Tag Archive | family planning

Just mad about Saffron

Saffron has been known for centuries. As a dye it yields a deeply hued yellow color, prized by the fashionable Minoan women of Ancient Crete (2700 – 1450 BCE) (Willetts 1976) and later Egypt (Willard 2001). A fresco depicting saffron was found at the site of Akrotiri, a Greek city destroyed (and preserved) by volcanic ash in 1627 BCE. In the work, two finely dressed women are in a field of flowers, gathering the valuable parts that constitute saffron.

The Saffron Gatherers

Fresco of saffron gatherers from the bronze age excavations in Akrotiri on the greek island of Santorini, Greece.

To some, the robes and jewelry the women are wearing show that this painting was representative of a harvest festival. Others hypothesize that the saffron was an offering to the goddess Eileithyia, whom Homer referred to as “Mogostokos” – the goddess of the birth pains. Regardless, by the time of ancient Greece, saffron was well known and, judging by the fields depicted in the fresco, cultivated. But saffron isn’t celebrated for its longevity, nor for its ties to pregnancy (even though I think that’s worth exploring and will do so later on in this post). No, to most, saffron is known as a potent aphrodisiac. Continue reading

Holy Fire, Witches, and Doctors: ergot poisoning throughout history

 Engraved illustration by Howard Pyle, 1893

Engraved illustration by Howard Pyle, 1893

It’s January 1692 in the brand new colony of Massachusetts. It’s cold. It’s boring. And there isn’t much to eat. We all know the story that comes next: two girls fall ill, afflicted by strange bursts of screaming, terror, and contortionist fits. Soon other girls begin to exhibit the same symptoms.  Doctors can’t find anything physically wrong with them so the only logical explanation available is witchcraft. And suddenly over 140 neighbors of this small town were jailed, 20 of them actually executed for their crime of being witches.

There are many theories about what actually happened that year in Salem. Some are cynical: the girls started the whole hysterical panic by playing a game for some attention, or as a way to make themselves feel powerful in a society that didn’t value them, or as a way to “get even” with those members of the community they felt had wronged them. Others are psychological: the religious fervor of this community was so great that of course the devil would send witches to torment them. Their belief was so strong in this absolute truth that they exhibited psychosomatic symptoms because they simply felt that they were truly bewitched. But I think the most enticing theory is drugs. Specifically the naturally occurring precursor to LSD (Caporael, 1976). 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

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

Peony: the queen of flowers and PMS

Paeonia lactiflora photographed by Ulf Eliasson

Paeonia lactiflora photographed by Ulf Eliasson

Based on my time working in for a florist there is but one flower that can rival the almighty Rose as the favored token of love: the Peony. Interestingly, peonies are the most requested flower for weddings and are a symbol of fertility in western mythology and wealth and good fortune in the east. However in the Victorian language of flowers the peony says that the sender is too bashful (or ashamed) to admit their amorous feelings.

There are many different species of peony within the genus Paeonia but it is the Chinese (or White) Peony (Paeonia lactiflora) that is most commonly used medicinally. Traditionally, the root is prescribed for dysmennorhea (often in combination with licorice) and PCOS as well as premenstrual syndrome. It works by preventing prostaglandin F2 alpha production. Prostaglandin F2 alpha is a lipid compound that is created by the uterus that stops progesterone production when there was no implantation during the menstrual cycle. When prostaglandin F2 alpha binds to its receptors in the body it stimulates uterine contractions and menstruation begins. In some women, an excess of prostaglandin F2 alpha is made which creates more contractions of the uterus causing the pain associated with dysmennorhea and PMS cramping.

Of course those uterine contractions can be taken one step further: white peony root has been used as an abortificient in both eastern and western medicine.

So this Valentine’s Day, if you want something instead of roses for your beloved, consider the peony bouquet and you Brides to Be take note: nothing says love and romance like the contractions of the uterus.