Tag Archives: ethnobotany

Is That a Sausage In Your Tree? (Or are you just batty to see me?)

sausage tree

The Sausage Tree aka Kigelia africana
Family: Bignoniaceae

The Sausage Tree, sometimes called a Cucumber Tree, is truly a one-of-a-kind botancial bastion. A member of the Bignoniaceae family (more common plants in this family include the gorgeous purple Jacaranda tree) is a stand alone in its genus with no other members of the Kigelia clan. It can can grow more than 60-feet tall and produces impressive fruit that can grow nearly 2-feet long and weigh as much as 15 lbs. These long sausage-like fruit give the tree its distinctive name.

800px-Kigelia_africana_MS_10010And while you might already see this as a potential horror-movie plant (it has a very science fiction quality to it) what makes it just a hair cooler is its pollinator! The amazing flowers that are produced (prior to fruiting of course) are red bell-shaped flowers that grow horizontally but hang in swinging clusters. Perfect for the bat. The scent is strongest at night, a sign that bats are its key pollinator, although some birds and bees do visit this plant. It basically takes whatever help it can get!

sausage tree in africa

In traditional African herbal medicine, the fruit of the Sausage Tree is thought to cure many ailments, including snakebites, evil spirits, and syphilis! The fresh fruit is quite poisonous and therefore used as a purgative. (Um, makes sense why it is believed to rid the riddled of evil spirits!) Research is being done especially in UK labs to test the potential healing properties on skin ailments such as psoriasis and eczema. So before you get busy frying up a “sausage fruit” for dinner, think again.

Also in the Bignoniacea family is the Calabash Tree, native to the Philipines. It produces large, globular fruit. 

photo credit:

(1) wikimedia commons, (2) & (3) flickr creative commons, james mannersimke.stahlmann

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We Are Watching You: Plant Sense, Neurobotany, Plantopomorphizing, and Other Rotten Thoughts on Plant Brains

Feed me, Seymour!!!

Feed me, Seymour!!!

What plantophile hasn’t, at one point or another, hummed to their plants, or perhaps imagined a small face in the center of a pansie? And poets, since time immemorial have waxed about the amazing beauty and cunning of the natural world. We plant lovers “plantopomorphize” our favorite green companions by naming them (I once had a Purple Velvet plant named Nico). And who doesn’t remember that 6th grade science fair project that proves plants thrive when listening to classical music? Alice’s garden of flowers is a prime example of an imagined “language” and personality of individual plants. And of course there is the Secret Life of Plants, the book that claimed that plants have brains. And feelings.

Scientists sometimes (still)chagrin this book, because its authors Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins, made radical claims (radical at least in 1973) such as the idea that plants have emotions and that actually originate in a “supramaterial world of cosmic beings [such as] fairies, elves, gnomes, sylphs, and host of other creatures, were a matter of direct vision and experience to clairvoyants among the Celts and other sensitives.”

The popular books based in the Findhorn community of Scotland, including the seminal work by Paul Hawken (of Smith and Hawken fame) The Magic of Findhorn (1975), give cred to the idea that something else is in control when plants are involved. The book,  which features a skeptic (Hawken) joining the community for a year and witnessing incredible gardening feats, says this on its first edition jacket (thanks, Mom!):

There have been stories in the press and other media about a small community in the north of Scotland called Findhorn where people talk to plants with amazing results—stories of vegetable and flower gardens animated by angelic forms where Pan’s pipes are heard in the winds—stories of plants performing incredible feats of growth and endurance: 40-pound cabbages, 8-foot delphiniums, and roses blooming in the snow.

Modern botanists, in their own way, are extending the idea that plants have brains. According to an article in Natural History from May of 2012, the first international plant neurobiology meeting was held in 2005 in Florence, Italy (can I get on that invite list?) Their website defines plant neurobiology (what I like to call neurobotany) as ” a newly named, but also old and fascinating field in plant biology addressing the physiological basis of adaptive behavior in plants. Perhaps this field could be called ‘Sensory Biology in Plants.'”

The Natural History article outlined three reasons for plants having nervous systems:

  1. Plants have genes similar to those that specify components of animal nervous systems, specifically proteins that have been show to have distinct roles in neural function.
  2. While said proteins are likely to not have “neural” functions in plants, they are believed to behave in ways very similar to neural molecules.
  3. Some plants show synapse-like regions between the cells, where neurotransmitter molecules facilitate cell-to-cell communication.

Say what, you crazy rotanist??? Basically, plants have their own “version” of nervous system. And if you want some more scientific proof for what Bird, Tompkins, Hawkens (and before them even Darwin had a similar theory) are saying about plants having “feelings” a recent study with peas might give a little more validation. Peas, when stressed from drought, close their “pores” (known in botany as stomata.) The study showed that a non-stressed, well watered pea plant whose rooted near by a stressed plant will also close its stomata as a precaution. Yes, it gets the vibes of stress!

Of course this is all basically scientific evidence of what shamans and plant magic workers have been saying since we had teeth.

So maybe there is a real-life Audrey II out there, waiting to get its “jaws” on us. One that thinks, feels, longs, yearns…a rotanist can hope!

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Mistletoe: Kiss for the Cure for Cancer

European MistletoeMistletoe

The globular-leafed, green little bunches are synonymous with Christmas cheer of a very romantic variety. But mistletoe may well be more than just an excuse to steal a kiss:  this parasitic little plant could contain the cure for colon and other cancers.

Other common names: All Heal, Birdlime, Devil’s Fuge, Golden Bough, Witches Broom, Wood of the Cross

“Mistletoe” is the common name for a hemiparasitic (semi parasitic–a plant that gains nourishment from the host plant but also photosynthesizes) plant of several families (all within the order Santales.) Some of the most familiar plants we know as mistletoe are the common European variety, Viscum album and the North American species, Phoradendron serotinum, both of which are widely harvested as Christmas decoration.

A very recent study from the University of Adelaide in Australia has shown an extract from the European Viscum that grows specifically on Ash trees, Viscum fraxini, is ” highly effective against colon cancer cells in cell culture and was gentler on healthy intestinal cells compared with chemotherapy. Significantly, Fraxini extract was found to be more potent against cancer cells than the chemotherapy drug.

Yes, you read that right. More potent against cancer cells than the chemotherapy drug. It also has fewer side-effects and is gentler on the system.

Scientists, herbalists, and ethnobotanists have been studying mistletoe for years. It is known to be poisonous, causing stomach pains and other intestinal distress. For centuries the stems and leaves have been used to make an extract to treat sluggish circulatory systems and major respiratory problems.

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, pioneered the concept of mistletoe as an anti-cancer medicine. A spiritual botanist, Steiner believed that the parasitic nature of the plant could counteract the parasitic nature of a disease like cancer.

It turns out he was right. Scientists have been studying mistletoe’s many varieties for years. In this article published the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, you can see photographs of a tumor virtually disappearing after six months of treatment with the fraxini extract.

Researches at University of Adelaide in Australia extracted three different varieties of mistletoe, all from the Viscum species. Each variety grows on a different kind of tree. The one that grows on the Ash tree so far has proven to be the most effective. However, there are hundreds upon hundreds of types of mistletoe. The potential is actually quite astounding.

In Europe, mistletoe is already being used in the treatment of colon cancer but not it is currently not legal in the United States or Australia, where research is underway to approve it.

Mistletoe is steeped in mythology. Viscum album is thought to be The Golden Bough–the branch that Aeneas must give to the Queen of the Underworld in the epic Greek myth. The Romans believed mistletoe contained divine male essence. The Ancient Druids believed the most sacred mistletoe to be the one that grows on oaks. The Norse believed mistletoe contained the power to resurrect the dead.

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Spiritual Botany: An Interview with Raven Grimassi

Raven Grimassi is a plant witch. He is a world-renowned author on witchcraft, folklore, Wicca, and Neopaganism whose most recent book, Old World Witchcraft, addresses something he refers to as the organic memory of the earth. He is a spiritual botanist–that is to say he goes beyond the medicinal or ethnobotanical uses of a plant and works with the spirit and the consciousness of the plant. In particular, he works with what we may all consider traditionally “witchy” or dark plants–rotanicals such as Aconite, mandrake, and hemlock. I was fortunate enough to have been introduced to Raven in Salem, Massachusetts a couple of years ago and to work with him as this book came out. I recently interviewed him.

What is your earliest plant memory?

This question brings back fond memories.  When I was around five or six years old, my mother had an herb garden in the backyard.  She would often call me over, show me a plant, and then ask “Did I ever tell you what we do with this plant?”  This was always a learning opportunity.  Here was the beginning of my interest in herbs and my understanding that they possessed abilities to influence things.

In Old World Witchcraft you introduce readers to the Ash, Birch, and Willow magical system. Can you describe this?

It’s a system that, in part, is designed to link people with the sentient nature of plants and the spirits that inhabit them.  At the core is a desire to be linked to the Green Wood in intimate ways, as were our ancestors before the time that humans moved towards mastering Nature as opposed to living in common cause with Her.

The practice is intended to establish communication on inner spiritual levels with the consciousness of the living plant life within Nature.  This is done through a variety of techniques such as meditation, conscious dream work, and the use of plant symbols that open direct channels to the Green Wood.

You speak of the organic memory of the earth. Where do plants and plant magic fit in with this memory?

Yes, the idea is that every living thing that died upon the earth had its essence absorbed into the soil.  The memory of each is contained in the mineral composition of the earth, what we call the “bone memory” of the Land.  We know scientifically that crystallized minerals can store, transmit,  and direct energy.  Plants absorb minerals through their root system, and the associated magical belief is that plants therefore can tap into the organic memory of the earth.   This makes it possible to extract memories from the earth when we work closely with plants and their spirits.

The book cover has an image of the mandrake on it. What is the significance of the mandrake?

Poetically speaking, the mandrake is the plant that dreamed of being human, and therefore its roots took on a humanoid shape.  Because we view the mandrake as part plant, part human (in the mystical sense) we think of it as a bridge between humankind and the Green Wood Realm.  In this way the mandrake is a mediator between the worlds.  Therefore we rely upon it to help with spirit contact and as an ally when working with plant spirits.

Do you have a favorite plant?

I have several that call to me in different ways and on different levels.  I like the mandrake because of its direct connection to humankind, and have grown them for many years.  The foxglove enchants me and I love its flowers.  Aconite is another plant that I love for its potent energy that it emanates – it is quite mystical.

What is growing in your garden right now that you are especially proud or fond of?

Well, all the traditional plants of Witchcraft, of course!   I grow them all: aconite, henbane, hemlock, hellebore, belladonna, and foxglove.  These plants surround a rose bush that represents the spiritual teachings of my personal tradition.   I also recently planted seedlings from selected trees that have legends associated with them:  rowan, hawthorn and blackthorn.

Learn more about Raven Grimassi at his website: www.ravengrimassi.net

Cover artist for Grimassi’s book is Benjamin A. Vierling. Look for an upcoming Rotten Botany interview with Vierling and his botanical alchemy!

Also be sure and watch for future entries on all of the above mentioned wickedly wonderful plants!

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In Praise of Discolor

Salvia discolor

Andean Sage

Family: Lamiaceea    

Salvias are one of the more amazing plants. There are dozens of varieties, all of which have different color blooms: red, white, turquoise, purple, chartreuse. But nothing could be cooler than the salvia that blooms black. That’s right! There is a BLACK BLOOMING SALVIA which has earned the name Salvia discolor. 

A tender perennial, Salvia discolor thrives in the local Bay Area climate but being a native to Peru it can manage in a variety of climates and winters over nicely with the proper mulching. The leaves are mossy green and the stems brilliantly silver, contrasting with the deep purpled blackness of the blooms. It has a pleasant acrid smell, not unlike your common household sage. The leaves do have a sticky quality, which earns it the nick name “fly paper sage”.

I had been an admirer of this unusual salvia for its ability to surprise even the most seasoned gardener with its striking flowers and was riding home on the N Judah one evening, proudly bearing my newest 4″ S. discolor which I had purchased just that afternoon via special order at The Scarlet Sage. The Scarlet Sage is San Francisco’s only herbal apothecary with decided witchy undertones and one of my all time favorite shops. In the spring you can count on them to have a fine selection of medicinal and edible plants, and they kindly special ordered my discolor. A woman sitting in front of me asked me what the plant was and what it was for and I had to admit I only knew the botanical basics. As far as I knew it wasn’t used in cooking or medicine, its value being in its unusual colored flowers. Just then a slight woman sitting next to her piped up. Like Salvia discolor, this woman was a Peruvian native and gladly informed me that this plant is used in Peru much like we use the common sage in cooking–beans, meats, stews. (Thank you public transit for the ethnobotanical opportunity!) The stickiness and pungent smell suggests that there is even more to this plant than meets the eye–so if anyone out there knows more about its medicinal properties let us know! Many sages are used to treat mild stomach upset and aid digestion.

Like all sages, Salvia discolor attracts pollinators to your garden–bees, butterflies, small birds–so it is an invaluable asset. Plus it looks really freaking cool, its wild and wiry spindles of silver and black writhing up from the shrubbiness of its green leaves. Even though it is a bit sticky, it looks great in floral arrangements too, especially with white roses. Another true rotanical!!

It is also drought resistant and needs little care once established! A bonus for those of us who tend to gardens that thrive on neglect. Below is a photo from the flickr commons. I will upload more pictures of my own discolor in the coming weeks. In addition there is a wild and wooly garden near my house with an abundant S. discolor just begging to be featured on Rotten Botany! 

Salvia discolor photo by Scott Zona, taken from flickr commons.

Culture~

Grows from 1 to 3 ft high and wide. Water regularly to establish and then infrequently. Likes full sun unless in an extremely dry and hot climate, then give partial shade. Hardy to 10 degrees though I would advise mulching with straw or something similar if you are in an area of heavy snow.

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The Beautiful Tongue of the Devil (A. konjac)

Amorphohallus konjac at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco

Devil’s Tongue

Amorphophallus konjac

Family: Araceae

Sometimes called the Devil’s Tongue and also referred to as the Voodoo Lily (but an entirely different species from the Voodoo Lily featured here) this beautiful specimen was caught blooming and befouling the entire Lowland Tropics gallery at the Conservatory of Flowers this weekend! And I count myself among the lucky few who got to “enjoy” this disgusting delight of the rottenest botanist variety.

According to the Conservatory of Flowers: “Our bloomer is an amorphophallus konjac. Despite its unsavory odor, it’s actually used to make candy! It’s gelatinous excretions can be an ingredient, however we featured it in Wicked Plants, as the gelatin can often be so thick that children have choked.”

Apparently this Jello-like substance is used as a vegan substitute for gelatin and is made into the popular Asian fruit jelly snack, Lychee cups. (Adults have been known to choke on these too.) In fact, a quick google search will lead you to a number of products that feature konjac. Fiber-rich vitamin supplements are made from the tuber, and thought to promote healthy digestion and weight loss. The tuber is used in soups and stews, and you can even buy konjac flour. However parts of the plant are known to be poisonous. O’ the wonders never cease!

This particular Amorphohallus blooms about once a year, though it can skip a year or two, and must be kept in the tropical hothouse temperatures of the conservatory’s greenhouse or steamy main gallery.

How best to describe the smell? Acrid, cloying–like the body of a roadkill animal left in the noonday sun. A touch sulfuric. This is the kind of smell you can’t quite place but you know you have smelled it before. It is the smell of decay. It reminded me most of the smell when you have left flowers in a vase too long and you finally decide to toss them, thus disturbing the putrid water that has been writhing with bacteria for a week or more. You dump it out and are aghast at the end result of what was a gorgeous, cheerful bouquet.

The Amorphohallus konjac is a true rotanical!!!

I would guess this plant is about two feet tall, from stem to the very top of its spadix, which sticks out considerably from its beautiful spathe. It is an incredible burgundy color, very velvety. If you dare get up close enough to examine it! It is tricky to see from the pictures but there is a sign to the left which will give you a bit of perspective. I tried to make my son stand next to it but he wasn’t having it!!

Culture~

Height: 18-24″ (can sometimes grow larger)

Hardiness: To about 10 degrees.

Plant in shade in sunnier climates, prefers more sun in foggier or cooler climates. Keep outdoors when blooming if you don’t want you house to smell like a toilet.

The Devil's Tongue at the C of F

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