One Wise(man) Gift: Frankincense

As my family collapsed in the living room last night, stuffed and exhausted from a day of visiting and eating and eating and presents and more eating my father asked me a trivia question (which is how my family celebrates every and all holidays and gatherings): “Hey Sarah, what is another name for Boswellia?”

I was stumped. “I’ll give you a hint,” he told me, “it’s an herb…” And still, I had nothing.

So then he retreats to the kitchen and comes back with his bottle of Boswellia serrata – Frankincense. Who knew? Of course it was Christmas themed plant trivia.

Boswellia sacra

Boswellia sacra

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Under the Mistletoe

Wasn’t it just Thanksgiving? And yet here we are, days away from Christmas and the New Year. I’m already back in my home town for the holidays so you can expect updates from me this week, all centered around Yule, Christmas, and the New Year.


Mistletoe with berries

The first plant that “Santa Sexy Plants” will talk about this holiday is Mistletoe. Why? Mostly because in the long car ride across the great state of Pennsylvania yesterday my friend Chris asked me about it and I started lecturing him about this interesting plant (car rides are awesome for trying your material out on  a captive audience). But it really is a cool piece of botanic wonder. For starters, what we call mistletoe varies depending on your location. In Europe it refers to Viscum album and generally can be recognized by the white berries in clusters of 2-6. However in America, it most likely refers to the plant Phoradendron flavescens which  usually has clusters of 10 berries. These two different plants look incredibly similar and function similarly in their environments.

Mistletoes are usually parasites. They grow on trees, usually high up in branches where the seeds are deposited by birds, produce an appendage called a haustorium that penetrates the bark of the tree, and actually pilfer water and nutrients from the host tree. However, the correct term for these plants is “hemiparasite” since mistletoes are capable of photosynthesizing their own food if they do not find a host.

But the fertility folklore is probably the most interesting aspect of the plant. Continue reading

Pennyroyal Tea

This entry has been updated. Please see the new information on Pennyroyal located here.

“Sit and drink Pennyroyal Tea
Distill the life that’s inside of me
Sit and drink Pennyroyal Tea
I’m anemic royalty”

Was Kurt Cobain the poet of our generation? Nah, probably not. But what he did do was incite an entirely new generation to google (or, you know whatever teenagers did back in 1993 to get information… I think it might have been AOL chatrooms) this controversial and much maligned herb. Continue reading

Abortion and Extinction: Silphium in the Ancient World

Although it is a hot button issue, family planning has been done for thousands of years with the aid of various plants. Some of these methods are still employed to this day (although not under the banner of modern medicine) and I will be exploring the different species in subsequent posts.

But I think the most interesting plant in this class of abortifacient is Silphium, native to the coastal city Cyrene in North Africa and utilized in great deal by the Egyptians and Greeks (and later the Romans) who settled and traded there. Not only used to control pregnancy, it was a plant that was actually a staple to the economy of the region: the resin of the plant was used widely in medical applications (such as fever and cough) as well as a spice to flavor and cure meats. But I am most interested in the writing of Pliny the Elder who described how the resin was used to make a pessary (vaginal suppository) that could “promote the menstrual discharge.”

From 1889 edition of Principal Coins of the Ancients, plate 35 a coin from Cyrene depicting a stalk of Silphium

The Silphium plant went extinct before the end of the 1 century AD and legend states that the last stalk was given to Emperor Nero. Modern science has not been able to determine exactly what the Silphium plant was. It was likely in the genus Ferula, or giant fennel, as the plant Ferula assa-foetida was used as a substitute in the first century both for medical and flavoring use.

Another curious fact about human interaction with the Silphium plant is the common heart symbol. Shown on coins from before the common era the Silphium seed pod is shaped in the classic heart shape. Certainly, it makes sense that a plant that is able to control the effects of amorous affairs would morph into the modern symbol of love.

The Silphium Connection. Celator 9(2):6-8. Feb, 1995. The coin’s design is one of the few surviving images of a seed pod of the extinct Silphium plant.