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.”

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

Heavenly Bamboo — Nandina domestica

 By Steven Foster

Heavenly Bamboo - Nandina domestica
Heavenly Bamboo – Nandina domestica

Whether you follow ancient pagan traditions, the Roman Saturnalia, or just good old Christian Christmas, it is the time of the winter festival marked by the concurrent astronomical shift of the Winter solstice. In 274 C.E., the Roman Emperor Aurelian is christened the 25th of December the day of the solstice on the Julian calendar—natalis solis inviciti—“birth of the invincible sun.” Just two years earlier, the 57th Emperor of the Roman Empire was born, Constantine I, who was to usher in a new epoch as the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. The December 25th celebration of the “birth of the invincible sun” was easily transformed into the Christian celebration of the “birth of the invincible Son.”  Remnants of ancient traditions Winter Solstice celebration, crept into Christmas traditions, many revived during the Victorian era when the printed word, advertising and the emergence of consumerism allowed for expansion of celebration in a wider cultural convergence. Hence the Yule log, the symbolic mistletoe, the evergreen leaves and red berries of hollies, implanted themselves into new traditions marking this celebratory time of year.  Green and red became the primary colors of the celebration, dating back to at least the 14th century, when evergreen trees, with red apple affixed to the branches represented green as eternal life and red as the blood of Christ.

With its evergreen leaves and red berries, why not adopt our garden plant heavenly bamboo or Nandina domestica as a new seasonal symbol? Introduced into European horticulture in 1804, it is native to China and Japan. In China it is symbolic of the Chinese New Year. Writing in 1848, Robert Fortune, observed, “Large quantities of its branches are brought at this time from the country and hawked about the streets. Each of these branches is crowned with a large bunch of red berries, not very unlike those of the common holly, and, contrasted with the dark, shining leaves, are singularly ornamental.  It is used chiefly in the decoration of altars, not only in temples, but also in private dwellings and in boats—for here every house and boat has its altar.”

In ancient China the woody stem was carved into a gourd-shaped charm and hung around the necks of children to ward-off whooping cough. It was planted in gardens around homes to prevent the spread of fire. In Japanese gardens it was planted next to outdoor wash basins to protect against evil influences. The woody stems have also been used in China to make chopsticks. In north China, it is commonly grown as a houseplant.

Names of plant parts in Traditional Chinese Medicine include: Nan-tian-zhu-zi (fruits); Tian-zhu-zi (fruits); Nan-tian-zhu (plant); Nan-tian-zhu-ye (leaves); Nan-tian-zhu-gen (root). The leaves, stems and fruit all serve as minor folk medicines in Chinese tradition, usually prescribed only by an experienced practitioner because of potential toxicity of alkaloids in the fruits. The fruits are first mentioned in Kai Bao Ben Cao  (Materia Medica of the Kai Bao Era), attributed to Ma Zhi, and published during the Song dynasty in 973 A.D.  The use of the leaves is first noted in Ben Cao Gang Mu Shi Yi (Omissions from the Grand Materia Medica), authored by Zhao Xue-min, published in 1765 during the Qing dynasty. Traditionally, a gourd-shaped charm of the wood was made and hung around the neck of a child to ward-off whooping cough.  Ancient ben-cao mention the planting of heavenly bamboo in gardens to prevent fire.  Historically, it has also been planted next to wash-basins in Japanese gardens to protect against evil. The fruit is used for chronic cough, asthma, whooping cough, malaria, and ulcer of penis. They are also said to be useful in restoring the nervous system, quieting drunkards, and have been used as an antidote toHerbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West fish poisoning.  Folk tradition holds that the seeds increase virility. Leaves: used for the common cold, whooping cough, red eye, swelling with pain, scrofula, bloody urine, and infantile malnutrition. Root: used for headache due to wind and heat, cough due to lung heat, jaundice, with wetness and heat, rheumatism with pain, red eyes, carbuncle and furuncles, and scrofula. Root and stem: used for fevers, the common cold,  conjunctivitis, cough due to lung heat, jaundice with wetness heat, acute gastroenteritis, infection of the urinary tract, and traumatic injuries. For more information on this fascinating plant see my book: Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Yue Chongxi, Healing Arts Press, Rochester Vermont, 1992).

As we enjoy the visual beauty of these red clusters of fruits through the winter months, let us remember its origins. No matter the tradition, time of year or culture  remember the past and celebrate new beginnings.

Ginkgo Leaves Falling

By Steven Foster.

The brilliant golden yellow leaves of the Ginkgo trees flanking the back entrance of our local post office, once they are ready to fall, will  drop in a few hours time, raining from the thick branches like small fans twirling from the sky. After our first hard killing freeze last night, the Ginkgo leaves fell today.

Ginkgo tree with golden leaves on 11 November 2013
Ginkgo tree with golden leaves on 11 November 2013
The same Ginkgo tree on 13 November 2013, minus its leaves.
The same Ginkgo tree on 13 November 2013, minus its leaves.

The shriveling fruits, which look like half-sized wild persimmons, may persist for a few days after the leaves, then fall to the ground. Fruits are always a tempting curiosity. In fact, you can buy Ginkgo seeds as a food item in Chinese markets, but these have been prepared and processed to render them safe to eat. You should not be tempted to pick-up the freshly fallen fruits, which will cause contact dermatitis similar to the rash produced by poison ivy. The fruits have a fragrance that has been described as a blend between baby vomit and what a dog might leave on a sidewalk. That should be enough to entice you to leave them be.

I suspect that these trees were planted about the time the Eureka Springs Post Office building was completed in 1918, rather than in 1973 when the building was expanded and the service parking lot in the back was developed. The trees are of a fairly good size, plus for many decades most ginkgo trees available from nurseries in the United States have represented male branches grafted on to rootstocks. Within forty years after Ginkgos were widely planted as a street tree by the mid 1800s, female trees like those at Eureka Spring’s Post Office began to leave their bad smelling fruits on sidewalks. Female Ginkgos are simply not a neat and tidy street tree. Notwithstanding the beauty of the fall foliage, the fact that these two trees are females makes them a unique and interesting part of Eureka  Springs’ heritage.

Beneath the Ginkgo tree, 13 November 2013
Beneath the Ginkgo tree, 13 November 2013

Ginkgo was common 175 to 200 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  This primitive tree is considered the oldest living tree species on earth.  Ginkgo is monotypic. That is, in the ginkgo family there is only one species in one genus — the only surviving member of the ancient and primitive ginkgo family—Ginkgoaceae. Ginkgo has been cultivated in East Asia for hundreds of years. Numerous reports mention the existence of large specimens, some more than a thousand years old, at ancient temples in Japan and China. The tree was first introduced to North America in 1784 in the garden of William Hamilton at Woodlands near Philadelphia.  Mature ginkgos are said to reach over 100 feet in height.  Its longevity as individual trees and a species in general can in part be attributed to its exceptional resistance to pests and resiliency to destruction by fire. It is also extremely tolerant of air pollution thriving in the harshest urban environments.

Ginkgo leaf extracts are highly complex, highly concentrated preparations with an average  ratio of 50 parts ginkgo leaf to one part of the finished extract by weight. Numerous chemical constituents are found in the extract. Normally ginkgo leaf extracts are calibrated to contain 24 percent flavone glycosides (but may range from 22 to 25 percent) which are a relatively ubiquitous group of compounds found in numerous plant species.  Another important compound group in ginkgo leaf extracts are mostly unique to ginkgo — the ginkgolides — including ginkgolides A, B, and C (around 3 percent) and bilobalide (also about 3 percent). As the oldest living tree species on earth, it is no surprise that it would harbor chemical components rare in nature. Perhaps these extremely complex, large molecules have helped it survive for eons. In addition, during the manufacturing process another group of compounds, ginkgolic acids, which are perceived as potentially toxic, are reduced to below 5 parts per million. Given the specific chemical make-up of ginkgo leaf extracts, it  becomes clear why you can’t apply the results of studies with Ginkgo leaf extracts to a simple tea made from ginkgo leaves. Ginkgo tree, Ginkgo leaf, Golden autumn Ginkgo leavesNumerous pharmacological and clinical studies on Ginkgo leaf extracts have demonstrated a positive effect in increasing vasodilation and peripheral blood flow rate in capillary vessels and end-arteries in various circulatory disorders, varicose conditions, post-thrombotic syndrome, chronic cerebral vascular insufficiency, short-term memory improvement, cognitive disorders secondary to depression, dementia, tinnitus, vertigo, antioxidant activity, among other effects.

Ginkgo tree, Ginkgo leaf, Golden autumn Ginkgo leaves