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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Naked Ladies!

By Steven Foster |

Naked Lady; Surprise Lily; Resurrection Lily; Magic Lily; Lu cong; Lycoris squamigeraHere’s an update for 2014. Fayetteville, Arkansas’s KUAF Producer, Jacqueline Froelich aired a story on Surprise Lilies on 14 August 2014.   You can listen to the story here.  One of the alkaloids found in Lycoris squamigera is galanthamine, one of several toxic compounds in the plant. It is also  famously known from the related amaryllis family member Galanthus nivalis or snow-drops a common alpine species in mountains of Europe, which is grown as an ornamental in North America, and occasionally naturalized. First isolated in the 1950s, galanthamine, formerly extracted from Galanthus nivalis, is now produced synthetically on an industrial scale. It was used in some parts of the world in the 1950s to treat nerve pain associated with polio. Today, the compound is regarded as a long-acting, selective, reversible and competitive acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitor used in the systematic treatment of mild to moderate cognitive impairment in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Naked Lady; Surprise Lily; Resurrection Lily; Magic Lily; Lu cong; Lycoris squamigeraNaked ladies or Surprise lilies trumpet their pink splendor in mid to late summer. These beautiful ladies are part of our foreign diversity in Eureka Springs and the South generally, but alas they are just plants. Known as surprise lily, resurrection lily, magic lily or naked ladies, this pretender is laid bare not as a lily at all but a member of the Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae). These late blooming beauties produce unnoticed leaves in the spring, which soon die back. Out of the hot bosom of steamy August air a whorl of large showy flowers atop a leafless (naked) stalk pops from the ground.

Amaryllis and it relatives cause plant name consternation. The genus Lycoris (to which our naked ladies belong) is native to eastern Asia, while Amaryllis is native to the Western Cape of South Africa. In 1753 Linnaeus named Amaryllis belladonna. Another closely related genus in the Amaryllis family is Hippeastrum from tropical America. The “amaryllis” that bloom around Christmas, available wherever bulbs are sold, are mostly hybrids of South American Hippeastrum species.

Our common naked ladies EW the Asian species Lycoris squamigera, an inelegant scientific name for an elegant plant. It superficially resembles the South African Amaryllis belladonna but differs in significant botanical characteristics as well as continent of origin. The first European illustration comes from a periodical famous for its unabashed Victorian paintings of reproductive organs (of plants)—Curtis’s Botanical Magazine volume 123, August 1, 1897 (as Amaryllis hallii). No doubt many gardeners, horticulturists and botanists have been confused by these relatives in the amaryllis family. It is no surprise that the that surprise lily itself has lived under three scientific names over the decades including Hippeastrum squamigerum and Amaryllis hallii as well as the name used for more than a century Lycoris squamigera.

Living plants were introduced from Japan to America by Dr. George Rogers Hall (1820-1899) of Bristol, Rhode Island upon returning from Yokohama, in 1862. New England nurserymen widely distributed the bulbs in the late 1800s. Dr. Hall who co-founded a hospital in China in 1852, grew it in his Shanghai garden before 1860, and noted it was used by the Chinese to decorate cemeteries. Leaving medicine to enter the export business, Hall’s botanical legacy outshined his medical career. He was the first American to send live plants directly from Japan to New England including Japanese yews, Japanese dogwoods, and our vigorous prolific weed once known as Hall’s Honeysuckle. Protecting his good name, today we know it as Japanese Honeysuckle Lonicera japonica.  The rest, as they say, is history. © 2013 & 2014

First published in  the 8 August 2013 issue of The Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper, modified 7 August 2014.

All photos in this piece were taken at The Belladonna Cottage, Eureka Springs, Arkansas | 479-253-1836

Photographed at the 2010 Naked Ladies party at the Belladonna Cottage, Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Photographed at the 2010 Naked Ladies party at the Belladonna Cottage, Eureka Springs, Arkansas

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.

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