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

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