Sunday, February 28, 2010

Digitalis purpurea

Digitalis is probably one plant that most people would recognize as a medicinal. Common name is Foxglove. This is also one that should never be used except under the direction of a physician because it is such a powerful medication. The effects can also be cummulative, not seeming like much is happening and then, suddenly, there is an overdose with accompanying low bloodpressure and irregular heartbeat along with severe gastro-intestinal irritation.

The true properties of this plant were not discovered until well into the eighteenth century. Early herbalists suggested only external use, and not until 1775 did an English doctor learn of its value from a countrywoman who used it. From then on its benefits were scientifically explored.

Digitalis is used in neuralgia, insanity, febrile diseases, acute inflammatitory complaints, palpitations of the heart, and asthma and as a cardiac stimulant and diuretic.

For medicinal use, the leaves are picked from the second-year growth, just before the plant comes into flower. In some places in the United States the leaves are grown commercially on herb farms.

We grow a number of different types of digitalis here in the gardens. All seem to like light shade. It is a biennial, blooming in its second year. After that it seeds for some new plants. After awhile, there are always some blooming, though because it self-seeds, they may not be in exactly the spot you'd like them. Most I leave, but if you transplant early in the spring, they seem to move easily to a better location. First year seedlings move easily, larger plants, not so much so. Flower color ranges from pure white through pinks, purples and shades in between. There is also a yellow flowered form, Digitalis grandiflora that blooms in late summer.
And a small flowered form with smaller leaves called 'Helen of Troy'. This one is not as robust, but has lived here for many years.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cornus florida

Cornus florida is our native dogwood. This one happens to have pink flowers, which you occasionally find in the woods, though most will be white. this is an especially nice dark pink one.
Dogwood is found quite generally throughout the United States growing in acid soils and in mixed and semi-shaded locations. Here it is the one growing at the edges of the woods, often mixed with Redbud, and is a true harbinger of spring. It has a hard, dense wood and was sometimes used for making arrows.
Although discarded from the United States Pharmacopoeia over 100 years ago, one notes that the dried bark rates as a bitter tonic, astringent, febrifuge and antiperiodic. The principles which make is valuable may be extracted with either water or alcohol, a simple infusion being made with 1 teaspoonful of dried bark or dried root bark to 1 cup of boiling water, a half-cupful taken hot or cold on retiring. The astringent qualities have caused it to be used in the treatment of sore mouth and as a poultice in external inflammations. All writers on dogwood note that the fresh bark acts as a strong cathartic.
It is said that the Native Americans used the split stems of the hard wood as a toothbrush, and one asumes that the astringent quality helped to harden the gums at the same time.
One of the very creditable statements about dogwood is that its flowering provided the Native Americans with a reliable indication of the date on which corn was to be planted, blooming when all danger of frost was past. I would say that this is usually true in this area, but we have had odd years with a very late frost when the dogwood blossoms have been frozen. That said, one late frost wouldn't have chilled the ground enough, probably, to affect just planted corn since one the ground has warmed up, it takes quite a bit to chill it again.
We have dogwoods planted throughout the gardens, some native ones transplanted from our woods as babies and others which are selected, odd forms. All like the edge of the woods in woodsy soil, moist but not soggy and morning sun is much preferred to afternoon.
It seems pretty amazing that in just 2 months we will be opening the nursery for the season. There has been snow on the ground for at least a month now and it shows no signs of leaving any time soon as snow is predicted every day for most of the next week. Temperatures are about 10 degrees below average. This is definitely a year with a real winter here. I expect that one day it will suddenly turn warm, the snow will melt and the snowdrops will appear and bloom. The witchhazels are ready to bloom, color showing on the buds, just waiting for a couple of nice, sunny days to pop into bloom and fill the yard with that heavenly fragrance.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Convallaria majilis

First, the edged form...
and then the striped one...
It's funny, but I had no luck with the plain old all green variety, but these two variegated ones grow and multiply just fine. They like some sun, though probably not the hot afternoon type. They are a woodsy plant and will sometimes make a large patch and other times, just kind of wander or ramble through a bed. Mine do both in various parts of the garden. The flowers bloom here in late spring, a lovely scent if brought into the house.
The common name, of course, is Lily of the Valley, though it is also known as May Lily or Our Lady's Tears. Until recently, despite its being a common garden flower, it was considered an official drug. There is a long history of its value, not only as a substitute for Digitalis, but in a number of other situations. This fragrant garden flower has followed man from one garden to another for many centuries, and was mentioned as early as the fourth century.
In medicine, the whole plant may be used, especially the rhizome and roots, but the carefully dried tops (including flower stalks) are also quite potent. It is usually administered as a tincture. Grieve's Herbal says:
... valued as a cardiac tonic and diuretic, the action of the drug closely resembles that of Digitalis, though it is less powerful; it is used as a substitute and strongly recommended in valvular heart disease, also in cases of cardiac debility and dropsy. It slows the disturbed action of a weak irritable heart, whilst at the same time increasing its power. It is a perfectly safe remedy. No harm has been known to occur from takin it in full and frequent doses, it being preferable in this respect to Digitalis ...

Yet, even with this laudatory statement some caution is advised, as lily of the valley is said to be quite poisonous if eaten fresh. As with the others, my inclination is to pretty much avoid any of these remedies unless one does a whole lot of research beyond what the old herbals mention.
The mucilaginous nature of the plant juices suggests that lily of the valley might be healing in external conditions, and one does indeed find a suggestion that "a poultice of the roots takes away the marks of bruises." Culpeper's Complete Herbal written in the seventeenth century, even says that "The distilled water of the flowers is very effectual and is recommended to take freckles, spots, and sunburn from the face and other parts of the body." And Jane, a redhead says "Just what's wrong with freckles?????" I could never understand why someone would want to get rid of them. I've always like mine - maybe because it is something none of my friends had when I was growing up, me being the only red head I knew. I also remember a lovely cologne, Muguet des Bois, that I used back then that had the scent of lily of the valley. I no longer use any sort of cologne as I spend so much time in the gardens and anything scented seems to attract unwanted attention from bugs, but I remember it fondly and if I were to go back to cologne, I might be tempted by that one.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cimicifuga racemosa

This photo is of Cimicifuga racemosa 'Brunette', but it is just a select form with dark leaves and looks otherwise like the green wild form. Other names by which this is called are Black Snakeroot, Black Cohosh, Bugbane, Rattle Root, Rattle Weed, Squaw Root, Macrotys, Papose Root and Rattlesnake Root. Quite a collection of names. A lot of them are also used for other plants, so I can imagine there could have been some confusion. My best guess is that these were regional names and, in a time when people traveled very little, anyone living in an area would know exactly what plant you were talking about.
This is an American native which was introduced to Europe for medicinal and ornamental purposes. It has 3 to 4 foot stalks of flowers, lovely, feathery and wandlike. The species grows over most of the eastern and middle United States, being at home in rich, open woods, which is where it is happiest here. At the end of its growing season, the rhizomes and roots are dug, dried and later powdered for medicinal purposes. An official drug for nearly a hundred years, it may be given as an extract, tincture or infusion.
Youngken's Textbook says "Cimicifuga is employed as an antirheumatic and as a remedy for chorea, dysmennorrhoea, neuralgia, and tinnitus aurium". Other writers include its use in various spasmodic affections, epilepsy, and as an astringent, diuretic, and alterative.
Potter's Cyclopaedia for instance, says, "In small doses useful in children's diahhroea. In paroxysms of consumption it gives relief by allaying the cough, reducing rapidity of pulse, and inducing perspiration ... In whooping cough its action is highly spoken of ... Said to be a specific in Saint Vitus's dance of children." Overdoses produce nausea and vomiting. A translation of the Lain genus name Cimicifuga - cim, meaning bugs and fugo, meaning drive away = suggests that the plant may be effective as an insecticide. Although it has been reputed to ward off insects, as well as cure snakebite and beesting, there are no confirming statistics to prove out these claims. I can say that it is never bothered by insects in my garden and also has never, at least so far, been munched by deer. It is a lovely plant, quite hardy, carefree and long lived. Quite highly recommended for the shade garden.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Cichorium intybus

One of my favorite roadside 'weeds' is Chicory. It grows along roads here in the horrible, dry, sunny spots and shares its home with Queen Anne's Lace and Black Eyed Susan. You know August is here when the roadsides turn blue. It is also sometimes called Blue Dandelion, Succory, Blue Sailors and Wild Endive. This one was introduced to the Americas from Europe. It is related to the dandelion. It wilts by afternoon, or at least the blooms close and it is pretty useless as a cut flower, though the color would be wonderful in an arrangement.
This plant has been used since ancient times and the name has been traced back through Arab medical language to Greek and Egyptian, and mention of the use of chicory is found in Roman writings. It was greatly appreciated as a spring green by southern Europeans who understood its value as a tonic after the lack of green food in the winter. It is still one of those things eaten around here as spring greens today along with dandelion and cress. In France, and in the southern U.S., because of the French influence, the roots are dug, dried, ground and added to coffee, not as an adulterant, but for their distinctive flavor.
No great medicinal values are ascribed to chicory, although it is mentioned in herbals as a diuretic, laxative, and tonic. and it seems to be generall recommended for jaundice and liver complaints, to be taken freely as a decoction, made at the rate of 1 ounce of dried, powdered root to 1 pint of water. Meyer's Herbal says that a tea made from the roots "may be taken whenever the stomach has been upset."
I've not tried to transplant it into the garden, though a few plants have arrived on their own and are left as long as they aren't totally out of place. There is plenty along the road to enjoy, though, without actually having it in my perennial beds.
More snow today. The snow on the seats of my garden benches is now as high as the backs of the benches. My afternoon walks are getting shorter because it has gotten so difficult to walk through the deep snow. We have been promised some sun by the weekend and temperatures above freezing for the first time in weeks. I sure hope so.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chimpala umbellata

First, apologies for the horrible image. It is Chimpala maculata, a close relative to the one I'm going to write about this morning. I would run out and take another, but all of my wintergreen is buried under a foot or so of snow right now. Other names for this one are Pipsissewa, Waxflower, Princess Pine, King's Cure, Ground Holly, Love-in-Winter, Rheumatism Weed (I distinctly remember another by the same name recently - all the more reason to stick with the Latin), Ratsbane, Dragon's Tongue, and Pyrole.
The Scientific name is from the Greek rather than Latin here, actually ending up more like Latinized Greek. Cheima means winter and Philein, to love. Perfect for an evergreen plant. It is closely related to Pyrola, the true Wintergreen. They are quite different in appearance and usage, though. Chimaphila umbellata (the one in the photo) is also called spotted wintergreen. It is similar, but for the true medicinal type, look for the real Pipsissewa rather than true wintergreen or spotted wintergreen. Confused? Me too. I guess I'll need to dig out my wildflower book on my next walk and see if I can find all three. I just always knew the one in the photo as wintergreen.
Dr. Barton, writing in 1804, says that the name pipsissewa is an Indian name - and a pleasantly tripping one at that. Probably all of the Indians made as much use of the plant as, we are told quite definitely, the Pequot and Narragansett tribes did. (I'm using 'Indian' rather than Native American or First Nations only because I'm quoting an old text).
The place to find this plant is always in deep, coniferous woods throughout the United States. [Note - I have a large patch growing under an oak, though near some pines just at the top and in dappled shade on a south facing, steep hill.] Look for sharply pointed green leaves on a plant only five inches or so in height. Waxy white flowers appear in early summer, and the leaves are sweet-smelling when fresh. The dried leaves may be made into an infusion at the rate of 1 ounce to 1 pint of boiling water, taken in wineglass doses.
The literature on pipsissewa is in agreement on its value as a diuretic, astringent, tonic, and alterative. It is used in cystitis and gonorrhea, and as a mild disinfectant to the urinary tract. The name 'King's Cure' indicated its past use in scrofula. For nearly a hundred years an official drug, it has now been replaced by the inorganic medicines. Several writers point out that its action as a diutrtic is similar to that of Arctostaphylos Uva-ursi but that the side effects are fewer. For commercial purpose, it is gathered and prepared for market by the herb gatherers of North Carolina and other mountain areas.
I'm really anxious to get back out into the woods and 'visit' some of my favorite wildflower spots, but, alas, it is once again snowing...

Monday, February 15, 2010


Around here they call this Turtlehead, though Chelone is the proper name. It is also known as balmony, shellflower, salt-rheum weed, bitter herb (I think more than one thing is called by this name, though), hummingbird tree and snake-mouth. I think I'll stick with Turtlehead.
The plant doesn't appear in the older European herbals as it is native to the Americas. It is a perenneal and is found usually, and rather sparingly, along stream edges and in other wet, shady places in Canada and throughout the United States, growing about two feet high. I have it growing in a shady, though rather dry spot that is only damp after heavy rains, being at the edge of a drainage ditch. It seems quite happy there, so I think if you remember to give it adequate water, the stream or pondside setting is not required.
The descriptive names come from the similarity of the appearance of the half-opened flowers to the head otf a turtle or snake, while the other names describe its taste or values. It is said to have been an important Native American medicine, but research does not disclose what tribe used it. The foliage and flower color can be highly variable.
The chemical properties of chelone are extracted either by tincture or infusion. The best statement of its use in medicine is that in Grieve's Herbal:

The whole, fresh plant is chopped, pounded to a pulp, and weighed, and a tincture is prepared with alcohol. The decoction is made with 2 ounces of the fresh herb to the pint (a dose being 1 to 2 ounces of the decoction) ... The leaves have antibilious, anthelmintic, tonic and degergent properties, with a peculiar action on the liver ... As an ointment it is recommended for inflamed tumours, irritating ulcers, inflamed breasts, piles, et cetera.

Speaking of its value in liver conditions, and under the heading of curiosa, we find one authority saying the turtlehead is a "remedy for the left lobe of the liver." Curious indeed.
Totally off topic, we are expecting another 5-10 inches of snow today, depending on which forecast you listen to or read. I would prefer none since there is still a foot on the ground and the road is finally passable again, as of late yesterday afternoon. I do enjoy snow in the winter and there isn't anything better for protecting plants from the cold, but enough is enough. If the snow isn't heavy this afternoon, I'll continue my travels around the gardens freeing plants from their heavy coats of ice and snow. We had 20-30 foot tall trees whose very tops had to be gotten out of the snow on the ground so they could stand up again. Most things pop right back up, small maples especially, though some, like some of the hollies, will have to be pulled back up in the spring and tied to get their shapes back. Luckily very little has broken. Hope you're all staying warm wherever you are.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Cassia, also known as Wild Senna grows from Pennsylvania down to Florida and west to Texas. It is a woody herb, about 6 feet tall with alternate leaves and leaflets. The flowers are bright yellow and it blooms here in late summer. The leaves were listed for medicinal purposes for many years in the United States Pharmacopoeia. Youngken says that the leaves contain the same principle found in the East Indian senns sold in drugstores, but in lesser amounts.
Many people have heard of senna as a leading purgative, and for such a use the wild American form seems to be equally valuable. The recommended dose was a teaspoonful steeped in boiling water for half an hour, taken a little at a time during the day, or a half-cupful at night. Caution is suggested, however, since very small quantities can cause severe diarrhea. Maybe this is another case of the cure being worse than what you're taking it for. I believe that senna was/is an active ingredient in some over the counter laxatives. I think I'll avoid it and just enjoy the flowers.
The plant was used as a cathartic by the Native Americans, who also made poultices from the moist, bruised roots for sores, and a decoction from the roots for fevers.
There are few references to senna in the early European herbals because the Cassia of the drug trade came largely from Arabia, India and similar climatic and cultural centers which, in the centuries of herbal compilation, had little communication with the West. Similarly, Europeans knew little of Native American medicine at that time.
This is a plant for a sunny, even a bit dry spot. It will grow in shade, but will probably not flower well there. It is a reliably hardy perennial and we have had it in the garden for many years. It also makes a pretty good cut flower.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Berberis - Barberry

Medicinally, the barberry falls within the field of the "Doctrine of Signatures" in that, the wood of the stems being so vividly yellow, it was obvious to all that it would cure jaundice - which back then was called the yellow disease. One of its common names, Jaundice Berry, derives from this belief. Yet, however ridiculous this doctrine may have sounded, there seems to have been some truth in the association, for a most modern herbal from England says of barberry:
Tonic, purgative and antiseptic. Used in all cases of jaundice, liver complaints, general debility and biliousness. It regulates the digestive powers, being a mild purgative, and removes constipation ... The berries make a pleasant acid drink of great utility in diarrhea, fevers, et cetera. Note from Jane: I guess I start to wonder when the same herb is said to be useful for diarrhea and constipation. Just doesn't seem logical, but then again, I'm just reporting about these things, not taking this from personal experience.
The root, the root bark and the berries are used. Several writers recommend an infusion of 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoonful of the powdered bark taken three to four times daily, while the juice of the berries makes a pleasant and healtful acid drink. Note from Jane again: I'm glad to hear that the berries aren't poisonous like my parents told me when I was little, since I'm sure I tasted some of them while playing out in the yard - just to be mischievous.
The berries in the fall make an excellent jelly or pickle; beautiful in color and fine with meat dishes. In Herbal Simples, Fernie says that the jelly is an excellent relief for catarrhal infections, and that the plain juice, with a little sugar, is a healing gargle.
This purely European plant has established itself throughout the northeastern tier of the states. It is easily found, in spite of the fact that the first legislation against the barberry was passed in 1670, and the plan has been fought and grubbed out ever since. the common (not Japanese) barbery harbors the spores of a wheat rust which really makes it an enemy in the wheat-growing states. I have occasionally come across one here in our woods, but have never seen is as invasive, at least in our woods. I expect it wants a bit more sun like the Japanese Barberries of which I grow a dozen or so cultivars (photo at top - Berberis gilgiana). Although most of ours are rather large bushes and wouldn't be suited for a small garden, I have recently acquired some truly miniature ones, a gold and a red leaf, though right now, I'm not sure of their names. They are easy to grow and care for and can be pruned if they get a bit too large. There are deciduous and evergreen types, but all have lovely yellow flowers with the most delicious honey scent in the spring. Fall berries are a fine food for the birds once they have been frosted a bit.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Asarum canadensis

Our native Ginger seems to be known by a number of names, most of which I haven't heard used, at least in this part of the country. In addition to wild ginger, there is also Canada snakeroot, Indian ginger, colic root, false coltsfoot and catfoot. Commercial Ginger, the kind you buy at the supermarket, is a tropical and can't be grown here. Most people know that a tea made from ginger root will relieve stomach ache or morning sickness. It's a bit too spicy for my taste, but it does work. Our native ginger will work in the same way.
Wild ginger is found in moist woods from Maine to Georgia and west to Ohio. It is a low-growing, stemless herb, easily distinguished by its heart-shaped leaves forne in pairs, and its tiny, bell-shaped, brown or dark maroon flowers which hide at the base of the plant and are sometimes mostly hidden by the leaf litter of the forest floor.

The thickened root, or rhizome, is dug in the spring, dried, and used in powdered form as an aromatic bitter and carminative. Meyer's Herbalist suggests an infusion of 1 teaspoon of dried root to 1 pint of boiling water, a wineglassful taken as often as needed. A stronger infusion may well be useful in inducing copious sweating when such a circumstance is desired. Its use as a component of other valuable, but less pleasant, drugs is also indicated. It is likely that this was one of the well-known medicinal plants of the Native Americans.
We have large patches of ginger growing here in the woods, mostly on north-facing slopes where it gets little, if any, direct sun. It is a woodsy thing and seems to like deep, rich soil and a moist sort of place. We have a huge colony on a hill across the creek and up the hill from our parking lot - kind of a mess to get to with no bridge and all of the wild blackberries and other sorts of thorny things that grow along the creek, but lovely in the spring with the ginger, trilliums, all sorts of ferns, yellow violets, dog tooth violets, wild geraniums, mayapples and many more I'm sure I'm forgetting. On warm springs they are all in bloom on my birthday and I just go there and sit and enjoy.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Arisaema triphyllum

...otherwise known as Jack-in-the-Pulpit. These have become quite popular lately and we've added quite a few to the gardens, but this is the good old fashioned one that grows in the woods here and which my mother grew in her fern garden when I was little.

The roots of the plants are quite poisonous if chewed fresh, however they have medicinal qualities when dug, dried and powdered. As with any of these wild things, I don't recommend digging unless there are just huge quantities of them in the wild. What I learned at Girl Scout camp when I was little was that for each one you dug, you had to be sure to leave at least a dozen there. Still good advice. There are also restrictions (usually no digging allowed) in state and national parks.

Harris (not sure just who Harris is, but my reference book attributes this quote to him/her) says that it possesses "the property of stimulating excretions of the skin and lungs, is irritant, and diaphoretic ... the powder of the fresh roots is used for apthous sore throat of children." And again, I'm not recommending any of this, but merely doing a survey of the historical uses of some plants. It is said that the tubers grated and boiled in mild provide a medicine for coughts and pulmonary consumption.

Native Americans used the grated, dried root as an external application for headache. The action of the sweat on the powder acted as a counterirritant, and caused such pain as to cover up the headache. I know that this is sort of a traditional idea, but I guess you just have to decide which pain you can tolerate easier. At any rate, only very tiny doses were used - one source suggests 10 grains of the powdered, dry root taken twice daily, with honey, to reduce that unpleasant acrid effects.

Arisaema is a very widely distributed member of the Arum family in both the United States and Canada and can usually be found growing in boggy, shady places. It is easily distinguished in spring by the 'pulpit' discovered under the three leaflets on a tallish stem. After bloom, if it has been pollinated,

you will see green berries where the 'pulpit' has been, which turn to bright red in the fall.

If you want to try and plant some of you own, pick the berries when they are dead ripe, squeeze the seeds out and plant immediately, either in a flat outside or right in the ground in a protected spot.

Sorry I haven't been here for a few days, but almost a foot of snow and losing our electricity all day Saturday kind of got me off in different directions. It is snowing now, though lightly, with quite a few inches predicted today and tomorrow. This was a very heavy, sticky snow and quite a few trees are bent over to the ground. I go out a few time a day with a broom and sweep off as much snow as I can to help things get back to being more upright. That usually lasts about a half hour or until I've managed to knock enough snow down my collar and in my eyes that I'm too cold and need to come in. We've had a few broken branches, but nothing like in last year's ice storm. Lets hope today will be just snow and none of the freezing rain they say is possible. At any rate, if you don't hear from me for a few days, it will be because we've lost electricity again. Spring will be here soon, I hope.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Alcea rosea - Hollyhocks

Hollyhocks were introduced to American gardens from the Far East. It has become so common here that most people assume it is a native american plant. The properties of the hollyhock are as a demulcent, emollient and diuretic. The part of the hollyhock that is used is the flower, form which the outer calyx is removed, and flowers then being dried in trays with plenth of air circulation. They turn a dark, purplish black, and may be used medicinally or as a coloring matter.
Hollyhocks seem to have been rather marginal as a medicinal plant and became much more used as an ornamental. I've seen plenty of old outhouses with hollyhocks growing all around them. My outhouse is in too much shade, unfortunately.
Hollyhocks need good drainage and seem to prefer a rich soil. Full sun suits them best. Mine readily self seed and though each plant is somewhat short lived, there are always some that come up every year, though maybe not in the exact place where you have them before. My original plant was a red, but with all of the self-seeding, I now have shades from deep burgundy to pale pink. I haven't had much luck in saving the seed because by the time the seed pods dry, something seems to have bored holes in them and has eaten the seeds. I guess enough of them are missed by whatever eats them to re-seed, but there never seem to be enough to collect.
Seed seems to be readily available, though, from catalogs and in stores, so there's no excuse to miss out on these tall and showy bloom which will continue until frost here.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


The only thing I knew for sure that Agave was used for was in the making of tequila - saw that on a Globe Trekker episode once. Agave is also commonly knows as Century Plant and American Aloe. Most agaves are greenhouse or houseplants here, though there are a couple that can be grown outside if kept dry in the winter.
The agave is at the center of the economy of some Mexican country-dwellers. It furnished shelter, food, drink and soap as well as materials for fiber. Medicinally the juice of the agaves has been used as a diuretic and especially as an antisyphilitic. It was estimated that there were 371 different uses to which it is put in Mexico.
In Mexico the upturned leaves serve as shingles, the juice in ecvery state is usable and the plant is grown as a money crop in vast plantations.
These are large plants and I regularly take off the 'pups' that are a more friendly size and give away the large parent plants to people with more inside space. Most also have thorns along th edges of the leaves. Mine live in the greenhouse in the winter and out in the garden in the summer. They are carefree plants and their only drawback is that as mature, old plants, once they flower they die, but since they can live for a hundred years - hence the name Century Plant - it's not something most of us are going to have to worry about.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Adiantum Capillus-Veneris

This is another version of the common Maiden Hair fern that grows in the woods here. I've heard it called Southern Maiden Hair. It is a native American fern, but a version of it also grows in Europe where it has been used as a medicinal plant. It is only native as far north as Virginia, but grows happily here in a sheltered spot. It has a perference for lime soils, shade and moisture.
Both the Latin and English names are revealing. Adiantum means unmoistuened or water-repelling, and Venus is said to have arisen from her watery home with dry hair. Because of this connection with hair, the plant has been used as a hair tonic, but it seems to have little value for this purpose.
Herbal references indicate that it has long been known as an emmenagogue, but even more generally as an expectorant because of its mucilaginous properties. The plant, fronds and rootstocks alike, is dried and mixed with boiling water and taken as needed. Pretty vague directions, but that seems typical for these medicinal plants. I guess people just knew what to do with them and didn't feel the need to include lots of written directions.
The French have a cough remedy known as Sirop de Capillaire, made by using 5 ounces of the dried plant and 2 ounces of peeled licorice root in 3 pints of boiling water, adding, after 6 hours, 3 pounds of sugar and 1 pint of orange juice for palatability.
I was afraid to try this plant originally since it looked to delicate and wasn't rated for this zone, but it has increased to a rather large clump. It grows about a foot tall and grows here under a Japanese maple in a bed with heucheras, hostas and other ferns.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Acorus calamus

The Acorus is the taller, iris-like plant in the back. These are growing in our bog. This is the variegated form, though I'm sure the book (Using Plants for Healing - Rodale Press) is talking about the plain one which I don't grow.
The earliest mention that the book knows about are 4 references in the Old Testament, so this has been considered a medicinal herb for a long time. The roots of the plant were used in commerce in the Near East at least 4 thousand years ago. There are numerous references to its use by Native Americans who seemed to rate SweetFlag as good for just about everything.
Although this plant resembles an Iris, it is actually more closely related to Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Skunk Cabbage and is an Arum. The flower is definitely unusual as it is a spadix, a think spike that has minute yellow flowers near the top. It just looks like color until you get close as these are really, really tiny flowers.
Dried foliage was at one time sold to churches for scattering over the floors to provide a "saintly odor", or more likely, to cover up the smells of unwashed bodies.
As with other members of the Arum family, the plant grows always in swampy of stream-edge spots throughout the United States. The part used medicinally is the root, which should not be peeled, for the vital principles are just under the surface layer. The dried root is powdered and infused in water. There is also some mention of chewing the raw root to stop 'stomach rumblings'.
We have it growing in boggy places where it multiplies faster than rabbits, so we always have plenty to sell, trade or just give away. It will also grow in just a plain garden bed if you provide sufficient water. Just expect a smaller plant. It likes sun, but will also grow in light shade.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Achillea millefolium

The common name is Yarrow and this one's particular name is 'Paprika'. The color looks sort of subdued in this photo, but it is just so bright in the garden. We actually had one blooming until mid-October this year, the last Yarrow to bloom in the garden this season, even though it started in early summer.
The history. Myth has it that Achilles first revealed the uses of the plant and from the species name, millefolium, or thousand leaved we get a description of the foliage. Some other names by which it has been known are milfoil, old man's pepper, thousand-leaved, nosebleed, thousand-seal, dog daisy, soldier's wound-wort and devil's plaything. Old man's pepper refers to its mildly pungent taste and smell, while nosebleed goes back to its use both to induce nosebleed, and because of its astringent quality, to stop mild bleeding. It was used to bandage battle wounds. The name devil's plaything refers to its use in divination.
It is not native to this country and was probably brought to this country for medicinal use by early settlers. It is now widely distributed in fields and meadows, blooming in early August (the wild form - the garden hybrids bloom all summer) when it can be gathered and dried for later use.
This is a full sun plant, the more the better and will even grow in less than perfect locations, tolerating a bit of drought, but really dry weather will leave it looking limp. It is easy to grow and comes in a large variety of colors from white (the wild form) through yellow, pink, peach and fuchsia. Most of my pastel flowered ones are 12 to 18 inches tall, but the 'Paprika' pictured at the top of the post can easily reach 3 feet.
I guess I need to add that I'm not recommending any of these 'cures', but rather doing this as a historical exploration.