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|
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.
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.