Tag Archive | plant history

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

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

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

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sarah Sexy Plants!

Linus Van Pelt said it best, so I will let him say it for himself:

There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.

Yes, you read that right, welcome to the end of October and the obligatory Halloween episode of Sarah Sexy Plants. What mayhem will us meddling kids get into today? Why, pumpkins of course! Continue reading

Pennyroyal Tea

This entry has been updated. Please see the new information on Pennyroyal located here.

“Sit and drink Pennyroyal Tea
Distill the life that’s inside of me
Sit and drink Pennyroyal Tea
I’m anemic royalty”

Was Kurt Cobain the poet of our generation? Nah, probably not. But what he did do was incite an entirely new generation to google (or, you know whatever teenagers did back in 1993 to get information… I think it might have been AOL chatrooms) this controversial and much maligned herb. Continue reading