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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

Saw Palmetto for Men’s Health

Saw Palmetto photographed by Ted Bodner, Southern Weed Science Society

Saw Palmetto photographed by Ted Bodner, Southern Weed Science Society

I don’t have a clue about male prostate health. I’m still trying to master all the parts of my own reproductive system, which is confusing enough. But one thing I’ve noticed about the Sarah Sexy Plants blog is the lack of male-specific medicinal plant interactions. Well no more! Tonight we talk about men’s health (and cancel out all of those abortion-inducing and uterus tonic plants…)

The Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) is a palm tree native to the southeastern United States (specifically along the Gulf Coast). The fruits of the tree contain the medicinal properties and were used by Native Americans to treat prostate problems, urinary issues, and as a specific male aphrodisiac. In the April 1879 issue of American Journal of Pharmacy, the use of Saw Palmetto was first described by Dr. J. B. Read. He suggested its use for coughs and to improve digestion but noted:

it increases flesh and strength. Its sedative and diuretic properties are remarkable

By 1926, Saw Palmetto was listed in the United States Dispensatory as a treatment for prostate issues, increasing sperm counts, and increasing libido.

Currently, Saw Palmetto is one of the most widely used herbal preparations for treatment of BHP (benign prostatic hyperplasia). There is conflicting evidence for efficacy of the herb: some studies have shown a statistically significant reduction in symptoms (with less side effects than the prescribed pharmaceutical drugs), others show the same outcome as the placebo control.

Still, Saw Palmetto is one of the top selling herbal supplements in the ever increasing retail demographic of alternative medicine, so it seems people are willing to forgo the claims of insufficient evidence for a relatively benign treatment option.

Lovage or Love’s Ache

Levisticum officinale photographed by H. Zell

Levisticum officinale photographed by H. Zell

The lovage plant (Levisticum officinale) has been cultivated for medicinal and culinary use for many years – so long, in fact, that the exact native region of the plant is unknown because humans were so swift to spread it across the globe. With a taste reminiscent of celery, the leaves, roots, and seeds have been used as a folk medicine for ailments from kidney stones to migraines. Contemporary research shows the root has high diuretic properties and its tea is effective for expelling gas in both children and adults.

But the entomological breakdown of the name shows that the plant was known for its abilities in love. From Wikipedia:

The name ‘lovage’ is from “love-ache”, ache being a medieval name for parsley; this is a folk-etymological corruption of the older French name levesche, from late Latin levisticum, in turn thought to be a corruption of the earlier Latin ligusticum, “of Liguria” (northwest Italy), where the herb was grown extensively. [In]  Italian [it is] levistico or sedano di monte, French livèche, Romanian leuştean, Hungarian lestyán, Russian любисток lyubeestok, etc. In Bulgaria, it is known as девесил deveseel. The Czech name is libeček, and the Polish name is lubczyk, both meaning ‘love herb’. The name in Swedish is libbsticka. The official German name is Liebstöckel, literally ‘love stick’.

Indeed, lovage has been noted as an aphrodisiac since ancient times – the Emperor Charlemange even planted the love herb throughout his garden.  Apparently, a potion brewed from the roots of the plant and given to a woman would “melt” her frigid disposition and make her agreeable to… well, let’s call it wooing. Soaking in a warm bath sprinkled with lovage leaves would leave you irresistible to others.
Continue reading

Cupid’s Dart: the Plant of Love Potions

February is upon us and that means it is the month of love. Certainly, there are the usual suspects when it comes to Valentine’s Day but I am hoping to dig a little deeper and find some of the other flowers of love and feature them this month.

And the first flower I want to highlight is known as Cupid’s Dart.

Cupid, of course, is known as the god of erotic love, desire, and affection in the Roman pantheon.  He was able to cause uncontrollable desire (or sometimes the opposite) to any individual who was struck with an arrow from his bow. So naturally a plant known as a Cupid’s Dart must cause unbridled desire.

Catanache caerulea photographed by Trisha M Shears

It doesn’t disappoint. The scientific name is Catananche caerulea.  The genus name comes from the Greek katanangke meaning strong incentive and references the prevalent belief that flower was best used as a base for love potions because of its extreme aphrodisiac qualities. In fact one of the best known qualities of this Mediterranean wildflower is the fact that Greek and Roman women used it in love spells. However, by the time the Victorian’s came along it had transmuted into a plant of purer love.

In more modern academia, there are new readings of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which argue that the “little western flower” that Puck is instructed to fetch is not Viola tricolor as is commonly thought but is, instead, the Cupid’s Dart.

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.

bulk_mistletoe

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