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

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.”

Urban Weeds: Henbit

You guys, it’s spring. Well, it was spring. I looked out the window this morning and everything was covered with snow. Again. (I’m really over this winter…)

However, yesterday the day was a reasonable spring temperature, the snow was melted, and the cracks in the sidewalks were suddenly green with life. SPRING. I spent last spring learning about the different urban weeds here in the Philadelphia area but I never considered what medicinal uses people thought they might have. But, most of these weeds are not native – someone had to bring them to North America for a reason. Why? Why did they want these plants around?

So as the plants show themselves this spring, I will be looking into their uses and we will be starting with one that I have already seen this year – Henbit.

henbit

henbit

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) is a common weed in the United States. It not cultivated but instead you will find it growing between cracks in the sidewalk or invading a lawn. It’s a member of the mint family which means it has a square stem. The leaves are scalloped and the upper leaves completely encircle the stem. The flowers are tubular and usually purple in color and form in the upper axils of the leaves.

Henbit has long been considered a wild edible plant. It is foraged for in the spring and added to salads as a green high in antioxidents and iron. However, it was traditionally used medicinally for blood related maladies. Taken internally or used externally as a poultice it can help stop bleeding and reduce swelling associated with cuts and burns. It is also thought to be an emmenagogue.

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.