a DNA lab specializing in reptile and dinosaur identification! I suppose that New York Attorney General Eric T.  Schneiderman decided to hire this lab after he had heard that the lab was run by “cold-blooded scientific investigators.”

A version of this story was published in the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper in the Nature of Eureka column on 11 February 2015.

See response to the New York AG from Roy Upton, Founder and Executive Director of The American Herbal Pharmacopeia, which supplies a rational response to an irrational action.

This is a continuing story.

Guide to Prime Time Ginseng Poaching

By Steven Foster |

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng roots, 西洋参, xi yang shenHey Y’all! You don’t have to be a bearded blowhard bigot chokin’ on duck call drool to make piles of money on a cable network. Nope, no need for swamp water squishin’ between ‘yur  toes! There’s a new opportunity in them ‘thar hills to show the world just how much of a thrill-seekin’, not-too-bright, thief you can be in your quest to show how every conceivable aspect of greed can drive a conservationist to drink. Join the fun! Just plop yourself in front of the boob tube with a can of your favorite brand of American-made world’s-worst-beers and point the satellite dish to the History Channel on Thursday nights, 10 p.m. eastern, 9 central, to see a new episode of Appalachian Outlaws. The show premiered on January  9, 2014. Seems like them big city producers don’t get out of their offices much. Youins would think they never heard the word “stereotype.”

The first episode, “Dirty Money” follows the exploits of ‘sengers in the field trying to steal Actaea pachypoda, doll's eyes, white baneberry, baneberryroots from Federal lands or posted private lands better suited to pot farming. In the first six minutes of the show, a generic ‘seng hunter, shows the viewer just how adulteration of herbs occurs in the real world through plant misidentification in the field. He misrepresents a doll’s eye plant in fruit (Actaea pachypoda) as black cohosh (Actaea racemosa). A landowner  shows how to make mini-landmines from a shotgun shell to catch ‘seng poachers tiptoeing down his path to steal his patch of wild ginseng. Tune in next week to see if they can blow a big toe off a poacher’s foot !  The next episode, “Ginseng Fever,” due to air January 16, 2014, will show how ruthless ‘seng hunters and dealers will go to great lengths to protect their interests. Praise the lord and pass the roll of cash!

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng in fruit, American ginseng plant, 西洋参, xi yang shenThis is great reality TV for helping viewers understand what really goes on in the field when harvesting high-value wild herbs.  In a 45 minute episode, the History Channel provides convincing evidence of why the US Fish and Wildlife Service—the Federal Agency charged with assuring sustainability of ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)—should be forced to ban wild ginseng harvest altogether! Current USFWS ginseng resource information plus laws & regulations are found here. This show will be a boon for plant conservationists and an unfortunate boondoggle for the wild ginseng industry. 

If you miss an episode,  just search on-line for the History Channel’s Appalachian Outlaws. Full episodes are available on-demand. Thank you History Channel!

 

 

 

“Science” as Fiction Update

By Steven Foster.

Flamingo meets Swan
All is not as it seems . . .

Nature is clean. Nature is pure. Nature is unspoiled. And if you believe that, I would like to sell you beach front property on the Moon. When we buy something labeled natural or labeled organic, that product or food category, whatever it may be, comes with an underlying expectation of integrity, honesty, truthfulness and reliability. The same expectations holds true for scientific literature, in which a process of peer review, critique of theory, vigilance of methodology and veracity of conclusions assumes that the published findings are upheld at least by the reputations of researcher(s), editor(s), and publisher(s). These are general, if naive expectations and beliefs that we hold that things are what they seem to be. Yes, it’s true. I’m a happy curmudgeon and skeptic.

Early in my career, I became intrigued by concepts related to quality, identity, and labeling of herb products. At the time I worked at the Herb Department of the Sabbathday Lake Maine Shaker Community, whose history dated back to the late eighteenth century. When I was there direct expertise in herb production no longer existed. During that time from 1974-1978, I learned by trial and error. We had a catnip tea product. The catnip I grew had a strong, aromatic fragrance, typical of catnip rich in essential oil. We sold more than we were able to grow. We had to buy bulk catnip that turned out to be left over stem and stubble from seed production. No self-respecting cat would respond to a cat toy filled with these floor sweepings.  In the company of cats, my homegrown catnip turned me into a feline pied piper. Both samples were catnip, but the quality was dramatically different. I find the same is true of published science—some is high quality. Some science is floor sweepings, created by “experts” in a narrow scientific specialty who think that they can magically transform their methods into areas of other scientific disciplines of which they are clueless, then draw conclusions, in which they prove their lack of knowledge as evidenced by their sloppy work. Would you send an entomologist in space to repair the Hubble Telescope? Of course, pride and reputation machismo prevent the authors and journals from retracting their errors.

If there’s a buck to be made, someone is going to find away to make that buck. If you don’t know what it is that you’re buying, the possibility of not getting what you expect increases. With the pressure for academics to publish or perish, I promise you, if your study is rejected by one journal, no problem, as you can always finds a journal happy to take your scientific paper no matter what the quality of the science might be. The bottom line is that you can’t always believe what you read whether it’s at website, words on a product label, “science” in a scientific paper, or reporting on a scientific paper, even if it part of “all the news that is NOT fit to print.” My next post will have the details.

I have come to believe that the only published word that is what it seems to be is fiction.

Adapted from my “Eureka Nature” column in the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper for 6 November 2013. This entry is also an opinion piece sparked by this response to a scientific paper.

American Botanical Council Celebrates 25 Years!

As Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, it is my delight to share this press release—Steven Foster

HG-58-2003-Cover(AUSTIN, Texas, Oct. 31, 2013) On November 1, the American Botanical Council (ABC) celebrates a quarter century of promoting the responsible, science-based use of herbal medicine. The independent nonprofit’s 25th anniversary is a major milestone for the Austin, Texas-based organization and speaks to its enduring message of informed, research-supported healing through nature — one that has resonated with thousands of members and supporters both locally and in many countries around the world.

HG-77-2008-Cover“I’ve been affiliated with and have supported ABC since its inception, because I believe in its mission,” said internationally renowned author and integrative medicine pioneer Andrew Weil, MD, the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Dr. Weil, whose image has twice graced the cover of TIME Magazine, said, “As more health professionals are trained to use medicinal plants and other natural therapies, healthcare costs will decrease and health outcomes will improve. Education is required for this to happen, education of the sort that ABC has provided over the past 25 years and I’m sure will continue to provide.”

HG-96-2013-CoverIn the 1980s, when the modern herbal medicine movement was experiencing a revival and consumer awareness and exposure to natural medicine was slowly increasing, ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal saw the need for an authoritative, science-based source of information on botanical medicine to act as a touchstone for herbal education and quality for all aspects of the herbal industry including consumers. The Texan visionary, whose passion for herbal medicine earned him the nickname “Herbal Cowboy,” together with two internationally respected medicinal plant experts — the eminent ethnobotanist James A. Duke, PhD, and the late distinguished pharmacognosist Norman R. Farnsworth, PhD — established the educational nonprofit American Botanical Council in 1988.

“I think of Mark as the great herbal diplomat,” said Rosemary Gladstar, herbalist, prolific author, educator, and founder of the nonprofit conservation organization United Plant Savers. Gladstar, whom Blumenthal nicknamed the “Godmother of American Herbalism,” praised his efforts over the past 25 years as being “beautifully, seriously, and joyfully effective.”

Continue reading American Botanical Council Celebrates 25 Years!