Sunday, November 30, 2008

Corn Harvest

What’s blooming: Nothing; dead grasses and Russian thistles turning black.

What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae and other conifers, roses, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, yellow evening primrose, blue flax, sea pink, winecup, pinks, soapworts, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, Jupiter’s beard, Saint John’s wort, senecio, Mount Atlas daisy, Mexican hat, June and other grasses; iris, catmint, fern-leaf yarrow and tansy still have some leaves.

What’s gray or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, Silver King artemisia.

What’s red: Raspberry, cholla, privet, coral bells, white and coral beardtongues, pink evening primrose; Japanese barberry still has some leaves

What’s turning yellow: Apache plume, golden spur columbine.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, bougainvillea, rochea.

Animal sightings: Large bird, maybe a duck or grey goose, in hay field in front of the house where chickens had been let loose earlier this year.

Weather: Why does it always rain, snow or sleet on Thanksgiving, as it did this week, when the holiday isn’t tied to any particular lunar or solar event? Congress made it the fourth Thursday of the month in 1941. Now ice forms on the windshield after dawn instead of the dry frost flakes earlier in the week. 8:41 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The problem with growing vegetables is sometimes you succeed. If there’s more than you can eat off the vine, then you must either can, freeze, dry or hope for lots of friends. My bucolic idyl of leaving the surplus for the birds was shattered when hornets arrived to harvest the peaches. Nothing is more unpleasant than removing rotten tomatoes in the spring. If you flirt with farm life, you have to learn it all.

Dehydration was the only preservation method used in this area. Squashes and meat were cut and hung, chiles were strung into ristras, fruits were sliced and laid flat. Corn will cure on the stalk, but was husked, then left to continue drying. The Santa Clara tossed cobs onto their flat roofs or platforms built from cottonwood poles, then stacked them in a storeroom.

Any child knows how to eat dried fruit or jerky. Cooking pinto beans simply takes time. Maíz is another matter, because it’s hard as unpopped corn and takes days to soften in water, or must be ground. Raw corn’s proteins are difficult for humans to digest and lack both niacin and the amino acid tryptophan which the body can use to create the B vitamin. When Zea mays was exported to northern Italy and Africa, pellagra followed; the vitamin deficiency spread in the American south in the early twentieth century when food processing methods changed.

Long before Cortes arrived, the Maya learned the secret of soaking dried kernels in an alkaline hydroxide solution that loosens the outer skin and removes the germ, at the same time it liberates the niacin. They grew it with beans that not only provided ixim’s deep roots with nitrogen but contained the missing amino acids that can combine with those of corn in the body to produce complete proteins. They probably also absorbed calcium that had soaked into rehydrated kernels.

The lowland Maya apparently burned the shell remains of pachychilus snails and used the calcium carbonate ashes in their soaking solutions. The ashes reacted with water to produce the calcium hydroxide that, in turn, interacted with the starches. As cintli moved inland, burned limestone was used instead. A generation after Cortes, the Aztec told Bernardino de Sahagún nextli meant ashes and was combined with water in nexatl. Today, treating corn with wet lime is still called nixtamalization.

The use of ashes followed maize into the eastern woodlands of this country where the potassium hydroxide from wood ashes was substituted. Neighboring English-speaking settlers used their byproduct from manufacturing lye soap with animal fat, hardwood ashes, and boiling water. By the time the USDA was telling women how to can hominy in 1912, Katherine Ola Powell assumed they were using household lye, salty sodium hydroxide, and telling them to leave the flat sweet corn in running water for three or four hours to remove the poison. Later, the University of Georgia extension office suggested baking soda instead, a sodium bicarbonate derivative of lye.

When corn moved into the southwest, early pueblo women ground the dried kernels on portable basalt slabs with carved out depressions. One of the men following Coronado when he visited the seven Zuñi cities of Cibola in 1540 saw mealing troughs made from sandstone slabs divided into three sections. In the first, corn was crushed on a lava or basalt stone into tchu-tsi-kwah-na-we. Next it was ground into sa-k’o-we, a coarse meal then was reground on a sandstone slab for o-lu-tsi-na. By the end of the nineteenth century, Martha Stevenson found two grinding mills, and sometimes a sieve, had replaced the second and third metates.

Frank Cushing saw Zuñi women in the early 1880's chew some of the coarse meal and mix it with the finer flour and water, then leave it to ferment, thereby increasing the niacin and protein content. At that point, they added ground lime and salt to the yeast which then was added to many of their corn dishes. Among the Tewa-speaking Hano of eastern Arizona, Barbara Friere-Marreco saw them add ashes from burned sagebrush. The alkalines not only change the color and taste of tortillas but make the dough more pliable.

Traditional Mexican methods co-existed with ground corn in a variety of foodways that converted what was essentially grass into something palatable and nutritious.. Cushing saw Zuñi women boil dried kernels with ashes for dough or grinding. Friere-Marreco found posole being made by soaking cobs, but the Santa Clara were using lime instead of ashes. She also saw no metates in the newer homes; women used coffee grinders to make the fine flour they mixed with water for atole.

In the same years in Chimayó, maíz was taken to small water-powered mills with horizontal grindstones that also handled wheat and chili, flavoring them all. Posole was made with lime, but all people remember now is that certain women with wood burning stoves made the most wonderful tortillas, "tan sabrosas."

Today, if you go into our local groceries, you can find frozen posole made from corn, water and lime or fécula de maíz made from corn starch ready for atole. You can also find frozen and dried maso for tortillas made from corn treated with lime. Peter Casados sells dried posole, chicos, harina for atole and roasted white corn meal for chaquegüe grown at El Guique, just beyond San Juan. Or, for flaky cornbread, you can buy degerminated American meal that’s been enriched with niacin and other nutrients.

Whenever you hear that simple tale of the feast shared by pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plimoth plantation in 1621 to celebrate the first harvest of wheat and corn, remember Edward Winslow was the one reporting they ate migrating birds and deer. The four women who survived the first year would have known the methods for handling that bounty were a cultural gift more precious than the seed itself.

Notes: Atole is a beverage; posole is similar to hominy; chicos are dried kernels cooked with beans; chaquegüe is a gruel or mush; maso and harina are flours.
Casados, Peter. PO Box 852, San Juan Pueblo, NM 87566.

Castañeda, Pedro de. Relaccion de la Jornada Cibola,1596, translated and reprinted many times.

Cushing, Frank Hamilton. Zuni Breadstuff, 1920.

Nations James D. The Maya Tropical Forest, 2006.

Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España, c.1577, translated as Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, Book XI - Earthly Things by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, 1963.

Stevenson, Martha Coxe. The Zuni Indians, 1904, reprinted by The Rio Grande Press, Inc., 1985.

Usner, Don J. Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza, 1995.

United States Department of Agriculture, Home Extension Service. Katherine Ola Powell, Successful Canning and Preserving, 1917.

____, University of Georgia. Elizabeth L. Andress, "Hominy without Lye," 2005.

Winslow, Edward. Letter dated 11 December 1621, originally published in A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622; reprinted many times since and available on-line.

Photograph: Chiles abandoned to the elements, 28 November 2008.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


What’s blooming: Nothing blooming, but burning continues; first Christmas lights out.

What’s still green: Juniper and other conifers, roses, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, hartweig, yellow evening primrose, blue flax, sea pink, winecup, pinks, soapworts, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, Jupiter’s beard, senecio, Mount Atlas daisy, Mexican hat, June and other grasses near ground; only protected leaves survive on sweet pea and hollyhock.

What’s gray or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, Silver King artemisia.

What’s red: Raspberry, cholla, privet, coral bells, white and coral beardtongues, pink evening primrose; few leaves left on apples, cherries, spirea and pasture rose.

What’s turning yellow: Some arborvitaes, willow, Apache plume, iris, Saint John’s wort, golden spur columbine; many cottonwoods and globe willows bare.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, bougainvillea, rochea with leaves bleaching out and leaving red edges.

Animal sightings: Rabbit at the front steps last Sunday.

Weather: Cold most mornings with dry air leaving flecks of frost on the car as it continues to steal moisture from the last rain, 11/10. High winds Thursday denuded the cottonwoods and other exposed trees, leaving them ready to handle the weight of winter ice and snow. Apples, cherries, locust, and other shorter or less-exposed trees still have some leaves. 9:08 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Raising horses and planting corn seem to be two ways men here try to maintain ties with their rural past.

Among the Santa Clara, the men were responsible for planting k’un and women took custody of the ears during the communal shuckings. By the time Barbara Freire-Marrenco talked to women in 1912, the young were turning to wheat for tortillas because they no longer were willing to do the arduous grinding that overdeveloped some hand muscles and could lead to degenerated elbow joints.

Whatever traditions existed among Spanish-speaking communities changed when the cash economy infiltrated at the end of the nineteenth century and adult men spent most of the year in Colorado, Wyoming or Utah working the smelters, mines and potato fields. Planting was left to women and children.

By the 1930's, Santa Cruz grew more wheat than corn, as did Chimayó and the Spanish speakers clustered around San Ildefonso, with hard-up flour mills in Santa Cruz and Española. The wheats brought into the great plains from Europe like the Red Durham preferred around San Ildefonso could handle our harsh growing season better than corn which even the Santa Clara could only grow in small isolated patches where water could be diverted or stored and that preserved the genetic identity of desired blue and white varieties.

Field sizes had already shrunken through divisions, especially after expansion into Colorado and east of the Sangre de Cristo was stymied by the western movement from the settled parts of the United States. Still people clung to those diminished lots as a refuge for survival, especially after outside employment disappeared in the early depression. Even after the opening of the national laboratory and conversion of the land in my immediate area to hay for horses, people retain their desire to own a piece of arable land.

Now those hay lands are being divided. Down the road, a small square hay field irrigated by pipes survives, perhaps financed by the single-wide perched on a narrow lot just beyond the fence. Periodically, a pair of horses was brought in this summer to graze the small area, and once in a while I saw the father from the trailer watching his toddler splash in the flooded field. He planted a row of corn along the fence, that grew taller at one end than the other as water seeped beyond the irrigation dike.

Closer to where I live, a cement-lined ditch bisects a large field with hay surrounding a new house where horses are often let out to graze. On the triangle between the ditch and the road, another family improved their double-wide and planted a patch of sweet corn, too large to feed the family when it all ripened, and too small for commercial sales. After the stalks had dried, he cleared them into shocks and later added a harvest figure, the only ones I’ve seen in this part of the country.

Between the two nostalgic corn patches some men converted a pipe-irrigated hay field into a market garden with corn along the edges and other vegetables between. I often saw the two out collecting produce for the local farmers’ market circuit when I passed on my way to work at 7:30. Their field was typical of the truck gardens that still existed into the depression that depended on tourists and places like Santa Fe.

The more traditional field lies across the road where several older men plant every few years. I don’t know if they picked the years 2003 and 2007 because they had signs they would be good years, or if they deliberately left the land fallow, or could only get periodic access to it. While it looks like it had been leveled and edged for flood irrigation, I never saw evidence they had water like the adjoining new house. They planted a full field last year that was four inches high by the end of June. In July I saw them out with hoes clearing the weeds. I never saw them again, so I don’t know how they gathered their crop.

I do know they did something none of the other local growers have done this year and no one would have done in Chimayó where clean fields "free of weeds, trees and organic debris" were valued: they left the stalks in the fields. Winter battered them, and someone finally cut the remains in mid-April. All summer, seedlings from last year sprouted, grew to different heights and then were invaded by pigweed.

I’m not sure if they didn’t know the full cycle of a corn field, as men wouldn’t who had had to leave every year for outside work, or if they no longer had younger family members around to help with the clearing. Dying, revived, and new traditions co-existed on my main road this summer while nature ensured the survival of maíz and fathers introduced their young to planting.

Lund, Erin Suzanne. An Anthropological Examination of Classic Maya Burials from Moho Cay, Belieze: Skeletal and Dental Evidence of Demography, Diet, and Health, 2003.

Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

US Dept of Interior, Tewa Basin Study, volume 2, 1935, reprinted by Marta Weigle as Hispanic Villages of Northern New Mexico, 1975.

Usner, Don J. Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza, 1995.

Photograph: Feral ragged corn dried golden by the sun and greyish pigweed; Russian olive in back; 22 November 2008.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pasture Rose

What’s blooming: Freeze dried purple aster by front gate; many trees still hold dead leaves; one family has bagged their dead debris while their neighbors were burning yesterday.
What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae and other conifers, roses, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, hartweig, yellow evening primrose, blue flax, sea pink, winecup, pinks, soapworts, bouncing Bess, beardtongues, snapdragon, Jupiter’s beard, snakeweed, senecio, yarrow, Mount Atlas daisy, Mexican hat, chocolate flower, June and other grasses, alfalfa; only protected leaves survive on sweet pea, hollyhock, catmint, chrysanthemum and purple coneflower
What’s gray, blue or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, chamisa, Silver King artemisia.
What’s red or orange: Pasture rose, spirea, raspberry, cholla, privet, coral bells, white beardtongue, pink evening primrose.
What’s turning yellow: Cottonwood, willow, globe willow, Apache plume, iris, Saint John’s wort, golden spur columbine.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, rochea, bougainvillea; Christmas cactus leaves turning red.
Animal sightings: Brown bird with dark head in cherry; horses brought in to browse mown alfalfa field down the road.
Weather: Rain Monday with heavy frost on windshield subsequent mornings when temperatures fell to high 20's after dawn; 9:13 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: A run of mornings with consistently cool temperatures this year has given the valley something rare: fall color. Not only have huge cottonwoods changed into golden domes, but tamarixes and other small-leaved plants have transmuted into orange-shaded lattices. The sand cherries turned their usual purple, but here and there some neighbors’ shrubs have been the brilliant red of maples.
In my yard, the pasture roses have been the most amazing because they not only turned red, but the leaves glowed when light filtered through them. The maroon raspberries at their feet were comparative dullards, opaque ground-hugging triangles of hairy corduroy.
The reds come from anthocyanins, flavonid chemicals formed by interactions between sugars and proteins that protect plant tissues by absorbing ultraviolet light. They become more prevalent in leaves when cool weather slows the production of chlorophyl and other protective agents are generated. With many hybrid roses, the new growth is red until photosynthesis accelerates. On some cultivars, the leaves keep a red edge long into the blooming season.
In the fall most hybrid rose leaves darken, then dry and fall from stems that tend to stay green all winter. The only other roses I have that shaded into burgundy this year have been the crenellated rugosas. The precise shade of an anthocyanin red is determined by the pH in the plant sap, which in turn is controlled by the soil: the more alkaline the soil, the bluer the color.
Japanese scientists have been curious about the distribution of the some 550 anthocyanins so far identified. Among wild and cultivated roses they found chemical patterns identified three subgroups within the Rosa genus: one the gallica, chinensis, Synstylae (including winchurana, musk and multiflora), Cherokee, Macartney and Banksia, another the species of Scotch roses, and a third which includes dog, carolina, and cinnamon roses.

Volker Wissemann and Christiane Ritz found members of the last two groups did not share the same DNA patterns as the first. Others found the carolinas, native to eastern North America, are natural scions of Rosa arkansana and Rosa virginiana, both themselves natural hybrids of other native roses. Apparently, as the plants evolved on two continents, the chemistry of the American roses diverged from the Eurasian ones originally used to create modern hybrids.

I got my carolina rose through one of those impulses that happen after one has dutifully pruned one’s wish list to fit the budget, and then said, "oh why not" when filling out the order form. In 1998 I bought seeds from Prairie Nursery, blithely ignoring the warning that the "seeds are double dormant and require treatment to break dormancy and induce germination." When nothing sprouted I shrugged.

Four years later, in 2002, I noticed what looked like rose leaves in the drip line where I had dropped some 300 seeds and wondered, but I cautioned myself with memories of other briars that had looked like roses only to become unwelcome pests. Leaves continued to appear each year, teasing me with possibilities, and then colonized last year among the raspberry canes.

Then on June 10 a single pink flower appeared, and I knew I had grown a carolina rose from seed. That doesn’t sound like much if you live where pasture roses sucker into great thickets, but here the "dry prairie" of a Wisconsin seed company is only a wet dream. Even if all I ever get are leaves, I now know at least once a decade, when the fall is both cool and dry, I’m going to have the most spectacular red leaves in the valley.

Notes:Joly, Simon, Julian R. Starr, Walter H. Lewis and Anne Bruneau. "Polyploid and Hybrid Evolution in Roses East of the Rocky Mountains," American Journal of Botany 93:412-425:2006.

Mikanagi, Yuki, Masato Yokoi, Norio Saito and Yoshihiro Ueda. "Flower Flavonol and Anthocyanin Distribution in Subgenus Rosa," Biochemical Systematics and Ecology 23:183-200:1995.

Prairie Nursery. Wildflowers and Native Grasses, 1996 catalog.

Wissemann, Vilker and Christiane M. Ritz. "The Genus Rosa (Rosoideae, Rosaceae) Revisited: Molecular Analysis of nrITS-1 and atpB-rbcL Intergenic Spacer (IGS) versus Conventional Taxonomy," Linnean Society Botanical Journal 147:275 - 290:2005.

Photograph: Pasture rose, 9 November 2008, with darker raspberry leaves at bottom left and native grasses in rear.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Chocolate Flower

What’s blooming: Chrysanthemums in town next to wall, purple aster next to cedar fence, fern-leaf yarrow may have bud; vegetable gardens have been cleared, and some have been burning dead weeds.
What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae, roses, forsythia, privet, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, daylily, red hot poker, baptista, sweet pea, vinca, golden spur columbine, rock rose, hartweig, yellow evening primrose now darker, yellow flax, sea pink, hollyhock, winecup, catmint, calmintha, oriental poppy, pinks, soapworts, bouncing Bess, beardtongues, globemallow, Jupiter’s beard, snakeweed, senecio, yarrow, Mount Atlas daisy, coreopsis, perky Sue, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, dandelion, needle, June, and other grasses, alfalfa.
What’s gray, blue or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, California poppy, yellow alyssum, chamisa, Silver King artemisia; Russian olive leaves dead on trees.
What’s red or orange: Tamarix, prairie rose, spirea, raspberry, sand cherry, cholla, barberry, leadplant dropping leaves, coral bells, white beardtongue, pink evening primrose, tansy turning red, purple coneflower.
What’s turning yellow: Siberian elm, cottonwood, willow, globe willow, apples, apricot, Apache plume, iris, phlox, blue flax, purple ice plant, Saint John’s wort.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, rochea, bougainvillea has recovered from first cold nights.
Animal sightings: None.
Weather: Morning temperatures in mid-20's; last rain, 10/14/2008; 9:41 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: As anyone who has coexisted with a cat knows, domestication is, at best, a negotiated condition. There was Dusty who insisted on snuggling into armpits and weaving underfoot, and Maui who would plop into any warm lap. Then there was my childhood pet, who spent most of his time roaming the neighborhood and only came home to heal his wounds, and yet on those rare days when he remembered where we lived, insisted on sleeping on my bed.
Chocolate flowers are a lot like Tom. They don’t stay where they’re planted but reseed randomly, then spend their summers sprawling about the garden, covering some three feet with gray-leaved stems tipped by opulent yellow daisies. However, as soon as the weather turns bad, they huddle against the house begging to be brought inside the stockade. In return for reflected heat, they were one of the last flowers to open before morning temperatures plunged into the middle 20's this week.
Berlandiera lyrata is native to the western highland limestone shortgrass prairies running from Kansas down to México where Theodor Hartweg collected one on the way to Zacatecas for the Horticultural Society of London in 1837. The only people who seemed to have cared were botanists interested in defining the relationships between various species in the composite family.
Few even noticed the yellow ray flowers which often drop by noon. Many called it green-eye because the surviving lime green calyx maintains a dark center, divided into sections like a grapefruit. Then, it fossilizes into a tan shell with narrow dark seeds and a whitish center.
It still had no common name in 1930 when Liberty Hyde Bailey noted Berlandiera are tamable and "sometimes transferred to grounds." Still, the first edition of Sunset’s Western Garden Book ignored them in 1950 and the Denver Water Board overlooked them in 1996.
No one considered the tap-rooted perennial a serious garden flower until people began moving into the intermountain west where moisture was scarce and eastern favorites couldn’t survive the altitude, water and temperature extremes no matter how carefully they were tended. Even then, seed catalogs were careful to use words like "meadow" and "wildflower garden" in their descriptions. Only one actually described its selection as an erect dwarf.
Then someone, perhaps the German Jelitto seed company, called it schokoladenblume, and suddenly everyone noticed it has a pleasant fragrance, even here in arid New Mexico where nothing can be detected from a distance. It’s not clear if the name chocolate flower came from the maroon color of the center disk, or from the aroma. I’ve found no one who has identified the plant’s essential oils, but one perfume company, Cacharel, began to include it in one of its blends in 2006.

Chocolate flowers have been growing in my yard since I bought my first plants in Santa Fe in 1997, and they dictated the growing conditions. Fortunately, the areas they stake out are not places other plants want, and so for more than ten years they've been a semidomesticated part of the garden, elbowing the Mexican hats, black-eyed Susans and blanketflowers for lebensraum, coming into bloom by mid-May and staying as long as civilized conditions remain.

Notes:Baily, Liberty Hyde and Ethel Zoe Bailey. Hortus, 1930.

Bentham, George. Plantae Hartwegianae, 1839, edited by David Winger, 1996.

Sunset. Western Garden Book, 1954, edited by Walter L. Doty and Paul C. Johnson.

Photograph: Chocolate flower next to stucco wall, 1 November 2008; dark shadow is the green calyx.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Purple Coneflower

What’s blooming: Second generation snapdragon, single purple aster plant, chrysanthemums, one blanket flower, one golden hairy aster, chocolate flower near house.
What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae, roses, forsythia, privet, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, daylily, red hot poker, baptista, sweet pea, vinca, golden spur columbine, rock rose, hartweig, yellow evening primrose, yellow flax, sea pink, hollyhock, winecup, catmint, calmintha, salvias, oriental poppy, pinks, soapworts, bouncing Bess, coral bells, beardtongues, globemallow, Jupiter’s beard, snakeweed, senecio, yarrow, Mount Atlas daisy, coreopsis, perky Sue, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, tansy, dandelion, needle, June, blue grama and other grasses.
What’s gray, blue or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, loco, snow-in-summer, California poppy, Silver King artemisia.
What’s red or orange: Tamarix, prairie rose, spirea, snowball, sand cherry, cholla, leadplant, white beardtongue, pink evening primrose, purple coneflower; purple sand cherry dropping leaves, barberry turning yellow.
What’s turning yellow: Siberian elm, cottonwood, willow, globe willow, apples, apricot, Apache plume, iris, phlox, blue flax, purple ice plant, Rumanian sage, sidalcea, sedum, Saint John’s wort, Mönch aster; catalpa, Bradford pear, peach, cherries, lilacs, caryopteris dropping leaves.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, rochea.
Animal sightings: Birds heard rustling branches but not seen.
Weather: Early morning temperatures flirt with 32 degrees, clear, starry nights; last rain, 10/14/2008; 9:58 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Some thirteen years ago I bought two purple coneflowers in Santa Fe for the garage. One survived and by 1998 had become established enough to put out multiple stalks and a daughter. The following year more seedlings appeared and I decided to help the process by breaking apart the seed heads, like I do with marigolds.
I learned one painful lesson. Not all composites are alike, and knowledge from one cannot always be transferred to another. If I’d been raised at a time when one learned smatterings of Greek and Latin, I might have known the root for Echinacea meant spiny. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s made this mistake: King’s American Dispensatory described the fruiting head as a hedgehog in 1898.
Later I realized this was the same Echinacea purpurea people were proposing as an alternative treatment for AIDS, cancer, the common cold, and whatever other condition could not be explained by modern medicine. I also realized how many made the same kinds of mistakes by thinking by analogy and how much knowledge has been lost since medical practice coalesced around William Osler’s 1892 medical text and the later formation of the FDA.
The plant promoted by King was Echinacea angustifolia, which grows on limestone plains east of the Rockies where many tribes used the large taproot for medicine. H. F. C. Meyer heard about saparidu hahts for snakebite from Pawnee and, like other doctors of the period, tested it on himself: he claimed he let a rattlesnake bite him in 1871, then bathed the bite with a tincture and drank some of the liquid.
Having survived, he wanted to market it commercially, and in 1885 sent specimens to John King, one of the leading eclectic physicians. King did more tests and began promoting it through the Eclectic Medical Journal in 1887. By 1903 it was so popular, King’s Dispensatory warned "it has suffered the usual over-estimation, and the exaggerated claims" made for new remedies. One even claimed it cured impotency.
Purpurea grows in parts of the Mississippi drainage and has fibrous roots which make it easier to transplant, and facilitated its adaptation as a garden plant. King’s handbook indicates it too was used with for medicine, but seems to have been limited to treating syphilis. Who knows if it was the confusion of species, the easier availability of the garden plant, or the association with sexually transmitted diseases that led to its first use for AIDS.
In the early twentieth century, pharmacists and physicians knew the significance of species, and also knew angustifolia roots from the Smokey Hills area of Kansas and Nebraska were better than those from marshes, and that methods of digging and curing roots mattered. Eclectic manuals described the roots in detail; chemists devised tests to distinguish good extracts from false or adulterated ones; dosages were clearly defined.
After the introduction of sulfa, the interest in angustifolia declined, and with it the body of knowledge accumulated by doctors accustomed to seeing themselves as natural scientists and pharmacists trained to judge for themselves the purity of their products. When coneflower became popular in the 1990's, researchers discovered commercial preparations, made outside the jurisdiction of the FDA, could use either species, leaves or roots, in varying levels of potency. Medical experimenters were no more knowledgeable about the differences and their varied results added to the confusion about the efficacy of the herb.
Since, chemists have suggested polysaccarides from purpurea may be the agent that promotes the growth of T-cells. Others have found purpurea extracts increase the number of killer cells in aging mice that lead to higher survival rates from leukemia. However, researchers are still trying to identify the specific chemical or group of chemicals that can be used in the replicable tests necessary to send something for FDA approval.
In the meantime, the ignorance that follows from a paradigm shift continues, especially now that malpractice suits are used to establish accountability. I have a friend who found Echinacea root for sale with no instructions for use. Since it was a root, she chewed it like she would a carrot. Her body spent the better part of two days renouncing her. Since that’s not one of the reported allergic reactions, she has no idea if it was the root that was toxic for her, or if it had been contaminated by a preservative or some fungus.
So while scientists are relearning the knowledge of previous generations of herbal practitioners, people like my friend and I are left to relearning the lessons of childhood. She’s a bit more cautious about what she puts in her mouth, and I’m a whole lot more careful about grabbing an unknown flower.
Notes: Eclectic practitioners were somewhere between homeopathists, allopathists, and physicians in the competing medical theories during the nineteenth century.Felter, Harvey Wickes and John Uri Lloyd. King's American Dispensatory, 1898, Henriette Kress’s copy available online.Gilmore, Melvin R. Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, 1919, reports Pawnee use for snake bites.
Kindscher, Kelly. The Conservation Status of Echinacea Species, 2006.

Osler, William. The Principles and Practice of Medicine, 1892.

Photograph: Purple coneflower after first frosts, 26 October 2008, with Silver King artemisia.