Ethnobotany: White Man’s Foot, part two

Earlier this year, as part of the ethnobotany series, I wrote about plantains (Plantago spp.), of which at least one species is commonly referred to as white man’s foot (or some version of that). Since writing that post, I happened upon a couple of other sources that had interesting and informative things to say about plantains. Rather than go back and update the original post, I decided to make a part two. Hopefully, you find this as interesting as I do. If nothing else, the sources themselves are worth checking out for the additional, fascinating information they contain about all sorts of plants.

plantago_boise capitol building

From The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Concerning their cosmopolitan nature: “Although both plantains [P. major and P. lanceolata] are Eurasian natives, they have long been thoroughly naturalized global residents; the designation ‘alien’ applies to them in the same sense that all white and black Americans are alien residents.”

In which I learned a new term: “Both species are anthropophilic (associate with humans); they frequent roadsides, parking areas, driveways, and vacant lots, occurring almost everywhere in disturbed ground. Where one species grows, the other can often be found nearby.”

Medicinal and culinary uses according to Eastman: “Plantains have versatile curative as well as culinary properties; nobody need go hungry or untreated for sores where plantains grow. These plants contain an abundance of beta carotene, calcium, potassium, and ascorbic acid. Cure-all claims for common plantain’s beneficial medical uses include a leaf tea for coughs, diarrhea, dysentery, lung and stomach disorders, and the root tea as a mouthwash for toothache. … Their most frequent and demonstrably effective use as a modern herb remedy, however, is as a leaf poultice for insect bites and stings plus other skin irritations. The leaf’s antimicrobial properties reduce inflammation, and its astringent chemistry relieves itching, swelling, and soreness.”

Even the seeds are “therapeutic”: “The gelatinous mucilage surrounding seeds can be readily separated, has been used as a substitute for linseed oil. Its widest usage is in laxative products for providing bulk and soluble fiber called psyllium, mainly derived from the plantain species P. ovata and leafy-stemmed plantain (P. psyllium), both Mediterranean natives.”

Plantain’s “cure-all reputation continues” today: Claims range from a homeopathic cancer remedy to a stop-smoking aid, “supposedly causing tobacco aversion.”

Claims of the healing properties of plantains abound in literature: “John the Baptist, in the lore of the saints, used it as a healing herb; Anglo Saxon gardeners called it the ‘mother of herbs.’ Plantain is ‘in the command of Venus and cures the head by antipathy to Mars,’ according to 17th century English herbalist-astrologist Nicholas Culpeper. Plantains also bear frequent mention in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare.”

The worst thing plantains have to offer according to Eastman: “the airborne pollen they shed in large amounts, contributing to many hay fever allergies.”

Illustration by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Illustration by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

From Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey

Mabey’s too-good-to-paraphrase overview of plantain: “Plantain, ‘the mother or worts,’ is present in almost all the early prescriptions of magical herbs, back as far as the earliest Celtic fire ceremonies. It isn’t clear why such a drab plant – a plain rosette of grey-green leaves topped by a flower spike like a rat’s-tail – should have had pre-eminent status. But its weediness, in the sense of its willingness to tolerate human company, may have had a lot to do with it. The Anglo-Saxon names ‘Waybroad’ or ‘Waybread’ simply mean ‘a broad-leaved herb which grows by the wayside.’ This is plantain’s defining habit and habitat. It thrives on roadways, field-paths, church steps. In the most literal sense it dogs human footsteps. Its tough, elastic leaves, growing flush with the ground, are resilient to treading. You can walk on them, scuff them, even drive over them, and they go on living. They seem to actively prosper from stamping, as more delicate plants around them are crushed. The principles of sympathetic magic, therefore, indicated that plantain would be effective for crushing and tearing injuries. (And so it is, to a certain extent. The leaves contain a high proportion of tannins, which help to close wounds and halt bleeding.)”

On the inclusion of plantains in Midsummer’s Eve rituals: “On Midsummer’s Eve, great bonfires were lit in the countryside, and bundles of wild herbs thrown on them. Most of the plants were agricultural weeds, including St. John’s-wort, corn marigold, corn poppy, mayweed, mugwort, ragwort, plantain, and vervain.”

More about Midsummer’s Eve and the “future-foretelling powers” of this “divination herb, stretching sight into the future”: “On Midsummer’s Eve in Berwickshire, the flowering stems were employed by young women in a charm which would predict whether they would fall in love. It was a delicate, almost erotic process in which the sexual organs of the plantain were used as symbolic indicators. Two of the ‘rat’s-tail’ flowering spikes were picked, and any visible purple anthers removed. The two spikes were wrapped in a dock leaf and placed under a stone. If, by the next day, more anthers had risen erect from the flowering spikes, loves was imminent.”

"Greater - or 'ratstail' - plantain had by this time been nicknamed 'Englishman's foot' by the Native Americans, who had witnessed its prodigious advance in the white man's wake." - Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unwanted Plants

“Greater – or ‘ratstail’ – plantain had by this time been nicknamed ‘Englishman’s foot’ by the Native Americans, who had witnessed its prodigious advance in the white man’s wake.” – Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unwanted Plants

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Ethnobotany: White Man’s Foot, part one

“Plantains – Plantago major – seem to have arrived with the very first white settlers and were such a reliable sign of their presence that the Native Americans referred to them as ‘white men’s footsteps.'” – Elizabeth Kolbert (The Sixth Extinction)

“Our people have a name for this round-leafed plant: White Man’s Footstep. Just a low circle of leaves, pressed close to the ground with no stem to speak of, it arrived with the first settlers and followed them everywhere they went. It trotted along paths through the woods, along wagon roads and railroads, like a faithful dog so as to be near them.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer (Braiding Sweetgrass)

photo credits: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Plantago major is in the family Plantaginaceae – the plantain family – a family that consists of at least 90 genera, several of which include common species of ornamental plants such as Veronica (speedwells), Digitalis (foxgloves), and Antirrhinum (snapdragons). The genus Plantago consists of around 200 species commonly known as plantains. They are distributed throughout the world in diverse habitats. Most of them are herbaceous perennials with similar growth habits, and many have ethnobotanical uses comparable to P. major.

Originating in Eurasia, P. major now has a cosmopolitan distribution. It has joined humans as they have traveled and migrated from continent to continent and is now considered naturalized throughout most temperate and some tropical regions. In North America, P. major and P. lanceolata are the two most common introduced species in the Plantago genus. P. major has a plethora of common names – common plantain being the one that the USDA prefers. Other names include broadleaf plantain, greater plantain, thickleaf plantain, ribgrass, ribwort, ripplegrass, and waybread. Depending on the source, there are various versions of the name white man’s foot, and along the same line, a common name for P. major in South Africa is cart-track plant.

P. major is a perennial – albeit sometimes annual or biennial – herbaceous plant. Its leaves form a rosette that is usually oriented flat against the ground and reaches up to 30 cm wide. Each leaf is egg-shaped with parallel veins and leaf margins that are sometimes faintly toothed. The inflorescence is a leafless spike up to 20 cm tall (sometimes taller) with several tiny flowers that are a dull yellow-green-brown color. The flowers are wind pollinated, and the plants are highly prone to self-pollination. The fruits are capsules that can contain as many as 30 seeds – an entire plant can produce as many as 14,000 – 15,000 seeds at once. The seeds are small, brown, sticky, and easily transported by wind or by adhering to shoes, clothing, animals, and machinery. They require light to germinate and can remain viable for up to 60 years.

An illustration of three Plantago species found in Selected Weeds of the United States - Agriculture Handbook No. 366 circa 1970

An illustration of three Plantago species found in Selected Weeds of the United States – Agriculture Handbook No. 366 circa 1970

P. major prefers sunny sites but can also thrive in part shade. It adapts to a variety of soil types but performs best in moist, clay-loam soils. It is often found in compacted soils and is very tolerant of trampling. This trait, along with its low-growing leaves that easily evade mower blades, explains why it is so commonly seen in turf grass. It is highly adaptable to a variety of habitats and is particularly common on recently disturbed sites (natural or human caused) and is an abundant urban and agricultural weed.

Even though it is wind pollinated, its flowers are visited by syrphid flies and various bee species which feed on its pollen. Several other insects feed on its foliage, along with a number of mammalian herbivores. Cardinals and other bird species feed on its seeds.

Humans also eat plantain leaves, which contain vitamins A, C, and K. Young, tender leaves can be eaten raw, while older leaves need to be cooked as they become tough and stringy with age. The medicinal properties of  P. major have been known and appreciated at least as far back as the Anglo-Saxons, who likely used a poultice made from the leaves externally to treat wounds, burns, sores, bites, stings, and other irritations. Native Americans, after seeing the plant arrive with European settlers, quickly learned to use the plant as food and medicine. It could be used to stop cuts from bleeding and to treat rattlesnake bites. Apart from external uses, the plant was used internally as a pain killer and to treat ulcers, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal issues.

P. major has been shown to have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and other biological properties; several chemical compounds have been isolated from the plant and deemed responsible for these properties. For this reason, P. major and other species of Plantago have been used to treat a number of ailments. The claims are so numerous and diverse that it is worth exploring if you are interested. You can start by visiting the following sites:

"White man's footstep, generous and healing, grows with its leaves so close to the ground that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth." - Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (photo credit: www.eol.org)

“White man’s footstep, generous and healing, grows with its leaves so close to the ground that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Other Ethnobotany Posts on Awkward Botany:

2014: Year in Review

It is time again to look back at a year gone by and look forward to another year to come. Usually when we get to this point on the calendar, regardless of how my year has gone, I am anxious to put another year behind me and jump headlong into a new one, reinvigorated by that fresh start feeling that a new year seems to bring.

I manage this blog like a manage most things in my life, by the seat of my pants, not always sure where I am going with it but confident I will figure it out along the way. I have really enjoyed doing the blog this year, and I have felt a sense of direction for it emerging (at least in my mind; not sure if it comes across in the posts), and so in the spirit of that trajectory, I am thrilled to be entering my third year. I have a head full of ideas and I am gaining steam, so if things go the way I envision, this will be an abundant year of diverse posts that will hopefully prove to be enlightening, entertaining, and engrossing.

Serial Posts, etc.

In 2014 I started a few series of posts, and I plan to start more in 2015. The first one I started was an Ethnobotany series, which so far includes Holy Basil, Marigolds, and Cinchona. I also began a series on Drought Tolerant Plants, which so far consists of An Introduction, Fernbush, and Blue Sage. Flower Anatomy and Fruits were part of another new series exploring Botanical Terms. Some ideas for other series include: Poisonous Plants, Famous Botanists in History, and Botany in Popular Culture. None of these series has a regular posting schedule and each will continue indefinitely. I also plan to write more book reviews, as I only managed one in 2014 (Seedswap by Josie Jeffery). And speaking of reviews, probably my most ambitious endeavor of 2014 was reviewing the 17 articles in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany. You can read a recap here.

Social Media

It’s no mystery that having a social media presence in this day and age is imperative to the success of virtually any venture, especially a blog since the internet is veritably flooded with them. I’ve decided that Twitter is my favorite form of social media for now, and so I have been spending most of my time there. You can find and follow me @awkwardbotany. I also started a sister microblog on Tumblr in 2014. I mostly post plant and garden photos, and occasionally I share links to plant related things that I find interesting. Find and follow me here.

If you like what you read here and want to support Awkward Botany, the most helpful thing you can do is share it with your friends, family, and acquaintances. The easiest way to do that is by linking to individual posts on your preferred social media sites (there are buttons at the end of each post that help you do that). Or you can just tell people about it in person by using your mouth to make words, the old fashioned way. If you do share Awkward Botany online, consider including #phytocurious. You can also use this hashtag for anything plant related, including (especially) pictures of plants, that way I can easily find the cool plant things you are posting and share in your plant nerd glee.

Guest Posts

I hinted last year that I was considering publishing guest posts, and I have decided that I really want to do that. I’m going to be kind of picky about what I post, but don’t let that stop you from submitting something. You can write about your favorite plant, interesting plant science research, plants in the news, book or other media reviews, or anything else plant related. If this interests you, let me know by using the contact form or by sending me a message on Twitter. We can discuss further details from there.

Year of Pollination

Because I have developed such a fascination with pollinators and pollination (and because it is such an important topic), I have decided to dub 2015 the Year of Pollination. So far what this means is that I will be posting about pollinators and pollination at least once if not twice a month during each month of the year. This idea is young, so it could mean other things, too. Time will tell, so stay tuned.

SAMSUNG

I have lots of other thoughts and ideas swirling around in my brain, but I will keep them to myself for now until they are more fully formed. What I have included here will suffice. Thank you so much for reading and sharing. I wish you and yours all the best in 2015.

Exploring Pollination Biology in Southwestern China

This is the sixth in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Insect Pollination and Self-Incompatibility in Edible and/or Medicinal Crops in Southwestern China, a Global Hotspot of Diversity by Zong-Xin Ren, Hong Wang, Peter Bernhardt, and De-Zhu Li

We rely on pollinators to pollinate at least 75% of our food crops, which is why any talk of pollinator decline tends to make us nervous. It is also why research involving pollinators and pollination is so important. Despite all we know, there is still so much to learn. The authors of this study, recognizing that “there are large gaps in the study of the pollination of economically important and traditionally grown species in China,” set out to help close these gaps. Their research not only has the potential to benefit agricultural communities in China, but also adds to our growing understanding of pollination biology – a science that has become increasingly important in an age of human population growth and shifting climates.

The incredibly diverse Chinese flora includes at least 31,000 plant species. Three hundred of the 1500 species of worldwide cultivated crop plants “originated and/or were domesticated and/or underwent differentiation in China.” Southwestern China has a particularly large amount of botanical diversity and is considered a biodiversity hotspot. In this study concerning agricultural pollination, researchers chose to focus on Yunnan, a province in southwestern China. They chose this region due to its high level of current and historical agriculture and because it is “one of the last refuges of the eastern Asian honeybee, Apis cerana, in China.” They narrowed their research down to 11 species that are important for their culinary and/or medicinal use, some of them having widespread use and others having more local, cultural use. Depending on the species, conclusions were drawn either from available literature, from field studies, or both.

Eastern Asian Honeybee (Apis cerana) on Citrus limonia flowers (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Eastern Asian Honeybee (Apis cerana) on Citrus limonia flowers (photo credit: www.eol.org)

A review of the literature revealed information about each plant’s breeding system, the pollinators involved, ethnobotanical details, and other things. No information was available on the breeding system or pollinators of Panax notoginseng, “one of the most highly valued Chinese medicinal herbs.” Five species were found to be self-compatible (Angelica sinensis, Amomum tsao-ko, Brassica napus, B. campestris, and Gastrodia elata) and four were found to be self-incompatible (Camellia oleifera, Dendrobium catenatum, Fagopyrum esculentum, and Paris plyphylla var. yunnanensis). Codonopsis subglobosa was somewhere in the middle. The authors were intrigued by the persistent self-incompatibility in these domesticated plants (some more recently domesticated than others), noting that “both traditional and modern agricultural practices in China could not always overcome ancestral self-incompatibility mechanisms.” A running theme seemed to be that, if able to produce fruit or seed when hand-pollinated or without the aid of pollinators, the plants consistently performed better when insect pollinated. One of the most interesting findings was that Gastrodia elata, Dendrobium catenatum, and Paris plyphylla var. yunnanensis “persist in cultivation only through hand-pollination.”

Camellia oleifera, tea-oil plant, is pollinated by two native solitary bee species. It is avoided by native and introduced honeybees because its nectar contains substances that are toxic to worker bees, including caffeine, raffinose, stachyose, and galactose. Fagopyrum esculentum, common buchwheat, is native to southern China and was likely first domesticated there. It is pollinated by a variety of insects; however, its main pollinator in worldwide cultivation is the European honeybee, Apis mellifera. In China, evidence suggests that when pollinated by native pollinators, buckwheat produces higher yields and larger fruits. Codonopsis subglobosa is an undomesticated but cultivated perennial vine endemic to southwestern China, the roots of which are used as a substitute for ginseng. It can self-pollinate without a vector, but cross-pollination by wasps yields more seeds. Pollination by “hunting wasps” is rare, and C. subglobosa is not the only plant in the area pollinated by them. If the “evolution of hunting wasp pollination systems has evolved repeatedly in unrelated species native to southwestern China,” this region may be a “center for the convergent evolution of hunting wasp pollination.”

Common Buckwheat, Fagopyrum esculentum (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

Common Buckwheat, Fagopyrum esculentum (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Beekeeping has been a major part of agriculture in China for centuries. However, the introduction of the European honeybee has caused a significant decline in both wild and managed populations of native honeybees, despite native honeybees being “better adapted to more diffuse nectar resources” than the introduced honeybee. The decline in keeping and managing native honeybees is complicated and involves much more than just the introduction of the European honeybee. Along with the debate about what is best for agriculture in China, is the concern about what introducing non-native pollinators could mean for native flora and fauna. The authors conclude that there is “urgent need for new pollination management policies in China.”

This article ends with suggestions about how to improve and expand pollination biology research in China in order to fill gaps in knowledge, improve agricultural production, and protect and conserve native biodiversity. China is an ideal candidate for such research for several reasons: it has areas like southwestern China that are very species rich, it has a long history of agriculture, and it has numerous unique crops that are specific to Chinese culture. China also has a large and growing population, so improvements that can lead to more sustainable agricultural production will be greatly beneficial in the long run.

Ethnobotany: Cinchona, Quinine, and Malaria

Most folks these days who enjoy a gin and tonic on a warm summer day probably aren’t stricken or threatened with malaria, but the first partakers of this popular cocktail were. Their drinks, however, had a much larger helping of one particular ingredient, quinine. SAMSUNG In the early 1600’s while exploring Peru, Jesuit missionaries from Spain were introduced to a tree, the bark of which could treat malaria. That tree was the cinchona tree. At that time malaria was a major issue in Europe, and so the Jesuits brought some cinchona bark back to Spain in hopes of saving some lives. The cinnamon-colored bark was administered by grinding it into a powder and serving it in sweetened water. This treatment became a big success and eventually spread throughout the continent. Exports of cinchona bark increased, much of which were coming from forests in the border region of Ecuador and Peru. Over time the cinchona bark (also called Jesuit’s bark and Peruvian bark) became less available, either due to overharvesting or because the Peruvians began to highly regulate its exportation. In order to fill the demand and ensure a steady supply, Dutch and British explorers established cinchona plantations in Southeast Asia.

Bark of Cinchona officinalis (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Bark of Cinchona officinalis (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Malaria is caused by protozoan parasites in the genus Plasmodium. Humans become infected with the parasites when they are bitten by infected mosquitos (Anopheles spp.). The parasites enter the bloodstream and liver and begin to reproduce. People with malaria experience flu-like symptoms and, if not treated quickly and properly, risk death. While early Europeans did not know it at the time, the cinchona bark treatment worked because it contained quinine, an antimalarial compound, which suppresses and destroys malarial parasites.

Quinine is an alkaloid (a class of nitrogen-containing organic compounds) that cinchona trees produce as a defense against insect herbivory. Many plants produce alkaloids for this reason, and these alkaloids, when discovered and isolated by humans, have proven to be quite useful. Caffeine, nicotine, morphine, and strychnine are all examples of alkaloids. Quinine was isolated from cinchona bark in the 1820’s and eventually produced synthetically in the 1940’s. It is still used today to treat malaria, although other antimalarial drugs are now favored due to greater effectiveness and fewer side effects. Today, products containing quinine are available for the treatment of leg cramps; however, the United States Food and Drug Administration has stated that they have not approved quinine for this use and advise consumers to avoid such products.

Cinchona is a genus of evergreen trees and shrubs in the family Rubiaceae (the coffee family) that includes around 23 species. It is native to the Andes of South America and mountains in the southern portion of Central America and often occurs in cloud forests, forests that are characterized by regular, canopy-level cloud cover. Cinchona flowers are tubular, pollinated largely by butterflies and hummingbirds, and come in white, pink, and purple. The fruits of Cinchona are dry, woody capsules containing small, flat, papery seeds that are wind dispersed. C. pubescens, C. calisaya, and C. officinalis are the main species that have been cultivated for quinine production.

The flowers of Cinchona pubescens (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The flowers of Cinchona pubescens (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

In the 19th century when Europeans were busy colonizing places like India and Africa, having a readily available source of cinchona bark was vital to their success. They may have had the guns and ammunition necessary for conquest, but even so, they would not have been able to withstand the plague of malaria parasites without regular doses of quinine. But quinine is bitter stuff. Served in sweetened soda water helped it go down. Add a ration of gin, even better. Imperialism was secured. Just something to think about the next time you’re mixing yourself a gin and tonic on a mid-September day.

Resources:

Encyclopedia of Life: Cinchona

University of Minnesota James Ford Bell Library: Cinchona Bark

McGraw-Hill Education: Using Bark to Cure the Bite

Wikipedia: Cinchona, Quinine, Jesuit’s Bark

Slate: The Imperial Cocktail

One Species at a Time Podcast: Quinine Tree

Kudzu Ate the South…Now Looks North

In 1876, an Asian vine was introduced to the people of the United States at a centennial celebration in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was a fairly benign looking vine, with its leaves of three and its cluster of sweet pea like flowers, but its exotic appeal must have been quite enticing, because it took off…and not just in popularity.

The plant that caught the eye of these early Americans was called kudzu (or kuzu in Japanese). It is a plant in the genus Pueraria in the family Fabaceae (the pea family). The plants first introduced to the U.S. were likely to have consisted of more than a single species such as P. montana, P. lobata, P. edulis, and others, or were hybrids of these species. They were initially lauded for their ornamental value but soon after were recognized for their potential as animal feed. By the 1930’s, when soil erosion had become a major issue, kudzu was deployed by the U.S. government to combat it. At least 85 million government-funded kudzu seedlings later, and the southeastern portion of the United States had secured a future dominated by this relentless and unforgiving vine.

Innocent and harmless is how kudzu must have first appeared, especially to those looking for a fast growing, large-leaved, vining plant to provide quick shade for porches, offering relief from the sun during those sweltering southern summers. Little did they know, however, if left unchecked, that prized vine could engulf homes and outbuildings, cover and pull down trees and utility poles, and choke out crops and pastures in the matter of a single growing season.

(photo credit: eol.org)

(photo credit: eol.org)

Kudzu was added to the Federal Noxious Weed List in 1997, long after it had established itself throughout the southeastern U.S. It now covers more than 3 million hectares, spreading at a pace of about 50,000 hectares (120,000 acres) per year. It is said that a kudzu vine can grow up to a foot in a single day or about 60 feet in a growing season. It is a twining vine, wrapping itself around any upright structure it can access and relying on that support in order to advance upwards. This gives it the advantage of using more resources for growth and expansion of both roots and shoots rather than on the resource demanding task of producing woody stems. Like other members of the pea family, it gets much of its nitrogen from the atmosphere through a process called nitrogen fixation. Because of this, kudzu can thrive in nutrient poor soils. Kudzu is also drought-tolerant, has leaves that follow the sun throughout the day in order to maximize photosynthesis, reproduces clonally by layering (stems in contact with the ground grow roots and detach from the parent plant), and (in North America) is free from the pests and diseases commonly associated with it in its native habitat. For these reasons and others, kudzu has become one of the most notorious, pervasive, and ecologically harmful weeds in the U.S., costing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages every year.

A close-up of kudzu flowers (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

A close-up of kudzu flowers (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

kudzu foliage and flowers

Foliage and flowers of kudzu (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

One glance at what kudzu has done in the southeastern states, and it is obvious that it is some kind of superweed. I saw firsthand just how overwhelming it can be as I drove through Mississippi several years ago. I didn’t even have to stop the car to investigate. It was easily apparent that it was the dominant species, enveloping every tree for miles alongside the highway. Currently, kudzu can be found in every county in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. But kudzu has a limitation; it doesn’t care much for freezing temperatures. Even though it has been present in parts of northern states – like Ohio, New Jersey, and Delaware – for a while now, it has generally been limited to milder locations, and it certainly doesn’t thrive in the same way that it does in the subtropical climates of the southern states. But that is changing, because the climate is changing.

Average global temperatures increased by about 1.53° F between 1880 and 2012, and this gradual increase is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Biologists and ecologists are monitoring changes in climate closely in order to observe and predict changes in the biology and ecology of our planet. Invasive species are high on the list of concerns, as climate is often a major limitation to their spread. Now that kudzu has been found in Marblehead, Massachusetts and Ontario, Canada, the fear of kudzu climbing north is becoming a reality.

Kudzu is incredibly difficult to control. It does not respond to many herbicides, and the herbicides that do affect it must be applied repeatedly over a long time period. It is an excellent forage plant, so utilizing grazing animals to keep it in check can be effective. Those who have succumbed to kudzu, acknowledging that it is here to stay, have found uses for it, including making baskets, paper, biofuel, and various food items. A compound extracted from the kudzu root is also being studied as a possible treatment for alcoholism. Kudzu has long been valued for its culinary and medicinal uses in Asia, so it is no surprise that uses would be found for it in North America. However, North Americans who embrace kudzu are taking a defeatist approach. That is, “if we can’t get rid of it, we may as well find a use for it.” This, however, should not negate nor distract from the damage it has caused and continues to cause local ecosystems and the ecological threat that it poses to areas where it is just now being introduced or may soon be introduced due to our warming climate.

Millions of dollars are spent every year to address the effects kudzu has on utility poles (phot credi: eol.org)

Millions of dollars are spent every year to remove kudzu from utility poles and replace poles pulled down by kudzu (photo credit: eol.org)

References:

Encyclopedia of Life: Pueraria Montana

Wikipedia: Kudzu in the United States

Max Shores: The Amazing Story of Kudzu

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Conservation in a Changing Climate

NASA Earth Observatory: How Much More Will the Earth Warm?

Bloomberg: Kudzu That Ate U.S. South Heads North as Climate Changes

Ethnobotany: Marigolds

Marigolds are easily one of the most commonly grown annual flowers. They are so common and pervasive, in fact, that they are often overlooked and underappreciated. I, for one, had discounted marigolds long ago, seeking instead for plants considered to be more rare, unconventional, and unusual to place in my garden. But then I started looking into this commonplace plant and, to my surprise, discovered that marigolds have great cultural significance in countries all around the world, both currently and historically. Suddenly, marigolds don’t seem quite so ordinary.

Marigold is a common name for plants found in several genera, but in this case I am referring to plants in the genus, Tagetes, which is in the family, Asteraceae (also known as the sunflower family). Tagetes is a genus composed of at least 42 species, all of which are native to North and South America. Plants in this genus range in height from a few inches to as tall as 6 feet or more. Like most other species in the sunflower family, their flowers appear to be single blooms but are actually clusters of two different types of smaller flowers: ray florets and disc florets. The flowers can be orange, yellow, golden, white, and, in some cases, maroon or with maroon accents. The leaves are usually finely divided and either oppositely or alternately arranged, and the leaves, stems, and flowers are highly aromatic. Marigolds grow in a variety of soil types, even those with minimal fertility. In gardens, they will perform best if they are grown in well-drained soil in full sun and are watered and deadheaded regularly.

Aztec Marigold (Tagetes erecta)

Aztec Marigold (Tagetes erecta)

Even before marigolds gained worldwide popularity, they were commonly used among the people in their native range. They were of particular interest to the Aztecs, who considered marigolds a sacred plant and used them in religious ceremonies. Marigolds became known as the flower of the dead and are still used today during the Day of the Dead to adorn altars and graves. Marigolds were also an important medicinal plant for the Aztecs, especiallly T. lucida, which they used to treat fevers, stiffness, blisters, and various other ailments.

Spanish and Portugeuse explorers were introduced to marigolds by the Aztec people. The explorers brought marigolds back to their homelands and quickly spread them throughout Europe and into Africa and Asia. It was in Europe that they were given their common name, Mary’s gold, referring to the Virgin Mary and the color of the flowers.  At the beginning of the 16th century, Portuguese explorers established a colony in India. The marigolds they brought with them have become a huge part of Indian culture and other cultures in that region. Today there are many large marigold farms in various parts of India, and marigolds are used widely to make garlands and other decorations for weddings, festivals, and religious ceremonies, as well as in foods and dyes.

Marigold Garlands (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Marigold Garlands (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The flowers and leaves of marigolds are edible and have culinary and medicinal uses in many countries, especially those in South America. T. lucida and T. minuta are particularly popular for these uses. Marigold flowers have a citrus-like flavor, and T. tenufolia ‘Lemon Gem’ is said to be the best tasting marigold (although, having never eaten marigold flowers myself, I have no personal experience to back that up). The essential oil of T. minuta is frequently used in the fragrance industry and as a medicinal oil. However, T. minuta has also become naturalized in many parts of the world, including Africa, Asia, and North America, and is considered an invasive weed species in these areas.

Marigolds are often planted in vegetable gardens because they are assumed to repel pest insects and/or attract beneficial insects. Little research has been done to back up these claims. The one thing that I was able to confirm is that they have been found to reduce populations of nematodes in the soil. However, just interplanting marigolds among vegetable plants is not enough; instead, a large number of marigolds would need to be planted and then tilled into the soil in order to have the desired effect. Surely marigolds attract pollinating insects, but do they repel pests (apart from nematodes) or attract other beneficial insects?  If you have an answer to this, comment below.

Tagetes minuta (photo credit: eol.org)

Tagetes minuta (photo credit: eol.org)

I have marigolds in my garden this year, partly due to my newfound appreciation of them. If you’d like to see pictures of my marigolds, along with pictures of other things I’m growing, seeing, and doing, subscribe to my tumblr and/or follow me on twitter.

Ethnobotany: Holy Basil

Every year I try to grow a few things in my garden that I have never grown before. This year one of those things is holy basil. Not to be confused with the common culinary basil (Ocimum basilicum) – of which there are numerous horticultural varieties – holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) while closely related is a completely different species. Both species are native to South Asia. One of the main differences between the two is that O. basilicum is an annual and O. tenuiflorum is a short-lived perennial.

ocimum tenuiflorum

 Holy Basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Holy basil is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), which means that it has square stems and oppositely arranged leaves and branches. It is a highly aromatic subshrub that reaches about 3 feet tall and has hairy stems and green and purple leaves. The flowers of holy basil are white/purple and tightly arranged in a long raceme. While it is a perennial in its native range, it is not hardy in more temperate climates. Holy basil is a common ingredient in Thai food and has many medicinal uses. In India, it is often prescribed by Ayurvedic practitioners as a treatment for many things, including stress, fever, influenza, headaches, insomnia, and upset stomach. The leaves of this plant are used as a mosquito repellent, and oil derived from the seeds is being researched for it’s potential use in treating cancer. However, probably the most interesting thing about holy basil is its place in Hindu culture.

Holy basil is considered by Hindus to be the earthly incarnation of the goddess Tulsi who is a companion of the god Vishnu. Thus, tulsi is a common name for this plant in Asia. Tulsi is the most sacred of all plants in Hinduism, which is why it is commonly seen growing in special pots in the courtyards of Hindu homes. During ritualistic worship, tulsi leaves are offered to Vishnu and his avatars. Vaishnavas (followers of Vaishnavism, a major branch of Hinduism) make prayer beads from the stems and roots of tulsi plants. Wearing these prayer beads (called Tulsi malas) is said to connect one with the gods and bring their protection. Because tulsi is considered to be a manifestation of deity on earth, it is seen as a connection point to heaven, and so tulsi leaves are placed in the mouths of people who are dying in order to ensure a safe journey into celestial realms.

Hindus not only regularly use holy basil in ritualistic worship, they also regularly worship the plant itself. Daily worship of the tulsi plant is traditionally done by women. Worship can involve praying to the plant, chanting mantras, watering the plant, cleaning around the plant with water and cow dung, and offering it things like food, flowers, and water from the Ganges river. Even when not worshiping tulsi, simply caring for it daily is said to bring blessings from Vishnu.

holy basil

My holy basil. It doesn’t look like much now, but it has potential.

Learn more about holy basil and its ethnobotanical uses by visiting Kew and HinduNet.

Idaho State Flower

In 1931, the Idaho state legislature officially designated Philadelphus lewisii as the state flower of Idaho, several decades after it was originally selected by a committee of Boise women. Affectionately referred to as “syringa” by Idahoans, P. lewisii occurs from British Columbia down into northern California and across into Idaho and Montana. Its native habitats are the bases of rocky slopes, rocky crevices, and stream banks. It was among many plants collected during the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) by Meriwether Lewis. Lewis collected two specimens while in north Idaho and eastern Montana – the first near the Clearwater River and the second near the Bitterroot River. The species was later described by Frederick Pursh and named after Meriwether Lewis. Another widely accepted common name for this species is Lewis’ mock orange.

P. lewisii is a deciduous shrub that reaches 6 to 10 feet tall. It has opposite leaves and white, four-petaled flowers that appear in clusters of 3 to 11 on lateral branches. Young branches have reddish-brown bark that eventually peels off to reveal gray bark as the branches age. Many flowers in the genus Philadelphus emit a scent similar to the blossoms of citrus plants and have a general appearance akin to orange blossoms, giving them their common name “mock orange.” The attractive flowers and their sweet aroma are reasons why many people look forward to these shrubs blooming each year. Additionally, Idahoans can be certain that when their beloved state flower is in bloom, summer is imminent.

Philadelphus lewisii

The leaves and bark of P. lewsii contain saponins and can be used to make soap when they are crushed and mixed with water. This quality also makes the plant fire-resistant. The branches and hollow stems of P. lewisii were used by Native Americans to make a variety of useful items including snowshoes, bows, arrows, and pipes. The common name “syringa” was derived from the greek word “syrinx” meaning “tube.” This helps explain why lilacs, an unrelated group of plants that also has hollow stems, was given the latin name Syringa.

Philadelphus is a genus in the Hydrangea family (Hydrangeaceae) that consists of at least 60 species found throughout North America into Central America and in various parts of Eurasia. All are shrubs – some growing to 20 feet tall while others only reach 3 feet at maturity. Most have deciduous leaves, but a few are evergreens. Many cultivars of Philadelphus have been developed by the horticulture industry and are commercially available. Cultivars are often selected for their compact growth habit, abundant and sometimes double flowers, and their strong, sweet aroma.

SAMSUNG

Check out this article in Pacific Horticulture to learn more about the genus Philadelphus.