Sunday, September 05, 2010

Goat's Head

What’s blooming in the area behind the walls and fences: Hybrid tea roses, bird of paradise, buddleia, silver lace vine, honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, Heavenly Blue morning glories, purple phlox, Sensation cosmos, French marigolds; Virginia creeper berries turning purple; yellowing apples visible in only one orchard; baling hay.

Outside the fences: Apache plume, leather-leaf globemallow, velvetweed, scarlet beeblossom, white and yellow evening primroses, datura, bindweed, scarlet creeper, ivy-leaf morning glory, stickleaf, white sweet clover, goat’s head, prostrate knotweed, toothed spurge, amaranth, pigweed, ragweed, Russian thistle, chamisa, snakeweed, goat’s beard, paper flower, spiny lettuce, horseweed, golden hairy asters, áñil del muerto, native sunflowers, goldenrod, gumweed, Tahokia daisy; red top and black grama grasses; buds on broom senecio, heath and purple asters.

In my yard looking north: Miniature roses, golden spur columbine, Hartweig evening primrose, nasturtium, chocolate flower, blanket flower, coreopsis, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, anthemis, yellow cosmos, chrysanthemum.

Looking east: Floribunda roses, hosta, hollyhock, winecup, sidalcea, Jupiter’s beard, large-leaf soapwort, baby’s breath, pink evening primrose, Shirley poppy, scarlet flax, reseeded and Crimson Glory morning glories, garlic chives, Autumn Joy sedum, cut-leaf coneflower, zinnias, Maximilian sunflower.

Looking south: Blaze and rugosa roses, rose of Sharon, Illinois bundle flower, sweet pea.

Looking west: Russian sage, caryopteris, catmint, lady bells, David phlox, perennial four o’clock, calamintha, lead plant, purple ice flower, purple coneflower, Mönch aster.

Bedding plants: Moss rose, snapdragon, nicotiana, sweet alyssum.

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, hummingbird on hollyhocks, goldfinches, gecko, wasp, black harvester and small red ants; Canada geese near village.

Weather: Rained before dawn Monday; hot afternoon temperatures offset the moisture and cool mornings; 12:48 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: When I was in sixth grade, we were asked to bring a poem to school. I still remember mine:

Poison ivy, poison oak
Beautiful, but do not stroke

This couplet probably didn’t impress my teacher with my finer aesthetic sensibilities, but I think it did reveal an awareness of the duplicities of nature lacking in my better prepared peers who spent too much time indoors.

It always surprises me when I see people walk on goat’s head as if it were harmlessly sunning on the sidewalk. Bill Davis claims he repairs "thousands of flat tires" in his Boise, Idaho, bicycle shop caused by puncture vine.

George Stuart translates the Chinese name for its tan seed pod, chih-hsiung, to mean "preventing walking." It’s Greek name, caltrop, comes from spiked iron balls planted in front of calvary horses to halt their advance. Wikipedia repeats the tale that murderers in South Africa smear poison on the burs and leave them in the path of their victims. My Spanish-speaking friends simply call them tortitos.

This is not a plant to ignore.

But my neighbors do. Every year since I learned its dangers, I’ve pulled plants whenever I’ve seen them, most from my drive or the garden bed at the downhill end of the drive. Generally the stringy white taproot comes out easily.

My next door neighbor removes them, but only after their spidery stems have radiated a foot from the crown and bloomed a while. My uphill neighbor simply gets on his rider mower whenever the pigweed gets tall. The goat’s head patch growing in the old horse corral gets trimmed at the same time, but the plants send out more ground-hugging stems and continue blooming.

Goat’s head promises much when it emerges with the monsoons that follow the drought of July that leaves me willing to accept anything, so long as it’s green and covers barren soil. When the tiny stems branch from the main fleshy one with five to eight pairs of rounded leaves folded towards each other, newcomers think maybe, if there were enough, they could overlap and blanket the ground. And indeed this year, when more than usual have sprouted, the stems that normally sprawl are reaching up in places in billowing mounds of bright green.

The promise is fulfilled when the tiny yellow flowers emerge at the tips of small stems rising from the leaflet junctions. With their flat five petals that open in the morning and close by noon, they resemble oxalis or purslane.

Then the promise is betrayed. The stem grows to hatch new flowers, while the older petals fall away leaving a five-part ovary. Each detachable section is hardened with two or more sharp spines designed to stick any unwary passerby who might unintentionally plant it.

Three to five long, narrow seeds are nestled inside waiting for a summer like this. The largest germinates first; the others may lie dormant, waiting for better conditions. This summer, the first plants appeared along the road the first of July; then, masses appeared the first of August. If the nutlets bury themselves well, the seeds can survive twenty years.

Tribulus terrestris isn’t native to this continent. People assume it arrived in the late nineteenth century when midwesterners brought animals from Europe to improve their herds. Duncan Porter says it was first noticed in California in 1902. By 1915 it was seen around Deming, Glorietta and the Mesilla valley. It spread everywhere with the automobile, but became most common in this part of the country with its warm, dry monsoon climate.

Shepherds soon learned goat’s head could be fatal to sheep and that animals would seek it out. By 1961, the annual had become such a nuisance the government imported two species of weevils to control it. One feeds on the seeds; the other on the stems. The only side effect scientists have noted is that the attacked plants produce more flowers which produce more pods which attacking weevils use to produce more weevils.

In the old world, herbalists in India, China and the middle east learned the plant contains a number of useful chemicals. Maude Grieve reports burra gookeroo was taken back to England where it was used to treat male impotence, nocturnal emissions, and incontinence. In this country, homeopathists bought ikshugandha from the East Indies for "seminal weakness, ready emissions and impoverished semen" and "partial impotence caused by over indulgence of advancing age."

In 1999, with all the intrigue of a cold war spy, Emeric Delczeg told bodybuilders who read Pump that the Bulgarian government had isolated its active ingredient, protodioscin, and developed a secret supplement for its Olympic teams. The only reason he knew about it was that he had been on the Romanian National Weightlifting team at the time.

Delczeg wasn’t the most disinterested source. He was a partner in a nutritional supplements company that sold Tribestan and was later publicized by investigation into Barry Bonds access to steroids. In 2005, the government outlawed most prohormones. Jim Stoppani immediately told readers of Flex that the active ingredient in Tribulus terrestris was a precursor to testosterone that wasn’t covered by the ban.

Scientists haven’t been able to establish the benefits of goat’s head extracts, but that doesn’t stop men from hoping. After all, Delczeg told them only the Bulgarian products were good because they "add a specific fertilizer to the soil." The website for the product he was selling also mentions an Indonesian study that discovered plants grown on different soils had different levels of the chemical.

A perhaps less biased team in Iran tested the effectiveness of the member of the Zygophylla family against urinary infections and established it was useful against three types of bacteria. They noted earlier studies had shown plants grown in Yemen had no utility, but all parts of the plant grown in Turkey were efficacious. They themselves found the fruit, stem and leaves collected near Arak were better than the root, but only the pod and leaf were active in India.

If you want to protect your feet or bicycle it’s enough to learn the shape of goat’s head on the road; if that’s too much trouble, the shop in Boise will sell you something to repair your tire in the field. If you want to enhance your masculinity, you either have to find a supplier who understands plants or spend more time sweating in the gym.

A child’s rhyme and a downward cast eye are only the beginning of the initiation into the mysteries of nature.

Notes:Adimoelja, Arif. "Phytochemicals and the Breakthrough of Traditional Herbs in the Management of Sexual Dysfunction," International Journal of Andrology 23:82-84:2000. He did tests in Indonesia using Tribestan and cites the unavailable Sidik, "Etnopharmacognosy and Phytochemical Aphrodisiac," Seminar on ‘Botanical Aphrodisiac,’ University of Jakarta, 1999, for his information on the variable effects of soil.

Boericke, William. Materia Medica, 1901; augmented 1927 edition kept in print by B. Jahn Publishers of New Dehli.

Davis, Bill. Quoted by Rachel Abrahamson, "The Trouble with Tribulus terrestris L.," Boise Weekly, 25 July 2007.

Delczeg, Emeric. "Tribestan," Pump, January/February, 1999.

Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal, 1931, edited by Hilda Leyel.

Kianbakht, Saied and Fereshteh Jahaniani. "Evaluation of Antibacterial Activity of Tribulus terrestris L. Growing in Iran," Iranian Journal of Pharmacology and Therapeutics 2:22-24:2003.

McDonough, Sean P., Amy H. Woodbury, F. D. Galey, Dennis W. Wilson, Nancy East, and Elizabeth Bracken. "Hepatogenus Photosensitization of Sheep in California Associated with Ingestion of Tribulus terrestris (Puncture Vine)," Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation 6:392-395:1994.

Porter, Duncan M. Entries for Zygophyllaceae, Tribulus and T. terrestris L. in The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California, 1993; James C. Hickman’s revision of Willis Linn Jepson, Manual of the Flowering Plants of California, 1925.

Stoppani, Jim. "Beat the Ban: Eight Testosterone-Boosting Supplements to Replace Recently Banned Prohormones," Flex, May, 2005.

Stuart, George Arthur. Chinese Materia Medica, 1911, reprinted by Gordon Press, 1977.

University of California, Riverside. "Puncturevine," Biological-Integrated Pest Control and Insect Identification website; seed feeding weevil is Microlarinus lareynii, stem and crown mining weevil is Microlarinus lypriformis.

Wikipedia. "Tribulus terrestris" which cites "Tribulus terrestris" in the Botanical Dermatology Database as its source for the South African anecdote. The database in turn cites John Mitchell Watt and Maria Gerdin Breyer-Brandwijk, The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa, 1962 edition, which is not easily available.

Wooten, Elmer Otis and Paul Carpenter Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915.

Photograph: Goat’s head growing in a dense patch beside the main road, 29 August 2010.

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