Tag Archive | plant history

Syphilis and Saffafras: Trees to Treat STDs

Did you know that once upon a time, before cotton, before tobacco, the largest export out of the new word was the Sassafras Tree (Sassafras albidum)? Considered a “prime commodity” the sassafras tree was so highly regarded that it was the reason the first two settlements were established on the coast of Massachusetts. It was worth so much money in the London market that the cost of the transatlantic voyage to harvest sassafras and bring it back to England was not only worth it, it was profitable! And the reason? It was considered a cure for syphilis!

Oval Shaped Leaf on a Sassafras Tree

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The Living Fossil: Ginkgo biloba

The history of modern trees began in the carboniferous period, about 359 million years ago. I say “modern” plants, because it was during this time that true coniferous plants evolved. This reproduction method is still in use by modern species to great effect; pines, spruces, firs, and larches are all coniferous trees. The next period is the Permian which existed from 298.9 million years ago to 252 million years ago. It was during this time that the Ginkgo genus evolved.

Why is that so interesting? Well, at the end of the Permian period there was a mass extinction. And during this extinction a whopping 83% of all extant genera went extinct. But not Ginkgoaceae*. They went on to become a dominant tree species throughout the Mezozoic Era (the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods) and fossils from this era can be attributed to Ginkgo biloba. That means G. biloba has existed for over 250 million years! Continue reading

Blue Lobelia and Syphilis Sores

The Great Blue Lobelia is a native plant with an interesting past. It grows in wet open meadows throughout the eastern US and Canada and has been utilized by native people for a variety of ailments: it was known as “pukeweed” for its ability to cause vomiting almost immediately after consuming a pod or two, as a relaxing tea following childbirth, and as a restorative tonic after a bout of the flu.

Blue Lobelia by Sarah Sexy  Plants

Blue Lobelia by Sarah Sexy Plants

In the 1700s the term “pox” was still generally used to refer to syphilitic sores and while there is some debate surrounding the origins of the infection (it is generally thought to have originated in the Americas) it is a fact that the colonists had quite a problem with the disease (both Philadelphia and Boston had a known prostitution trade which lead to the quick and effective spread of the disease). The Iroquois used the plant to treat syphilis and relied on it for that purpose so much that the superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1756 to 1774 sent samples of lobelia to Europe for study as “the Indian’s secret cure for syphilis.” European doctors, however, were unable to find any medicinal uses and quickly gave up research on the herb.However, the scientific name Lobelia siphilitica gives away the reason we are interested in Blue Lobelia here at the Sarah Sexy Pants blog: it has been used as a treatment for syphilis (Spoiler Alert: it does not actually work).

Famed botanist, zoologist, and all around scientist Carl Linnaeus, best known for popularizing the naming system of binomial nomenclature, assigned the specific epithet “siphilitica” to the Blue Lobelia due to its reputed uses and, although the science didn’t pan out, the name has survived.


Abortion and Extinction: Silphium in the Ancient World

Although it is a hot button issue, family planning has been done for thousands of years with the aid of various plants. Some of these methods are still employed to this day (although not under the banner of modern medicine) and I will be exploring the different species in subsequent posts.

But I think the most interesting plant in this class of abortifacient is Silphium, native to the coastal city Cyrene in North Africa and utilized in great deal by the Egyptians and Greeks (and later the Romans) who settled and traded there. Not only used to control pregnancy, it was a plant that was actually a staple to the economy of the region: the resin of the plant was used widely in medical applications (such as fever and cough) as well as a spice to flavor and cure meats. But I am most interested in the writing of Pliny the Elder who described how the resin was used to make a pessary (vaginal suppository) that could “promote the menstrual discharge.”

From 1889 edition of Principal Coins of the Ancients, plate 35 a coin from Cyrene depicting a stalk of Silphium

The Silphium plant went extinct before the end of the 1 century AD and legend states that the last stalk was given to Emperor Nero. Modern science has not been able to determine exactly what the Silphium plant was. It was likely in the genus Ferula, or giant fennel, as the plant Ferula assa-foetida was used as a substitute in the first century both for medical and flavoring use.

Another curious fact about human interaction with the Silphium plant is the common heart symbol. Shown on coins from before the common era the Silphium seed pod is shaped in the classic heart shape. Certainly, it makes sense that a plant that is able to control the effects of amorous affairs would morph into the modern symbol of love.

The Silphium Connection. Celator 9(2):6-8. Feb, 1995. The coin’s design is one of the few surviving images of a seed pod of the extinct Silphium plant.

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.