Posts Tagged ‘medicinal plant’

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mutter Natur

<i>Pisum sativum arvense</i>, "Blue Pod Capucijners" Madonna lily (<i>Lilum candidum</i>) Milk thistle (<i>Silybum marianum</i>)

Many of the healing herbs, flowers, and foodstuffs mentioned by the twelfth-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen in her great work Physica are grown in Bonnefont garden at The Cloisters. Above, from left to right: Field peas (Pisum sativum arvense, variety ‘Blue Pod Capucijners’); Madonna lily (Lilium candidum); milk thistle (Silybum marianum).  Photographs from the Gardens archives.

It is the first book in which a woman discusses plants and trees in relation to their physical properties. It is the earliest book on natural history to be done in Germany and is, in essence, the foundation of botanical study there. It influenced the 16th-century works of Brunfels, Fuchs, and Bock, the so-called “German fathers of botany,” but the fact is that German botany is more indebted to a “mother.”
—Frank Anderson on the Physica, from An Illustrated History of the Herbals

Certain plants grow from air. These plants are gentle on the digestion and possess a happy nature, producing happiness in anyone who eats them. They are like a person’s hair in that they are always light and airy. Certain other herbs are windy, since they grow from the wind. These herbs are dry, and heavy on one’s digestion. They are of a sad nature, making the person who eats them sad. They are comparable to human perspiration. Moreover, there are herbs which are fatal as human food . . . they are comparable to human excrement.
—From Book I of the Physica, translated by Priscilla Throop

Hildegard of Bingen, Benedictine abbess, visionary, poet, dramatist, composer, and the most learned woman of the twelfth century, wrote the Physica, or Natural Science, about the year 1150. Read more »

Friday, November 14, 2008

Rotten-ripe: The Medlar Goes Soft

medlar fruit The medlar tree in a detail from the tapestry <em>The Unicorn is Found</em>

Left: Medlar in fruit below the west wall of Bonnefont Cloister Garden; right: a medlar tree in a detail from the tapestry The Unicorn is Found. Learn more about the Unicorn tapestries.

Well into November, long after other autumnal fruits have fallen to the ground, the small greenish-brown fruits of the medlar tree (Mespilus germanica) cling to its crooked boughs. The fruit is not harvested until the leaves fall, when the medlars can be easily plucked, although they are still too hard and acerbic to be eaten out of hand. Experts differ as to whether exposure to a few degrees of frost, which does the fruit no harm, is important to the long ripening process to come. Once gathered, the fruits are placed stem-side down in straw and stored in a cool, dark place for several weeks until they are rotten-ripe and the pulp has turned into a delicious mush—a process known as bletting. (Lee Reich, Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention, 1992).  Read more »

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Nightshades

Woody nightshade in fruit and flower Mandrake in fruit Henbane flower

Above, left to right: Woody nightshade in fruit and flower; Mandrake in fruit; Henbane flower.

Among the plants associated with witchcraft in antiquity and the Middle Ages are a number of poisonous and narcotic species that are chemically related to one another, including the mandrakes (Mandragora officinarum and M. autumnalis), henbane, (Hyoscyamus niger), thorn apple (Datura metel) and deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna). All are members of the nightshade family, the Solanaceae. Read more »

Monday, October 20, 2008

Arbor Mirabilis: Castor Bean

Stems and leaves of Ricinus communis

Above: Stems and leaves of Ricinus communis

Widely naturalized throughout the tropics, castor bean (Ricinus communis) is commonly grown as an ornamental annual in American and European gardens, but it is also a crop plant of worldwide economic importance. In a tropical environment, the castor bean attains the status of a thirty-foot tree. Even in temperate zones, it can reach a height of fifteen feet in a single season. An ancient medicinal plant of African origin, castor bean was employed by the Egyptians as a cathartic and is among the plant remedies found in the Ebers Papyrus.  Like other members of the Spurge family (Euphorbiaceae), the plant is poisonous. Dioscorides, writing in the first century, refers to the plant by its Egyptian name, kiki, as well as its Greek and Roman names: kroton and ricinus.  The last two names derive from the Greek and Latin words for “tick,”  because of a fancied resemblance of the seed to the parasite. Read more »

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. Read more »