Poinsettia fun facts

poinsettia

Greetings all, and a happy midwinter holiday season to you!

Just to prove I am still alive–yes, I still have big plans for this little blog, and they are coming, but sometimes things just have to move in their own time no matter how much it drives us impatient people crazy–here’s a post about one of our favorite Christmas decorations here in the U.S., the beautiful poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima).

I was inspired by a link shared by Rosalee de la Foret about plant-based holiday rituals. I was a little disappointed, and this is no reflection on Rosalee, who by sharing this link gave me hours of entertainment, because there actually wasn’t much info on plants. However, in the section about poinsettia, the post says:

“The Aztec name was said to mean ‘mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure.'”

I don’t know the original source of that etymology, but it is all over the internet. I’m a language nerd, and if you are too you might find this interesting. I’m hoping that even the non-language-nerd plantophiles among you will enjoy this; but if not you can skip to the tl;dr version at the end. Ok, so, although I know next to nothing about Nahuatl (an indigenous language of Mexico spoken by the Aztecs), I thought that etymology up above sounded a little spurious. Then I thought, many plant names tell us something about how the plant works medicinally, I wonder if this could be one? And if so, what does its indigenous name actually mean?

So I did a little internet research.

I found that there are actually two versions of the Nahuatl name to be found on the interwebz: cuetlaxochitl and cuitlaxochitl. Now xochitl means flower, that’s easy enough. It’s the other part that’s tricky. If the original form was indeed cuitla-, it is apparently derived from cuitltatl, which means excrement, giving us a name that basically means “poop-flower”. Here’s the dictionary entry from the online Nahuatl Dictionary (click to embiggen):

cuitlatl

The dictionary also has an entry for cuitlaxochitl (none for cuetlaxochitl) which indeed translates it as poinsettia; however, they note that there was no text that contained the full word, only its component parts. They speculate the name derives from poinsettia’s growth habit. (I hope this isn’t ruining your enjoyment of the flower.)

cuitlaxochitlSince there apparently is no text containing the word cuitlaxochitl, it must come from oral tradition. So it’s not surprising the word would be transcribed in different ways, and there is a possibility that the correct form was indeed cuetlaxochitl, as reported in the post about plant-based holiday rituals and in many other places on the internet that don’t cite their sources. There are so-called “Aztec herbals” (cool!) such as the Codex Cruz-Badianus (a.k.a. Codex Barberini) and Florentine Codex, but they don’t have any recognizable illustrations of poinsettia.

Using the Nahuatl Dictionary, I found that cuetla- is a root in various verbs that describe a sort of floppy, back-and-forth wavering or wriggling motion. It can even describe shapes with a wavery outline, like a canyon winding through a landscape. Some examples involving cuetla- include the way a warrior shakes and thrusts a spear, the way a snake wriggles when caught, a person fainting, and the movement of leaping flames. It is also the root of a verb meaning to wither. So this is how we get to a translation that means a flower that withers, though the “mortal”, “perishes”, and “like all that is pure” parts seem to be complete nonsense as far as I can tell.

But which is it? Poop-flower or wavery-withering-flower?

Medicinal uses

The name question inspired me to dig deeper into poinsettia’s medicinal uses, with which I was not familiar. The genus Euphorbia belongs to the Euphorbiaceae, or spurge, family. These often have irritating latex sap and some are poisonous. Poinsettia sap is only mildly irritating, but that seems to have garnered it an unearned reputation for toxicity.

I found next to no information on the ethnobotany of poinsettia. There is a reference to the sap being used as a galactagogue, although the author who mentions it claims it is not effective as such. All over the internet I find repeated the claim that the Aztecs used the sap to make a fever-reducing (antipyretic) medicine, but I can’t find the original source so must remain skeptical for the time being. Other members of the spurge family, however, are used medicinally in India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Australia and elsewhere. Depending on species they may be used to treat skin diseases (including skin cancer), warts, cancerous tumors, “hair related problems”, respiratory complaints, diarrhea, constipation, urinary tract infections, venomous bites, wounds, rheumatism and arthritis, diabetes, jaundice, vomiting, “viral fever”, and as an antiseptic. But this is a diverse family including some quite toxic members (e.g., castor bean) so don’t assume that medicinal qualities are the same across all members of the family. In other words:

“The worldwide distribution of the family exposes its members, to all sorts of habitats to which they must adapt, therefore inducing a large variety of chemicals (secondary substances) that are employed for survival/defense….medicinal properties of some [Euphorbiaceae] species may be due to stress factors that characterize most habitats of the family.”

One recent study on E. pulcherrima found it to be very effective at inhibiting the growth of aflatoxin-producing Aspergillus mold (source); another found some indications that the leaves contain cytotoxic compounds that may be useful against cancerous tumors (source).

Tl;dr version

Poinsettia is native to Mexico, where its indigenous name probably translates to either “poop-flower” or “withering flower” (depending on whether the name is actually cuitlaxochitl or cuetlaxochitl). I looked for information on poinsettia’s medicinal and other botanical properties to see if they were reflected in either or both of these names.

My research was hampered by the fact that I don’t currently have any university affiliation and therefore can’t access the full text of professional/academic journals. I could find very little specifically about the medicinal uses of poinsettia, but other members of the spurge family are used medicinally around the world, for a variety of complaints of which skin diseases and digestive disorders may be the most common.

A name translating to “poop-flower” might make sense given that many Euphorbiaceae species are used to treat diarrhea and as laxatives. All over the internet I keep finding the word for excrement, cuitlatl, translated as “residue” and then making the poetic (if uninformative) leap to “soil,” making poinsettia the “flower that grows in soil”, but can’t find the original source, and the Nahuatl Dictionary is pretty firm that the word actually means feces. I cannot find any indication that poinsettia has any more of an affinity to dungheaps than any other plants do, so if this is the name of the plant I would speculate that the “poop” relates to its medicinal application.

Alternatively the plant’s name might be more like “withering flower” or “wavering flower.” The leaves do have a wavy sort of outline which might have been in accordance with the Aztec concept of the word root cueta-. Again though, this could have referred to a medicinal use–perhaps for fainting, another meaning of cueta-. Another possibility might be that it referred to a tendency for the plant to wilt. I would assume it wouldn’t wilt any more than any other plant, in its native habitat, but I must admit that in spite of my ministrations, every poinsettia I have brought home has wilted in pretty short order.

Sorry I couldn’t solve that little linguistic mystery, but I learned a lot in the effort. I hope it was interesting for you. If you have any experience using poinsettia medicinally, I’d love to hear about it!

Meanwhile, if you are interested in Aztec medicine, here is an article on the topic which you can actually read in its entirety online. Here is a book chapter looking at the pharmacological effect of Aztec medicinal herbs, also complete. Here is a page that even has a few recipes and images from the Codex Cruz-Badianus.

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How to support Free Fire Cider and the Fire Cider 3

Fire Cider

You may have heard recently about the fire cider trademark controversy. It’s a short but sad story: Back in the 1970s, Rosemary Gladstar coined the term “fire cider” for vinegar infused with garlic, onions, horseradish, and chili pepper. Like many of her recipes, she freely shares it with everyone so they can make their own at home and tweak it in any way they want. In the ’90s, she copyrighted the name, so that is her intellectual property–yet she still shares it with the rest of us.

Over the last 45 years, fire cider has become a commonplace, traditional name for a folk remedy. Unfortunately, one company–Shire City Herbals–decided to trademark the name so only they could use it. The trademark really should never have been granted, since there is ample evidence that the name has been in generic use for decades. Not to mention its inventor is still alive and well and can describe its original creation and use. But it was, and to make matters worse, Shire City Herbals are now suing three small herbal business owner/farmers for using the name fire cider. The owner of Shire City Herbals is on record saying that the boycott of their product has actually doubled their business (a claim I doubt), yet at the same time, they are suing Mary Blue of Farmacy Herbs, Kathi Langelier of Herbal Revolution, and Nicole Telkes of Wildflower School of Botanical Medicine–the “Fire Cider 3”–for $100,000 for supposedly harming Shire City Herbals’ business as well as trademark infringement. When people created a Facebook page to organize a boycott, Shire City’s owner complained to Facebook who forced the removal of the page; a subsequent page also had to be removed for the same reason. In spite of this blatant example of greed and legal skullduggery, Shire City continue to portray themselves as a grassroots company that cares about people’s health.

It is my belief that conventional medical care is only going to become more and more expensive, until the day comes when we don’t have enough fossil carbons left to fuel it and make the plastics it depends on. Medical expenses are now the number one reason for bankruptcy in America. There is, and there will continue to be, a need for health care that all people can afford and, as much as possible, make for themselves. Herbalism has filled that role from the time of Dioscorides, to Nicholas Culpeper, to my great-grandmother, to me. By sharing these methods within our communities, putting people before profit, we have kept the tradition of herbalism alive so that it can do the same for us.

However, it’s clear that some herbalists are more interested in money than medicine. In my opinion, they are a disgrace to this calling. Capitalism being what it is, it may be impossible to legally stop them. But as far as I am concerned, morally it is theft twice over–first they have stolen Rosemary Gladstar’s intellectual property, and secondly in their attempt to create a monopoly on fire cider, they are co-opting our collective herbal heritage. And because of bullying tactics like these (and by the way, Young Living have done the same by trademarking the name “Thieves” (read the comments at that link too) as in Four Thieves), all of herbalism may over time be brought under greater legal scrutiny and regulation which could ultimately make it impossible for us to practice at all.

If you feel similarly, I urge you to do the following:

  • Don’t even buy fire cider, make your own! It is so easy. Keep the tradition, skill, and knowledge alive and share it within your community. Here are some instructions, or watch the lovely Rosemary show you how.
  • Read more specifics about the situation here. Or check out this article.
  • If you prefer to buy fire cider, you can purchase some online from Herbal Revolution. If you want to financially support the Fire Cider 3, buy other herbal preparations from Farmacy Herbs or Nicole Telkes. Or donate to the legal defense fund.
  • If you are lucky enough to have co-ops in your area, you can encourage them to stock products from local herbalists and NOT Shire City.
  • Sign the petition.
  • Like the Tradition Not Trademark Facebook page.
  • Contact Shire City Herbals (the owner is Amy Huebler) and let them know what you think of their behavior. Refrain from actual harassment. A polite approach is likely to be most effective here…although truth be told I feel like if these people had any conscience we would have seen evidence of it by now.
  • Spread the word!

I guess recently there’s been a fair bit of ranting here, what with Etsy’s religious discrimination against pagan and “metaphysical” services (I still have not decided on an alternative platform for my preparations but will update when I do), and now this. But I feel I have to do my part to bring these things to everyone’s attention because they can so easily slip through the cracks. Herbalism is still around in large part because of mutual support among users and makers of herbal remedies. We are only as strong as our communities, and if we allow our traditions to be exploited for the benefit of the few instead of the many, if we stand by and let any member of our community be bullied and threatened, it weakens us all.

Herbal archaeology roundup 3

Taking a brief break from the bad science series, I thought it was time for another botanical blast from the past. Unfortunately, as far as I know, no one is specializing in the archaeology of herbs, but here and there, some really interesting stuff is being discovered. My definition of “herbs” here isn’t limited to the strictly medicinal, because after all it’s a fine line between medicine and food (if there even is one), and when we’re talking about the very ancient past, we are lucky when we can figure out what someone was ingesting–knowing why is often beyond our ken. Let’s proceed in chronological order! (Headings are links to articles.)

Oldest evidence for fungi in the human diet

Fly agaric, the most famous (toxic) member of the agaric mushroom family.

Fly agaric, the most famous (magic) member of the agaric mushroom family.

The “Red Lady” burial of El Mirón cave (Cantabria, Spain) dates to approximately 19,000 years ago and is very interesting. This individual, a woman aged about 35-40, was given special treatment. Really, anyone buried during the Palaeolithic was probably receiving special treatment, because very few graves have been found. Interestingly, a number of the burials that are known contain people who were physically unusual. That was the subject of one of my first grad school papers (sigh, good times)–but sadly that was so long ago that I don’t remember all the specific examples. An individual from a double burial at Romito, Italy had achondroplasia; and the woman from the triple burial at Dolní Věstonice, Czech Republic probably suffered from chondrodysplasia calcificans punctata (probably the milder X-chromosome-linked variant), a rare genetic disorder, “complicated by trauma and early fractures of the upper limbs.” In my research I found that a statistically significant proportion of Palaeolithic burials contained people who would have looked different, and in some cases been differently-abled, than other members of the community. (I really should have worked that up for publication because as far as I know, no one else has. There is this article that suggests these burials might be human sacrifices but since there’s no evidence for violent death/murder in these burials, I think it’s a bit of a reach to assume these people were sacrificed. But I digress.) The Red Lady was in robust good health, other than being dead, but she did show evidence of another common theme of Palaeolithic burials, which is that the bodies were sometimes covered in red ochre (iron mineral pigment). The Red Lady’s body was covered with ochre, and at some people people went back to the burial and applied more ochre to the bones. Moreover, pollen in the grave suggests that people may have left flowers there.

Moving on to the mushrooms, analysis of the Red Lady’s fossilized tooth plaque reveals that she ate fungi, making this the oldest evidence of fungi in the human diet (you can be sure it goes back further though). Remains of multiple types of mushrooms were found, including ones belonging to the Agaric family. Some agaric mushrooms are harmless, but some are majorly hallucinogenic (and/or poisonous): “There is some evidence from neolithic and Bronze Age sites in Piedmont in the Italian Alps that suggest psychotropic mushrooms were used in rituals.” Maybe their use extends even further back in time.

High on henbane in the Neolithic?

Black henbane

Black henbane

So far only a single charred black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) seed has been found at Ilendentsi, Bulgarian, a settlement dated to around 5800 BC. However, archaeologists are tentatively speculating that the residents may have been consuming henbane, a psychotropic. Henbane is a member of the Solanaceae, a relative of nightshade, datura, and mandrake and in medieval times was used as an ingredient in witches’ “flying ointments.” In other words, they are really toxic if not used in tiny quantities–maybe that’s why they have only found one seed at Ilendentsi! Henbane was also found in pottery from the stone circle at Balfarg, Scotland, bolstering the interpretation that the circle was used for ceremonial/ritual purposes.

Scythians liked their opium with a cannabis chaser

Artist's reconstruction of Scythians getting sooo high.

Artist’s reconstruction of Scythians getting sooo high, man.

Ornate gold cups from the Sengileevskoe-2 kurgan (South Caucasus, Russia) contained a black residue with traces of opium and cannabis. This, along with other archaeological sites, confirms Herodotus’ claim that the Scythians used cannabis, but so far as I know this is the first evidence for their use of opium (I could be wrong, because it was certainly used long before the date of the Sengileevskoe-2 burial around 400 BC).

An ancient Graeco-Egyptian hangover cure

Nike, the goddess of victory, crowns an athlete...or helps him with a hangover.

Nike, the goddess of victory, crowns an athlete…or helps him with a hangover?

How did you pull yourself together after a night on the town 1,900 years ago? By wearing a garland of Alexandrian laurel leaves (Danae racemosa, formerly Ruscus racemosus) around your neck. This comes from a trove of medical papyri discovered at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Dioscorides wrote in somewhat greater depth, recommending a topical application of pounded leaves to cure headache, and the juice of the leaves mixed with wine to sooth stomach ache, bring on menstruation, or urine. A garland of Alexandrian laurel (this time worn on the head) was still being recommended in the 16th century. Because the exact “recipe” for the garland isn’t included in any of the articles I found, but one article says “possibly” worn around the neck, I wonder if in fact it was always meant to be worn about the head–that would fit with the instructions in Dioscorides and the 16th-century herbal. According to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Plants, Alexandrian laurel is used as a culinary spice and contains vitamins and antioxidant flavonoids. The authors found that rats receiving a high dose of D. racemosa produced more sperm,, suggesting it may be useful in treating infertility.

Medieval eye-salve cures MRSA

Facsimile page from Bald's Leechbeek

Facsimile page from Bald’s Leechbook

A recipe for treating eye infections in the 9th-century Anglo-Saxon medical text Bald’s Leechbook describes a salve made from onion, garlic, wine, and cow bile, steeped for nine days. The remedy was recreated by microbiology researchers at the University of Nottingham (they even used English wine!) and tested on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a.k.a., MRSA. The recipe killed up to 90% of the MRSA bacteria, and the researchers concluded that it was the combination of ingredients–rather than any single ingredient–that did the trick.

The contents of this Maya “death vase” might make you wish you were dead

The sort of thing one might see in a Maya vision. Here a spirit emerges form a serpent, which rises from a basket filled with bark paper. The paper was used to absorb sacrificial blood, usually taken from a queen's tongue or king's penis. Ow.

The sort of thing one might see in a Maya vision. Here a spirit emerges from the mouth of a serpent, which rises from a basket filled with bark paper. The paper was used to absorb sacrificial blood, usually taken from a queen’s tongue or king’s penis, and then burned. Ow.

Meanwhile in the “New” World, the Maya were consuming some pretty potent stuff. At a site in Hondurus archaeologists discovered a vessel containing pollen from corn (maize), cacao, and false ipecac (Pscychotria emetica or Ronabea emetica)–the latter a plant which, as its species name indicates, causes vomiting. One interpretation is that the purpose was to have visions and so communicate with the spirit world. (The Maya also used chocolate enemas. Now I love chocolate, but it seems to me that is not the best way to enjoy it.) Although it’s not mentioned in the article just exactly how barfing your guts up is supposed to lead to having visions, many members of the genus Psychotria contain DMT, a psychedelic. However, some cultures have uses vomiting (and other bodily processes of excretion) as a purification, though it’s not known to have been done by the Maya. Speaking of vomit…

Ancient Cahokians were super buzzed–and really sick

Artist's reconstruction of Cahokia at its peak.

Artist’s reconstruction of Cahokia at its peak.

Cahokia, the largest metropolis of pre-Columbian North America, was situated in Illinois directly across the river from where St. Louis would later be established. Once again, plant remains in a cup have provided evidence that locals were drinking a botanical brew–this one made from the leaves of yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). Once again, the species name gives a clue as the effect of this beverage, and once again, archaeologists have speculated that vomiting was part of some purificatory ritual. In this case, there is further evidence that this “black drink” was used in ritual contexts, because once Europeans arrived they recorded that men from cultures all over the American southeast drank the black drink for purification. It’s use dates back 1000 years. Aside from its nauseating properties, the holly drink contained theobromine (also found in chocolate) and 6 times as much caffeine as coffee. Those people must never have slept. I. vomitoria doesn’t grow around Cahokia, so this is also evidence for very long-distance trade networks, which is also seen in the distribution of other materials, especially ceremonial ones such as copper, shells, and iconography.

I found it very interesting that a couple of the comments on this article say that yaupon holly makes a nice tea and does not result in copious barfing. This may be a dosage issue. While a “mildly stimulating” and “intoxicating” beverage can be made from the dried and roasted leaves, the historical texts indicate that the leaves were toasted and then boiled for several hours to produce a thick decoction that inducing immediate vomiting (source).

Well, I hope you enjoyed this installment of the herbal archaeology roundup! I will continue to bring you all the herbal archaeology news–or should I say “olds”–that’s fit to print.

Bad science, Part II: Philosophy and ideology

math

In today’s anti-intellectual social climate I often see philosophy dismissed as useless ivory-tower navel-gazing, but the reality is we are all philosophers. The most basic questions asked by philosophy are fundamental: What Is? (i.e., ontology) and How do we know? (epistemology). We spend our infancy asking those questions–the little kid asking “Why?” endlessly is a perfect philosopher–until we get to the age where we just accept the answers our elders give us. Philosophy is the study of ideas, and it is basic to the experience of being human and having a human brain.

Of course not everybody wants to go pro with philosophy. When I was a kid I was fascinated by philosophy and even told one of my elementary school teachers I was going to get a Ph.D. in it (ha!). Yet by the time I went to college I had learned to disapprove of it as “useless,” and I regret to say I never took a single philosophy class. Granted, this was partly because I had become aware that all of us are doing it all the time, so why take a class? Also, some of my friends (and one guy I dated) were philosophy majors and holy cats could they get infuriating. It was almost impossible to have a conversation without footnotes defining every word! But I still wish I had given it some formal study, if only to learn a better language for asking questions, so I wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time.

“Study of ideas” does sound a little rarefied until you consider that almost everything we ever “know” is actually an idea. We can’t get outside of our own heads, so our experiences are always mediated through our perceptions and memories. Our experience is made up of ideas about things, not the things themselves. In that sense, philosophy is the study of lived experience, plus everything we think about that. So you know, pretty important stuff.

While we’re on the topic let me say that the philosophical school I most closely identify with is Skepticism. I don’t mean those smug jerks who make it their life’s mission to liberate us from our “errors” (they are true-believers, and I’ll come back to them shortly)–I’m talking about David Hume’s Skepticism, or that of the ancient Greeks. Because we can’t get out of our own subjective head-space, we can’t know whether anything objectively exists outside of it, or what that anything might be like. A more extreme Skeptic would even question whether other subjectivities–other minds–exist at all. I don’t take it quite that far. I certainly don’t say that nothing else exists, I just don’t believe any of us humans has a tool kit that would enable us to determine its objective nature, or indeed even our own objective nature. I also think of myself as a sort of Neo-Gnostic in that I suspect (but don’t know!) that there is some kind of objective reality but that our subjective human experience is different from and even deceptive about what that reality is, and I also suspect that reality is both conscious and non-material in nature, though I have no way of being sure. I’m telling you this to be as forthcoming as possible about my own perspective, since I’m about to criticize others for not doing that.

The philosopher and scientist (and skeptic and atheist) Massimo Pigliucci has been calling out scientists and sciencelebrities lately for taking an anti-intellectual stance toward philosophy, and some other disciplines which aren’t their own, for example in this piece at Scientia Salon and this one in the Huffington Post. In his HuffPo piece, Pigliucci points out that philosophy is “the mother of all sciences,” and criticizes sciencelebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson in particular:

“It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson [1] has done it again: He has dismissed philosophy as a useless enterprise and actually advised bright students to stay away from it. It is not the first time Neil has done this sort of thing, and he is far from being the only scientist to do so.

…someone who regularly appears on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and has had the privilege of remaking Carl Sagan’s iconic Cosmos series — in short, someone who is a public intellectual and advocate for science — really ought to do better than to take what amounts to anti-intellectual (and illiterate) positions about another field of scholarship.”

But aside from being rude to fellow scholars, what’s the big deal? The dismissal of philosophy as a valid field of inquiry demonstrates two deeper issues:

  1. There has been a serious deterioration in science (both in practice and education) to the point where its predication on beliefs, ultimate subjectivity, and its history and cultural context have been forgotten, or are deliberately obfuscated.
  2. In the hustle to achieve greater authority (see the previous post in this series), scientists have become unwilling to face challenge–not only from ordinary people like you and me, but even from fellow academics.

So it’s partly a sign of ignorance of the foundations and ethics of science, and partly due to fear of losing their status if anyone dares to point out that there’s a man behind the curtain.

If you’ve ever taken an English composition or historiography class, you’ve probably been told never to use the passive voice (e.g., say “X did Y” not “Y was done by X” or even more vaguely, “Y was done.”) However in science writing, the passive voice is used preferentially. This is to make it appear as if the findings simply manifested all by themselves, without any interference from a flawed human. It creates a veneer of objectivity.

Just as scientific experiments don’t happen in a vacuum, science didn’t arise in a vacuum: It was the product of specific historical and cultural trends–and philosophical beliefs. These beliefs have evolved somewhat, but not as much as you might think/hope. Science and the belief in scientific and technological progress arose out of what John Michael Greer calls the “prophetic religious sensibility,” which was also the source of Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.

“A religious sensibility isn’t a religion. It’s the substructure of perceptions, emotions and intuitions on which religions are built, and to which religions owe both the deep similarities that link them to other faiths of the same general age and historical origin, and the equally deep divides that separate them from faiths of different ages and origins.”

Although Greer is talking about religion and not science, it isn’t only religions that are built on the substructure of “religious sensibility”–so are all of our just-so stories. They shape each of our subjective lived experiences. Atheism and science are not the same thing–although the dominant metaphysical premise of modern science is scientific-materialism and there is significant overlap–yet if you substitute “science” for “atheism” in this quote, it is still true.

“…the contemporary quarrels between atheists and theists, like the equally fierce quarrels between the different theist religions of salvation, take place within a shared sensibility. It’s indicative, for example, that theists and atheists agree on the vast importance of what individuals believe about basic religious questions such as the existence of God; it’s just that to the theists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from eternal hellfire, while to the atheists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from the ignorant and superstitious past that fills the place of eternal damnation in their mythos. That obsession with individual belief is one of the distinctive features of the current western religious sensibility…

The hostilities between Christianity and contemporary atheism, like those between Christianity and Islam, are thus expressions of something like sibling rivalry. Salvation from the natural world and the human condition remains the core premise (and thus also the most important promise) of all these faiths, whether that salvation takes the supernatural form of resurrection followed by eternal life in heaven, on the one hand, or the allegedly more natural form of limitless progress, the conquest of poverty, illness, and death, and the great leap outwards to an endless future among the stars.” (my emphasis)

In another post on a related topic, Greer elaborates:

“I think most of my readers are aware that most versions of Christian doctrine insist that the Christian God is the only authentic deity in the cosmos, and the deities of other religions are a) imaginary, b) demons masquerading as divinities, or c) more or less garbled human misunderstandings of the one true Christian god—the choice between these options being largely a matter of the personal predilections of whoever’s doing the preaching.

Those religions that insist that theirs is the one and only real deity tend to have an awkward time dealing with the prevalence, and similarity, of religious experience across the whole spectrum of human religions.

All the prophetic faiths, from east to west, have certain things in common besides their abandonment of the old gods of nature. To begin with, as already noted, each was founded by someone who claimed unique access to the truth about the universe. To belong to one of these faiths isn’t simply a matter of participating in its ceremonies and showing reverence to its holy things, as in the nature religions; all of them started out with the idea that belonging to the religion required acceptance of a specific set of opinions about religious issues—the Four Noble Truths, the Nicene Creed, or what have you—and accepting them, furthermore, in a sense that formally excluded accepting any other set. Most of them, though not all, still maintain that principle of membership to one degree or another.”

All the prophetic faiths also share, to one degree or another, a rejection of the world as it actually exists in favor of some more or less utopian substitute…” (my emphasis)

I quote Greer at length here because I think this point cannot be overstated–the scientific method is a specific response to a specific set of cultural, historical, and philosophical conditions (one of which is the substructure of the prophetic religious sensibility with its notions of progress and transcendence), which were enveloped within the developing concept. Like a snowball rolling along, over time science has gathered to itself a set of mandatory beliefs necessary for membership (an ideology) and its own community of prophets and true-believers. Notice how the exact same language that Christians use to dismiss non-Christians is used by science’s true-believers to dismiss people who believe in sasquatch or ghosts. The problem is when people mistake their beliefs for truth. As we know, this has led to many wars. It’s very easy to point the finger at someone else and label their “truths” as beliefs, but we have to be able to do the same thing in the mirror.

For a more in-depth examination and critique of the mandatory beliefs of scientific-materialism, I recommend this debate on the nature of science between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer. Note the fact that Shermer, the darling of materialist true-believers, is not actually a scientist (he does hold a Ph.D. in history of science); Sheldrake, their bete-noire, actually is a scientist. It’s not merely an irony, it’s indicative of how true-believers accept as science only that which corresponds to their fundamentalist beliefs.

In this debate, Sheldrake takes the position that science needs to move past its dogma, while Shermer argues “science, properly conceived, is a materialistic enterprise; for science to look beyond materialist explanations is to betray science and engage in superstition” (my emphasis). I think the italicized part there is really interesting and reveals much about materialist orthodoxy: Shermer could have said that science is a materialistic enterprise, full stop. Or he could have said that it’s a materialistic enterprise, everything else is outside of science’s purview, and so simply is not of interest/can’t be addressed by science. If you read the rest of Shermer’s remarks, it seems that the crux of his argument is that attributing something to a “supernatural” or “paranormal” (or by extension, any other non-material) cause is laziness–those aren’t explanations, just “placeholders” for material processes we don’t yet understand. And the goal of science is to continue investigating until we do understand. This is a fair point (although he assumes a priori that the answers science will discover must be material in nature), so why didn’t he say that? Why did he sum up his argument the way he did? When you read closely what he actually did say (in the quote above), you see that Shermer is stating that science is materialistic, and everything else doesn’t exist/is delusion. Moreover, to even attempt to investigate all of that non-material/non-existent stuff is betrayal–which totally contradicts his argument that science keeps on investigating until the answer is known. Shermer is not arguing that we need to keep investigating and not be lazy; he’s arguing that we should adopt a particular ontology and ignore and deny everything that doesn’t seem to fit it. And I don’t know about you, but his language sounds rather religious and very emotional to me. I’m half surprised he didn’t say “apostasy” or “heresy” instead of betrayal. It’s also a ridiculous statement from anything other than an ideological point of view. I mean, think how ridiculous it would be if I applied this same reasoning to an entirely different thing. What if I said, “horses are mammals; only mammals exist, therefore all other animals are mythical and it’s a betrayal of horses to investigate them.” Or, “painting is done with paints; and therefore all other art forms are imaginary, and it’s a betrayal of painting to do other kinds of art.” But notice how normal and familiar it sounds if I say, “Islam (or Christianity, etc.) is the only true religion; all other religions are lies/sin/delusion/heresy/paganism/etc. and it’s a betrayal of God to follow them.” As Sheldrake says,

“These beliefs are powerful not because most scientists think about them critically, but because they don’t. The facts of science are real enough, and so are the techniques that scientists use, and so are the technologies based on them. But the beliefs that govern conventional scientific thinking are an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology….Many people are unaware that these doctrines are assumptions; they think of them as science, or simply believe that they are true. They absorb them by a kind of intellectual osmosis.”

I do know some scientists that are aware of this. Unfortunately, true-believers–the evangelists of scientific-materialism–rarely even understand how scientific experimentation is done, let alone do it themselves, let alone know anything about the history and philosophy and cultural context of science and how the method has changed over the years. Just as 99.9% of Christians I encounter have virtually zero knowledge of the history and philosophy and cultural context of Christianity. Part of why I get so irked by the pop-science Facebook memes (a few of which I dissect in my next post), and the pandering of prophets sciencelebrities like Neil deGrasse Tyson, is that their proliferation, their sheer numbers, give them credibility in the eyes of anyone who doesn’t think critically about this stuff. The more that stuff is shared uncritically, the more natural and normal it appears to be. “Everybody knows.” “They say.” “Studies show.” “It’s a well-known fact.” They’re all code for ideology.

Oh, really?

I love how it looks like Tyson is experiencing some kind of mystical communion here.

I’m not sure when science came unmoored from its fundamentals and its history. Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy tells his class, “Archaeology is the search for fact–not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall”? Indy was correctly acknowledging that questions of “truth” are not the domain of science, but of philosophy. Have Tyson and his fellow sciencelebrities forgotten that, or are they simply ignoring it? I can tell you that scientists’ unwillingness to engage with philosophy is a sign of science’s devolution into a cult. It’s more important to belong to the group, and to show that by espousing the same opinions and beliefs and not doing transgressive stuff like, say, cryptzoology to name just one example (unless the point is to belittle the notion). This is an extremely inflexible, and therefore fragile, position.

Because this is where we get into Black Swan territory. For a materialist or a so-called skeptic, a philosophical challenge taken seriously could be a Black Swan. Nothing in your past led you to believe it could be possible, so when it happens, it blows your world up; yet looking back, you see that really, all the necessary ingredients were there all along, you just didn’t realize it. The important thing about Black Swans in this context is that they are dependent on your worldview. An oft-quoted example is that Thanksgiving is a Black Swan to the turkey, but not to the butcher. It all depends on your prior experiences and your perspective. It is possible to turn a Black Swan to your advantage, but all of them are dangerous to some extent. The more inflexible you are, the more likely a Black Swan is to break you. The antidote is to have horizons so broad and mental doors so open that it’s almost impossible to take you completely by surprise.

Once you grasp that there’s more than one way to add up to 9–and even more importantly, that 9 is not even a foregone conclusion but some may be adding up to 7, or 15, or 232–you are down the rabbit hole my friend. You have chosen the red pill, and shit gets weird. You’ll never be able to go back to the comfortable certainty of your prior belief system, whatever it was. Being truly aware of and open to other ontologies isn’t mere political correctness, or even cultural relativism, it’s an awakening that completely changes your views of the universe. Meeting actual flesh-and-blood Martians would not be any more mind-imploding than this. From then on, no premise can be taken for granted. You will, like it or not, be forced to think critically about everything all the time. (The good news is there will be infinite new horizons of thought to explore.)

This is not incompatible with good science–science that lives up to its stated ideals rather than its secret agendas. However, it does reveal scientific-materialism for what it was all along, which is merely one among many metaphysical propositions which cannot ever be proved or disproved. Scientific-materialism is an ideology, and those who trumpet it as the Alpha and Omega, the Way, the Truth, and the Light, are ideologues. They have a vested interest in converting you to their belief just as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Evangelical Christians will try to convert you to theirs. They cannot see that, though, like the fish who can’t see the water. Now, I think they are all entitled to their religions, I only want them to recognize them for what they are.

What we have to avoid here is falling into the same trap as the true-believers. Being critical of some current scientists (and their followers) for not recognizing the philosophy underlying their work does not mean we get to reject scientific principles or findings out of hand. These findings still represent generations of empirical observations made by our ancestors. They are now part of the Western tradition. It means we take things on a case-by-case basis, critically evaluate the claims, realize they are probably at least partly wrong and so are we. Yes, we need guidelines on which to base our life decisions. You can be philosophically a Skeptic or a Gnostic who views life as a flight simulation, but as long as you’re in it, remember that you don’t get infinite lives and play as if it were real. We can even take our guidelines on faith and be totally devoted to living them, as long as we don’t call it truth, ram it down everybody else’s throat, and infantilize and demean them for having different guidelines.

Next time I tackle how ideological arguments are constructed so as to beat us into submission.

Gardening techniques for water conservation

I intended to publish this quite a while ago, but wanted to have a picture of my own ollas (discussed below). But, they’re taking longer than expected, and anyway they’re ugly. You can see much prettier ones elsewhere!

As I detailed recently, I am a big proponent of gardening as a way to increase self-sufficiency and reduce dependence on unsustainable, nonlocal food production systems. Continuing in that mode, I wanted to share two gardening techniques invented by the Native peoples of the southwest which can help conserve water.

I’ve been very interested in applying permaculture, but haven’t been able to find much information on desert permaculture. These two techniques are a good place to start for those interested in creating a sustainable desert garden. After all, indigenous peoples managed to do it for thousands of years–so it is possible. It’s just high time we started learning from them instead of trying to reinvent the wheel as if we were living on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard.

Waffle gardening

Raised beds or boxes are practically de rigeur for modern gardeners. They make sense in rainy climates where too much water could rot plants’ roots. But that is not a problem in the southwest. Instead, it makes a lot more sense to use sunken beds here.

The Zuni people invented a method of gardening in 2×2-foot or 1×1-foot sunken squares–nowadays called a waffle garden for obvious reasons. The sunken bed helps contain water, preventing waste through runoff. The little walls help protect seedlings from cold and slows evaporation by disturbing wind flow. Each 1×1-foot square can support a corn plant, a bean plant, and a squash. These three are known as the “three sisters” because of their unique interdependence: the cornstalk provides a pole for the beans to climb, the beans accumulate nitrogen in the soil, and the squash leaves provide shade and thus act as green mulch. More importantly from the human perspective, the three vegetables combined provide all the necessary amino acids for the human diet. Sunflowers and lambsquarters are other indigenous crops, in case you’re interested in trying Native methods with Native crops.

Sadly I didn’t learn about this method until after putting in all my plants this year, but I plan to try it next year. Another plot holder in my community garden seems to be giving it a try though.

20150419_174823Your waffle garden beds don’t have to be perfectly regular; the important thing is that they are a few inches deep and that the walls hold water.

More information:

Ollas

Ollas (from the Spanish for “pot”) are narrow-necked unglazed ceramic vessels which were used for gathering and transporting water and for irrigation by Native southwest peoples. The pot was buried in the garden plot with its mouth above the soil. The vessel was then filled with water, which slowly seeped out to keep the soil moist at the root level. Since the water was contained below ground it prevented evaporation and helped regulate the temperature of the soil, and by keeping the soil surface dry, weeds would not flourish. Interestingly, this brilliant idea seems to have occurred to many farmers around the ancient world, with the earliest instance possibly being north Africa. They are still used in China, India, Iran, Brazil, and Burkina Faso (source).

Ollas made by Cahuilla people.

Ollas made by Cahuilla people.

You can even add fertilizer directly to the olla. It is recommended ollas be refilled when the water level drops to about 50% to prevent the buildup of salts which could impede seepage.

There are a number of online tutorials for DIYing your own ollas, such as this one. You can even decorate your olla lid like this. You can also buy ollas, but they are more spendy than making them yourself by gluing and caulking a couple small terracotta pots together. Two 6-inch pots and two 4-inch trays (the makings of a single olla) cost me $4.20, not counting glue and caulk which will seal more than one olla. So about $4.50 a piece, which is a lot better than the approximately $20 you will pay for a pre-made olla here in the U.S. If you have access to clay and a kiln, you can handbuild ollas (no wheel necessary) like the indigenous peoples of Inland Southern California did.

I have read, though I don’t yet know from experience, that using ollas is twice as effective as drip irrigation and 10 times more than typical surface irrigation. I’m lucky in that I don’t pay for water at my community garden; but saving water is now even more important than saving money. I’m planning on installing four ollas with my native perennial herbs to begin with. Next year I’ll see about branching out to the vegetable section of my garden.

In making my own ollas, I have found the process to be somewhat more complicated than suggested by the various tutorials I consulted. Getting a truly waterproof seal with the caulking is very time-consuming because there are tiny, tiny little gaps. I’ve had to caulk and re-caulk one olla probably four times now, each time discovering new leaky spots. Also, when you DIY an olla using terracotta pots, you won’t be able to see inside to gauge how much water is in there, at least not easily, because the opening is about the size of a quarter and it will be dark inside. So figuring out exactly when the olla needs refilling might take some fiddling. Finally, the water that seeps out of the olla doesn’t travel very far. I gather from the charts in the article linked below that for an olla made with 6-inch diameter pots, the water will extend out about 1.5 inches from the surface of the pot. Your plants’ roots will grow toward (and even eventually surround) your ollas, but they can only go so far, so your ollas need to be fairly close to your plants.

But in spite of these fiddly aspects, I think the potential water savings is well worth a little learning curve. And if your garden is small (i.e., you don’t need a lot of ollas), they are cheap. I was given some extra drip line by fellow gardeners when I started with my plot, but had to buy a bunch more, and now have to buy yet more. I swear there is a mile of drip line crisscrossing my plot. I’m willing to spend on irrigation supplies because they will (fingers crossed) last for years: they’re an investment, and if there’s one thing I’m willing to invest in, it’s food. But I know that for food-gardening to be a realistic proposition for the average American family, it has to be possible without requiring a bundle of capital. Ollas can help make that possible. Another thing I like about them is that whereas drip lines have to be at least partially planned out and laid in advance, it’s relatively easy to add an olla as needed.

More information:

Inland Southern California’s Native Plants–Salvia and Artemisia

This is Part 3 of a series. See Part 1 here, Part 2 here.

Bee foraging on rosemary near my apartment

Bee foraging on rosemary near my apartment

I have an acquaintance who is the son and brother of beekeepers. He was telling me that honey made from desert and arid regions is more pungently flavored than honey from more humid regions. I had never thought of it before–obviously I have more honey sampling to do and I should get on that ASAP–but I remember trying a honey from the Pacific Northwest and finding it disappointingly bland, while the honeys I have had from Southern California have been the best I’ve ever tasted.

I don’t know whether this is due to the plant species used by the bees, or the environmental conditions in which those plants are growing. That is, would a sage honey from Oregon be less flavorful than a sage honey from Arizona? Or is sage less likely to be utilized by Northwest Coast bees versus Southwest bees? I know that I have sampled many orange blossom honeys, but only those from Southern California have had a clear citrus and orange blossom taste for me. (Any apiarists out there want to set me straight on this? I welcome your input.)

nland Southern California plants. (I believe this image to not be copyrighted--will gladly give credit or remove if asked. Photo is link to original source.)

Inland Southern California plants. (I believe this image to not be copyrighted–will gladly give credit or remove if asked. Photo is link to original source.)

Anyway, this got me thinking about the medicinal actions and potencies of plants in different regions. I am pretty new to this part of the US, and am not very knowledgeable about the full diversity of flora; but it does seem to me that there are a lot of native plants here in the mint (Lamiaceae) family–the fragrant rosemary and “other herbs” described by Juan Bautista de Anza in the 18th century, which we now classify as plants of the Coastal Sage Scrub and Chaparral communities. Mint family plants contain lots of volatile oils which give them their potent aromas and flavors. The family includes the most popular culinary and medicinal herbs, such as basil, rosemary, sage, oregano, lemon balm, marjoram, lavender, peppermint, and spearmint. Although there is considerable variability in the mint family–there are around 7000 known species–the most popular ones tend to share similar properties. For example, many are relaxing nervines with analgesic and antimicrobial properties, useful for stomach upset and insomnia (among other things). Spiritually and magically, they are frequently considered to have cleansing and protective powers. This is not to say mint family members are interchangeable. Lavender is not the same thing as peppermint! But there is a family resemblance.

As I have said before, it seems silly to me to import white sage for smudging in Europe (for example) when there are perfectly good plants that grow abundantly there and will do the same job. I think the natural native flora of any region (except maybe the Arctic?) contains sufficient to meet the basic medicinal needs of humans and animals that live on that land. But it does seem likely to me that the plant life in each region will have its own special strengths. Along those lines, I would say that one of the most salient features of the Coastal Sage Scrub and Chaparral communities is their potent cleansing power (both material and spiritual). There are also a number of plants that assist in moisture management, which to me makes perfect sense in this arid land (I hope to address that in another post).

Here I want to look at some uses of the genus Salvia in general. Because there are so many varieties of Salvia in a “sage scrub” community, I won’t differentiate each species here. According to ethnobotanical research, these uses include:

    • treating respiratory problems (colds, coughs, sore throat, chest congestion, flu, pneumonia, nasal congestion, asthma)
    • treating other illnesses (measles, fever, gonorrhea, epilepsy, faintness, diarrhea)
    • treating pain (headache, stomachache, indigestion, earache, gas, bad reactions to poison oak)
    • treating infections, sores, and for post-partum healing
    • cleansing the body (shampoo, deodorant, eyewash)
    • preventing bad luck and dispelling ghosts
    • as a blood tonic and general strengthener
    • as food, beverage, and culinary seasoning

As you can see, people made extensive use of genus Salvia‘s antimicrobial, aromatic, and analgesic properties as well as using it for unspecified “strengthening” and tonic purposes. They also regarded it as purifying and apotropaic (warding off evil). It’s very appropriate that one of the most common genera to be found in Inland Southern California was useful for the most common health problems that people would face–colds and flu, infections, and assorted pains.

Artemisia californica

Artemisia californica (c) Br. Alfred Brousseau, Saint Mary’s College.

So far so normal for members of the mint family. But I find it interesting that the uses of sagebrush (Artemisia douglasiana and A. californica) overlap significantly, although it belongs to the family Asteraceae (the daisies). What Artemisia has in common with Salvia is that both are intensely aromatic. (The Spanish settlers of California called it romerillo, “little rosemary” [source]. Artemisia is also the genus mugwort belongs to.)

  • treating respiratory problems (asthma, colds, coughs)
  • treating pain (rheumatism, arthritis, earache, headache, stomachache, cramps, fractures, back pain, difficult childbirth, toothache)
  • treating other illnesses (diarrhea, dysentery)
  • treating wounds, bruises, skin irritation (diaper rash, itching sores), and for post-partum healing
  • treating urinary problems
  • treating menstrual problems and menopausal symptoms
  • cleansing the body and hair
  • repelling insects
  • for smoking with or instead of tobacco
  • clearing the head during mourning, girls’ puberty rites, dispelling ghosts, preventing one from dreaming of the dead, preventing personal injury, ceremonial fires before hunting (sometimes with white sage), unspecified “ceremonial” purposes

So to recap, I’m certainly not saying that Inland Southern California has a monopoly on aromatic plants with cleansing, disinfecting properties. Salvia and Artemisia species exist in many parts of the world and tend to have similar medicinal potencies, and are used in similar ways. But Southern California shares with the Mediterranean a relatively arid climate and a great profusion of aromatic and resinous plants. So, speaking impressionistically and as a botanical novice, it seems to me that the climatic dryness and pungency of the herbs (and subsequently the pungency of honey made from those herbs) are related. Perhaps it has something to do with concentrating and maintaining resources? I don’t know. Just some thoughts.

Inland Southern California’s Native Plants–further resources

This is Part 2 of my series on native plants of Inland Southern California. For Part 1, go here. Originally I planned to talk about medicinal uses in greater depth in Part 2, but instead I’m going to do that in Part 3.

Last time I mentioned a few native species, but you may be interested in learning about others. This is a sort of annotated bibliography of sites where you can pursue your own research.

USDA Plant Database–You can enter the name of any species, either as the Latin binomial or its common name, in the search box and bring up a range map, images, list of subspecies (if any), and some other basic info. The Related Links tab will take you to even more resources.

California Native Plant Link Exchange (CNPLX)–This database allows you to search by a number of different variables: plant scientific name, plant common name, bioregion, county, plant community, family, and more. I have found this extremely useful because my county covers a variety of different bioregions; I can narrow the search by adding more variables. It will give you a list of all plants matching your criteria, each cross-referenced with other counties and plant communities where it grows, and even nurseries and seed suppliers. The only down side is it doesn’t have pictures.

Las Pilitas--Salvia apiana

Las Pilitas–Salvia apiana

Las Pilitas Native Plant Nursery–There are two physical nurseries, one in Santa Margarita and one in Escondido, and they also ship to customers. But for those doing research, it’s most useful for its images and descriptions of plants.

Calflora is another database where you can search by many variables, including plant type, periodicity (annual/perennial), bioregion, and county, with the added benefit of pictures.

The Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants is dedicated to preserving and propagating native California plants. It operates a nursery in Sun Valley, and also offers classes in botany and native plant gardening.

Now, if you’re reading this you are probably curious about medicinal applications for these plants. So below are some resources on regional ethnobotany that will be of interest.

University of Michigan-Dearborn Native American Ethnobotany allows you to search by plant name. It returns a brief description of how the plant was used medicinally and the bibliographical source for that info. Each different use of a plant has a separate listing.

Medicinal Plants of the Southwest is hosted by New Mexico State University. It’s not an extensive list, but you can find a plant listed by family, or search for one. Click on the link for a plant and you get pictures, a fairly extensive description, and a bibliography.

Medicinal Plants of the Southwest--Abies concolor

Medicinal Plants of the Southwest–Abies concolor

Luiseño Ethnobotany gives many traditional uses of plants, not only medicinal but those used for tools, weapons, ceremonial, etc. It has a linked bibliography and “Ethnobotanical Master List” organized by family, and some plant names are links to images. The Luiseño people are among the native inhabitants of San Diego and Riverside Counties.

The Malki Museum in Banning hosts the Temalpakh Ethnobotanical Garden. Their website has a brief list of medicinal plants used by the Cahuilla people. The garden is described as a “living illustration” of the book Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants by Katherine Siva Saubel with Dr. Lowell J. Bean.

The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum has a pdf on Native American Uses of California Plants. Some of the plants are not found in Southern California, but many are found all over.

UC Santa Cruz Native American Uses of California Plants

UC Santa Cruz Native American Uses of California Plants

Michael Moore has written three books each of which covers some plants that grow in Inland Southern California: Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, and Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West.

For modern medicinal uses of plants (California and otherwise), a good resource is the Herbalpedia, which you can purchase here, but much of which you can access without purchasing via HerbMentor. The Herb of the Year for 2014 is Artemisia, the native California species of which happen to be among my very favorite plants.

Inland Southern California’s native plants–a brief introduction

Riversidean sage scrub in Claremont, CA

Riversidean sage scrub in Claremont, CA. Photo links to original site–I want to credit the photographer but don’t know who that is.

I’ve been trying to research what the native flora of inland southern California was like before intensive white settlement, and it’s been very difficult. Then suddenly today it occurred to me that there might be others interested in knowing more about that and also finding it really hard. Maybe I could make that a teensy bit easier. (Probably not, but it’s worth a try, right?)

Part of why it has been so difficult to find information on this subject is that the landscape has been heavily modified by humans for hundreds of years. It is the worst, ugliest kind of suburban sprawl and pretty much all traces of the original flora have been erased. While I have found a lot of info on the plants of the coast and the mountains, the lowlands have been suburban sprawl for so long no one remembers anything else.

The “Inland Empire” of Southern California occupies the western parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. It basically consists of valley lowlands surrounded by the Santa Ana mountains in the west, dividing the inland from the coastal lowlands (LA basin and Orange County), the San Gabriel Mountains in the north, the Santa Rosa-San Jacinto Mountains in the east, and some more mountains in the south that if they have a name I don’t know it. The Santa Ana River is the major watershed.

When the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza reached this area in the late 1700s, he named it Valle de Paraiso (Paradise Valley), and described it as fragrant with rosemary and other herbs with rich grassland. So that is our first clue to the native flora–rosemary and fragrant herbs.

Much of Southern California consists of sage scrub (which, as you might guess, is dominated by sage–“a characteristic suite of low-statured, aromatic, drought-deciduous shrubs and subshrub species”, if you want to get technical about it [source]), but it turns out there are a bunch of different types of sage scrub. For example, around LA and Santa Barbara you’ll find coastal sage scrub. In the inland lowlands, it’s a subtype called “Riversidean sage scrub” and is mixed with some chapparal, grassland, alkali meadow, and even wetlands in patches.  You might not think it given that so much of America’s produce comes from California, but our soil is actually pretty awful in this region. It’s heavy, clayey silt which is full of nutrients, but so alkaline that most of them aren’t bioavailable to plants. Hardpan is very close to the surface. Being “drought-deciduous” means that during the summer, everything turns brown and looks dead–but it comes back to life and greenness when the rains come.

Sadly, even what little is left of this plant community is being rapidly destroyed (source). Not only has the weather been getting progressively hotter and drier, but the land is being devoured by yet more suburban sprawl.

Fragrant herbs

Specific plants that can be found in the original plant communities here include:

Artemisia Californica-GaviotaCACalifornia sagebrush (Artemisia californica). Honestly this is the best-smelling plant I have ever encountered. To me it’s like rosemary and sage with notes of peach and rose and something else that’s just magical. I can’t get enough of it.

Salvia apianaWhite sage (Salvia apiana). The stuff people smudge their haunted houses with. Except that usually people should not be using white sage because it’s not native to their region (it’s always best to use what grows in your area–it grows there for a reason, after all–not to use something just because it’s sacred to some people who live halfway around the world or across the country).

Salvia melliferaBlack sage (Salvia mellifera). Both “apiana” and “mellifera” mean that bees are attracted to these plants.

Eriogonum fasciculatum flowerCalifornia buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum). This plant has gorgeous flowers that produce a delicious honey.

Acmispon glaberDeerweed (Acmispon glaber). It is loved by hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and deer. One of its common names is California broom. I think I may formerly have had one in a planter–it was sold as “broom,” but clearly wasn’t the European variety. It smelled absolutely wonderful. But sadly, it died. It is definitely worth trying again though.

Atriplex lentiformis silvery saltbushSilvery Saltbush (Atriplex lentifolia). Saltbush is able to capture salt and survive very arid alkaline soils where hardly anything else grows. The leaves taste, as you might guess, like salt.

Encelia farinosaBrittlebush (Encelia farinosa). The Spanish used the sap of this plant as incense in the mission churches.

Populus trichocarpaCottonwood (Populus trichocarpa). Sometimes called Black Cottonwood. I haven’t seen any examples of this growing wild and free yet, but I hope to–it is a beautiful tree.

Platanus racemosaWestern Sycamore (Platanus racemosa). As I mentioned in a previous rant post, this is a native and beautiful variety of sycamore or plane tree.

ceanothus oliganthusCeanothus (Ceanothus sp.). Sometimes known as California lilac for its blue–or white, or pink–flowers. The medicinal herb red root is a variety of Ceanothus.

manzanitaManzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.). Manzanita has always been a favorite of mine, I guess because it’s a favorite of my dad’s. When I was little and lived in Northern California, we would go for hikes in the coast range mountains and he would point out different kinds of plants and animals. Manzanita has smooth, graceful red branches that stand out against its bright green leaves. I think it looks very elegant.

California poppyCalifornia poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Last but not least, the state flower. It’s illegal to wildcraft it, so I’m hoping to start growing some of my own soon.

Please stay tuned…

I hope this brief rundown has been of use for people interested in getting to know native California plants. Obviously I have barely touched the tip of the iceberg of the diverse Riversidean sage scrub community. Next time I’ll talk about some medicinal applications further resources, and in Part 3 about medicinal applications.

Herbal archaeology roundup 2

Hello everybody, I thought it was high time for another herbal archaeology roundup! Here’s a selection of interesting stories about our ancestors’ use of worts. The headings are links to the articles.

Starting with the oldest first…

Neandertals took their bitters

Archaeologists in Spain chemically analyzed microscopic plant remains in calcified plaque found on Neandertal teeth. They found Neandertals were eating cooked plants, as well as chamomile and yarrow. Not only that, but according to this article, these particular Neandertals, who lived about 50,000 years ago, were eating more veggies than meat. Chamomile and yarrow are bitter, and DNA shows the Neandertals did taste bitterness, so the archaeolgists believe they were consuming the plants for their medicinal value.

However, another paper, disputes the findings on the grounds that while not impossible, there is insufficient evidence that the Neandertals were eating the plants direction. Instead, they may have consumed them indirectly when eating the stomach contents of herbivores. (Please note that we now know Neandertals did not look like the reconstruction in that article. Below is a more modern reconstruction.)

Ginger Neandertal.

Ginger Neandertal.

Ancient Scandinavians flavored their booze with herbs

Dogfish-Head-Kvasir-Nordic-Grog-label

We know that the Egyptians used herbs to flavor (and likely medicate) their wine. They weren’t the only ones. Vessels from Bronze and Iron Age (pre-Viking) Norse burials have been analyzed to determine their contents, which turns out to have been a complex mixture of barley, wheat, rye, honey, cranberries and lingonberries, herbs, and sometimes grape wine imported from southern Europe. It is thought that because the burials are relatively wealthy (they have a lot of expensive stuff in them), this type of alcohol was fancy and perhaps only available to the wealthy. Among the herbs were bog myrtle, yarrow, juniper, and birch resin. The article doesn’t address the medicinal properties of these herbs, but does note they might have been selected in part for those qualities. Of course there’s no reason an herb couldn’t be used both as medicine and for flavor. A couple of modern breweries are selling recreations of ancient brews, so you might even be able to try some yourself.

Roman meds discovered in 2nd century BC shipwreck

Artist's reconstruction of Roman healing.

Artist’s reconstruction of Roman healing.

Medicinal tablets from a Roman shipwreck, dated ca. 140-120 BC, were analyzed by a geneticist from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C. The tablets, made from ground plant material, were contained within a wooden medical chest. DNA results showed the tablets contained animal and vegetable fats, wild onion, carrot, parsley, cabbage, radish, alfalfa, hawthorn, hibiscus, pine resin, chestnut, and zinc compounds. According to this report on the research, the scientists believe the tablets would have been dissolved in water and applied topically, to treat eye disease and possibly skin wounds.

The idea of preserving herbs by presumably drying and then grinding them and forming them into tablets is interesting. It certainly would have made them more convenient for travel.

Late-medieval Irish herbal recipe discovered

Just some gratuitous Irish horses.

Just some gratuitous Irish horses.

The recipe, written in medieval English and inscribed on a piece of slate, dates from the 1400s. It is believed to have been for a poultice, possibly for treating skin wounds in horses. The blend contained wheat meal, pig’s lard, and butter, as well as a number of herbs. Here is the recipe in modern English:

“Weed plantain….. meadowsweet and leaves of silverweed (Irish word: briosclán) and butter and boiled ribwort plantain (lambs tongue) and little/some mallows (hocks) and groundsel and lousewort (rattle), swine grease/lard and wall pennywort, egg yolks, chickweed, wheat meal or rye-meal or similar meal and …butter… and two stems of red and rotting dwarf elder. Take a plaster of nettles (most likely the dead-nettle species), horse-mint, great plantain, ribwort and mistletoe (possibly from the Irish word: druadhlus)” (after Britton & Fletcher, 1990).

The words in parentheses are the names used in the original text, so for example, ribwort plantain was referred to as “lamb’s tongue” and mallows as “hocks.” In one case, the Irish name for a plant was used, and possibly the Irish name for mistletoe was used also. The article has photos of the herbs and brief descriptions of the kind of ailments they were used to treat.

You can access the article by Britton and Fletcher, from which the translated text is copied, here. You will need to create a (free) account in order to read the full text. (You can get up to three JStor articles every two weeks with a free account.)

19th century herbal tonic and bitters recreated

bitters spices

A hundred-and-fifty years ago might not be what you think of when you think “archaeology,” but it is. Urban construction often unearths sites, and archaeological firms are called in to excavate before construction can proceed. At the site of a former German beer garden in New York’s Lower East Side, archaeologists recovered glass bottles labelled “Elixir of Long Life” and “Dr. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters.” The archaeologists wanted to taste these blends for themselves. They tracked down a recipe for Elixir of Long Life in a contemporary German medical guide, and contained aloe, gentian, rhubarb, saffron, zedoary, water, and alcohol. The bitters contained Peruvian cinchona bark, gentian, orange peel, anise, coriander, gum kino (a kind of tree sap), cinnamon, cardamom, alcohol, water, and sugar. This sounds like an excellent recipe, actually–I might try it myself!

A couple other reports with a little more info can be found here (this one has recipes with quantities if you want to play along at home) and here.

Quick update

In my last post I mentioned how crazy busy I’ve been. It looks like things are finally starting to settle down just a little. I’ve put up lots of new tinctures, infused oils, and glycerites, and I have a special elixir for the heart planned which I’m very excited about. Currently brewing are:

  • Agrimony
  • Motherwort
  • Burdock
  • Dandelion
  • Rose
  • Balm of Gilead

CAM00652My dad was complaining about his arthritis recently, so I’m planning on making a cayenne-based salve for him. I’m also thinking of making up some of the “greene oyntement” (recipe here). All the herbs in it are analgesics, and some, like sage and rue, are nervines so this salve should also be useful for arthritis. Rue was particularly used for sciatica–a scourge of modern sedentary life.

All these will make their way into my Etsy shop and I will write about the recipes and herbs in greater detail as I finish each up. I also have a couple new recipes to post in the next few days–one for jam and one for make-up.

Last but not least, a big thank you to all who sent good thoughts our way–I am happy to report that my little mutt Shermie is healing well from his tumor removal surgery and even likes his new vet.