The Plant Detective

The Plant Detective
5:00 am
Sat December 6, 2014

Calabar Beans: Pre-History's Lie Detectors

Physostigma venenosum, from Köhler's "Medizinal Pflanzen"
Credit Franz Eugen Köhler

The Efik people of the region that is now Nigeria used to force people accused of crimes to suffer a trial by ordeal: they'd be fed calabar beans, a known poison. If the accused died, they were judged guilty. If they lived, they were "proven" innocent. There's some pharmaceutical basis to this. It turns out that the poison of the calabar bean is absorbed in the mouth, where a guilty person might try to hold the beans, to avoid swallowing. For the guileless who swallowed them whole, the emetic properties of the beans might cause them to throw up the beans and escape poisoning.

Read more
The Plant Detective
5:00 am
Sat November 29, 2014

Usnea: Bearded Medicine

Usnea sp. lichen. (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Credit Flickr user, Kirill Ignatyev

You might have brushed by it in the forest, where this hairy-looking symbiosis between algea and fungi perches on tree limbs. The look of the lichen usnea explains its nicknames: "old man's beard," "tree's dandruff," "women's long hair," and "beard lichen." For centuries, it's been considered a handy medicinal. People grab some to dress wounds, or take it internally for infections or oral inflammation. But in the 1990s, when manufacturers of weight-loss drugs started adding sodium usniate (usnic acid) to their formulas, several cases of liver damage emerged.

Read more
The Plant Detective
5:00 am
Sat November 22, 2014

Cranberry: North America's Ruby-Red Superfruit

Cranberry light. (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Credit Flickr user, Marilylle Soveran

It's not an old wive's tale: cranberry helps prevent and treat urinary tract infections. And it's not just the acidity: a compound in cranberries and blueberries keeps bacteria from sticking to bladder and urinary tract walls. Cranberries are high in several kinds of antioxidants, including proanthocyanidins, which give the ripe berries their vivid red color.

In the 1672 book New England Rarities Discovered, author John Josselyn described cranberries:

Read more
The Plant Detective
5:00 am
Sat November 15, 2014

Garlic II: "Don't Leave This Life Without It"

Garlic. (CC-BY-2.0)
Credit Flickr user, Jon Bunting

Among the artifacts discovered in the tomb of Egypt's Tutankhamen - objects meant to ease the boy king into the afterlife - were 3,000-year-old bulbs of garlic. Giving as well as receiving, Tut supplied daily rations of garlic to his pyramid-building slaves, for endurance and health. Garlic is a fabulous heart helper: its blood-thinning and anti-clotting abilities may slow down atherosclerosis and lower blood pressure.

Read more
The Plant Detective
5:00 am
Sat November 8, 2014

Garlic I: Asia's Gift To The Future

Wild garlic. (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Credit Flickr user Mark Robinson

Ever since nomadic tribes helped spread wild garlic from Central Asia to far-flung parts of the globe, garlic has helped humans fight microbes. Louis Pasteur recognized its antimicrobial power, as did doctors in WWI and WWII battlefield hospitals, where injured soldiers were given garlic to prevent infection and gangrene. Today's warnings of a "post-antibiotic" future mean garlic's power may turn out to be handy as drug-resistant bacteria become widespread.

Read more
The Plant Detective
5:00 am
Sat November 1, 2014

Demand For Slippery Elm's Gummy Bark Tempts Poachers

Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Credit Flickr user, Kent McFarland

In 1905, author Harriet Keeler wrote about the inner bark of the slippery elm tree: “It is thick, fragrant, mucilaginous, demulcent, and nutritious. The water in which the bark has been soaked is a grateful drink for one suffering from affections of the throat and lungs.”

Read more
The Plant Detective
9:46 pm
Fri October 24, 2014

Datura: Delirium, Broomsticks, And Divination

Datura metel. (CC-BY-2.0)
Credit David Dickerson

Medicinal use of datura - also known as moonflower - is so ancient, no one is sure where the plant originated. Two important nervous system depressor drugs, atropine and scopolamine, are derived from it. Oracles in the Americas and Greece used it for divinations. Witches in medieval Europe applied it to their skin in ointments. And when modern-day researchers experimented (a risky proposition; one of the researchers died) with those old witches' recipes, they reported intense dreams of flying. Broomstick, anyone?

Read more
The Plant Detective
5:00 am
Sat October 18, 2014

Atropine: Antidote To Disaster, Useful Drug...And Poison

Deadly nighshade (Atropa belladonna) (CC BY 2.0)
Credit Joozwa

The alkaloid atropine occurs naturally in plants like deadly nightshade, datura, and henbane. It can keep your heart rate steady after a heart attack, dilate your eyes - think belladonna - or dry up secretions during surgery. Soldiers carry atropine injectors because it's an antidote to nerve gas. But in high doses, it's hallucinogenic and poisonous. Remember the three fates of Greek mythology? One of them, Atropos, determined the mechanism of death for mortals. Atropine is named for her.

Read more
The Plant Detective
5:00 am
Sat October 11, 2014

Devil's Claw's Popularity Puts It At Risk

Devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens)
Credit Henri Pidoux © CITES Secretariat

The powerful anti-inflammatory action of harpagoside, a compound in the roots of devil's claw, relieves the pain of osteoarthritis, and many herbalists recommend it for digestive problems. The San of the Kalahari have used it medicinally for centuries. But because devil's claw is gathered wild from the deserts of Southern Africa, where the tubers are an important source of income, there is pressure on the population. In some regions, the current rate of harvest might not be sustainable.

Read more
The Plant Detective
5:00 am
Sat October 4, 2014

Devil's Dung Stinks When Raw, But Cooked, It Harmonizes

Devil's dung (Ferula asafoetida) (CC BY 2.0)
Credit Flickr user, Kai Hendry

This feathery plant from the deserts of Afghanistan and the mountains of Iran stinks - until you cook it, that is, when its pleasant flavor and active antiflatulent and digestive properties emerge. You can find it in Worcestershire sauce and throughout South Indian cuisine as a flavor enhancer and digestive aid. Devil's Dung is also antimicrobial.

(Podcast: "The Plant Detective")

Antiflatulent, helps digestion.

Read more

Pages