Passionflower – Herb n’ Food

© Steven Foster |

Passionflower; Passion flower; Maypop; Purple Passionflower; Passiflora incarnata
Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata

Intent on reaching the swimming hole on a seething July afternoon, my attention was diverted by a loud pop under foot. Relieved by the realization that the object was vegetable rather than animal, the victim plant caught my attention again, this time by the indescribable, intricate beauty of its bloom. I had stepped on a fruit of the passionflower or maypop. Such is the memory of a New England transplant upon first encountering a maypop in the Ozarks. This fast-growing perennial vine is more widely known as passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). In the Southeast it’s also called apricot vine.

Passionflower’s Name

What design of nature or serendipitous evolutionary event could create a flower of such unusual beauty? Such radiance is beyond scientific rationale. Best to describe it in religious terms. The first Europeans to observe the plant did just that. The name is derived from flos passionis, a translation of fior della passione, a popular Italian name which was applied to the plant to signify religious symbolism. The floral structure was seen to symbolize the implements of the crucifixion—the Passion of Christ— his period of suffering following the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. The three spreading styles atop the stigma were thought to represent the three nails by which Christ was attached to the cross. The five hammer-like anthers atop of the stamens exemplify the hammers used to drive the nails, or to others, Christ’s five wounds. Beneath these floral structures is a fringe of colored filaments, known as the corona. It was believed to depict a halo or perhaps the crown of thorns. Beneath it sits the corolla—with ten petals, each representing the ten apostles at the Crucifixion— save Peter and Judas. Some early missionaries envisioned that the bell-shaped, unopened or recently closed flower held these sacred symbols from the view of heathens who had not yet been converted to Christianity. If that’s not enough, the lobed leaves and long green vines further represent the hands and whips of Christ’s prosecutors. And so, both the common and Latin names—passionflower (Passiflora)—speak of these mysteries. Thomas Johnson editor of the 1633 edition of Gerarde’s Herball described these notions for what they were: “The Spanish Friers for some imaginarie resemblances in the floure, first called it Flos Passionis, The Passion floure, and in a counterfeit figure, by adding what was wanting, they made it as it were an Epitome of our Saviors passion. Thus superstitious persons semper sibi somnia fingunt” [always see contrived images]. The species name of passionflower “incarnata” means “made of flesh or flesh-colored.” Maypop, of course, refers to the fruits, the shape and size of a hen’s egg, which open with a resounding pop when squeezed.

 

Passiflora incarnata, Passionflower, or Maypop. Passionflower is variously wildflower, weed, ornamental perennial, delectable edible, or medicinal herb. The fruits, "maypops", are edible. The whole above ground plant is considered a mild nerve sedative and a sleep aid. When tension, restlessness and irritability result in difficulty in falling asleep, passionflower is an herbal remedy of choice.
Passiflora incarnata, Passionflower, or Maypop. Passionflower is variously wildflower, weed, ornamental perennial, delectable edible, or medicinal herb. The fruits, “maypops”, are edible. The whole above ground plant is considered a mild nerve sedative and a sleep aid. When tension, restlessness and irritability result in difficulty in falling asleep, passionflower is an herbal remedy of choice.

Passionflower Diversity

Depending upon your perspective passionflower is wildflower, weed, ornamental perennial, delectable edible, or medicinal herb. The flowers of one hybrid P. x alatocaerulea (a cultivated hybrid between P. alata and P. caerulea) are used in perfumery. That covers all the bases of the definition of an herb— any plant or plant part used for culinary, fragrant or medicinal purposes. Therefore, it deserves a place in herb gardens. Here we will primarily focus on the common maypop, wild passionflower, or apricot vine (P. incarnata) the only native species that is hardy and can be widely cultivated in much of the U.S.

Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, a member of the Passifloraceae or passionflower family, a predominantly Neotropical American plant group of over 400 species, with three temperate North American representatives including, Passiflora lutea one of the most diminutive of all passionflowers, with blooms barely reaching 2cm in diameter, and fruits the size of a pea. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois. Although yellow wild passionflower is very rarely mentioned in the medicinal plant literature, in 1840 Dr. L. Phares of Mississippi is said to have used this small North American vine interchangeably with the common passionflower. I have made a tincture (alcohol extract) of both plants. They have a very similar flavor and fragrance. The fruits are decidedly different, though. Those of P. lutea are globular black berries, about 1/4 inch across. They have a much more acidic flavor than maypop.
Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea one of the most diminutive of all passionflowers, with blooms barely reaching 2cm in diameter. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois.

The passionflower (P. incarnata) is an herbaceous  perennial, trailing or climbing, with tendrils. The white to blue purple flowers are up to three inches across. It occurs in waste ground, along fence rows, roadsides, and fields from Pennsylvania to southern Florida, west to east Texas and north to southern Missouri, and Ohio.  In the United States we have about 25 native or naturalized species of Passiflora, but only the passionflower and its diminutive relative wild yellow passionflower (P. lutea), with tiny yellow flowers about an inch across, are hardy natives. Wild yellow passionflower is rarely grown in gardens.

The genus Passiflora, with only a handful of temperate species, explodes in diversity in the American tropics with about 500 species. An additional 20 species occur in Indomalaysia and the south Pacific islands. Some have edible fruits. Others do not. About 30 species of passionflower have edible fruits. At least 40 species and numerous cultivated varieties are found in American gardens, primarily in warmer areas.

Passiflora edulis, passion fruit, passionfruit is used as a commercial source of passionfruit beverages in the tropics. Since the fruits have poor keeping qualities they are seldom seen outside of local tropical markets. A folk remedy for insomnia, neuralgia, muscle spams and epilepsy. Juice considered a digestive aid.
Passiflora edulis, passion fruit, passionfruit is used as a commercial source of passionfruit beverages in the tropics. Since the fruits have poor keeping qualities they are seldom seen outside of local tropical markets. A folk remedy for insomnia, neuralgia, muscle spams and epilepsy. Juice considered a digestive aid.

The undisputed edible king of passionflowers is passionfruit or purple granadilla (Passiflora edulis) which is cultivated for its edible fruits and juice. It is native to southern Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina. A large passionfruit industry in Brazil grows purple-fruited forms for the fruits, while yellow-fruited cultivated forms are used for juice extraction. Passionfruit is grown commercially in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and other tropical regions. It was introduced into Hawaii in the 1880s, where it became a popular home garden flower and fruit on the islands. By the 1930s it had become wild on every island in the archipelago. Commercial cultivation operations are also found in Kenya, South Africa, India, Pacific islands, and other tropical regions where it thrives. According to Arthur O. Tucker passionfruit has proven hardy in protected situations as far north as Ontario. If you do buy seeds or plants of this species and don’t live in a subtropical area, you will probably want to bring it indoors for the winter. The vast majority of scientific references to Passiflora species refer to the passionfruit and its many cultivars and hybrids. Much of the research has focused on attempting to unlock the unusually complex, sweet, delicate-perfume flavor of the fruits.

Other passionflowers are grown as subtropical food plants as well. The tropical American species running pop (P. foetida), now a weed in the old world tropics, is grown for its fruit, as is the banana passionfruit (P. mollissima). Yellow granadilla, or water lemon (P. laurifolia), also known as Jamaica honeysuckle, is a commercial fruit crop. Its name does not derive from any resemblance to honeysuckle (Lonicera species) but from the fact that the fruits are eaten by sucking out the pulp from the rose-scented fruit.  Sweet calabash (P. maliformis) is grown to produce grape-flavored juice. Giant granadilla (P. quadrangularis) sports a large fruit about eight inches long which is eaten as a vegetable. Individual fruits of cultivated varieties of giant granadilla may weigh as much as several pounds. When still green the rind is boiled and eaten as a vegetable. If ripe, it is eaten iced (with sugar) or the fruit-wall may be candied. Members of the genus Passiflora hybridize readily and have produced numerous cultivated hybrids, primarily grown in the tropics for fruit production.

Passiflora vitifolia, Grapeleaved Passionflower, Crimson Passionflower is a showy native to Central America. The berry-like fruit is sour, then slowly ripens over a month a flavor likened to sour strawberries.
Passiflora vitifolia, Grapeleaved Passionflower, Crimson Passionflower is a showy native to Central America. The berry-like fruit is sour, then slowly ripens over a month a flavor likened to sour strawberries.

Other passionflowers such as red-flowered species P. vitifolia which sports crimson red flowers, or blue passionflower (P. caerulea) are grown as ornamentals. They do not produce edible fruits.  Some cultivars of the blue passionflower such as ‘Constance Elliot’ which sports white flowers, are reported to be hardy in protected situations as far north as central Delaware. The tender ornamental passionflowers can be grown as annuals, taking cuttings in late summer rooting them before the first frost, or growing them in a large container to winter it over.

Native to Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, Passiflora caerulea, is one of three semi-hardy species of passionflowers, and is widely cultivated as a window box plant or gardens in southern Europe, surviving temperatures of -15°C. It was cultivated in France as early as 1625, and first document in London in 1629. Today it is one of the most widely-grown passionflowers in horticulture, and source of many hybrids. These photos were taken in a garden in Podgorica, Montenegro.
Native to Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, Passiflora caerulea, is one of three semi-hardy species of passionflowers, and is widely cultivated as a window box plant or gardens in southern Europe, surviving temperatures of -15°C. It was cultivated in France as early as 1625, and first documented in London in 1629. Today it is one of the most widely-grown passionflowers in horticulture, and source of many hybrids. These photos were taken in a garden in Podgorica, Montenegro.

Growing Passionflower

Subtropical edible or ornamental passionflowers are primarily relegated to the realm of the specialized collector, or those who have access to a greenhouse. But the passionflower (P. incarnata) can be grown by most herb gardeners. While passionflower is commonly regarded as a southern plant, it will grow as far north as the Boston area, and I suspect, if placed in a well-protected situation and mulched through the winter, it would even survive as a perennial in central Maine. Here in the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks, the native passionflower withstands temperatures of -25° F. without any protection. When purchasing seeds or plants it’s probably a good idea to at least inquire where the plant material originated, if the seller knows. Passionflower seeds or plants from south Florida are probably likely to survive in New England, than plants originating from more northerly areas. While dying back to the ground each year, it makes a marvelous fast-growing climbing cover for a fence, or can be trained on a trellis as a focal point for the herb garden. In the South it will grow 20—30 ft. in a single season. In more northerly areas, expect a growth of about 15 feet in a season. Passionflower grows in waste places, thriving in relatively poor, sandy, acidic soils. Good drainage is essential. Full sun is necessary.

Passiflora incarnata, Passionflower herb production in Guatemala
Passiflora incarnata, Passionflower herb production in Guatemala

Propagation is by seeds, cuttings, or layering. Cuttings about six inches in length can be taken from mature plants, then rooted in sand. Maypop grows readily from seed—if one is patient. After harvesting the fruits, clean out the seeds from the mucilaginous fleshy aril surrounding them, then plant immediately. They may germinate late in the summer, or may sit dormant until the following spring. The experience of many who try passionflower from seed for the first time is disappointment, born of expectations that the seeds will germinate in a couple of weeks. Wait a year if you have to. The result of your patience and suspense will be worth it a few years later.

Propagation by layering can be achieved simply by removing the leaves from a small section of a stem in late summer, placing a portion beneath the soil, with a leafy end sticking out of the ground. Water well, and in a few weeks, the buried stem should produce roots. But wait. Keep the layer in the ground through the dormant months, allowing it to develop a full root system before transplanting. The layered cutting can be severed from the mother plant and placed in a new location. With a little luck and persistence, you will soon have your own passionflower planting. Of course, the easiest technique is simply to buy plants from a nursery. Young plants are often slow-growing, taking two or three years to establish. After that, watch out—it can entangle everything else in your perennial beds.

Passionflower as Food

In his “Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf” John Muir speaks of the apricot vine (maypop) has having a superb flower “and the most delicious fruit I have ever eaten.” If you grow passionflower, you must taste the fruits. The fruits of the passionflower ripen from yellowish to light brown in color. The slimy aril covering the seeds is very sweet and fruity when ripe. The hard seeds can be separated from the pulp through a sieve or apple sauce strainer. Or if you are in the garden, you can pop open the ripe fruit and suck the delicious pulp from the fruit. Make sure that the fruit is not over-ripe. Perfectly ripe fruits are delicious . Over-ripe fruits ferment into a foul paste.

Passionflower, Passion flower, Maypop, Purple Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata
Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata

At the annual funding-raising auction of the Arkansas Native Plant Society a few years ago, I was the fortunate high bidder on two jars of maypop jelly. I know of no other native fruit whose flavor is best described as “indescribable.” The best maypop jam recipe can be found in Billy Joe Tatum’s Wildfoods Field Guide and Cookbook (Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York 1976). Billy Joe’s book, which transformed wild edible from the realm of survival food to haute cuisine, also contains a delicious recipe for maypop punch, and maypop ice, a cool refreshing beverage with juiced maypops and pineapple sherbet. To make 10 half-pint jars of maypop jam, she combines 5 cups of gently rinsed maypops, with a 1/2 cup of lemon juice, one box of powdered pectin and 7 1/2 cups of sugar. Enough water is added to barely cover the fruit. Standard procedures for making jam are followed.

Passionflower was a minor food item of American Indian groups in the Southeastern U.S. Archaeological evidence shows that maypop seeds could be found at Indian camp sites over 5000 years old. Seventeenth century visitors to Virginia such as the Englishman William Starchey observed the harvesting of fruits from  corn fields. Calling it maracock, Starchey described it as “of the bigness of a green apple, and hath manie azurine or blew kernells, like as a pomegranat, a good sommer cooling fruit.” It is unclear whether native groups intentionally planted the passionflower as a crop or whether it simply occurred naturally on the disturbed ground at the edge of the plot.  It is clear, however, that native groups of the Southeast enjoyed this late summer fruit for many centuries.

Passionflower as Medicine

Passionflower, Passion flower, Maypop, Purple Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata
Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata

Passionflower never became an important medicinal plant in the U.S. Like many American medicinal plants, however, it is more highly revered in modern Europe than in its native land.  In the second volume of his 1830 Medical Flora or Manual of Medical Botany of the United States the naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque makes one of the earliest reference to medicinal use. He recommends a syrup of the fruits as a cooling agent for fevers. The leaves, he says are used externally, and the juice given to dogs to cure the “staggers or epilepsy.” This use was first recorded in 1787 by a German surgeon, Johann David Schoepf, who served with Hessian mercenaries siding with the British during the Revolutionary War.

In Europe, passionflower products are used as mild nerve sedatives and a sleep aid. The introduction of this medicinal use is credited to  Dr. L. Phares of Mississippi who in an 1840 issue of the New Orleans Medical Journal, recorded its use. Remaining an obscure reference in the literature, Dr. I.J.M. Goss of Atlanta reintroduced passionflower into Eclectic medical practice in the late nineteenth century.

Dr. E. D. Stapleton writing in a 1904 issue of the Detroit Medical Journal summed up his experience in using passionflower tincture to treat insomnia “I would say that its action is best obtained in cases of nervousness due to causes other than pain-that it is slow in acting because it is not a narcotic, but a nervine and sedative. It relieves irritation of the nerve-centers and improves sympathetic innervation, thus improving circulation and nutrition, and is as a rule sure in its results-no bad after-effects, no habits formed”.

In the eighteenth edition of King’s American Dispensatory (1898), authors H.W. Felter and J.U. Lloyd characterize its action. “Its force is exerted chiefly upon the nervous system, the remedy finding a wide application in spasmodic disorders and as a rest-producing agent. . . It is specially useful to allay restlessness and overcome wakefulness, when these are the result of exhaustion, or the nervous excitement of debility. It proves specially useful in the insomnia of infants and old people. It gives sleep to those who are laboring under the effects of mental worry of from mental overwork.”  Sounds like I need some myself.

Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, a member of the Passifloraceae or passionflower family, a predominantly Neotropical American plant group of over 400 species, with three temperate North American representatives including, Passiflora lutea one of the most diminutive of all passionflowers, with blooms barely reaching 2cm in diameter, and fruits the size of a pea. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois. Although yellow wild passionflower is very rarely mentioned in the medicinal plant literature, in 1840 Dr. L. Phares of Mississippi is said to have used this small North American vine interchangeably with the common passionflower. I have made a tincture (alcohol extract) of both plants. They have a very similar flavor and fragrance. The fruits are decidedly different, though. Those of P. lutea are globular black berries, about 1/4 inch across. They have a much more acidic flavor than maypop.
Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, with fruits the size of a pea. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois. Although yellow wild passionflower is very rarely mentioned in the medicinal plant literature, in 1840 Dr. L. Phares of Mississippi is said to have used this small North American vine interchangeably with the common passionflower.

It is interesting to note that while yellow wild passionflower (P. lutea) is very rarely mentioned in the medicinal plant literature, Dr. Phares of Mississippi is said to have used this small North American vine interchangeably with the common passionflower. I have made a tincture (alcohol extract) of both plants. They have a very similar flavor and fragrance. The fruits are decidedly different, though. Those of P. lutea are globular black berries, about 1/4 inch across. They have a much more acidic flavor than maypop.

Herbal Medicine Past and Present by John K Crellin and Jane Philpott (Duke University Press 1990) is based on extensive interviews over a seven year period with an Alabama herbalist, Tommie Bass. Bass, quoted in the text says, “Its the most wonderful sleep and pacifying plant, valuable for a nerve medicine . . . Any good sleeping medicine has passion-flower in it.”

Today the American passionflower is used in a number of proprietary phytomedicines (plant medicines) in Europe, used for “conditions of nervous anxiety.” A dosage of  4-8 g. of the herb per day in infusion (tea) or other methods of preparation such as equivalent extracts for internal use. Products are made from the fresh or dried whole plant (excluding the root). It is usually collected at flowering time. It is also widely used as a sleep aid. The fresh or dried whole plant as well as their preparations are also used in daily dosages equivalent to 0.5 to 2 g. of the herb, or 2.5 g in tea (about a teaspoon of the dried, ground herb). Preparations include tea, tinctures, fluid extracts, solid extracts, and even sedative chewing gums. Passionflower is also combined with valerian and hawthorn in products used in Europe to treat digestive spasms, gastritis, and colitis.

Like many medicinal herbs, the exact chemical components responsible for the plant’s sedative activity have not been definitively identified. Researchers have found small amounts of components known as harmala-type alkaloids in the plant, as well as compounds called flavonoids. In Germany, passionflower preparations were regulated to  contain no more than 0.01 percent of harman alkaloids. Some believe the flavonoids to be active compounds. Still other researchers believe that substances known as maltol and ethyl-maltol may be responsible for the sleep-inducing and muscle relaxant activity attributed to passionflower. Generally it is believed that the sedative effect is probably a result of an interaction between the alkaloids and flavonoids found in the extract.

While the active constituents and mechanism of action of passionflower requires more studies, various studies confirm a sedative effect on the central nervous systems. The degrees of effect is dependent upon dose.. Extracts of the herb inhibit fungi and bacteria. Studies indicate that the herb (or its extracts) relieves spasms, has a sedative effect, allays anxiety, and lowers blood pressure. The experience of numerous medical practitioners and herbalists in Western herbal traditions generally confirm the plant’s safety and efficacy.

Most of the supply of dried passionflower leaves either cultivated or wild-harvested in the U.S. goes to the European market. Farmers treat it as a weed in the South. USDA scientists focus on developing it as a new fruit crop for the U.S. Gardening enthusiasts appreciate the passionflower and subtropical passionflowers for their fantastic, colorful floral assemblage. Wild food enthusiasts, delight in its delicate, delectable flavor. And if you are an herb gardener, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy adding passionflowers to your herbary.

Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, a member of the Passifloraceae or passionflower family, a predominantly Neotropical American plant group of over 400 species, with three temperate North American representatives including, Passiflora lutea one of the most diminutive of all passionflowers, with blooms barely reaching 2cm in diameter, and fruits the size of a pea. It occurs from Pennsylvania to Florida, west to Texas, northward to Illinois.
Yellow Passionflower, Passiflora lutea, a member of the Passifloraceae or passionflower family, a predominantly Neotropical American plant group of about 500 species, with three temperate North American representatives including, Passiflora lutea.

References:

ESCOP. 1997. Passiflora herba. In ESCOP Monographs on the Medicinal Use of Plant Drugs. vol. 4. Exeter, UK: ESCOP Secretariat.

Felter, H. W. and J. U. Lloyd. 1898 Kings American Dispensatory, 18th ed. 2 vols. Portland, OR: Eclectic Medical Publications, reprinted 1983.

Foster, S.1991. “The Passionflowers.” The Herb Companion (August/September): 18-23.

Foster S. 1993. Herbal Renaissance: Growing, Using and Understanding Herbs in the Modern World. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs Smith.

Foster, S. and J. A. Duke. 2014. Peterson Field Guide To Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co.

Gremillion, K. J. 1989. The Development of a Mutualistic Relationship Between Humans and Maypops (Passiflora incarnata L.) in the Southeastern United States. Journal of Ethnobiology. 9(2):135-158.

Hoch, J. H. 1934. The Legend and History of Passiflora. American Journal of Pharmacy. (May): 166-170.

Krellin, J.K. and J. P{hilpott. 1990. Herbal Medicine Passt and Present. 2 vols. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mabberley DJ. 2008. Mabberley’s Plant-Book. Third Edition ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

McGuire, C.M. 1999. Passiflora incarnata (Passifloraceae): A New Fruit Crop. Economic Botany 53(2):161-176.

Olin, B. R., ed. 1989. “Passion Flower.” The Lawrence Review of Natural Products. (May):1-2.

Speroni, E., and A. Minghetti.1998 Neuropharmacological Activity of Extracts from Passiflora incarnata. Planta Medica 54: 488-491.

Ulmer T, MacDougal JM. 2004. Passiflora: Passionflowers of the World. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Vanderplank J. 1991. Passion Flowers (and Passion Fruit). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Weiss, R.F. 1988. Herbal Medicine (translated from German by A.R. Meuss). Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers Ltd.

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

From Herb to Turf

By Steven Foster |

Greetings from the Southern Maine Coast, as I contemplate my personal and family history in a be-here-now moment. My parents, married in 1951, have lived in the same house since. They are both in their mid-80s and mentally-sharp. “Going home” is going home, to the house in which I was raised.

I turn to memories of vegetation as is my obsession. In the past week I’ve been scanning old family photos. Amongst the files was a long-forgotten newspaper interview with me from the Portland Press Herald published in 1990. The accompanying photo has me ankle-deep in dandelion blossoms on what we called the side lawn at my parent’s home. My dad, Herb, reminded me that my grandmother, Lena Foster, went out every spring and harvested dozens of dandelion crowns—the rosettes of leaves obvious before dandelion flowers. I fondly remember eating my grandmother’s boiled dandelion greens with a dash of vinegar. In his 65-years of maintaining, mowing and improving the side lawn, my dad has proudly managed to turn the entire lawn into a monoculture of neatly mowed grass. “All of the dandelions are gone!” I exclaimed. “Good,” my dad, Herb replied.

I see their absence as a symptom of a greater evil—our society’s insatiable appetite for mowing and mowing machines. The fields surrounding the property, less than 2 acres, are mowed a couple of times during the growing season. Grass takes over a field once thick with wildflowers, such as common milkweed food of monarch butterfly larvae. Oh that pesky word “weed.”

“Why did you have that field cut now?” I asked my mother. “Why? she replies as if I’m daft, “Because the grass was too tall.”

My childhood memory banks flash back to scenes of crouching amidst the un-mowed thicket of common milkweed, aflutter with monarch butterflies. The colors and movement were punctuated by the random symphony of  polyrythmic insect buzzes, hums, and chirps.

My son and his cousin. Now both in their late 20s.
My son and his cousin. Now both in their late 20s.

When I was born in 1957, mowing was done with non-motorized push mowers. The cut was rough, but only a small area was mowed. Tractor-mounted mowers were used only to harvest hay. Now Americans are obsessed with every manner of hand-held, self-propelled, riding, and undoubtedly soon, robotic mowing machines. A Professor at the University of Massachusetts Plant Sciences Department, Lyle E. Craker, reminds me that the best high-paying jobs available for graduates in plant sciences is in the field of “turf management.” I haven’t mowed my yard this year. Interesting mix of grass species going to seed.

“Hey Dad, maybe you should change your name from Herb to “Turf.”

I'm not a weed! See, I'm cultivated, and less than 8 inches tall! I am immune from proposed Ordinance No. 2201.
I’m not a weed! See, I’m cultivated!

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.

Breaking News: You Can’t Fool Mother Nature

I think it’s great that the Eureka Springs City Council is proposing Ordinance No. 2201, which aims to “update and expand City beautification and to eliminate health and safety issues.” Citizens asked the Council to update the current code so as to “keep privately owned areas clean and safe. . . .”  Good idea?

The proposed ordinance includes item “A” of Section 1, which involves my specialty “plant vegetation.” When human nature is compelled to legislate Mother Nature, I think God puts his hands on his hips, raises an eyebrow, frowns and shakes his head in disbelief.  “How am I going to explain this to Mother Nature?” God muses. “She’s not going to like it.”

The ordinance contains well-meaning and ambitiously ambiguous definitions of broad categories of vegetation that grow where you live (property ownership not required!)—“owner(s) or occupants(s) of property” within Eureka Springs will be required to “maintain, cut, and/or remove weeds, grass and/or any other non-cultivated plant(s) (flowers, shrubs, vegetable plants etc.), which exceed the height of eight (8) inches. Bamboo may be cultivated with in the city limits, but should not encroach upon another citizens/city property or become an obstacle to vision while driving.”

I'm not a weed! See, I'm cultivated, and less than 8 inches tall! I am immune from proposed Ordinance No. 2201.
I’m not a weed! See, I’m cultivated, and less than 8 inches tall! I am immune from proposed Ordinance No. 2201.

I have to cut “any non-cultivated plants to a height under 8 inches?” Is the Council aware that trees are plants? I am thoroughly confused about the bamboo provision. Bamboo is a grass—a member of the Graminae or Poaceae—the very clearly defined grass family. But grasses are already covered elsewhere in the ordinance. Does the  bamboo provision in the absence of a definition pertain to plants to which the common name “bamboo” is applied, such as Nandina domestica, commonly grown in Eureka Springs and known as “heavenly bamboo”? It’s not technically a bamboo therefore not a grass; it’s just called “heavenly bamboo.” Maybe the Council really meant hellish bamboo for purposes of the ordinance. Heavenly bamboo like hellish bamboo is an “obstacle to vision while driving.” What’s with the blatant discrimination against bamboo as “an obstacle to vision?” What about all of the other plants that are obstacles to vision while driving?

In the Building Inspector’s job description, I ask is he or she qualified or competent to distinguish grass from bamboo, heavenly bamboo from hellish bamboo,  non-cultivated plants from cultivated plants, weeds from weed?

Thank you City Council for providing my comedic introduction for a summer lecture tour on how humans relate to plants.

You can find the draft of the proposed ordinance at the official City of Eureka Springs website. Just click on the “Ordinances” menu tab, then click on “Proposed Ordinances.” Whoops—that link doesn’t work — “sorry for any inconvenience.” Seems like updating the website has gone the way of updating the street sweeper.

As Mother Nature said to God, “You created this human problem. Please fix it.”