“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