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Cinnamon’s Sexy History

I’ve really gotten into baking this winter. During the “snowstorm that wasn’t” over superbowl weekend I got to the grocery store a little late to prepare for being locked indoors due to the impending snowstorm of doom and found that all the sliced bread was gone. So I bought yeast and flour and I spent the uneventful snowpocalypse proofing dough and making various rolls and breads. It was awesome.

One of the better fruits of my baking labor (if I say so myself) was a cinnamon bread. Nothing too fancy: I simply rolled out the dough before baking and applied a generous heap of cinnamon and sugar before rolling it up in the loaf pan. Of course, it was the night of the superbowl, so there was WAY too much food and my bread didn’t get finished. Then it got forgotten. Then it got old. I was cleaning the kitchen today and saw it, still sitting there two weeks later, when I noticed there wasn’t any indication that it was that old.  No mold. That’s a little crazy when you figure the sandwich bread I bought AFTER that has already gone moldy and been thrown away… and  I know I didn’t add any preservatives to my dough. Except for the cinnamon of course.  Which got me thinking about cinnamon…

Cassia

Cassia

The word “Cinnamon” has been applied to a variety of different (but related) substances since it was first “discovered” in 2000 B.C.E. In the modern market, there are two different kinds of cinnamon: what is considered “true cinnamon” (Cinnamomum verum) and Cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia). True cinnamon is endemic to Sri Lanka and is sometimes referred to as Ceylon cinnamon. It is more sweet in flavor and is the more expensive of the two spices. Cassia is sometimes referred to as Chinese cinnamon because it was first imported from China although it is now widely cultivated throughout Asia. It is usually what is found in grocery stores when you purchase cinnamon and almost certainly what you are buying if the country of origin is Thailand, Vietnam, or China.  Continue reading

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

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

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.

Spring Beauty: Natural Contraception and Wild Food

As I write this my arms and face are flush with sunburn from yesterday’s 80 degree day (which  I couldn’t help but spend entirely outdoors) and a storm is raging outside my windows threatening 1-3 inches of snow in some areas tonight. Such is springtime in Pennsylvania; we humans have learned to deal with it. But the plants… all the tender spring blooms that just opened up in the warm sunshine of yesterday, the cherry blossoms, the trillium, the bloodroot, I fear frost damage will wreck these happy signs of spring. So today I ran around and photographed what I could, in case there are not there when I wake up tomorrow.

Spring Beauty Flowers

Spring Beauty Flowers

One plant in particular caught my eye: Claytonia virginica – the Virginia Spring Beauty. Such a small little thing, it is truly a wildflower. Once you notice it, you begin to notice it everywhere: growing along the banks of a wetland, popping up among the blades of grass in a lawn, in between fern fronds in a woodland… it is really a versatile flower. It is so ubiquitous throughout its range that it was readily used by the people who lived there for a whole manner of things. Perhaps the most telling use comes from a look at the Spring Beauty’s nickname: “fairy spud.” It’s basically a native wild potato, albeit a small one. It was readily collected by the Algonquin people to be roasted or boiled as a food supply in the spring and modern wild food foragers swear by the sweet chestnut-like tuber.

However the described medical uses are intriguing.  Some recommend grinding the root (which I assume is the tuber) into a powder and administering it to children with convulsions. Other applications include making an infusion from the stems to treat dandruff and make hair shiny as well as using the sap as an eye wash and brightener. All pretty reasonable stuff.

Then we get into the weird reproductive remedies. There seem to be two different uses of Spring Beauty regarding reproduction. The first (and less prevalent) use was described by Erna Gunther in 1973 in which it is documented that Quinalt women chew the plant so that the “baby will be soft when born” (Gunther 1973:29). Whatever that means. The second (and oft repeated) use is as a permanent contraceptive. The Iroquois people mixed the root of the Trout Lily with the Spring Beauty and ingested them as a contraceptive. But this remedy was all or nothing, as doing so would ensure that the girl “would never have children.”