Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #28 Scleranthus

Scleranthus (Scleranthus annuus)

Scleranthus, the remedy for those who are indecisive, is made by the sun method.

It is part of the carnation or Caryophyllaceae family and is known by the common names German knotweed, German knotgrass or (annual) knawel – the latter name coming from the 16th century German Knauel for knotweed (literally, ball of yarn).

Scleranthus annuus

German knotweed; image by Der Michels (www.imagines-plantarum.de) via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Europe, Asia and North Africa, it is sometimes considered to be a weed.  It is low-growing, forming dense mats and has inconspicuous green flowers.  In the UK, intensive arable farming with increased use of broad-spectrum herbicides has led to its decline and it is regarded as endangered in the wild. Knawel has been used as a cure for toothache and the sweet-tasting leaves are fairly good fodder for sheep.

Perennial knawel (Scleranthus perennis) was used as the host plant for the Polish cochineal bugs (Porphyrophora polonica). Polish cochineal dyes were developed by the ancient Slavs and provided an economically important trade in Europe until the 16th century when the cheaper (Mexican) cochineal we know today (from Dactylopius coccus – hosted by prickly pears (Opuntia spp.)) was introduced.  The dye was used to colour textiles and, in Poland, as a colourant for some vodkas.

Carminic acid from Polish cochineal

Chemical diagram of carminic acid

The female bugs lay eggs in the ground and the larvae feed on the low-growing host plants, initially on the leaves but then on the roots, forming protective cysts.  Female larvae are harvested before they reach maturity – the plant is uprooted and yields approximately 10 insects.   Harvest occurs in late June, around the time of St. John the Baptist’s Day (June 24th) and the resulting dye was sometimes known as Saint John’s blood.  The larvae were killed using vinegar or boiling water and dried.  The resulting red dye arises from a chemical compound produced by the larvae for protection called carminic acid.   This makes up approximately 0.6 % of the dried insect’s body weight.  This is much less than the quantity produced by the Mexican bugs (approx. 20 %).

Polish military commander, Stefan Czarniecki (1599-1665), in a crimson costume typical of Polish magnates, coloured using Polish cochineal dye; image from http://iranpazirik.com/htmls/cochincal.htm

Polish military commander, Stefan Czarniecki (1599-1665), in a crimson costume typical of Polish magnates, coloured using Polish cochineal dye; image from http://iranpazirik.com

The process was not only labour-intensive but, as the plants were dug up to obtain the insects, they had to be replaced after each harvest and knotweed was grown in plantations.  Along with the much reduced yield of carminic acid from Polish cochineal larvae, this accounts for the relative expense of Polish cochineal dye.  In the 18th century, Polish cochineal began to be exported again, to Russia and Central Asia but today, the use of the dye is rare and in some places e.g. the Ukraine the insect is considered endangered.

The legacy of the use of Polish cochineal can be seen in Slavic languages, where the words for red and June (or July) come from the word for worm. In Polish for example, the three words are czerwony, czerwiec and czerw, respectively.

Scleranthus biflorus is native to Australia and New Zealand, where it is known as cushion bush or lime lava.  It resembles moss and is sometimes termed “Australian astroturf” and grown to give green ground cover in dry conditions.  An ointment made by drying the plant and mixing the powder into a paste with New Zealand passion flower (Passiflora tetrandra) was sometimes used to ease itching by the Maoris.

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

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #27 Rock Rose

Rock Rose (Helianthemum nummularium)

Rock rose, the remedy for those suffering from terror, is made by the sun method.

The genus name comes from the Greek helios meaning sun and anthemon meaning flower.  In the wild, flowers of Helianthemum nummalarium, or common rock rose, are yellow although cultivated varieties can range from white to deep red.   In the South-east of the UK, it grows in chalky or limestone-rich soils, which are alkaline, but in Scotland it can grow in much more acidic soils.

Common rock rose; image from pixabay.com

Common rock rose; image from pixabay.com

The plant only opens its flowers one at a time, in fine weather, but although its name suggests it is a sun loving plant, it always directs them away from the sun.  Its stamens are sensitive to movement and react to dampness. As a pollinating insect brushes the anther, the stamens drop pollen onto its fur and start to turn to the side – this makes it easier for the pistil in the middle of the flower to touch the next insect and improves its chances of receiving pollen from a neighbouring flower on its stigma.

The genus is part of the rock rose family (Cistaceae) and contains plants sometimes known as frostweeds.  The name frostweed is used for a number of plants including Verbesina virginica (white crownbeard), Helianthemum canadense (longbranch frostweed) and Helianthemum bicknellii (hoary frostweeddue to their ability to produce so-called frost flowers – caused by water freezing in the stems.  As it expands, it pushes through the stem and, as more water follows, the ice is pushed out, curling into shapes which can resemble flowers. For more information on frost flowers and how they form, check out youtube.

Rock rose; image from pixabay.com

Rock rose; image from pixabay.com

Longbranch frostweed was used medicinally to treat secondary syphilis, as an astringent, alterative and tonic and to treat scrofula (usually a swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck caused by tuberculosis).  An oil obtained from the plant was used to treat cancer.

Another genus in the rock rose family is Cistus and an important resin, known as labdanum, is obtained from two species, Cistus creticus and Cistus ladanifer.  The leaves are covered in glandular hairs and goats and sheep eating the plants become covered in the resin.  This was combed off their coats and sold.  The resin is still used today in perfumery although now it is obtained directly from the plants by treating with hot alkaline solution, followed by steam distillation to produce the oil.  The scent resembles incense and ambergris and labdanum is sometimes used as an alternative to ambergris.

Chemical diagram of ledene

Chemical diagram of ledene

The oil contains over 300 constituents, the most abundant of these is ledene (also known as viridiflorene).  Ledene has potential use for the treatment of ocular Demodex (eyelash mites).

Examples of a class of chemical compounds called labdanes were first identified from labdanum.  Some labdanes have antibacterial, antifungal, antiprotozoal or anti-inflammatory activities.  Traditionally, labdanum was used as an expectorant, an emmenagogue and in plasters.

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

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #26 Pine

Pine (Pinus sylvestris)

Pine, the remedy for those suffering feelings of guilt, is made by the boiling method.

Pine tree; image from pixabay.com

Pine tree; image from pixabay.com

The bark of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is orange-brown and scaly, developing plates and fissures with age.  The trees are occasionally termed European redwoods and are the only truly native pine trees in the UK.  They were abundant in the Caledonian Forest and those in the remnants of the Forest descend from trees which arrived in Scotland about 9,000 years ago.  Today, the trees are widely planted to provide timber – Scots pine timber is one of the strongest softwoods and is used in the construction industry and joinery.  It is also used to make telegraph poles, gate posts and fencing.

The tree can be tapped for resin which is distilled to make natural turpentine. This was used in traditional medicine to treat wounds and taken internally for parasites.  It was considered to have antiseptic and diuretic properties and also used in an inhaler or chest rub to relieve cold symptoms.  A pillow stuffed with pine needles was believed to soothe chest conditions.  Today, the well-known chest rub Vick’s VapoRub still contains oil of turpentine.   However, the major uses of turpentine are as a solvent for example to thin paints and as a source of starting materials for the chemical industry. This latter use is due primarily to the major components of the turpentine, α- and β-pinene.

Chemical diagrams of alpha- and beta-pinene

Chemical diagrams of alpha- and beta-pinene

These closely-related, volatile monoterpenes have the same formula but differ in the position of the double bond.   They are also found in oils of rosemary, orange peel and eucalyptus.  When given off by the tree, they interact with other compounds in the atmosphere, such as ozone, to produce nanoparticles. These are Rayleigh scatterers and split light from the sun into its component colours.  As blue light is scattered most, the trees are surrounded by a blue haze – the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia get their name from this effect and the trees are protected from high temperatures.

Pine tar is made by burning the wood in a closed container. Tar was used on ships to waterproof ropes and sailors’ hands would become stained – British Navy seamen became known as Jack Tars or simply tars, as a result.  Pine tar has also been used in the form of a soap to treat skin conditions including psoriasis and eczema.  In veterinary medicine, it is used to treat cattle and horses’ hooves.

Pine essential oil is used in aromatherapy to reduce inflammation, treat respiratory and skin conditions, boost the immune system, stimulate the mind and body and protect the home and body from a wide variety of germs. The smell of pine is associated with cleanliness and its fragrance often added to home cleaning products.

Pine; image by Mo Sibbons

Pine; image by Mo Sibbons

Beers made with spruce or pine needles or shoots were introduced to the UK by the Vikings.  They contain vitamin C and were sometimes drunk by sailors to help them avoid scurvy.  Teas made with the needles could also be used. Shetland spruce ale was said to “stimulate animal instincts” and make you have twins.

Groups of conifers, particularly pines, often occur in groups of seven, known as Seven Sisters.  Legend has it only six will flourish and the seventh will die, no matter how often it is replaced.

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

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #25 Olive

Olive (Olea europaea)

Olive, the remedy for those suffering from mental or physical exhaustion, is made by the sun method.

Olive trees; image from pixabay.com

Olive trees; image from pixabay.com

Many artists have painted olive trees. Renoir spent the last 11 years of his life living in a house in south-east France which he bought to prevent the olive groves being destroyed to make a market garden.  He struggled to paint the trees saying they were full of colours, always changing – the colour lay between the trees not in the leaves. He said “The olive tree, what a brute!  If you realised how much trouble it caused me”.   Van Gogh also painted at least 18 pictures of olive trees.  Recently, crop artist Stan Herd reproduced one of them, in a project funded by the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA).  The work, based on the 1889 painting ‘Olive Trees’, covered 1.5 acres near Minneapolis Saint Paul International Airport.

Over 90% of olives are used for oil – the fruit is macerated, the stone removed then the pulp is cold pressed to extract virgin olive oil.  This has the best flavour and the highest cost.  Subsequent pressings yield lower quality oils, including refined olive oil which has been treated with charcoal and filtered and olive pomace, which is often used for cooking.

Olive oil; image from pixabay

Olive oil; image from pixabay

Virgin oil is often adulterated with cheaper oils such as canola or sunflower.   Over 50% of extra virgin oil in Italy and about 80% of that sold in the USA is believed to be adulterated. The profit margin on selling adulterated oil is three times that on selling cocaine and the process is under the control of organised crime – nicknamed the Agromafia.

Extra virgin oil contains oleocanthal, a phenolic compound responsible for the burning sensation when eating the oil.   It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties – in fact, it inhibits the COX enzymes so reducing pain and inflammation in the same manner as popular drugs such as ibuprofen and aspirin do.   50 g of oil contains enough oleocanthal to give similar anti-inflammatory effects as 1/10 of the adult dose of ibuprofen.  It has been suggested that long-term consumption of small quantities may be responsible in part for the low incidence of heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease associated with a Mediterranean diet.

Chemical diagram of oleocanthan

Chemical diagram of oleocanthal

Oleocanthal also has potential benefits in the treatment of cancer – acting very quickly and targeting cancer cells rather than healthy ones.  It pierces the cancer cells’ waste storage containers, or vesicles, releasing enzymes that cause cell death. Cancer cells are affected in under an hour while healthy cells only suffer a temporary halt to their life cycles and this returns to normal after 24 hours.

Olives also contain the omega-9 fatty acid oleic acid, present as a triglyceride which, although named after olives, is common in the human diet.  It is released by some types of bees, woodlice and ants to signal that they’re dead – they are then removed by their mates. When a living ant was daubed with oleic acid in an experiment, it was dragged off for disposal as if it were dead. The oleic acid smell also may indicate danger to living insects, prompting them to avoid others who have succumbed to disease or places where predators lurk.

Olives; image from pixabay

Olives; image from pixabay

In many cultures, olive trees and olive oil were considered sacred.  The olive branch was often a symbol of abundance, glory and peace. Moses exempted from military service those who worked on their cultivation, so important were they considered.  Leafy olive branches were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. Olive oil was used to anoint kings and athletes in ancient Greece. It was burnt in the sacred lamps of temples as well as burning as the “eternal flame” of the original Olympic Games. Victors in these games were crowned with its leaves.

Olive leaf teas were used to lower fevers and, used in poultices, are among the oldest treatments for infections of the skin, cuts and bruises.  The oil is today used in cooking and skincare as a massage oil or in haircare and is a home remedy for hair lice.

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

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.