Friday, October 10, 2008

Bye Bye, Bryony

Red bryony vine in fruit in October Red bryony vine blooming in June A lusterware albarello or pharmacy jar patterned with stylized bryony vines

Above, from left to right: Red bryony vine in fruit in October; Red bryony vine blooming in June; a lusterware albarello or pharmacy jar patterned with stylized bryony vines

The luxuriant foliage of the bryony vine begins to yellow and fall in September. By October all that is left are the small red berries that hang from a lacy network of slender brown stems.  Although the vine dies back to the ground in early autumn, the root is perennial and will send up new shoots in the spring. Bryonia dioica is graceful even in decline; next May the vine will quickly veil a willow trellis in Bonnefont Garden with bright green leaves and show itself to be one of the prettiest plants in the collection.

The delicacy and refinement of bryony’s tendrils and small white flowers belie the astonishing vigor of the plant, which has a massive root that can weigh several hundred pounds. The tremendous vegetable energy stored in the root means that bryony shoots can grow several inches in a day. The name of the genus derives from the Greek bryo (”I sprout.”) While the flowers and foliage appealed to medieval artists, and the wild vine was brought into medieval gardens to adorn arbors and enclosures (John Harvey, Medieval Gardens, 1981), it was the root that was used in medieval medicine and magic.

A stylized rendering of the bryony vine ornaments a number of lusterware vessels in the Museum’s collection, including two pharmacy jars of a type known as an albarello.  (The albarello pictured above was made in Islamic Spain, but similar drug jars of tin-glazed earthenware were produced in Italy by the fifteenth century. See the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History for information on maiolica.)

Red bryony (Bryonia dioica) is distinguished from the closely related white bryony (Bryonia alba) by the color of the fruit. While both species bear white flowers, the berries of white bryony are black. Bryonys, which belong to the Cucurbitaceae family and are related to cucumbers and melons, have a long history of medicinal use. However, B. alba and B. dioica species seem to have been confused by ancient and medieval herbalists. The confusion was exacerbated by references to yet another vining species, black bryony, Tamus communis, which is botanically unrelated.

According to the fifteenth-century Herbarius Latinus, bryony was employed as a purgative, a diuretic, and an abortifacient. (Frank Anderson, German Herbals to 1500, 1984.) Bryony was also included in a recipe for a medieval anesthetic preparation known as dwale, probably as a substitute for mandrake, although it does not have the narcotic properties of the latter. The fresh root, which contains an acrid juice, is a powerful irritant and cathartic. Ingestion can be fatal. Bryony root is no longer used therapeutically, except in the very dilute quantities employed in homeopathic medicine.

The magical reputation of bryony is conveyed by its common names of “English mandrake” or “false mandrake.” The large root may be either simple or forked, and bryony was substituted for the rarer and more expensive Mandragora. Like that of the true mandrake, the root was used as an aphrodisiac and in love philtres.

—Deirdre Larkin

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Comments (8)

  1. Julie K. Rose Says:

    These posts are fascinating. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Kimberly Searcy Says:

    The usefulness and beauty of plant life never ceases to astonish me! Thank you for this blog.

  3. Mary Says:

    What a treasure I’ve found in this blog! Thank you for all of the posts - wonderful stuff.

  4. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Thank you all for your interest and encouragement!

  5. Hans Says:

    I was in the cloisters medicinal garden the other day and touched a plant marked poisonous (before I saw the sign, although I am embarrassed to admit to this!). The effect seemed to be one in which felt a pricking sensation in my thumb and my right hand seemed to go numb (and it’s just wearing off after a few days). Anybody have any ideas what I touched and if I need to seek medical attention.

    - Hans

    PS: Please feel free to laugh at me, but this really hurts and I def will read the signs before touching next time!

  6. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Dear Hans,
    There are a number of plants in Bonnefont Garden marked ‘Poison. Do Not Touch.’ All of the plants so labeled, with the single exception of the nettle and rue, are only of concern if ingested. Nettle stings indiscriminately; rue may cause a photodermatitis in sensitive individuals, especially in hot, muggy weather. The plant you inadvertently touched was stinging nettle, Urtica dioica.

    Nettle has a long history of human use, and a wide distribution—it is a common weed of fertile soil throughout the United States and Europe. It is grown here in the bed devoted to plants used in medieval arts and crafts, where you encountered it, because of its use as a fiber plant—nettle fibers were woven into cloth just as flax and hemp were. It was also used as a food and a medicine.

    The nettle is provided with stinging hairs as a defense against people and animals. These hollow hairs have a structure that resembles a hypodermic needle; when the tips of the hairs are broken by contact, the nettle actually pumps the toxin—a chemical irritant containing formic acid and histamine—stored at the base of the hair into the skin of the intruder. This chemical irritant contains formic acid and histamine. Folk-remedies include the application of the crushed leaf of dock, which is said to always grow providentially nearby. Dock is a kind of sorrel, and we grow several species of Rumex in the kitchen bed here at The Cloisters. If I do inadvertently touch a nettle, I bruise a leaf and apply it to the sting. Non-herbal treatments include antihistamines, or topical creams including hydro-cortisone.

    Nettles are encountered by thousands of people in many countries every day, and I don’t consider it a dangerous plant, although it is certainly uncomfortable to be stung. Most people experience the stinging sensation for only a few minutes, but it can persist for longer, and you may be more than usually sensitive to the irritant. Of course I can’t judge the degree of your discomfort or the severity of your reaction; if you are still feeling the effects you might want to tell a doctor about your encounter.

    I very much regret that you’ve had such an unpleasant experience, and hope that you will soon feel better. The nettle is deliberately planted deep in the bed where no-one is likely to brush against it, and labeled. I would be loath to remove such an ethnobotanically interesting plant from the garden. I will see to making a little fence around it to prevent other mishaps!

  7. Hans Says:

    Hello Deirdre,

    Thank you so much for your erudite reply. I would not remove those plants! Instead, perhaps I would have done well to pause and read the signs!

    I am feeling just a slight sensation now, so I believe the worst has passed.

    Best regards,

    Hans

  8. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello Hans,

    I’m very glad to hear that you are feeling better, and admire your attitude! I’m grateful to you for contributing to the blog, where your experience can serve as both a warning and an inspiration to others. Your comments will be very helpful in communicating the reasons why we grow such plants here, and why we ask for the cooperation of our visitors, so that we can continue to represent medieval species that people are unlikely to encounter in gardens other than those of The Cloisters.

    Best wishes,
    Deirdre

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