Phytolacca americana L. (Pokeweed)

Phytolacca americana (Phytolaccaceae), in addition to serving as an occasional food, is a medicinal plant listed officially in the United States and in the French and Japanese Pharmacopeia. The plant has been used in folk medicine as a diuretic, purgative, antiscorbutic, and antisyphilitic agent (Fournier 1948). The roots are reputed in Korea to treat edema and rheumatism. At present, P. americana is used in some French homeopathic preparations to alleviate influenza, acute amygdalis, quinsy, mammary and rheumatic pains, and chronic pharyngitis. The plant and its tissue cultures have been investigated as a source of saponins, betalains, mitogens, and antiviral proteins. Botanical Traits and Classification The genus Phytolacca belongs to the family Phytolaccaceae, order Centro-spermae (or Caryophyllales), suborder Chenopodiineae (which includes ten families accumulating the pigments betalains). This suborder is closely related to the anthocyanin suborder Caryophyllineae. Both suborders are derived from a common ancestor, probably preadapted for C4 photosynthesis, which had evolved ring-like inclusions composed of proteinaceous filaments, contained in the sieve-element plastids in all the Centrospermae families. About Read more […]

Sweet Violet (Viola Odorata)

Family: Violaceae Part used: aerial parts There are over 90 Viola species in Europe. The Flora of Turkey gives 20 Viola species, including Viola odorata and Viola tricolor. Viola odorata L. is a low-growing perennial with a stout rootstock found in hedgerows, rough land and margins of woodlands. It is native to Europe south of the Alps and west into France, but has naturalized in more northern areas because of widespread cultivation. The stalked leaves arise in a rosette from the sturdy rootstock and are heart-shaped and hairy with an oval stipule. The fragrant, five-petalled dark violet or white flowers occur in spring and it may flower again in early autumn. The leafless flower stalks curve sharply so that the flower hangs down. The lowest petal has a prominent nectar-filled spur and the five sepals have basal appendages. The small seeds form in a three-valved capsule and it also spreads by long creeping stolons. Other species used Parma violets are cultivated for cut flowers and for their fragrance. The leaves are shiny green and the flowers are double. A study of six specimens cultivated in France and 31 wild Viola species found that Parma violets are cultivars of Viola alba. Parma violets are tender and Read more […]

Sweet Violet: Renaissance Use

The Renaissance writers rehearse the themes. A number, for example Gerard, Parkinson and Dodoens, relate the origin of the Greek name for violet, ‘Ion’. How either, according to Nicander, it was named after the nymphs of Ionia, who first gave the flower to lupiter; or rather after the ‘young damosell, Io’ (Gerard), ‘that sweete girle or pleasant damosell’ (Dodoens) whom lupiter courted and then, ‘after that he had got her with child’ (Dodoens) turned her into a cow, or ‘trim heiffer’ according to Dodoens, to protect her from the jealous eyes of Hera. lupiter then caused the flowers to grow as fragrant food for his erstwhile mistress. The Latin term ‘viola’ is then proffered to come from ‘vitula’ meaning heifer. De Cleene & Lejeune (2003) add that the violet is dedicated to Persephone, goddess of fertility and queen of the underworld; it is often associated with death, particularly of a young person. In Christian legend the violet hangs its head because the shadow of the cross fell on the flower. Gerard is comprehensive in his coverage of violets. He begins with a more ‘moral’ influence through their beauty; violets ‘… have a great prerogative above others, not only because the minde conceiveth a certain pleasure Read more […]

Sweet Violet: More Modern Application And Cancer

The plant does not appear in Cook or Ellingwood in the USA. The National Botanic Pharmacopoeia summarizes the view in the early part of the 20th century. Inflammation of the eyes, sleeplessness, pleurisy, jaundice and quinsy ‘are but a few of the ailments for which it was held potent’. The general assessment in this herbal is not encouraging; ‘it is still found in the pharmacopoeias though many of the virtues ascribed to it in the Middle Ages have not stood the test of time and greater experience’. This might be a rather severe judgement, particularly given the narrow range of application mode and lack of emphasis or perhaps sufficient appreciation of its broader cooling properties within its earlier context. Its reputation as an anti cancer herb is explored in Potter’s Bulletin of May 1902, cited by the National Botanic Pharmacopoeia, recording the case of a 67-year-old lady whose malignant throat tumour was cleared in 14 days on use of this herb. They suggest a handful of fresh green violet leaves infused in 1 pint of boiling water covered for 12 hours; this is strained and warmed; then a piece of lint, soaked in this infusion, is placed ‘where the malady is’, covered with oilskin or flannel and changed when dry or Read more […]

A Warming Respiratory Herb And Further Applications

From Dioscorides and Galen we have a picture of a warming herb, dispelling cold by heating and thinning. Hyssop’s prime reputation lies in its use for the respiratory system: it clears the build up of cold mucus and eases its effects, extending even to the ears. All authors to the present day refer in some way to this virtue. Dodoens specifically recommends the preparation of a lohoch or loch – a ‘licking medicine’, of middle consistency, between a soft electuary and a syrup – for relief of obstruction, shortness of breath and an old, hard cough. Parkinson offers a recipe for old coughs and voiding tough phlegm; a handful of hyssop, 2 oz figs, 1 oz sugar candy; boil in a quart of Muscadine until half a pint be consumed; strain and take morning and evening. In the more local tradition too this application appears in the Myddfai texts, with hyssop and centaury Centaurium erythraea pounded and strained and mixed with white of egg and drunk for 3 days for tightness of the chest; and red fennel and the tops of hyssop, bruised with mallows and boiled to strengthen the lungs, throat and chest. Its warming influence reaches the bowels too, moving cold, heavy deposits there. The warmth generated inside is presumably responsible Read more […]

Hyssop: Limitation

By the 18th century the variety of preparations appears to have been reduced. According to Miller the only official preparation was the simple water. The use to which hyssop was put appears a little slimmed down but enthusiasm for its virtues continued. Miller has it as ‘healing, opening and attenuating, good to cleanse the lungs of tartarous humours and helpful against coughs, asthmas, difficulty of breathing and cold distempers of the lungs; likewise reckoned a cephalic and good for diseases of the head and nerves. The bruised herb applied outwardly is famous for taking away black and blue marks out of the skin’. An amount of Dioscorides’ applications have gone; the respiratory uses remain, plus a reputation as a general cephalic and good for the nerves, presumably from Pliny. Quincy praises the use of hyssop but the indications are further shrunken to just the chest ‘it is good in many kinds of coughs and disorders of the lungs and breasts which arise from phlegm and viscid humours. It is good in asthmas, promotes expectoration and gives relief in difficulty of breathing. It is almost a constant ingredient in pectoral apozems’. Quincy rates the distilled water of the shops highly: ‘This is one of those few simples Read more […]

Hyssop: Later Uses

Late 19th and early 20th century authors are still following Dioscorides, Robinson (1868) almost exactly (via Parkinson). Hool in the 20th century records a breadth of properties: aromatic, diaphoretic, anthelmintic, aperient, febrifuge, expectorant, diuretic. He says it is a herb highly esteemed in infancy. For bronchitis, hoarseness and cough he gives a recipe: hyssop ½ oz, symphytum y, oz, pour on 2½ pints of water, boil gently for 10 minutes, strain, sweeten with sugar or molasses, take a wineglassful every 2-3 hours or oftener. Mrs Grieve attributes the virtues to the volatile oil which, she says, is stimulating, carminative and sudorific; particularly promoting expectoration, and the diaphoretic and stimulant properties too being useful in chronic catarrh. She says it is frequently mixed with horehound Marrubium vulgare. Although in her day it was ‘seldom employed (as it once was)’ as a carminative and for hysterical complaints, she attests to the use of the fresh green tops as tea as an old-fashioned country remedy for rheumatism ‘that is still employed’. Is this perhaps an echo of Dioscorides’ use for inflammation? The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia records the presence of volatile oil and flavonoid glycosides, Read more […]

Raspberry: Starting With Bramble

Dioscorides (IV 38) sets the scene for all later authors and compares raspberry to the preceding entry for bramble or blackberry. He states that bramble (IV 37) contracts and dries, and recommends a decoction of the branches of bramble for diarrhoea and leucorrhoea, but argues that the juice of the leaves and stems, dried in the sum is stronger. Pliny, Turner, Mattioli, Dodoens, Bauhin, Gerard and Parkinson refer to this preparation. Dioscorides recommends the leaves of bramble chewed to strengthen the gums and heal the thrush, and external use of the leaves as a plaster for shingles, head scurf, ‘prolapses of the eye’, callous lumps, haemorrhoids and ground up externally for those with stomach and heart ailments. For bramble, the authors give prominence to the recommendations of Pliny, which are similar to those of Dioscorides but more detailed, and of Galen, who reads like a summary of Pliny with some added material on the temperament of bramble. The following section is a summary of the recommendations for bramble, as raspberry is considered appropriate for the same uses. For example, Fuchs refers only to bramble and Dodoens gives a full description of brambles. Dodoens identifies the raspberry as growing widely Read more […]


There are a number of examples of trees on which Judas was said to have hanged himself, beliefs usually connected with some characteristic of the tree itself. ASPEN is one example; Russian folklore explained the constant trembling of the leaves by taking it to be the tree of Judas. The JUDAS TREE (see below) got its purple-rose flowers, when it burned with shame when Judas hanged himself on it. FIG TREES are viewed with mistrust in the Mediterranean area; in Sicily it was because, so it was said, Judas hanged himself on one. Crowning someone with ELDER was reckoned in Yorkshire to be about the most insulting thing that could be done, for Judas hanged himself on an elder tree, a belief that Ben Jonson picked up in Every man out of his humour: “He shall be your Judas, and you shall be his elder-tree to hang on”. A fungus that grows on elder is known as Jew’s Ear, that is Judas’s Ear (it was looked on as a great medicine for quinsy, sore throat and the like). TAMARISK “was of old counted infelix, and under malediction, and therefore used to wreath, and be out on the heads of malefactors” (Evelyn, 1678), for this is one of the trees said to be the one on which Judas hanged himself. Once a tall and beautiful tree, it is Read more […]