Virgins and Whores: Rosemary’s Herbal History

Rosemary has always had a but of a dual nature. In cooking is is noted for imparting it’s aromatic, slightly spicy tang to meats and veggies but can also be substituted for mint in sweet recipes. In aromatherapy is is suggested for use both as a calming scent and an invigorating one. And in the 17th century, Robert Herrick wrote this one sentence poem titled “The Rosemarie Branch”:

Grow for two ends, it matters not at all
Be’t for my Bridall, or my Buriall (Herrick 1876)

Rosemary in Flower photographed by Sarah Sexy Plants

Rosemary in Flower photographed by Sarah Sexy Plants

This poem, of course, alludes to the dual decorative purposes of rosemary at the time, both in wedding garlands and dressing the deceased at funerals. So it’s no wonder that Rosemary would be the first herb I’ve come across in my research with it’s own Virgin/Whore history.  Continue reading

Just mad about Saffron

Saffron has been known for centuries. As a dye it yields a deeply hued yellow color, prized by the fashionable Minoan women of Ancient Crete (2700 – 1450 BCE) (Willetts 1976) and later Egypt (Willard 2001). A fresco depicting saffron was found at the site of Akrotiri, a Greek city destroyed (and preserved) by volcanic ash in 1627 BCE. In the work, two finely dressed women are in a field of flowers, gathering the valuable parts that constitute saffron.

The Saffron Gatherers

Fresco of saffron gatherers from the bronze age excavations in Akrotiri on the greek island of Santorini, Greece.

To some, the robes and jewelry the women are wearing show that this painting was representative of a harvest festival. Others hypothesize that the saffron was an offering to the goddess Eileithyia, whom Homer referred to as “Mogostokos” – the goddess of the birth pains. Regardless, by the time of ancient Greece, saffron was well known and, judging by the fields depicted in the fresco, cultivated. But saffron isn’t celebrated for its longevity, nor for its ties to pregnancy (even though I think that’s worth exploring and will do so later on in this post). No, to most, saffron is known as a potent aphrodisiac. Continue reading

Holy Fire, Witches, and Doctors: ergot poisoning throughout history

 Engraved illustration by Howard Pyle, 1893

Engraved illustration by Howard Pyle, 1893

It’s January 1692 in the brand new colony of Massachusetts. It’s cold. It’s boring. And there isn’t much to eat. We all know the story that comes next: two girls fall ill, afflicted by strange bursts of screaming, terror, and contortionist fits. Soon other girls begin to exhibit the same symptoms.  Doctors can’t find anything physically wrong with them so the only logical explanation available is witchcraft. And suddenly over 140 neighbors of this small town were jailed, 20 of them actually executed for their crime of being witches.

There are many theories about what actually happened that year in Salem. Some are cynical: the girls started the whole hysterical panic by playing a game for some attention, or as a way to make themselves feel powerful in a society that didn’t value them, or as a way to “get even” with those members of the community they felt had wronged them. Others are psychological: the religious fervor of this community was so great that of course the devil would send witches to torment them. Their belief was so strong in this absolute truth that they exhibited psychosomatic symptoms because they simply felt that they were truly bewitched. But I think the most enticing theory is drugs. Specifically the naturally occurring precursor to LSD (Caporael, 1976). Continue reading

The Secret History of the Poinsettia

poinsettia bracts and flowersPerhaps the most ubiquitous plant associated with the winter holiday season is the Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). Yes, holly is sung about in all the Christmas carols while we gather around towering spruces and firs but they are noticeable plants any time of the year. December? That is when the lowly poinsettia transforms into the iconic red and green adornment of the season. But it’s history isn’t simply a relationship with Christmas. Long before the holiday was celebrated in North America it was used as a medicinal herb. And later on it was taken from Mexico (some say stolen) by a disgraced diplomat before spreading worldwide. So what better time to write of the secret history of the poinsettia?

History
You won’t find any reference to the poinsettia in any of the ancient herbal texts because it was unknown to the western world until the 1800s.  Native to what is now Mexico, the Aztecs utilized the plant they called cuetlaxochitle to reduce fever and stimulate lactation. But it wasn’t until 1828 that the American Minister to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, “discovered” the plant growing in Mexico and sent it back to the United States.  Continue reading

Cotton as the new condom

Levant CottonOver the summer I had someone contact me about mounting a Cotton flower. She had purchased some botanicals from me and she was a cotton farmer – she wanted cotton represented in her collection. That was all good, except I’m in Pennsylvania, not exactly known as the cotton capital of the US.  My search for cotton lead me down the most fascinating rabbit hole: cotton has been used as a method of birth control both for men and women.

Although there are many species of cotton the one most commonly procured and cultivated for purposes of fertility management belong to the species known as Levant Cotton (Gossypium herbaceum) from which cottonseed oil is derived. Surprisingly omitted from the herbals from antiquity (the exception being the use of soaked cotton pessaries used to deliver other herbal applications which was mentioned in Egyptian texts) the use of cotton as a method of b irth control becomes widespread in the 20th century.

In her 1931 herbal, Mrs. M Grieve plainly states that cotton is:

mainly used as an abortifacient in place of ergot, being not so powerful but safer; it was used largely in this way by the slaves in the south. It not only increases the contractions of the uterus in labour, but also is useful in the treatment of metrorrhagia, specially when dependent on fibroids; useful also as an ecbolic; of value in sexual lassitude. A preparation of cotton seed increases milk of nursing mothers (Grieve, 1931).

She also included a recipe for use:

Boil 4 OZ. of the inner bar of the root in 1 quart of water down to 1 pint: dose, 1 full wineglass (4 oz.) every thirty minutes. Fluid extract, U.S.D., 1 to 2 drachms. Gossipium, 1 to 5 grains. Solid extract, 15 to 20 grains. Liquid extract of cotton root bark, B.P.C., 1/2 to 1 fluid drachm. Tinc. Gossipii, B.P.C., 1/2 to 1 fluid drachm. Decoction of cotton root bark, B.P.C., 1/2 to 2 fluid ounces (as an emmenagogue or to check haemorrhages).

Her inclusion of Cotton as a replacement to ergot is interesting as ergot was over-prescribed as a pregnancy drug until 1822 when the medical community realized it was resulting in too many deaths (Mann, 2000). For her to include it, 100 years later, as an alternative to ergot shows that this remedy had been circulating around for some time. Continue reading