Sunday, April 13, 2014

Plant Story - Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, a plant species complex

Achillea millefolium, yarrow
Achillea millefolium, yarrow
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium (sunflower family, Asteraceae) is a small perennial plant found around the world. It is a medicinal herb in both modern and traditional medicines (see previous post: link) and is an attractive, easily-grown garden flower and in some places, a weed.


Very few plant species are listed as native to Europe, Asia and North America but that is the case for Achillea millefolium.  

Actually, yarrow is what botanists call a species complex. I will outline the situation as I understand it, because this sort of complexity is surprisingly common in plants, although yarrow does it particularly well.




Sunday, April 6, 2014

Plant Story-- Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, an Ancient Healing Herb

Achillea millefolium yarrow
Achillea millefolium yarrow
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is a familiar  wildflower with an interesting and confused history. A member of the very large sunflower family, Asteraceae, it is quite closely related to wild and cultivated chamomiles.

Yarrow was named Achillea millefolium by Linnaeus in 1753. The genus name is based on the idea that Achilles, Spartan hero and demigod in the Iliad of Homer, used yarrow to heal wounds. I wanted to include the exact quote and was surprised by what I found. The Iliad never mentions yarrow. The healing passage, paraphrased frequently as "Achilles used yarrow to heal his soldiers" is quoted below and is both quite vague and has the healing done by Patroclus. (Bk XI:804-848 Patroclus tends Eurypylus’ wound. Iliad A.S. Kline 2009 Read the whole passage: link )

    The wounded Eurypylus replied:...'help me to my black ship, and cut out the arrow-head, and wash the dark blood from my thigh with warm water, and sprinkle soothing herbs with power to heal on my wound, whose use men say you learned from Achilles, whom the noble Centaur, Cheiron, taught. ...’

       ... Patroclus lowered the wounded man to the ground, and cut the sharp arrow-head from his thigh. Next he washed the dark blood from the place with warm water, and rubbing a bitter pain-killing herb between his hands sprinkled it on the flesh to numb the agony. Then the blood began to clot, and ceased to flow.

Alternatively, Achilles is reported to have healed the festering spear wound of King Telephus of Mysia. This appears not in the Iliad but in other sources of Greek mythology (see citations). In any event, the spear wound of Telephus is cured by scrapings from the spear that caused the injury, suggested by Odysseus, not Achilles, and no mention is made of yarrow. (See whole myth: Telephus)

Both these stories appear in the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, written in Latin in the first century AD. In Book XXV, Chapter 19 Pliny the Elder wrote: 

Achilles too, the pupil of Chiron, discovered a plant which heals wounds, and which, as being his discovery, is known as the "achilleos." It was by the aid of this plant, they say, that he cured Telephus. Other authorities, however, assert that He was the first1 to discover that verdigris2 is an extremely useful ingredient in plasters; and hence it is that he is sometimes represented in pictures as scraping with his sword the rust from off a spear3 into the wound of Telephus. Some again, are of opinion that he made use of both remedies.

(From John Bostock translator, Pliny online  [The notes, for those of you who are curious, are: "1 Both stories are equally improbable. 2 See B. xxxiv. c. 45.  3 The weapons in early time, it must be remembered, were made of copper or bronze."])

Pliny is pretty unconvincing that Achilles used yarrow to heal, but as far as I can tell, his is the oldest written version of this traditional story. The Trojan War was 1260-1240 BC and Homer lived 8th or 9th century BC, 300 years later. Pliny wrote 800 years after that. The identification of yarrow with Achilles is old and strong, but elusive.

yarrow leaves
yarrow leaves
The species name, millefolium, means "thousand leaf" or "thousand leaves", referring to the many leaflets on the finely-divided leaves. The usual English name yarrow is apparently derived from gearwe, an Anglo-Saxon name, or from the River Yarrow, Gaelic for rough stream.  In other European languages, yarrow is commonly called some variation of milfoil, "thousand-leaf," and that was what Linnaeus chose for the species name. 

Very old sources give various names such as militaris and herba militaris  for yarrow, which are versions of "soldier's herb." In European tradition, yarrow was highly regarded for treating wounds, especially bleeding wounds from iron weapons. Gerard in 1599 wrote "The leaves of Yarrow doe close up wounds, and keep them from inflammation..."
You can see where that comes from in the Achilles myths. The fine leaflets are in fact effective in slowing bleeding so that the blood will clot and yarrow is rich in antibiotic compounds, so while there are better choices if you can get to a hospital, it is still recognized as an effective plant for treating a bloody sword or knife cut.  3,200 years later, we agree with Achilles (and Cheiron and Patroclus). 

All over the world, herbal medicinal traditions have embraced yarrow. It goes back millennia  in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine and was used in Native American medicine throughout North America. Indeed, a Neanderthal skull in Spain, from about 50,000 years ago, had traces of yarrow in his or her teeth (link). Since yarrow is bitter, the researchers believed the Neanderthals used it as medicine, not food.

Achillea millefolium yarrow
Achillea millefolium yarrow
And that will pretty well tell you why Achillea millefolium can be found all over the world. Traders and colonists who set out to the far corners of the world where they couldn't assume any medical care would be available and didn't know what plants they would find there, took reliable medicines with them. Yarrow seeds traveled in the pouches of traders and settlers to be planted around their dwellings, just in case.

Yarrow is an adaptable little plant, liking rich soils and lots of rain but surviving many other places. There isn't much of the world where yarrow can't be found these days. (The USDA plants map calls it native to the United States (link). I'll talk about that next post.)

Finally, I want to note that modern research has found yarrow to be effective for loss of appetite, mild gastrointestinal complaints and more. Check a responsible medical source.


Achillea millefolium yarrow
Achillea millefolium yarrow
Comments and corrections welcome.

References

Applequist, Wendy J. and Daniel E. Moerman. 2011. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium L.): A neglected panacea? A review of ethnobotany, bioactivity and biomedical research. Economic Botany. 65(2): 209-225. print.

Blumenthal, Mark, ed. 2000. Herbal medicine. Expanded Commission E Monographs. American Botanical Council, Austin, TX. print.

Bostock, John translator, Pliny online 

Chandler, R.F., S. N. Hooper and M.J. Harvey. 1982. Ethnobotany and phytochemistry of yarrow  Achillea millefolium, Compositae. Economic Botany. 36 (2): 203-223. Print. Good table of uses by Native Americans

Gerard, John. 1633. The Herball or the General History of Plants. Johnson Publishers, London. Reprinted by Dover Publications, Inc. New York. (1975), Print. (Gerard's first edition, 1599, is online but very difficult to navigate. In my edition, "Yarrow or Nose-bleed" is Chapter 438 on p. 1072-3, after Lousewort & Rattle, and before Valerian). Print.

Greenwald, ., T Brendler, and C Jaenicke, eds. 2007. PDR (Physicians Desk Reference) for Herbal Medicines. 4th ed. Thompson Publishers, Montvale, NJ. Print.

Translations of the Iliad online:
  Butler, Samuel. 1898  Iliad The Literature Network. Link
  Kline, A. S. 2009. Poetry in Translation.  The Iliad. Link  
  Murray, A. T. 1924. Homer. The Iliad with an English Translation  in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924. link
  Pope, Alexander, translator. The Iliad. (1725) ebooks@Adelaide  Link




Kathy Keeler

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Visiting Northern Florida--Forest Walk at Birdsong

 In February, 2014, I was in northern Florida and visited Birdsong Nature Center, just north of Tallahassee at the southern edge of Georgia.
the forest 
the forest
The pine forests of north Florida and south Georgia were once part of a broad belt of forest across the southern U.S. Much of that area belonged to plantations that after the Civil War became hunting reserves for very rich northerners. That preserved them into the middle of the 20th century. Much of the southern pine forest has been lost to development but some remains as private and public reserves. 

Birdsong Nature Center is largely forest, a longleaf pine forest with a mixture of hardwoods and diverse collection of shrubs, herbs and grasses below the trees. My late winter pictures conceal the great diversity of plants since the forest was largely dormant.

Current management recommends controlled burns in the winter every few years. The controlled fires open the understory, increase animal diversity and, critically, reduce the fuel for much more serious wildfires.
burned log indicates past fire
burned log indicates past fire
Ed, Betty and Roy Komarek, early leaders in good forest management for the region, turned an old plantation into Birdsong Nature Center, a reserved dedicated to preserving the forest and its diversity and sharing it with others.

The Komareks loved the colorful birds of the area and the house at Birdsong has a bird window, where there is always interesting activity at the feeders. I saw bright red male cardinals--exotic to me because they don't occur in Colorado where I live--but also fat happy squirrels.  (photo and video below)
Bird window at Birdsong Nature Center
Bird window at Birdsong Nature Center
red dot is a male cardinal


video



Spanish moss on a leafless tree
Spanish moss on a leafless tree

The trails were easy to follow and I hiked through a very quiet forest. It was clearly still winter: the trees were leafless, and very little of the forest floor was green. 

And yet, here and there, a flower:
tiny flowers in the pine litter
tiny flowers in the pine litter


early violet
early violet

flowering vine
and one vine in flower
In the low spots, it was greener: 
forest, Birdsong Nature Center
down under the plants, a tiny creek


This little video gives you more of an idea what it was like.  The crinkly sound is my feet in the leaf litter as I turned with the camera. The bird calls were too distant for the camera to pick up. In fact, the silence was very noticeable.


video






Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Plant Story -- Osage-Orange and the Animals of the Pleistocene

Osage-oranges  on the ground
Osage-oranges
 on the ground
Osage-orange, Maclura pomifera, is a tree endemic to (native only in) North American. Its range. when Europeans first encountered it, was small: the area where Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma meet. Its habitat is described as woods, forest edges and streams. Widespread planting of Osage-orange for fences in the 1850s-1870s has greatly expanded its distribution.

I talked about Osage-orange's interesting wood previously (link). But Osage-orange has memorable fruits. See Osage-orange fruit They are bigger than oranges. The outer rind is warty. Inside it is more solid than an orange, with a row of small seeds. (Gray's Manual of Botany calls the fruits "disappointingly dry and hard" inside). Not much of anything eats them. People don’t eat them, some horses like them, deer eat a few and determined squirrels will tear them open and eat the seeds, but still the big fruits pile up at the base of the tree. 

Mostly we don't think about what we see and ask "why?" But why does Osage-orange make a huge fruit? Plants are rooted. To get to new areas, something (wind, water, an animal) has to carry the seeds away. Osage-orange fruits seem horribly inefficient at dispersing the plant. 


The current answer is: the fruits evolved to be eaten by animals that have gone extinct.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Visiting Tierra del Fuego--A Walk on Cape Horn

beach at Cape Horn
beach at Cape Horn
In November of 2009 I boarded the Via Australis as part of National Geographic trip to sail the Beagle Channel from Argentine Patagonia to Chilean Patagonia, not around Cape Horn but through the safer (though not especially safe) interior waterways. Before sailing westward, however, we were offered the opportunity to walk on the island at the tip of South America, Cape Horn. (Take Google Maps to the tip of South America link then zoom out).





Sunday, March 9, 2014

Visiting Northern Florida--ooh! Magnolias!


magnolia flowers emerging from Spanish moss
magnolia flowers emerging from Spanish moss


At the end of February, I visited Tallahassee Florida. Tallahassee gets frosts and snow every decade or so--including this year, so in many ways it was still very early spring, but some magnolias were in full bloom. I was enchanted. Here are pictures of magnolias in flower in Tallahassee and especially at Maclay Gardens



a single magnolia flower
a single magnolia flower













Note that these magnolias are flowering without leaves. That increases the visual impact of the flowers, good for attracting pollinators. (There are magnolia species that are evergreen, keeping their leaves all year, and other that drop their leaves but flower after new leaves have grown. Those species were not flowering in late February in Tallahassee.)






magnolia

magnolia
























Magnolia
magnolia
white magnolias
white magnolias




In addition to being quite gorgeous, magnolias are an interesting group of plants. Magnolia is a genus of some 200 species in the plant family Magnoliaceae. They have a funny distribution. Most magnolias are native to eastern China and southeastern Asia, but another slightly smaller group is native to the southeastern United States and  eastern Central America. But not in between. No English or Spanish or Russian or Iranian magnolias. Nor any from Colorado, California or Chile.








The mind boggles trying to figure out how magnolias could be on the east side of Asia and the east side of North America and not in between. The answer is partly that magnolias are so old that they were around when all the continents were together as a single huge continent (Pangea) and a lizard could walk--no swimming needed--from Tallahassee to Shanghai. There are recognizable fossil magnolias dating back 95 million years (dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago). So getting to those two disparate areas was easier than now.

The second part has to be extinction. Although once the forest across the northern continents stretched from coast to coast, forests between the US Atlantic coast and the Asian Pacific coast died out, leaving just the forests at each end. The magnolias of each area are recognizably magnolias, but they've lived far apart a long time.

Very few flowering plants go back 95 million years, especially not as species that are readily classified in living genera.

magnolia flower
magnolia flower




And so the magnolia is an relatively common plant whose flower suggests what the first flowers were like, a subject that has kept botanists speculating for centuries. If the flower looks like a "classical flower" to you, well, yes, that would reflect the consensus of botanists.








white magnolia flower
white magnolia flower
The grand display of these flowers in Tallahassee is ending, with other plants coming into bloom in Tallahassee. But magnolias grow well north in eastern North America (USDA plants map) and so the display will move north as spring progresses. In the US or in eastern China or wherever magnolias have been planted--catch the display!
magnolia covered in Spanish moss
magnolia covered in Spanish moss
Comments and corrections welcome.

References
The Magnolia Society: pictures of the species - box along the edge of this article http://www.magnoliasociety.org/ClassificationArticle 

Kathy Keeler

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Plant Story--The Many Uses of Osage-Orange, Maclura pomifera, Wood

Osage-orange fruits
Osage-orange trees with fruits
Planted all over the U.S., Osage-orange, Maclura pomifera is a curious native North American tree. Clearly related to mulberries despite its huge fruit it is classified in the mulberry family, Moraceae. For a long time it was the only member of its genus, Maclura. Recently, genetic and molecular studies have recognized about a dozen relatives from around the world and added them to the genus. In particular the South American tree Maclura tinctoria, called old fustic, dyer's mulberry and toothache tree, is now included in the genus Maclura so Osage-orange is no longer the only Maclura species. 

Osage-orange grows to be a substantial tree getting 30' tall. The current North American record is held by a tree at Patrick Henry National Memorial in Red Hill, Virginia which they report as 55' high with branches that span 90' (link). What people usually remember about Osage-orange are the fruits. They are very distinctive: bigger than oranges, ripening to an orange color, but on the inside unappealing. pictures on Google  The tree grew in the lands of the Osages, and so the tree was named Osage-orange. (People don't usually put the hyphen in there, but it isn't in any way a citrus fruit or related to edible oranges, so the hyphen is helpful).