An integrative approach to healing ourselves and our world: honoring people, plants, planet

Archive for October, 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

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: 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.

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