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Partridge berry for women’s health

Partridge berry, Mitchella repens, an edible berry in North Georgia.

Just beyond the city sidewalks and landscaped developments, where the soil is relatively undisturbed, one can discover plants which contain stories of cultural interaction for the sake of healing. Partridge berry (Mitchella repens), a charming groundcover native to eastern North America holds within its evergreen leaves and scarlet berries nature’s best-kept secret for women’s health.

Partridge berry trails along the forest ground with attractive opposite, dark-green, oval leaves, with a thin white vein. Delicate pinkish-white, furry flowers bloom in pairs from spring through mid-summer, later forming edible, red berries, noticeable into the winter months. The berries are often the distinguishing, identifiable feature hikers notice in the woods.

As a food, the edible berries, though bland, can be prepared in cakes, beverages, or dried for storage. The scarlet-red color indicates the presence of antioxidant polyphenols. The berries may not be super tasty, but they do offer some wild-plant nutrition.

Although a valuable plant among American Indian women of several nations whose knowledge was shared with generations of American women from other cultures, partridge berry has been neglected by the biomedical community for the last eighty years, and remains in the category of domestic medicine, a term for medicine practiced within the home.

Through the late 1800s and early 1900s, pharmaceutical companies offered Extract of Mitchella, or partridgeberry, for women’s health. Early medical doctors and pharmaceutical companies based their knowledge of partridge berry on its reputation as a long-standing traditional remedy among American Indian women for regulating menstrual cycles, easing pain, and preparing a pregnant woman for labor.

Ethnobotanical accounts of American Indian use of partridge berry state the whole plant was also used as an antirheumatic remedy for stiff joints and muscular pain, as a sedative for insomnia, and as a gastrointestinal aid for stomachaches.

After a superlative reputation stemming from centuries of medicinal use for common complaints among women, partridge berry’s curious omission from medical research leads one to question. In 1916 and 1918, researchers Picher and Mauer performed experiments using partridge berry extract on isolated uterine muscle, finding no effect, according to John Crellin and Jane Philpott’s text, A Reference Guide to Medicinal Plants (1990). Did one or two experiments performed almost a century ago on a tissue sample negate the wealth of traditional use in live women?

If one were to harvest partridge berry for medicinal use, be extremely careful to tediously cut the stems, and leave the roots intact in the soil. This plant is threatened in some states and is not exactly easy to cultivate. I don’t recommend anyone to take partridge berry, anyway, without consulting her health practitioner.

Cultivating partridge berry in shade gardens is a challenge in the South due to its preference for rich, moist soils, and frequent watering requirements in order to become established. If one conscientiously tends to its needs, partridge berry rewards with its year-round beauty and its traditional medicinal significance.

The above article originally appeared in the Urban Forager Column of the Athens Banner-Herald, Sunday, November 14, 2010.

Ginkgo biloba enhances brain and circulatory function

In the realm of long-lived trees, Ginkgo is among the oldest. Some Ginkgos in East Asia are more than 4,000 years old. This tree’s method of longevity provides answers for humanity’s alchemical anti-aging quest.

Ginkgo biloba's beautiful fan-shaped leaves turn canary-yellow in fall. The leaves turn from tip to stem.

Ginkgos’ abundance in antioxidant flavonoids can serve humans when they ingest them, but they are vital to the plant’s developed ability to protect itself from environmental stressors. Flavonoid compounds predominate in the surface of plants serving as an exterior structure, counteracting oxidative stress from pollutants and, more interestingly, acting as communication molecules, much like our own hormones, to warn the plant of threats.

Current research suggests plant flavonoid compounds can communicate with human hormone receptor-sites and actually lower cortisol, a primary hormone associated with stress.

Through multiple mechanisms Ginkgo enhances brain function. Ginkgo has been shown to actually support and enhance the function of neural tissue by protecting neurons from damage, and also regenerating neurons.

Ginkgo leaves protect the brain and cardivascular system from oxidative stress, and actually enhances brain function.

In a college town, many can identify with the consequences of burning the candle at both ends: forgetfulness, depression, general cerebral insufficiency. Ginkgo is used to restore brain function in generally healthy adults experiencing mental exhaustion or attention deficit.

Research shows Ginkgo has prevented beta-amyloid plaques implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, and has enhanced neurogenesis in the hippocampus, a significant memory area of the brain.

Ginkgo’s circulatory support enhances the blood flow by preventing damaging oxidation to lipids, or fats, in the arteries and capillaries. Studies show Ginkgo-treated red blood cells become more slippery and flexible, less sticky, which ultimately prevents atherosclerosis.

Ginkgo didn’t become internationally known for circulatory and brain support until German physician Dr. Willmar Schwabe studied its effect on circulation, oxidation and brain health. Schwabe’s extract is known as EGB761, and is the reason why Ginkgo is the most studied plant medicine in Europe.

Currently, controversial banter exists between one camp claiming the only therapeutic benefits from Ginkgo leaves can be obtained from laboratory-isolated compounds, and standardized extracts of 24 percent ginkgo flavone glycosides and 6 percent erpene lactones. The other camp states harvested young leaves from “wild” trees also are effective in supporting brain and circulatory health.

Traditional Chinese medicine utilized the seeds, which are more like nuts, more than the leaves, and each part offers different medicinal properties. The seeds are removed from the stinky flesh of the female fruit, then cooked, and utilized for lung ailments. A Chinese restaurant in the Washington, D.C., area serves Ginkgo seeds as a tasty appetizer.

Antioxidants within Ginkgos provide the power to withstand urban pollution, and grant them the approved status of acceptable trees for city streets. If they’re male, that is. Female fruits smell like rotting flesh in order to attract animals to serve as seed distributors. Although this works for the tree, it’s off-putting for the human olfactory senses.

Ginkgos offer a gloriously uniform, canary-yellow brilliance in the fall, which flutter down, covering the sidewalks, so that above and below is completely gold. During this mesmerizing phenomenon, it is the best week to be strolling through downtown Athens.

This article originally appeared in the Urban Forager Column of Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, November 7, 2010.

Sweetgum used to treat hypertension

In my assessment, the most undervalued native tree is the sweetgum. Due to its abundance – and to the sweetgum’s fruits, which look like miniature, medieval torture devices that litter the ground and clog lawnmowers – the sweetgum is condemned by many as a trash tree. Others might have a NIMBY response to sweetgums: they appreciate them along the highway, just not in their backyards.

Star-shaped sweetgum leaves turn a rainbow of colors in the fall, indicating its complex chemistry. Liquidambar, or sweetgum, is one of the sacred sources of Mayan copal resin.

A few features about sweetgums, though, point to this tree being more interesting than current conventional wisdom perceives.

During the fall, few trees offer the spectacular multi-hued, rainbow of color seen in the sweetgum’s star-shaped leaves. From shiny green, to yellow, to red, to deep eggplant-purple, sweetgum’s color spectrum appears to be indicative of its complex chemistry.

Within both common and botanical names of the sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), we can gather that the tree offers a liquid, resinous, sweet-tasting gum. In the old days, the balsamic resin was called American styrax, or storax, and used as a natural chewing gum. The balsam resin is harvested by making a gash inside the inner bark so the liquid can ooze out. The balsam resin is medicinal, and further processing can produce tinctures and gums that also are medicinal.

Traditionally Native Americans used the resin and inner bark as an aid for wounds, sore throats, coughs and in treating infectious diarrhea. Chemical analysis has found astringent tannins and antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory compounds in sweetgum, which make it effective in treating skin and mucosal infections. The leaves also contain many of the medicinally active compounds.

Ethnobotanical research by the Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research documents Liquidambar styraciflua, or arbol de estoraque, as one of the sacred sources of copal resin used for incense and burned during religious ceremonies. South Carolina Civil War surgeon and botanist writes that sweetgum incense was used in Mexico as an “excitant of the mucous system” and antimicrobial for infections of lungs, intestines and urinary tract.

Sweetgum balls look like miniature medieval torture devices.

Archeological research of pre-Columbian Aztecs discovered evidence of a large trade of Liquidambar for incense. “Trash tree” is clearly a perception.

Another traditional use by Cherokee Indians was to make a tea infusion of the inner bark as a sedative to calm the nerves.

Recent pharmaceutical research found that an alcohol extract of sweetgum reduced angiotensin II signaling, thereby reducing hypertension. The researchers isolated chemical constituents, benzyl benzoate and benzyl cinnamate, and discovered they served as antagonists for angiotensin II-induced hypertension. Will this trash tree be revalued as a native treasure?

Although sweetgums are prolific and long-lived, they are sensitive to urban sprawl and drought. According to a North Carolina State University study of sweetgums growing in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, foliage is damaged from phytotoxic levels of troposheric ozone. We might regret that we didn’t appreciate the sweetgums while they were common.

In the Athens area, a walk around Memorial Park Lake offers a chance to take in the sweetgum’s beauty.

This article was originally published in the Urban Forager Column of the Athens Banner-Herald, Sunday, October 31, 2010.

Pawpaw used in cancer, head lice treatments

As for showy fall color, the Pawpaw isn’t glamorously breathtaking, but this time of year makes the yellowing of the leaves in mid-height understory an easy way to identify and stake-out Pawpaws in order to harvest their fruits the following summer.

The Common Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) and Smallflower Pawpaw (Asimina parviflora, Annonaceae family) are small trees or shrubs found in the mid-height understory of undisturbed soil. Large, pointed-tip, oval leaves with fishbone-like veins grow in an alternating pattern on rusty brown stems. Smallflower Pawpaw has smaller flowers and fruits and is shorter than Common Pawpaw. Smallflower also grows in drier soil than Common Pawpaw. For more images of Smallflower Pawpaw visit http://www.duke.edu/~cwcook/trees/aspa.html.

The Common Pawpaw (Asimina triloba, Annonaceae family) is a small tree or shrub found in rich, moist soil that has been undisturbed. Large, pointed-tip, oval leaves with fishbone-like veins grow in an alternating pattern on rusty brown stems. The stem and leaves, when broken, give off a slightly unpleasant odor, which tree expert Dr. Michael Dirr describes as “fetid.”

Cup-like, six-petaled flowers bloom in the spring. These inconspicuous, dark-burgundy beauties, are indicative of the unknown delicacy awaiting the forager-in-the-know come summer.

In early North American history, the Pawpaw fruit was common and widely known.

Nineteenth century medical botanists reported that African-Americans and Native Americans relished the custardy Pawpaw fruit for its taste, and also for its reported sedative and laxative effect.

Ethnobotanical accounts of Native Americans document various nations preparing mashed, fresh Pawpaws into cakes and then drying them for storage. The dried fruit was taken on hunting expeditions as dried fruit leather, or was soaked in warm water to either prepare as a sauce or to add to a corn meal mixture.

Pawpaws generally fall from the tree before they ripen. The forager gathers the fallen fruits, and ripens them outside because – at risk of losing some readers who were otherwise interested – I must disclaim, their smell is overpowering indoors. When the fruits turn from pale green to tamarind-brown, they’re ripe. The exterior is a fairly-tough peel, but the inside is soft and delicate like bananas.

The fruit has attractive, dark, reddish seeds with hard, shiny seedcoats. Be careful to remove the large seeds before eating Pawpaws because they’re considered to be a vermifuge (kills vermin or parasites), which means they’re toxic by most accounts. Powdered seeds, for example, were applied to a child’s head for lice control.

The destruction of habitat has drastically limited the quantity of Pawpaw fruit available. Local food and native plant enthusiasts are bringing back Pawpaw fruit through planting and providing the fruits at local markets. Pawpaws don’t tolerate the jostling required for grocery stores, so Pawpaw farmers must sell the fruits directly to customers as they ripen.

Pawpaw twigs are a source of annonaceous acetogenins, which have been used as an alternative treatment for certain cancers. Recent laboratory research at Purdue University’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science found that extracts of Pawpaw are “among the most potent of the 3,500 species of higher plants screened for bioactive compounds,” and proven to be an effective antitumor compound, as well as a treatment for oral herpes, and a pesticidal shampoo for head lice, fleas and ticks, already known in folk medicine.

Pawpaws make a case for protecting undisturbed forests as a source of economic and medicinal resources. The curious fruit also presents an argument for learning traditional medicine.

This article was originally published in the Urban Forager Column of the Athens Banner-Herald, October 24, 2010.

Fall tree ID: Uses of Sourwood

Sourwoods can be identified in the forest by their typical diagonal growth pattern, and their dark-colored bark.

In mid-October, the trees turning brilliant red along forest edges are likely to be sourwood. Many know sourwood as a flower source for honey, but they may not know that it’s a tree. Sourwood, a native of Eastern and Central U.S. forests, has other valuable uses, some of which are supernatural, and appropriate as we approach Halloween.

In last week’s Urban Forager column, I suggested that one can identify a tulip poplar if looking for the gray, straight lines in the forest. Sourwoods are the dark, diagonal lines. Very few sourwoods grow straight, and the dark, grayish-red bark is deeply furrowed. After a sourwood is cut down (a sad sight), reddish, shrub-like, suckering branches grow from the trunk base.

The oval leaves of the sourwood tree turn beautiful garnet-red in the fall. Mature trees in autumn have golden tassels of seed pods hanging against the garnet leaves. Beautiful combination.

Sourwood trees (Oxydendrum arboretum) are in the acidic soil-loving Heath family, including heather, blueberries, cranberries, mountain laurel, Rhododendrons and azaleas. Comparing sourwood flowers to blueberry and heather flowers – which is how plants are classified – one can see the similarities, all resembling tiny bells of fused petals. Sourwood flowers droop in sprays of creamy yellow at the ends of the branches. When the little fruits form, they stand upright, defying gravity. After the fruits dry, the entire spray of dried seeds falls to the ground in one, collective piece.

Leaves of the sourwood form long, lime-green ovals, which give a burst of sour-flavor when chewed. The sourness can quench your thirst while hiking by stimulating your salivary glands, and offers a cooling, refrigerant quality similar to sumac berries. Tea from the leaves can alleviate a gassy stomach, often causing one to belch. Sourwood leaves are diuretic, and historically were used for dropsy, an illness now considered as edema associated with congestive heart failure.

Cherokee Indians have made sedating nerve tonics and respiratory remedies from leaf and bark tea. The wood was used by the Cherokee for arrowshafts, pipestems, sled runners and firewood.

One Cherokee herbalist informed me of a supernatural use of sourwood. In Cherokee belief, there is a creature that has long fingernails like Freddy Krueger, who inserts his nails into somebody’s liver to steal his or her vital essence. The liver is vital for energy, so if the liver thief were draining someone’s liver, that person would become exhausted. For protection from the liver thief, fresh sourwood branches would be placed around the victim’s home, preventing the liver thief from entering.

An Appalachian folk remedy for childhood asthma was to cut a lock of hair from the child with asthma and stuff it in a drilled-out hole in a sourwood tree, measured to be a bit taller than the child at the time. By the time the child grew higher than the hole in the tree, the asthma would be gone. The tree was reported to suffer, instead.

According to the USDA Plant Database, sourwoods, which are sensitive to urban problems of pollution and soil compaction, are threatened in Indiana and endangered in Maryland. These beautiful, useful trees carry a piece of America’s cultural history. Show your support of sourwoods by tasting its leaves and eating its honey.

The above article originally appeared in the Urban Forager column of Athens Banner-Herald, Sunday, October 16, 2010.

Fall tree ID: yellow tulip poplar and its uses

 

Liriodendron tulipifera, yellow poplar, or tulip poplar tree, turning yellow in autumn. Poplar is one of the first hardwoods to lose its leaves.

 

The tulip poplar is one of the first trees to turn its fall color of yellow and lose its leaves with early autumnal wind. We must learn to recognize it before it takes on its winter appearance.

Standing prominently, and prolifically, as one of the straightest trees in the forest, one can spot the tulip poplar trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) if looking for the grey, straight lines in the woods with deep furrows in the bark at the base and lightly textured bark above.

Distinctive poplar leaves look like little T-shirts, and the spring blossoms resemble yellow and orange tulips—hence the name, tulip poplar. Low-reaching branches of tulip poplars offer a delightful surprise of delicious nectar-manna awaiting the forager. After the blooms fade in early summer, sharp, little gun-shaped remnants of the flowers litter the ground. When I was a child, I used the tiny spears to poke other kids.

Tulip poplars, or yellow poplars as they are also known, are ubiquitous in Southern woods and grow rather quickly, thus it a fairly sustainable tree to use.

 

Jesse, native of Rabun County, GA, and maker of berry buckets out of yellow poplar bark sells his buckets in North Georgia and North Carolina, with artist Honor Woodard, painter, photographer, and author: http://silvermoonfrog.blogspot.com. Both are standing at the West Fork of the Chattooga River.

 

Its bark is popular for the craft of berry buckets, a skill still practiced among Appalachian old-timers, like Jesse of Rabun County, GA. Jesse sells his poplar berry buckets at Highlands, NC festivals.

Medicinally, tulip poplar is a remedy for arthritis, rheumatism, and intermittent fevers associated with malaria. In the 19th century, poplar bark was used as an alternative to expensive, imported cinchona bark, source of quinine for malarial fevers. A recent study at Rutgers published in the Journal of Ethnobotany supports the historical use of tulip poplar leaves and bark as an antimalarial remedy.

A tea from tulip poplar inner bark can offer some relief from joint inflammation found in arthritis and rheumatism, as will most trees of the Magnolia family. The tea is also beneficial for stimulating appetite and proper digestion in illnesses which lower a person’s desire to eat. American Indians also used the bark as a cough syrup.

Bitter-tasting tea from the leaves, twigs and inner bark is also considered an aphrodisiac due to a combined calming and stimulating effect on the nerves.

Flower buds from the tulip poplar have been used by American Indians as a soothing salve for burns. Squirrels love to eat the buds of tulip poplars, which might indicate the buds’ strong nutritional value.

Tulip poplar wood is used for lumber and canoes. In the virgin woods of Cooper Creek Scenic Area of North Georgia, the poplar can grow to a spectacular circumference of 18 or more feet. When poplars are four feet in radius or more, they have a hard, yellow heartwood, lending the wood to applications where it must tolerate weather, as has been used in old, cabin building. In the Highlands, NC area, poplar bark is used as exterior shingles.

 

A berry bucket made from poplar bark by Jesse.

 

Poplar is great kindling to start fires with because it burns very fast and is entertaining when it snaps, crackles and pops. Poplar wood doesn’t form coals, though, so you need to add oak or pine if you want sustain the fire.

This article originally appeared in the Urban Forager of Athens Banner-Herald, October 10, 2010.

 

Satolah, Rabun County, GA. The view from Jesse's property.

 

Perilla frutescens (shiso) is a novel vegetable

Perilla frutescens var. crispa, shiso, in Crawford, GA. Notice the ruffled edges.

Perilla frutescens, a relatively new green-leafy vegetable introduced to North America from Asia and naturalizing throughout the eastern US, is popular in Asian dishes and a source of expensive omega-3 essential fatty acid supplements.

Growing in the Athens area are two variants: one is called shiso (Perilla frutescens var. crispa), which is either green or purplish-burgundy with ruffled, deeply serrated edges, and the other is egoma (Perilla frutescens var. frutescens), which has flat, green leaves with serrated edges.

When identifying either variety of Perilla, a distinguishing characteristic is in the anise-basil smell of the foliage when it’s crushed. Since Perilla’s in the mint family (Lamiaceae), it will have a square stem. Flowers rise up on four-sided stalks, resembling basil, but are taller and more pronounced. I usually find Perilla in a moist, semi-shade habitat, such as the Fred Birchmore Nature Trail in Athens.

Listing the health-promoting properties of Perilla would appear to place it in a panacea, cure-all category of potential world crops. Evidenced-based research matches the claims, which might make this a top-ten plant in usefulness.

Perilla frutescens var. frutescens, egoma, on the Fred Birchmore Trail in Athens.

Perilla’s antimutagenic, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities lend it to be a traditional herb for treating cancerous tumors in Asia. Research studies of Perilla leaf extract have found the herb efficacious in treating human leukemia and human hepatoma cells by increasing apoptosis-related genes and apoptosis (programmed cell death) in the cancer cells. In one study on liver cancer, scientists compared the Perilla leaf extract to rosmarinic acid, a potent antioxidant compound found in high quantities in Perilla, to determine whether the activity is attributed to the rosmarinic acid. The study found the whole-leaf extract of Perilla was significantly more effective than the isolated constituent—a possible argument for wholeness.

Scientific studies have also verified the efficacy of using Perilla as an antidepressant. The studies were based on a Japanese herbal remedy which uses Perilla for its effect on depression associated with chronic unpredictable stress. There’s a lot of that going around.

Oil extracted from the seeds is high in omega-3 essential fatty acids, and can be an alternative to fish oil. Perilla oil has a neuroprotective and cardiovascular-protective effect, and is a possible preventative for strokes, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

There’s no need to make an alcohol tincture or water extract of Perilla because it’s an excellent, flavorful, cooked veggie, which has up to five times the carotene found in carotene-rich vegetables. Nutrition studies compared Perilla to spinach and found Perilla to be significantly higher in lutein than spinach. In addition to the carotenes, Perilla has an abundant supply of antioxidants, such as rosmarinic acid, flavonoids, and anthocyanins.

The omega-3-rich seeds of the flat-leaf Perilla can be used as a topping for salads or a spice. In Japanese cooking, the leaves of the ruffled-leaf Perilla are dredged in tempura batter and fried. The purple leaf variety is added to vinegars, pickled foods and rice to give flavor, a pinkish hue, and antimicrobial properties.

There’s no telling who is responsible for introducing Perilla to the US, but since it’s here, I’ll learn how to put it to good use.

Wax myrtle attractive, useful

Wax myrtle is a popular, native landscaping shrub used prolifically as an evergreen screen. The shrub is endowed with many other useful qualities, though most people have forgotten them. There was a time in America’s history when medical doctors and candlestick makers knew of wax myrtle’s valuable uses.

Medicinally, wax myrtle acts as a stimulating astringent and a nutritive blood purifier, known as an alterative.

In addition to wax myrtle, the common names indicate its historical candlemaking uses: wax berry, candle berry and bayberry.

The name bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica, a Northeastern species) might jog one’s memory, as it is a common scent for winter holiday candles. Early European settlers made taper candles from the waxy residue remaining on the surface of the water after boiling the green berries. The wax was then made into dark green candles scented with the shrub’s warming aroma, which was an upgrade from the smell of rancid lard coming from candles made with animal fat.

According to Dr. Francis Porcher, a Civil War surgeon and botanist, during the 1860s the women of South Carolina’s Lowcountry utilized the abundant natural resource of Southern wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) berries to make large amounts of candles and soap in order to become less reliant on the North.

Medicinally, wax myrtle acts as a stimulating astringent and a nutritive blood purifier, known as an alterative. Finley Ellingwood, an early 20th century medical doctor, wrote, “Wax myrtle is a remedy for those conditions where the vital powers are at a low ebb. It aids the nutrition, stimulating the absorption of food, and promotes the restoration of depraved blood.” He would use wax myrtle during a patient’s convalescence from malaria, and to expel the body of mercury after a toxic calomel (mercurous chloride) treatment.

Ellingwood also suggested wax myrtle for when the capillary circulation of mucus membranes was “feeble,” as in sore, spongy gums or in boggy, sinus cavities indicated by the dark, swollen, puffiness under one’s eyes due to a lingering sinus infection, or chronic allergic rhinitis. Typically, this type of sinus condition is without inflammation and is accompanied by excessive white mucus.

When using wax myrtle medicinally, the root bark is the most potent part of the shrub, but not the easiest or most sustainable to obtain. Fortunately, the leaves, when boiled for at least 20 minutes, also can be used. Although the American Herbal Products Association states wax myrtle is safe, people with hypertension and pregnant women should be cautious if using it.

In Athens, the wax myrtle shrub is easy to find. It’s utilized by local horticulturists at the University of Georgia and at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. Graceful, evergreen branches with varying shades of glossy green, narrow, deer-resistant leaves – which have a warm, winter holiday smell when crushed – make the plant a desirable landscaping screen.

Its only drawback is that the branches can split under a heavy snowfall. Otherwise, this low-maintenance, multifaceted plant can help prepare one toward self-reliance.

Originally published in the Urban Forager of the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bayberry candle and soap-making recipe: From Francis Porcher’s, 1863 text, Resources of Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural. Being Also a Medical Botany of the Confederate States; with Practical Information on the Useful Properties of the Trees, Plants, and Shrubs. Reprinted (1991) by Norman Publishing: San Francisco.

“I have repeatedly seen the wax produced from the myrtle in large amounts. The berries are boiled, and the wax rises on the surface of the water. The boiling should be continued a long time, and the berries stirred and bruised. The wax may be remelted to purify it. Four pounds of this will make forty pounds of soap. The candles made of it are dark green in color…

“…The wax, after being skimmed off the water, should be strained through a coarse cloth to free it from foreign matter. When  no more wax rises, the berries are removed with a skimmer and a fresh supply put in the same water, taking care to add boiling water to supply the place of that evaporated during the process. The wax should be dried, and melted again to free it from impurity.”

For candles, add the berry wax to bees wax, adding strength to the candle and stretching the amount of wax to more candles. Then pour into taper molds, following usual candle instructions for inserting the wick.

Another soap recipe in Porcher’s text which he referenced from the Southern Agriculturist:

“As one of the complaints of soap-makers is the difficulty and expense of obtaining the grease, it will be well for us to avail ourselves of a production of nature, found abundantly in our lower country.

“To three bushels and a half of common wood ashes add half a bushel of unslaked lime. This being well mixed together, put into a cask capable of containing sixty gallons, and fill up with water. In 48 hours the lye will be strong enough to float an egg. Then draw off, and put from 6-8 gallons of it into a copper kettle capable of containing 25 gallons. To this add only 4 pounds of wax myrtle. Keep constantly boiling for 6 hours. For the first 3-4 hours pour in occasionally a supply of strong lye, the whole frequently well stirred with a ladle. After 6 hours boiling, throw 2 quarts of common large grain salt into the kettle; leave one hour more to simmer over a slow fire. The liquor must be placed in tubs to cool for 24 hours. Take out the soap, wipe it clean; put it to dry.

“The produce of this soap when it was weighed the next day was found to be 49 pounds of good, solid soap, from the materials and by the process above mentioned. At the end of six weeks the soap had only lost a few pounds from the evaporation of its watery particles.

“In many parts of our state the myrtle tree is abundant, and from 3 pecks to a bushel may be gathered per day. Would it not be worth the while of the planters to attend to this matter? I am sure it would save them many a dollar.”

Devil’s walking stick has many medicinal virtues

One of the Dr. Seuss-looking plants is called devil's walking stick.

The names of a plant, both common and scientific, describe something about the visual appearance or medicinal actions of the plant. Redroot and bloodroot are red. Yellowroot is yellow. Lamb’s ear and hound’s tongue resemble the anatomy of the animal, if one uses the imagination. And puke weed will, indeed, make one vomit. One has to wonder what the story is behind a plant named devil’s walking stick. The scientific species name gives a clue (Aralia spinosa), if one speaks Latin.

The reason behind the name is clear once someone tries to grab the stem. Each spring, in filtered light along the edge of woods, a quick-growing, pithy stem shoots up, punctuated in segments with very sharp spines that are hard to notice until it’s too late. At some point, someone must have exclaimed, “This must be the devil’s walking stick!”

From a distance, though, the plant belongs to the category of silly-looking Dr. Seuss plants. A single, slender stem, which can reach 20 feet tall, is topped with huge, divided leaves collectively in a diamond-like shape. At the very top, in early summer, a giant puff of yellowish-cream-colored blooms attracts hundreds of wasps and butterflies. By fall, the flowers become berries that turn from green to purple-black, weighing over the skinny, shrub stem. The stems to which the berries are attached also turn from green to magenta. In the winter, the whole plant dies back to store energy in the root and send up colony sucker shoots the next spring.

The botanical family to which devil’s walking stick belongs is Araliaceae, or the ginseng family, but devil’s walking stick hasn’t been found to have quite the vitality-enhancing qualities of ginseng.

Instead, devil’s walking stick, native to the Southeastern U.S., keeps a low profile as a remedy for toothaches – another name is toothache tree – and rheumatism.

Cherokee Indians and old-timey Southern herbalists have used the inner bark and berries as anti-inflammatory pain relievers for aching, arthritic joints and sore, decaying teeth with inflamed gums.

Eating a couple of the purple-black berries raw is OK. In order to eat more, Tommie Bass, a Southern Appalachian herbalist, recommends cooking them first, and then making them into jelly.

Their taste is a little tingly and bitter. The color of the berries indicates they are a rich source of antioxidant flavonoids. Infuse them in brandy to use as an aid for rheumatism.

Cherokees also used roots in a salve as a dermatological aid for sores and swellings, such as boils.

Since the strangely ornamental native plant is an attractor of birds and pollinating insects, one might consider adding it to a butterfly garden where it will receive afternoon shade.

To propagate devil’s walking stick, gather the berries and plant in the fall or spring. Another option is to dig up a sucker and transplant it in the spring. The plant will form a colony, so give it a space where that won’t be a problem.

Evening primrose oil treats several ailments

The entire plant of evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) is edible, and a good source of GLA, an essential fatty acid.

As the sun lowers toward the horizon, the yellow evening primrose prepares to bloom. For those who like to be enchanted by nature, gather a few friends at twilight, and wait for the blooms to open right before your eyes.

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) is native to North America, and is no relation to the English cowslip primrose (Primula veris). When evening primrose makes an appearance in the spring, it is a low-growing, basal rosette mass of leaves speckled with red. Throughout the summer, a very leafy reddish stem grows up from the center of the basal rosette, eventually reaching 3 to 5 feet.

The four-petaled, yellow flowers are unusual in that they flower at the end of a long pipe attached to a tube-shaped ovary, which will become the seed-containing fruit. Within the seeds of the evening primrose, a valuable oil is held. I eat the whole fruits to get the oil.

The entire plant is medicinal and edible. Currently, however, the seeds are the most used part of the plant. The oil found in evening primrose seeds is high in gamma-linoleic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid (EFA) converted from linoleic acid by an enzyme called delta-6 desaturase.

Some people inherit an abnormality in EFA metabolism because they lack the delta-6-desaturase enzyme needed to convert linoleic acid to GLA.

This creates problems since GLA prevents proinflammatory eicosanoids, such as prostaglandins and leukotrienes, from becoming excessive and causing chronic illness conditions associated with inflammation, such as atopic eczema, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, PMS and breast pain.

Since the 1980s, many clinical trials have shown efficacy in using evening primrose oil to treat atopic eczema, an escalating condition among children.

Trials reported that after administering evening primrose oil for four to eight weeks, the roughness, redness and itchiness of the skin was reduced. After discontinuing the evening primrose oil, the improvements remained, and the condition did not revert back to the pre-evening primrose state. Studies indicate evening primrose is less effective in people who have received frequent corticosteroid treatment.

Another interesting use of evening primrose oil is in the treatment of the neurological effects of alcoholism. Long-term alcohol use decreases linoleic acid in the blood, and creates a deficiency in EFAs, which isn’t good since EFAs provide the structure for nerve conduction. Alcohol use also blocks linoleic acid from converting to metabolites used in brain structure. Further, alcohol increases the manufacturing of proinflammatory prostaglandins.

Administering GLA and other EFAs has seemed to minimize the negative effects of alcohol.

Medicinally, Cherokee Indians have used an infusion, or tea, of evening primrose leaves to stimulate weight-loss. The Ojibwa soaked the entire evening primrose plant in warm water and applied it as a poultice to burns.

As food, Cherokees also cooked the spring leaves as vegetable greens, and boiled the fall roots like potatoes.

The Gosuite of Utah ate the tiny, oil-rich seeds, which is the most direct, and cheapest way of getting your GLA.

The above article originally appeared in the Urban Forager column of the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, September 5th, 2010.

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