Archive for the ‘Herbaceous’ Category


Monday, April 13th, 2009

Viscum album (and its North American counterpart Phoradendron spp.) is the plant commonly referred to as mistletoe. Sprigs of real and plastic mistletoe are familiar sights at Christmas parties and in holiday wreaths. In fact, I think it would be a challenge to find someone unfamiliar with some form of the mistletoe kissing custom. As it stands, the polite tradition is for the man to take a berry off the plant for every woman he kisses beneath it. No more berries, no more kisses under that plant. Of course, simplifying this to “you have to kiss under the mistletoe!” is common and fairly ubiquitous. What do you do when faced with mistletoe?

Mistletoe is a hemi-parasitic plant that grows in the branches (epiphytic) of other woody plants–especially oak trees here in the Southeast. While it is capable of photosynthesis, mistletoe derives water and nutrients from its host plant. The types of mistletoe that are seen around the Triangle are probably Phoradendron leucarpum, which is a type of braod-leaved mistletoe. The dark green leaves are thick and leathery and the branches grow into dense shrubby clusters. (Once you start looking for it, mistletoe is everywhere. There are good-sized clusters of it in the oaks in front of D.H. Hill Library at NCSU if you’re in the neighborhood.)


There are tons of legends surrounding mistletoe. In the druidic culture, mistletoe–with its white berries–was a masculine counterpart to the red-berried holly. Both of these winter plants were important to celebrations of the winter solstice. According to [Pagan Christmas], the druids were believed to wear white and red robes during these winter rituals–though these are also the colors of the [fly agaric mushroom]. Still, a connection to semen is important in mistletoe’s use in fertility rituals and charms. Again in Pagan Christmas, the authors cite a region of Germany in which sprigs of mistletoe were bound to fruit trees in the winter for a good harvest. Mistletoe in the bedroom helped to conceive a child. Mistletoe in a bride’s bouquet was good luck for the marriage (it is almost wedding season!). The evolution of traditions like these to the modern custom of demanding a kiss when standing beneath the mistletoe is fairly clear.

Mistletoe was also dedicated by the Celts and some Germanic peoples to the various thunder gods, leading to sprigs of mistletoe on roofs or above doorways as protection against thunder or lightening.

The white berries of mistletoe were also thought to represent the tears of the goddess Frigga at the death of her son Balder. The long and short of it is that Balder could not be by anything, including the plants rooted in the earth. Mistletoe has no roots in the earth and thus was poisonous to Balder. The trickster god, Loki, had Balder shot with an arrow poisoned by mistletoe, resulting in his death. In some versions of the myth (such as the one featured on [How Stuff Works]), mistletoe is also the key to Balder’s resurrection.

Mistletoe for a time was recast as “devil’s broom” during the Christianization of many pagan areas, but it was soon incorporated into Christian myth. One legend states that the cross used to crucify Jesus was made of mistletoe; as a punishment to the plant, God took away its roots, forcing it to live on top of other plants.

Pliny the Elder describes a presumed druidic ritual of mistletoe in his [Natural History] (translated by Bostock and Riley):

Creepy sprouts of mistletoe on a street elm

Creepy sprouts of mistletoe on a street tree on Gorman Street

Upon this occasion we must not omit to mention the admiration that is lavished upon this plant by the Gauls. In fact, it is the notion with them that everything that grows on it has been sent immediately from heaven, and that the mistletoe upon it is a proof that the tree has been selected by God himself as an object of his especial favour.

The mistletoe is gathered with rites replete with religious awe. This is done more particularly on the fifth day of the moon, the day which is the beginning of their months and years, as also of their ages, which, with them, are but thirty years. Having made all due preparation for the sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, the horns of which are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloak. They then immolate the victims, offering up their prayers that God will render this gift of his propitious to those to whom he has so granted it. It is the belief with them that the mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity to all animals that are barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons. Such are the religious feelings which we find entertained towards trifling objects among nearly all nations.

So on the fifth night after the winter solstice, druids cut down mistletoe with a golden scythe, sacrificed some bulls, and then distributed the sprigs and drank mistletoe teas and medicines. Mistletoe isn’t as highly toxic as rumor would have it, but eating it can make you nauseous–this isn’t one I recommend for home ingestion.


Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

The common garden hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis and cultivars) is just starting to come up here in the Triangle, so be on the look out for blooming in the next few weeks. It’s also a highly perfumed flower so planting it near your doors, windows, and walkways can have huge impact for the nose as well as a splash of color for the eyes.

In flower, the plant itself is around eight to ten inches tall with the inflorescence rising above the glossy, green leaves. The spread of each individual plant is about five inches, making them ideal for clumping. The most common flower color is a medium bluish purple, but it comes in a range of pinks, whites, yellows, and even some burgundy cultivars.

hyacinthus_orientalis_white_festival_march2009“Hyacinth” corresponds to the name of a Spartan youth and hero whose name anglicizes to Hyacinthus. The version retold in Ovid’s [Metamorphoses] boils down to Hyacinthus a horrible discus accident with his lover Apollo. Apollo threw the discus and Hyacinthus, hoping to impress his deity bro, tried to go catch it. It went terribly awry and struck him in the head, killing him. Apollo, in his grief, created a flower from Hyacinthus’ spilled blood. I prefer the more salacious story from [Encyclopedia Mythica]: Apollo and Zephyr, god of the west wind, were rivals for Hyacinthus’ affections. When Hyacinthus chose Apollo, it was Zephyr that blew the errant discus into Hyacinthus’ head in vengeance.

A good time to plant most spring flowering bulbs like hyacinth and daffodils in the warm Southeastern climate is November. Hyacinth bulbs are widely available from bulb distributors, garden centers, and the usual large chains. The leaves should not be cut back after the plant flowers so that the bulb can gather and store energy to bloom the next season. If the leftover leaves don’t fit in with your landscape, try planting them interspersed with summer blooming flowers like day lilies.

If you’d like blooming hyacinth indoors in pots or to use as cut flowers they can be easily forced indoors. Plant your bulbs in pots and then store them in the refrigerator for about three months. Don’t forget to water them during this period! After that, the bulbs can be moved to a sunny window to warm up and bloom.

Common Fleabane

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) is an Eastern U.S. roadside staple. This shrubby member of the Asteraceae features shaggy, daisy-like flowers and slender stems dotted with stiff hairs. The disk flowers always mature from green to yellow and the ray flowers are white and slender. The tomentose leaves clasp the stem (sessile) and lack petioles.

Fleabane doesn’t have a particularly rich medicinal history, though it was at times used to treat dysentery and ulcers in the old world. It has also been called “Job’s Tears” because it was believed Job used a tea of this plant to treat his own ulcers ([]).

Traditionally, fleabane was burned and smoked in a pot like an incense to ward off fleas and other insects–much like the function of a citronella candle. Similarly, pasture animals do not typically eat fleabane due to its reportedly unpleasant flavor.

English early modern botanist and apothecary [John Parkinson] did reccommend that fleabane “bound to the forehead is a great helpe to cure one of the frensie,” (as quoted in [The Old English Herbals] by E.S. Rhodes).

Other species of fleabane bloom in the range of the anthocyanins but particularly purples and blues and do not feture sessile leaves.


Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Be on the lookout for winter-blooming hellebore species. This typically low-growing, herbaceous perrenial sports showy, petal-like bracts that can persist well into the spring–much longer than its small flowers. Their color spectrum includes greens, creams, and even flushes of red and purple. The foliage is extremely frost-hardy and variable in its generally slender shape and verdance.

Hellebore (Helleborus spp.) also has a lengthy history in folklore. Known alternately as “witch weed” and “Christ rose”, toxic hellebore (active alkaloid: helleborin) has been used in folk healing as well as poison-making. Its frost-resistance and winter blooms were thought to be evidence of magical constitution. Hellebore tinctures were also used as a treatment for “winter melancholy” for this very reason–an original treatment for what we’ve developed as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Ingesting helleborin causes diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea–it was never used as a purgurative for the weak, even in antiquity.