Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #24 Oak

Oak (Quercus robur):

Oak, the remedy for those who are normally strong and brave in character but find their strength beginning to wane, is made by the sun method.

Oak tree; image from pixabay.com

Oak tree; image from pixabay.com

Oak wood has been used in building, furniture-making, to provide charcoal to smelt precious metals and in shipbuilding. Admiral Nelson’s ship HMS Victory was built using an estimated 5,000 oak trees.   When the Armada came to England in 1588, King Philip of Spain ordered that the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire be burned down to destroy the oak trees, to prevent any more shipbuilding. Oak’s attraction to shipbuilders was partly due to the tree’s status in mythology. Connected to the gods Thor and Zeus, it was believed to be a fire and lightening charm and to possess magical as well as intrinsic strength.

British king Charles II was said to have sheltered in an oak tree at Boscobel House after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, to escape his Parliamentary enemies.  In 1660, the date Charles was returned to the throne (29th May) became a public holiday, which was observed as Royal Oak Day and was celebrated until 1859.   On this date, churches, houses and people wore oak and today it is still celebrated as Founder’s Day at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, which was founded by Charles II in 1681.

The mythical strength of oak translated into some of its traditional uses.  Toothache sufferers sometimes hammered a nail into an oak tree, believing the tree would take away their pain!  ‘Lungs of oak’ were taken by people with tuberculosis or chest complaints – this was actually a lichen, Stricta pulmonaria, which resembled lungs and grew on some types of oak tree.  Couples were often married under oak trees, hoping to absorb the tree’s strength and vitality and the bark of oak trees was used to make love potions.

 

Oak galls; image from pixabay.com

Oak galls; image from pixabay.com

Oak bark contains tannins but these are more abundant in the galls.  Galls form when oak bark wasps lay their eggs on the branches.  When the larvae hatch and begin to feed on the tree, they excrete a substance which irritates the tree and it responds by producing a gall – an abnormal outgrowth of tissue.  The gall provides food and protection to the larvae which exit the gall when they become wasps.  Oak galls are used to produce iron gall ink, which was the most important writing material in the West from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.  Aleppo galls from Quercus infectoria, Aleppo oak, contain the greatest amount of gallotannic acid (over 50%) while galls from the common oak contain about 20%.

Gallotannic acid from the gall is mixed with water to produce gallic acid which is then reacted with vitriol (iron(II) sulphate) to produce the ink.  Gum arabic, from acacia trees, is added as a suspension agent.   The ink is soluble (as Fe2+) and light-coloured but darkens and becomes insoluble by oxidation when it is absorbed by the writing surface, making it permanent.

Iron gall ink was used in the Dead Sea Scrolls, to draft the US constitution, by Rembrandt and van Gogh to draw with and by J.S. Bach to compose.  Although not widely used today, the use of permanent blue-black iron gall ink (Registrars’ Ink) is a requirement in the UK for legal documents such as birth, marriage and death certificates, in ships’ logbooks and in clergy rolls.

Acorns; image from pixabay.com

Acorns; image from pixabay.com

The tree’s seeds, or acorns, were a traditional food for pigs and historically were eaten by peasants in times of famine. Oak bark was used to produce a brown dye and the tannins were used to tan leather.  The name of the light brown colour tan or tawny come from the Latin tannum for oak bark.

Medicinally, the bark is used as an astringent e.g. for those suffering from diarrhoea, dysentery or haemorrhoids.   A decoction is used as a gargle for tonsillitis or laryngitis.  Oak galls have the same effects and provide the strongest of all vegetable astringents.

For an introduction or sources and more info., click the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #23 Mustard

Mustard (Sinapis arvensis)

Mustard, the remedy for those who feel depressed for no apparent reason, is made by the boiling method.

Sinapis arvensis (wild mustard or charlock) is often considered to be a weed, growing alongside commercial rapeseed (Brassica napus) crops.   Both are part of the mustard family and contain significant quantities of erucic acid.  This is an omega-9 fatty acid and tests on animals in the 1970s suggested a possible link with the development of heart disease.  As a result, low erucic acid rapeseed (LEAR) or canola was developed.  Although there is no evidence of health problems in humans from dietary ingestion of eruric acid, only up to 5 % erucic acid content is permitted within the EU.

Charlock; image from pixabay.com

Charlock; image from pixabay.com

Lorenzo’s oil is a combination of triglycerol forms of oleic acid and erucic acid from olive oil and rapeseed oil, respectively.  The use of this oil as a treatment for adrenoleucodystrophy (ALD) was popularised by Augusto Odone.  His son, Lorenzo, suffered from the condition, which causes a build-up of very long chain fatty acids in the blood.  This leads to brain damage and usually causes death within two years.

A fictionalised version of the story was made into a Hollywood film in 1992 and the oil was shown as a miracle cure.  However, although it did slow down progression of the disease, the oil was not a cure and patients did eventually die.   Lorenzo died in 2008, aged 30, 24 years after being diagnosed with ALD and given 2 years to live. Although not a cure for patients showing symptoms of ALD, the oil has been shown to delay the disease being developed by people who have the ALD gene.

Charlock has been used as a human and animal food source. The leaves can be eaten raw in salads when young or cooked when older. The seeds can be sprouted and eaten raw to give a hot flavour or ground into a powder and used as a mustard-like food flavouring.   They also produce an edible oil which burns well.

Chemical diagram of sinalbin

Chemical diagram of sinalbin

Charlock contains the toxic compound sinalbin which was first found in the seeds of white mustard (Sinapis alba).  Silanbin reacts with an enzyme myrosinase, also found in the plant, to give 4-hydroxybenzyl isothiocyanate, sometimes known as mustard oil.   This highly unstable and pungent compound degrades quickly (half-life in the stomach is 1-2 hours) to produce gastrodigenin, an almost odourless 4-hydroxybenzyl alcohol and the isothiocyanate ion, which is poisonous.  White mustard seeds are sometimes used to make the condiment known as mustard, but the flavour is much less pungent than that obtained using black mustard seeds (Brassica nigra).

Dried seeds of white mustard have rubefacient properties and were sometimes used to treat digestive disorders and as a laxative, particularly for older people.  However, there is a danger that seeds remain in the intestines where they cause inflammation of the stomach and intestinal canal.  An infusion of the seeds was used to treat rheumatism and bronchitis and a gargle of mustard seed tea was sometimes used to ease a sore throat.

The pungency of black mustard seeds is mainly due to another compound, sinigrin, which is also present in Brussels sprouts and cabbage but not in charlock or white mustard seeds.  Sinigrin reacts with myrosinase to form an oil of mustard which degrades to produce compounds including the highly pungent allyl isothiocyanate.

Compounds produced by the action of myrosinase on sinalbin or sinigrin cause damage to the plant so are present in a safe form.  They only react when the plant is under attack – myrosinase is kept in a separate compartment which only comes into contact with the sinalbin or sinigrin when the cell walls between them are damaged by cutting or chewing (or if the seeds or leaves are crushed).

Mustard seeds; image from pixabay.com

Mustard seeds; image from pixabay.com

A condiment made from mustard was used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans.  In the Middle Ages, French monks generated income by selling mustard and Pope John XXII of Avignon (1249 –1334) loved mustard so much that he created the post of “Grand Moutardier du Pape” (Grand Mustard-Maker to the Pope).  He gave the job to his nephew who lived near Dijon and this town soon became the mustard making capital of the world.

To prepare mustard, the seeds are crushed, the hulls and bran removed. The remaining powder is mixed with liquids such as vinegar or wine and salt and other spices or flavourings added.

For an introduction and sources and more info., click the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #22 Mimulus

Mimulus (Mimulus guttatus):

Mimulus, the remedy for those who fear a specific thing, is prepared by the sun method.

The genus Mimulus contains about 160 species sometimes known as monkey flowers or musk flowers, native mainly to north America and Australia.  The name comes from the Latin mimus, for actor or mimic and is related to the supposed resemblance of flowers of some species to a monkey’s face.

Mimulus moschatus, or musk flower, was the source of the fabled scent musk.   Plants were sent back to Britain by plant explorer David Douglas in 1826 and became popular to grow on windowsills due to their scent.  However, unscented plants eventually predominated with folklorists suggesting this was the plant’s protest against the carnage of World War 1.

Mimulus; image from pixabay.com

Mimulus guttatus; image from pixabay.com

Mimulus guttatus is also known as the common yellow monkey flower or seep monkey flower and is native to western north America, commonly found growing on the banks of seeps (small pools or springs).

Since the 1940s, the genus has been used as a model plant system in evolutionary and ecological genetics. The genome of M. guttatus has been sequenced and information of the genomes or M. lewisii and M. cardinalis is also available.  The genus shows great diversity and even within species, variation in traits such as habitat specialization, floral divergence and the fertility of hybrids can be observed.

With the genetic data now available, the links between genes and observed traits can be studied.   A recent study looked at the observed colours in 11 Mimulus species.  These were found to contain a mixture of up to 5 carotenoid pigments – related to carotenes, that help attract pollinators and also protect the plant by acting as anti-oxidants.   Major components in M.guttatus are the relatively rare pigments deepoxyneoxanthin and mimulaxanthin, which are produced by the plant.   Study of their biosyntheses and its genetic origin are on-going.

Chemical diagram of deepoxyneoxanthin

Chemical diagram of deepoxyneoxanthin

 

Monkey flower plants provide a source of sodium chloride, or salt, which they concentrate from the soil and can be used as a salt substitute.  Leaves were eaten in salads or occasionally cooked, and have a slightly bitter taste.

Medicinally, the plant is astringent so can be used to staunch bleeding and promote healing of wounds. A poultice made from the leaves was sometimes used by Native Americans to treat wounds and rope burns. A decoction of the leaves and stems has been used as a herbal steam bath for chest and back soreness.  It has also sometimes used as an anti-depressant and to treat nerve pain such as sciatica and suggested for use in combination with milky oats to treat “crispy critterness”!

For an introduction or sources and more info., click the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #21 Larch

Larch (Larix decidua):

Larch, the remedy for those lacking self-confidence, is made by the boiling method.

Larch wood is hard and resistant to rot and is used in fences, gates, staircases and garden furniture.  The wearing or burning of larch was thought to protect against evil spirits.  In traditional medicine, the inner bark was used externally to treat eczema and psoriasis and internally to treat haemorrhage and cystitis.  It was also used as a stimulant expectorant for chronic bronchitis.

Larch forest; image from pixabay

Larch forest; image from pixabay

The bark of larch trees contains larixinic acid, more commonly known today as maltol.   It is also found in pine needles and malt and is used in the food, beverage, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries as a flavour enhancer.  It has the odour of caramel and butterscotch and is used in baked goods, confectionery and soft drinks.  Use of maltol is estimated to reduce the addition of sugar by up to 15%.  For commercial use it can be prepared synthetically.   Its use is banned in some countries particularly in products aimed at young children. However, maltol is a potent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory agent and has been shown to reduce alcohol-related liver damage in mice.

Chemical diagram of maltol

Maltol has a high affinity for metal ions and is well tolerated by the body.  It can therefore be useful medicinally.  Potential examples include the use of an iron maltol complex to treat anaemia and vanadium-maltolate complexes with insulin-enhancing power to treat type-II diabetes. However, the compound formed between maltol and aluminium accumulates in the brain where it is neurotoxic and may increase oxidative stress which has been linked to Alzheimers’ Disease.

Larch is also a source of arabinogalactan, a starch-like polymer made up of arabinose and galactose units.  For commercial use, arabinogalactan is obtained from the bark of Western Larch (Larix occidentalis) although it also occurs in other larches. It is taken to treat respiratory conditions, colds and flu, HIV, liver cancer, to reduce cholesterol and to boost the immune system.  As it ferments in the intestine, it may increase favourable intestinal bacteria and it is sometimes taken to treat digestive problems.  In the food industry, it is used as a stabiliser, binder and sweetener.

Larch cones; image from pixabay.com

Larch cones; image from pixabay.com

Venice turpentine is obtained from the heart of larch trees. It is used in veterinary medicine as a disinfectant and antibacterial agent, particularly for the treatment of horses’ hooves.   Valued for the absence of abietic acid crystals which discolour other turpentines, it is sometimes used by artists in oil painting.  Larch leaves are the source of Briançon manna – a white, sugary substance produced as oblong ‘tears’ in summer by insects eating the sap.  The major sugar component of the substance, also known as honeydew, is melezitose.

For an introduction and sources and more info. click the links.

 

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #20 Impatiens

Impatiens (Impatiens glandulifera):

Impatiens, the remedy for agitation and impatience, is made by the sun method.

Impatiens glandulifera

Himalayan Balsam; image from pixabay.com

This species originates in the Himalayan Mountains and is known as Himalayan or Indian Balsam.  It has hat-like flowers, reflected in several common names including policeman’s helmets and bobby tops.  It was introduced to the UK in the mid-19th century and is part of the same genus as the common busy Lizzie (Impatiens walleriana).

The genus name Impatiens, or impatient, alludes to the method of seed dispersal – when ripe the seed pods open explosively and shoot their seeds up to 7 metres.   The species was popular in Victorian gardens.  It has now escaped the confines of gardens and spread along waterways and is considered a weed by some, growing abundantly by rivers and on waste ground.  It is actively removed by so-called Balsam Bashers – groups of conservationists who view it as a threat to our native plants.  To hear more, you can listen to Richard Mabey talking about the plant here.

Seed capsules of Impatiens glandulifera; image from pixabay.com

Seed capsules of Impatiens glandulifera; image from pixabay.com

In the Himalayan Mountain areas where it is native, the plant is used medicinally. The roots and leaves are crushed and applied on forehead, hands and feet to provide a cooling effect. A decoction of the leaves is used to treat stress and mental tension and flowers are used against snake bites.  The young leaves and shoots can be cooked and eaten in small quantities. Seeds can be eaten raw or toasted and ground to make flour, crushed and used as a spice or substituted in any recipe that calls for hazelnuts. In parts of India they are sometimes used in stews and curries.

Himalayan Balsam contains allelopathic compounds which are leached into the soil and inhibit germination of other plants nearby.  One of these is 2-methoxy-1,4-naphthoquinone which is released by the roots and leached from the leaves by rain.  Medicinally, this compound has shown antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral activities and is active against some types of cancer cells.

Chemical diagram of lawsone

Chemical diagram of lawsone

The related compound lawsone (2-hydroxy-1,4-naphthoquinone) is also found in this species as well as in henna (Lawsonia inermis) and garden balsam (Impatiens balsamina). It is a red-orange dye.  Henna has been used as a skin and hair dye for over 5,000 years.  When lawsone is released, it binds to the protein molecule keratin in the skin or hair, creating a fast stain.  Lawsone is similar to juglone (5-hydroxy-1,4-naphthoquinone) which occurs in walnut trees and is also used as a dye.

For an introduction or sources and more info., click the links.

 

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #19 The Horse Chestnuts

The Horse Chestnuts (Aesculus spp.):

Two remedies are made from the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) – Chestnut Bud and White Chestnut – and one from red horse chestnut (or red chestnut, Aesculus x carnea), a hybrid of horse chestnut and red buckeye (Aesculus pavia).  Chestnut Bud, the remedy for those who do not learn from past mistakes, is made from the buds of the tree by the boiling method.  White Chestnut, the remedy for unwanted, repetitive thoughts, is made from the blossom, by the sun method.  Red Chestnut, the remedy for those who overcare for loved ones resulting in constant worrying, is made by the boiling method.

Red chestnut flowers showing blotches

Red horse chestnut flowers; image from pixabay.com

Horse chestnut trees produce clusters of showy flowers, white in horse chestnuts and dark pink in red horse chestnuts. These made the trees popular in formal gardens, parks and along streets. The flower petals have a yellow blotch on their flowers which turns red once the flower has been pollinated.  This directs bees to the flowers which still require pollination, as the red colour will appear black to the bees, making it unattractive.

The shiny nuts from the horse chestnut tree, also known as conkers, were collected during World War I to provide a source of starch.  Children were paid to collect them although they were not told why the nuts were needed.  In fact, they were taken to factories in Holton Heath and King’s Lynn where the solvent acetone was made, using the so-called Weizmann process.  Acetone was needed for the manufacture of cordite for the munitions industry.

Horse chestnut seeds or conkers; image from pixabay.com

Horse chestnut seeds or conkers; image from pixabay.com

The conkers were not a very effective source of starch but other possibilities such as maize, potatoes and grain were considered too important to the food supply to use.   In spite of the limited success, conkers were again collected during World War II.  The seeds of red horse chestnut trees are smaller than those from horse chestnuts so the latter are favoured for use in the traditional British children’s game “conkers”.

Traditionally, conkers were used to treat chest complaints in horses, but it is unclear if this is led the trees to be called horse chestnuts or if the name led to this use.  In fact, conkers are mildly toxic to horses and can cause tremors and lack of coordination. Another possible origin for the name is related to the bitterness or the nut compared to the UK’s native sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) – “horse” has been suggested to be a corruption of the Welsh gwres meaning hot or pungent.

Horse chestnut twig with leaf scar; https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/82/Aesculus_hippocastanum_PICT1758.jpg

Horse chestnut twig with leaf scar; By I, Opuntia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2522282

A final suggestion is that the horseshoe-like scars (complete with nail hoes) left on the twigs by leaf stalks led to the association with horses.

Horse-chestnut trees often suffer attack by leaf miner moth larvae.  This weakens them making them more susceptible to the bacterial infection causing bleeding canker.  Over 50% of the UK’s horse chestnut trees now suffer from this canker, which eventually kills the tree.  Currently the disease is not widely treated although one possibility may lie in the use of the potent anti-bacterial compound allicin, obtained from garlic. Stabilised allicin can be injected into the trees and has over 95% success rate in treating the infection (although the treatment does make the trees smell like garlic!). Red horse chestnut trees appear to have some resistance to the canker.

Bark extracts were traditionally used as a tonic and for their fever-reducing and narcotic properties. Extracts of the seeds are used in herbal medicine to treat conditions such as varicose veins and haemorrhoids.  They contain a group of chemical compounds called aescin which includes beta-aescin, thought to be the most important medicinal component.  It is the mixture of compounds contained in the seed extract, rather than any single compound, which has been studied in clinical trials. A Cochrane Review of these studies concluded the extract was both safe and useful for the treatment of chronic venous insufficiency.  The extract reduces both the number and size of membrane pores so reducing fluid leakage into the surrounding tissue.

Chemical diagram of beta-aescin

Chemical diagram of beta-aescin

Saponins like aescin are insect-repellent and might be behind the old wives’ tale that conkers placed round windows and doors deters spiders coming into the house.  In 2009, the Royal Society of Chemistry ran a competition for schools to design an experiment to test the theory and the winning entry appeared to disprove the theory.  However, the John Innes Centre in Norwich began looking at the issue in 2014 and today, many commercial anti-spider sprays still contain extracts of horse chestnut seeds.

For an introduction or sources and more info., click the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #18 Hornbeam

Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus):

Hornbeam, the remedy for procrastination or the ‘Monday-morning feeling, is made by the boiling method.

Hornbeam; image courtesy of pixabay.com

The name hornbeam means ‘hard tree’ and the American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) is sometimes known as ironwood or musclewood.  Ironwood trees are sometimes depicted as ladders between worlds and as sources of wisdom and life.  The wood is cream-coloured with flecked grain and used to make furniture and flooring. It was also used to make ox-yokes, cogs for windmills and water-wheels, butchers’ chopping boards and has also been used to make the striking hammer in pianos. The Romans used hornbeam wood to build their chariots.  The wood was burned to for fuel or charcoal and it was traditionally used in bakers’ ovens.

Carpinus betulus

Hornbeam leaf; image courtesy of pixabay.com

A tonic made from hornbeam was used to relieve both mental and physical tiredness and, externally, the leaves were used to staunch bleeding and help wounds to heal.  An infusion made with the leaves was used to bathe the eyes to treat infections and relieve tired, puffy eyes. The bark is astringent due to the presence of tannins (like acertannin) and also contains salicylates (the basis of the drug aspirin – see willow blog for more details).  The inner bark was used as a purgative and boiled bark was used to treat sore muscles and rheumatism.  An infusion of the bark was taken in the mouth to relieve toothache.  Hornbeam’s stimulant properties have led to claims it can help reduce hair loss if taken internally or massaged into the scalp.  Extracts are included in some products to treat hair-loss.  It has also been used to treat digestive problems, hay fever and other allergies.

Chemical diagram of acertannin

Chemical diagram of acertannin

Tannins are common in plants and are often present in tree barks including those of oak, chestnut and birch.  They are classed as polyphenols with variable composition and their presence renders the bark bitter.  One role may therefore be to protect the bark from predators.  Tannins have the property of binding to certain organic molecules such as proteins and alkaloids.  They are used to tan leather – the tannins bind to collagen in the hides, coating them to give protection from water and bacteria and making the resulting leather more flexible.  Acertannin, commonly found in maples, has anti-hyperglycaemic effects i.e. helps prevent high blood sugar levels so has potential use in the treatment of diabetes.  It has also shown activity in reducing certain types of skin inflammation.

For an introduction and sources and more info., click the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #17 Honeysuckle

Honeysuckle (Lonicera caprifolium):

Honeysuckle, the remedy for those living in the past, is made by the sun method.

Honeysuckle; image courtesy of pixabay.com

Honeysuckle; image courtesy of pixabay.com

Caprifolium translates as goats’ leaf, possibly due to the plants being a favourite food of goats or to the leaves resembling goats’ ears. The species is commonly known as Italian honeysuckle and is native to mid- and Southern Europe.

Honeysuckle is best known for its fragrance.  Flowers are almost odourless during the day but release their fragrance at night to attract night-flying moths.  This behaviour persists even when the flowers are cut. The smell comes from a complex mixture of compounds.  These include the terpene ocimene, the sesquiterpenes germacrene D and α-farnasene, linalool and jasmonoids such as methyl jasmonate, jasmin lactone and jasmone.

Linalool is found in many plants including the mints and lavender and is used in over 60 % of perfumed cosmetics, washing products and household cleaning products.  The smell depends on which of the related forms (stereoisomers) is present but all forms show stress-reducing and sleep promoting properties when inhaled. It is oxidised by air and between 5 and 7 % of the population may be allergic to the oxidation products.

Chemical diagram of methyl jasmonate

Chemical diagram of methyl jasmonate

One suggested role for methyl jasmonate is to signal to nearby plants when it is under attack to stimulate the production of defensive chemicals. It may also to attract predators of the attackers. One potential use is to increase the productivity of the anti-cancer drug paclitaxel from cell cultures.

Honeysuckle is a symbol of fidelity and affection but, in Victorian times, young girls were forbidden to bring it into the home as it was believed to cause dreams too shocking for their sensibilities!  Another suggestion was that inhaling the fragrance while visualising the way you want your body to look helped you lose weight.

There are around 180 species of honeysuckle, some of which are or have been used medicinally.  Honeysuckle leaves and flowers were used to relieve pain and inflammation and the leaves also used for their antibacterial and antiviral properties.  The plants were a treatment for respiratory conditions such as asthma and as an astringent, expectorant, laxative and diuretic.  They were also used externally to treat skin conditions.

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica, Jin Yin Hua) is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat colds, flu and sore throats. It was used in combination with three other herbs as a treatment for swine flu. Research has shown it is effective in combination with other herbs when used to treat acute bronchitis.  A decoction also showed potent action against influenza A viruses.

For an introduction and sources and more info., click the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #16 Holly

Holly (Ilex aquifolium):

Holly, the remedy for anger, jealousy and envy, is made by the boiling method.

holly

Holly; image courtesy Mo Sibbons

The species name aquifolium means pointed leaf and most of this evergreen shrub’s leaves are spiny to deter grazers. The red berries are an important food source for birds during the winter, when repeated freezing softens the berries and makes them taste milder. They are, however, toxic to humans.

Traditionally, holly was thought to offer protection from witches and sorcery.  Some farmers used to allow holly to grow taller within a hedge to prevent witches running along it.  Their reluctance to cut back the holly may also have had something to do with the belief that it was unlucky to cut holly except at Christmas.

Holly bark was stripped, boiled, fermented and pounded to make birdlime.  This was a natural glue which was spread on the twigs of trees, trapping birds for food.  It could also be used as an insecticide.

Tunbridge ware

Tunbridge ware pin wheel c1870; Copyright © 2016 Amherst Antiques. All Rights Reserved.

Holly wood is white, hard and dense and was sometimes dyed to resemble more expensive woods such as ebony.  It was also used for tool-handles and bobbins and, in Victorian times, in Tunbridge Ware objects.  These were typically boxes made using a tessellated mosaic technique developed in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells in Kent.  Holly wood was sometimes used to make white chess pieces. European settlers arriving in North America misidentified the unrelated native toyon tree as holly, and named the area of Los Angeles where it was abundant Hollywood.

Medicinally, the leaves were used to treat jaundice, fevers, rheumatism, smallpox and as a diaphoretic (to induce sweating) and tranquiliser.   The berries were used as a powerful emetic.  Herbalist Nicholas Culpeper recommended fresh berries as a purgative but dried, powdered berries were used to ‘bind the body’ and ‘stop fluxes’.

ilexanthin

Chemical diagram of ilexanthin

The plant contains ilicin (a bitter principle), ilexanthin, ilicic acid, theobromine, caffeine and caffeic acid. Ilexanthin, also known as syringin, was first isolated from the bark of lilac (Syringa vulgaris).  It contains a glucose group attached to a sinapyl alcohol and, when taken orally, sinapyl alcohol, which has anti-inflammatory properties and is an antinociceptive (i.e. reduces sensitivity to pain), is formed.  Ilicic acid is phytotoxic i.e. it is toxic to plants and may be present to deter competitors from growing nearby.

The alkaloid theobromine is also found in cocoa, tea and cola and is used to treat asthma.  It is toxic to dogs in small quantities so renders chocolate poisonous to them. It’s also toxic to humans, but luckily, it’s not present in large enough amounts in chocolate to be problematic! Theobromine is one of the compounds credited with rendering holly berries toxic (along with caffeine and ilicin).  It is estimated that a child can safely consume 1-2 berries but that 20 berries may be fatal.

For an introduction and sources and more info., click the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #15 Heather

Heather (Calluna vulgaris):

Heather, the remedy for those who talk incessantly about themselves, is made by the sun method.

Calluna vulgaris

Heather; image from pixabay.com

Heather honey, where the bees have collected nectar exclusively from heather, has a higher moisture content than other honey.  Both manuka and heather honey are what’s known as thixotropic substances – i.e. they are a gel until stirring when they become a liquid.   Recently, scientists at Glasgow University have demonstrated that Scottish heather honey is at least as effective as manuka honey as an anti-bacterial wound dressing.  Manuka honey is currently the only medical-grade honey available, used in veterinary medicine as a wound dressing, particularly for horses.

Heather honey also has a distinctive colour, smell and taste making it prized both alone and in food and drinks. It is one of the ingredients of Atholl Brose, a whisky-based liqueur, and in cranachan, a traditional Scottish dessert.

heathhergems

Dyed bundles of heather stems; image from www.heathergems.blog

A modern use for heather stems is in the making of jewellery.   These are cleaned and dyed then compressed into blocks and sliced. Shaped pieces are cut from the slices, lacquered and mounted to form Heathergems jewellery, made in Pitlochry, Perthshire.

The aerial parts of the plants were used in as a tonic and to treat consumption, coughs, nerves, depression, heart complaints, arthritis and rheumatism. A yellow dye was made from the flowers using alum as a mordant (fixant). Other traditional uses included as thatch, bedding, fuel, rope, baskets, brooms and fencing. Nails and pegs were made from the roots and the plants were used as feed and bedding for livestock.

heather

Heather; image courtesy of Mo Sibbons

Heather is still considered to be a low value plant material, growing abundantly on heathland and moorland. It has been shown to potentially offer a new business opportunity to farmers as a source for valuable triterpenoids such as α-amyrin, β-amyrin, uvaol, ursolic acid and oleanolic acid. These can be obtained from the surface waxes of the aerial parts of the plants.  The possibility of using a benign extraction and fractionation method developed by scientists in York to extract these ‘green’ chemicals on an industrial scale is under investigation.

The shoots of heather contain chlorogenic acid and its 3-O-glucoside, 3-O-galactoside and 3-O-arabinoside (where a glucose, galactose or arabinose sugar molecule is attached to the chlorogenic acid molecule).  Chlorogenic acid is found in many plants and acts as an antioxidant in both plants and animals. It is abundant in green coffee extract which is marketed as a food supplement claimed to help with weight loss.

chlorogenic acid

Chemical diagram of chlorogenic acid

In the diet, it protects against age-related degenerative diseases.  There have been attempts to increase the amount of chlorogenic acid in food plants such as tomatoes by genetic engineering to boost their potential benefits to human health.  Chlorogenic acid lowers blood pressure and may alter the metabolism of sugar making it beneficial in cases of Type II diabetes. This may be related to the formation of chlorogenic acid glycosides (such as chlorogenic acid 3-O-glucoside).

For an introduction and sources and more info., click the links.