Silktree Enlivens the Spirit

Silktree enlivens the spirit
Silktree enlivens the spirit

“Enliven the spirit” is the literal translation of the Chinese name He-huan for the Asiatic tree we call Mimosa or Silktree Albizia julibrissin (frequently misspelled Albizzia). It originates from much of central, east and southwest Asia. The genus name honors Cavaliere Filippo Albizzi who brought the tree to Italy in 1749 from Constantinople. Within five years it was found in botanical gardens throughout Europe. The Italian botanist Antonio Durazzini provided the first Western botanical description of the plant published in the Magazzino Toscani in 1772, naming it for Albizzi. The species name julibrissin derives from the Persian gul-i-abrischim, honoring the similar texture of the flowers to a form of Persian silk weaving.

The fast-growing tree is now common in much of the United States from Massachusetts and New York, south to Florida, the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys westward to California. It is so familiar in the landscape of the American South, many people believe it is native rather than the invasive alien that it is. It is a true survivor rapidly growing and adapting to the environment. Famously, 147-year-old seeds on herbarium sheets at the Natural History Museum (London) germinated following bomb damage in World War II. When the French botanist André Michaux arrived in America from France in 1785, he brought seeds with him. By 1814, mature mimosa trees were well established in the gardens of John Bartram in Philadelphia, America’s first botanical garden. Thomas Jefferson planted it at Monticello. By the late 1830s it was naturalized in the Mid-Atlantic region.

In China, both the bark He-huan-pi (pi means bark) and flowers He-huan-hua (hua means flowers) are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The bark is first mentioned in a Tang Dynasty work from the year 720, Ben Cao Shi Yi, “Omissions from the Materia Medica.” Use of the flowers was first recorded in a Song Dynasty work from the year 1116, Ben Cao Yan Yi, attributed to Kou Zong-shi. Both are commonly stocked  in all Chinese herb shops. The bark is included in prescriptions to “ease the mind” for its mild sedative effects. The flowers are used in prescriptions to treat anxiety, depression and insomnia. In G.A. Stuart’s 1911 work Chinese Materia Medica. Vegetable Kingdom, Extensively Revised from F. Porter Smith (1871), he writes:  “On account of the auspicious character of this tree, its use in medicine is also thought to be attended with the happiest results: promoting joy, assuaging  sorrow, brightening the eye, and giving the desires of the heart.” ©2013 Steven Foster

By Steven Foster

Describing her first visit with Steven Foster in 1977, Harvard University botanist, Dr. Shiu Ying Hu (1908-2012), wrote, “Our conversation reminded me of something that Confucius said two thousand years ago. ‘In any company of three persons, there must be one who can be my teacher’. . . I found in Steven Foster a teacher who could share a profound knowledge of economic botany, particularly in the cultivation and uses of herbs.” In 1974, at age 17, Steven Foster, began his career at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community Herb Department —America's oldest herb business, dating to 1799. There he established three acres of production gardens and managed 1700 acres for the commercial harvest of botanicals. For forty-six years, Steven has photographed and researched herbs from the Amazon rainforest to the highlands of Vietnam. Foster has over 900 photo-illustrated articles published in a wide range of media. Steven also served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, and a Contributing Editor to the organization's journal, HerbalGram. Steven is the author, co-author and photographer of eighteen books, including the NEW 2014 Third Edition of A Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke), along with National Geographic’s Complete Guide to Medicinal Herbs (2010), and A Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (2006, with Rebecca Johnson), awarded a 2007 New York Public Library “Best of Reference.” He is senior author of three other Peterson Field Guides, including A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs (with Dr. James A. Duke), 1st & 2nd editions, 1990, 2000; A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs with Dr. Christopher Hobbs, (2002); and A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1995). Other titles include Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Prof. Yue Chongxi, 1992); Herbal Renaissance (1994); among others. Foster makes his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.