Tag Archive | John Bartram

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?

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

A tipitiwitchet of one’s own

What if I told you there was a plant, beloved the world over, that only grows in a small sliver of the United States? And I mean small: this plant’s range only extends 100 miles from the southern bit of North Carolina to the northern tip of  South Carolina. Of course that is it’s natural range. Now this plant can be seen the world over growing in botanic gardens or cultivated by collectors. And all because it eats a little meat…

339px-Drawing_of_Venus_FlytrapOf course I am talking about the famous Venus Flytrap. Discovered in the 18th century, the plant became a instant treasure of the colonies, beguiling curious collectors of all types: from the farmers of the new world all the way to the Queen of England. It was first described by Governor of North Carolina Author Dobbs in a letter to English botanist Peter Collinson dated April 2, 1759. In it, he commented that:

We have a kind of Catch Fly Sensitive which closes upon any thing that touches it. It grows in Latitude 34 but not in 35. I will try to save the seed here.

Dobbs then welcomed Philadelphia plant collector William Bartram to his home to examine this new curious plant. William brought specimens home to his father, the famous botanist (and fellow friend of Peter Collinson) John Bartram. The Batrams were immediately smitten with the plant. They were the first to successfully cultivate the plant outside of its native range in their greenhouses along the Schuylkill River. John is credited with sending the first herbarium specimens of the plant to Peter Collinson for study. Collinson, in turn, provided the specimens to fellow botanists including John Ellis and later, Linnaeus.

But no one at this point had been able to collect seeds to send to Collinson in England. Remember this fact, it will become important later.

Ok, now it’s time to get down to the really raunchy stuff! Continue reading

Poison Ivy: You can look but you’d better not touch…

Of all the native US plants, I think the sordid history of Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is the most fun. First off, can you think of a plant that is more revered as a sex symbol? No. There is literally an entire genus of plants known as Clitoria. Seriously, there are flowers that so resemble female genitalia they are literally named after the clitoris:

Clitoria ternatea or Butterfly Pea

and Poison Ivy manages to be more related to female sexuality. That is pretty impressive when you think about it.

But why wouldn’t it be? Pop culture is littered with references to the sexy femme fatale. Most notable of course is the DC Comic character Pamela Isley better known as Poison Ivy. A botanist gone rogue, she is part plant and able to control the mind of her victims with pheromones and has the ability to kill with a single kiss. Plus she’s hot. Like super hot:

Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy

Basically she is everything I want to be when I grow up, except for the terrible childhood and lover-doing-experiments-on-you-until-you-become-mostly-plant part.

But there are other Poison Ivy associations, as well. There have been a couple of bad movies staring child actors trying to get “sexy” in the 90s. And then there is the 1959 song written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and originally recorded by the Coasters. It is a catchy pop song about a women who is so enticing she is desired by everyone who sees her… and the resulting rash that they get after spending some time with her.

As Leiber later recalled, “Pure and simple, ‘Poison Ivy’ is a metaphor for a sexually transmitted disease—or the clap [gonorrhea]—hardly a topic for a song that hit the Top Ten in the spring of 1959. But the more we wrote, the less we understood why the public bought what it bought. It didn’t make sense, but it didn’t matter. We were having fun.”

So is this why the association of a sexy and dangerous woman prevails with the poor Poison Ivy plant? Probably. The song was written even before the first appearance of Poison Ivy in the Batman comics. And it went on to be rerecorded by a number of artists after the Coasters, almost 20 in fact. And they range in styles and decades wildly, from the Rolling Stones to Hanson.

A baby Poison Ivy Plant growing in Fairmount Park.

But what about the real story of T. radicans? Well, this American native is fairly well traveled, thanks to botanists John and William Bartram. It was sold to European gardeners, botanists, and horticulturists as an exotic plant along with oaks, maples, and wildflowers. Large healthy stands of the plant grew at Kew Gardens in London and in Paris in the gardens of the Empress Joséphine Bonaparte. Doctors and apothecaries tried to utilize the curious plant to cure diseases including drinking Poison Ivy tea. Eventually, people wised up and realized they were doing more harm than good.

Now the plant still grows in its native habitat, much to the disappointment of many a homeowner than has moved into its native range. But it is still an important plant for birds and other wildlife. So perhaps we can just leave it alone…

A climbing specimen of Poison Ivy growing up a tree. Notice the variability of the leaf shapes.