The History of Abortifacients (on Jezebel)

You guys! I still exist!

The days are shorter and it is so cold out already – I have a feeling I will not be leaving my house much this winter and that means many more posts from me in the future.

But until then (probably mid-December) here is a really fascinating post over on Jezebel about the history of abortifacients. The politics surrounding their use from antiquity to now is quite interesting (it used to be completely condoned by society!) but I’ve never gotten into the history of their use as a whole as it is a bit outside the scope of this project. But this article sums it up quite well.


Happy reading, and I shall see you in December!

The Lipstick Tree

Bixa orellana blossom

Bixa orellana blossom

Annatto. Achiote. 160b. Natural Orange 4. CI 75120. These are all names for the coloring agent derived from the ground seeds of Bixa orellana. This shrub is native to the tropical Americas but is now cultivated in other parts of the world, including Southeast Asia. 

As you might guess from the common name, the Lipstick Tree has long been used in cosmetic applications.

The spiny lipstick-red fruits were used by the indigenous people of Mexico and South America to make a body paint, pigmentation for mural painting, and an ink (Davidow 1999)

while others simmered the seeds in water or oil to extract the color for use as a hair dye.

Medicinally, it has been used to treat skin diseases (including herpes outbreaks) and vaginal infections in Central America by applying the paste directly to the site (Quiros-Moran 1998). Modern experiments have shown that extracts of the seeds and leaves have “broad spectrum antimicrobial activity” (Fleischer, et al. 2003) so it seems there is some sound science behind this folk medicine. Current experiments are being conducted to test its efficacy as a UV block for skin and as an insect repellent as well.

However, you’re likely most familiar with this plant as part of your diet. No, it’s not a supplement or new weight loss miracle. What it is is a food dye, derived from the seeds of the plant, used to impart that golden orange color to a wide variety of foods, from cheddar cheese to artificial crab meat, from mustards to the “cheese” dust on cheetos. It’s probably in your pantry right now. Read the label on that box of Mac N Cheese. Or the box of Spanish Rice (for that price, you know they are not really using saffron). Basically anything edible in that warm orange color tone could contain annatto. This is especially true if you shop more “health conscious” brands, as it generally used as a “natural” alternative to the synthesized artificial food dyes.

Seeds in ripe pods

Seeds in ripe pods

Yet, the history of the plant as a cosmetic is slowly becoming in vogue. According to data obtained from the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database which analyzes the risk factors for individual ingredients in cosmetic formulations there are 66 products currently on the market that list annatto seed extract as an ingredient, another 6 that list CI 75120, and yet another 4 that use Bixa orellana extract. These are all formulations that have come out since 2008 which shows the slow but growing popularity of the ingredient.

Gifts From the Lipstick Tree

Gifts From the Lipstick Tree

One such product was released by the cosmetic company Tarte in 2012 as a collection called “The Gifts of the Lipstick Tree.” It was a collection of a lipstick, a gloss, and blush that was marketed as:

 a healthy dose of color… infused with pigments and ingredients derived from the Amazon. Tarte’s most recent finding from their rainforest travels is achiote, a secret amongst Brazil’s beautiful women,  known for the honeysuckle shade produced from the seeds of the fruit it bears. With natural pigments derived from this “lipstick tree,” the warm, shimmering golden pink shade is universally flattering

The collection quickly sold out. Currently on the market is a body bronzer that utilizes the coloring agents of annatto to “tan” the skin when lightly applied.

Pennyroyal: A Tale of Two Herbs

Sorry I’ve been absent in writing for so long. I’ve been focusing on my other project and working and there are only so many hours in the day, it seems. However, yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling in Burwell V. Hobby Lobby has reignited my passion in all things sexual health related so here we are.

If you’ve been an avid reader of this blog, you know that I already covered Pennyroyal about a year ago. But like any good long term project, new information is always coming to light. I’ve uncovered a few more interesting facts so I thought I’d simply rewrite the post rather than amending the old and expecting anyone to see it buried in the archives of the internet.

As we learned before, Pennyroyal is actually the common name of two different herbs: Mentha pulegium (the European variety) and Hedeoma pulegioides (the American variety). Although very similar in appearance and both members of the mint family, the European Pennyroyal is a perennial herb while the American type is annual. M. pulegium can be distinguished by the flowers which contain four stamens, while H. pulegioides has only two (Hylton and Kowalchik 1987).

Mentha pulegium

European Pennyroyal

European Pennyroyal

When we talk about the use of Pennyroyal in antiquity this is the herb in question, since the American variety wasn’t “discovered” (and I use that term loosely) until colonization by the Europeans. And we do talk about this herb in antiquity.

In 421 B.C.E  Aristophanes wrote in his play “Peace”:

Hermes: If that be so, receive Opora here for a wife; take her to the country, live with her, and grow fine grapes together.
Trygaeus to Opora: Come, my dear one, come and accept my kisses.
Trygaeus to Hermes: Tell me, Hermes, my master, do you think it would hurt me to love her a little, after so long an abstinence?
Hermes: No, not if you swallow a portion of penny-royal afterwards.

Basically, Trygaeus is given this woman as a new female companion and he immediately asks his master what would happen if he gets her pregnant. The answer is to simply apply pennyroyal, rinse, repeat. Problem solved! Continue reading

Queen Anne’s Lace or Wild Carrot: seeds for contraception

Queen Anne's Lace or Wild Carrot (Daucus carota)

Queen Anne’s Lace or Wild Carrot (Daucus carota)

What we now call Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) has been recorded as an oral contraceptive and early abortifacient for quite some time… a natural morning after pill, if you will. Yes, that common roadside weed, which can now be found on every continent, has been utilized for at least two thousand years as an effective emmenagogue and anti-fertility agent.

That first written mention comes from De Mulierum Affectibus, a gynecological text written in the tradition of Hippocrates (but likely not actually authored by him). It states that the wild carrot is an effective abortifacient (Riddle 1997).

Dioscorides, writing about it next, wasn’t as direct. After describing its appearance and the small purple flower that forms in the center he noted that:

 The seed induces the menstrual flow, taken as a drink (or inserted as a pessary), and is good in liquid medicines for frequent painful urination, dropsy, and pleurisy, as well as for the bites and strikes of venomous creatures. The root (also being urinary) is applied to stir up sexual intercourse (Dioscorides, De Materia Medica)

And Pliny the Elder agreed, stating in his work Natural History that:

the seed of this plant, pounded and taken in wine reduces swelling of the abdomen… to such a degree as to restore the uterus to its natural condition (Pliny the Elder. Natural History)

as well as affirming that it was utilized as an aphrodisiac as well.

In his 1653 work Culpeper’s Complete Herbal,  Nicholas Culpeper described the wild carrot as

belong[ing] to Mercury, and therefore break wind, and remove stitches in the sides, provoke urine and women’s courses…I suppose the seeds of them perform this better than the roots (Culpeper 1653)

And a recipe written shortly after by Joseph Pitton De Tournefort to “provoke menstruation” required:

two drams of the seed infused in white wine and drunk [to cure] hysterical fits or fits of the mother

Later Mrs. Grieve notes their use in her Modern Herbal:

The seeds are carminative, stimulant and very useful in flatulence, windy colic, hiccough, dysentery, chronic coughs, etc. The dose of the seeds, bruised, is from one-third to one teaspoonful, repeated as necessary. They were at one time considered a valuable remedy for calculus complaints. They are excellent in obstructions of the viscera, in jaundice (for which they were formerly considered a specific), and in the beginnings of dropsies, and are also of service as an emmenagogue (Mrs. Grieve 1931)

It turns out they were all right Continue reading

Pomegranate: The hidden meaning in Greek Myth

Pomegranate as photographed by Augustus Binu

Pomegranate as photographed by Augustus Binu

I generally consider myself a pretty intuitive person. I’m  pretty good at connecting dots, reading subtext, noticing the little things. Especially when those things are nature related. So I have to admit, I felt a little something inside of me die when I realized I missed the whole implication of the Persephone in the Underworld myth (and by realized, I mean, I read the explanation and smacked myself upside the head).

In case you need an 8th grade world studies refresher:

Persephone is the goddess of the underworld in Greek mythology. She is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Persephone was such a beautiful young woman that everyone loved her, even Hades wanted her for himself. One day, when she was collecting flowers on the plain of Enna, the earth suddenly opened and Hades rose up from the gap and abducted her. None but Zeus, and the all-seeing sun, Helios, had noticed it.

Broken-hearted, Demeter wandered the earth, looking for her daughter until Helios revealed what had happened. Demeter was so angry that she withdrew herself in loneliness, and the earth ceased to be fertile. Knowing this could not continue much longer, Zeus sent Hermes down to Hades to make him release Persephone. Hades grudgingly agreed, but before she went back he gave Persephone a pomegranate (or the seeds of a pomegranate, according to some sources). When she later ate of it, it bound her to underworld forever and she had to stay there one-third of the year. The other months she stayed with her mother. When Persephone was in Hades, Demeter refused to let anything grow and winter began. This myth is a symbol of the budding and dying of nature (Lindemans  1997).

This story was celebrated each year through the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries, one of the most important rituals in all of Greece. Though initiates were sworn to secrecy (and therefore much of the practice of the rites have been lost) there are some details that have been preserved:

The ceremony began in Athens, and all those participating purified themselves by bathing in the sea, they also sacrificed a piglet…  As the procession proceeded on route to Eleusis the participants would, at a certain place, shout obscenities. This was a re-enactment of an old mythical woman called “Iambe” who was said to have made Demeter smile, at a time when she was full of sorrow for the loss of her daughter Persephone…

When the procession reached Eleusis they would rest and make ready for the next day, which was a day of fasting (Demeter did this when in mourning for Persephone). Once this part of the ceremony was over, the initiates drank a special brew of barley water mixed with penny-royal called, kykeon (Leadbetter 1999).

Remember this from school? But I bet you never considered the implications of human sexuality embedded in the myth. I didn’t, and I’m obsessed with this stuff. According to John M. Riddle in his book Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance and expanded upon in his follow up Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West the meaning of the Persephone myth was a way to impart the knowledge of family planning in the ancient world; the seeds that Persephone consumed in the Underworld corresponded with the “pause in fertility” experienced on Earth in the form of Winter. Since she ate the pomegranate (Punica granatum) seeds, the fertility of the earth was literally suspended. The specified drink that included pennyroyal is another clue that human fertility is highlighted here, as the herb was widely known as a remedy for unintended pregnancy.  Continue reading