Sunday, July 08, 2012

Great Mullein

Weather: Storms passed over all week, but only brought increased humidity and, one morning, a wet fence; last rain 5/13/12; 14:32 hours of daylight today.

Afternoon clouds first appear over Tsikomó, then drift north behind the Jémez. This is probably one reason this was seen as a sacred mountain.

With afternoon clouds moderating temperatures a little, buds that didn’t open in the heat are coming out, including a hedgehog cactus, a Dr. Huey rose, the Persian rose and a cluster on the catalpa. Also, the raspberries are no longer drying before they’re ripe, though they’re stunted.

What’s blooming in the area: Tree of heaven, hybrid perpetual roses, buddleia, bird of Paradise, silver lace vine, trumpet creeper, red yucca, daylily, rose of Sharon, hollyhock, datura, sweet pea, alfalfa, Russian sage, purple garden phlox, single sunflowers, yellow flowered yarrow, zinnias, Shasta daisies; apricots ripening.

Beyond the walls and fences: Tamarix, leatherleaf globemallow, mullein, alfilerillo, tumble mustard, stick leaf, scarlet bee blossom, velvetweed, white and pink bindweeds, scurf peas, bush morning glory, silver leaf nightshade cut down, buffalo gourd, Indian paintbrush, horse tail, prostrate knotweed, goat’s head, Hopi tea, plain’s paper flower, goat’s beard, fleabane, horseweed, local Mexican hat, golden hairy asters, áZil del muerto, native dandelion; buds on goldenrod.

In my yard, looking east: Snow-in-summer, bouncing Bess, white and creeping baby’s breath, coral beardtongue, Jupiter’s beard, pink evening primrose, winecup mallow, sidalcea Party Girl, California and Shirley poppies, Saint John’s wort; leaves turning brown on oriental poppies.

Looking south: Rugosa, floribunda and miniature roses, Dutch clover, Illinois bundle flower.

Looking west: Caryopteris, oriental lilies, blue flax, Siberian and Seven Hills Giant catmints, leadplant, Johnson’s Blue geranium, Goodness Grows speedwell, David phlox, white spurge, perennial four o’clock, sea lavender, ladybells, Mönch asters, purple coneflowers.

Looking north: Golden spur columbine, hartweig evening primrose, butterfly weed, squash, chocolate flower, coreopsis, blanket flower, anthemis, Mexican hat, chrysanthemum.

Bedding plants: Petunia, nicotiana, snapdragons.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums, aptenia.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, hummingbirds, small brown birds, geckos, hummingbird moths, cabbage and other butterflies, bees, hornets, harvester and small black ants.

Weekly update: When I was child in the 1950’s I believed almost anything I was told about how Indians had lived. The protests of the 1960's and 70's made me less credulous.

When I recently read that native Americans used mullein leaves for diapers, my first thought was have you - and I think it was a male blog writer - have you ever really handled a mullein leaf?

I know the leaves are large, up to 20" long, 4" wide, and 3/8" thick. I also know they’re covered with soft, tiny hairs which give them a fuzzy feel. But would you seriously place them next to your more sensitive body parts if anything else was available?

I picked a leaf from a roadside plant and stuck it in some water to bring home. Within half an hour, the submerged section was dark green from the moisture. The exposed part still repelled droplets. I’m not sure which attribute the blogger thinks would make it useful as a diaper.

When I was searching the web to reread that blogger, I came across another man who called himself Quaker Dan who said he knew great mullein as Indian Toilet Paper when he was a child. That’s a very different thing. Verbascum thapsus has also been called Witch’s Candles, Beggar’s Blanket and Quaker Rouge.

Most such names are less facts than negative stereotypes perpetuated by outsiders.

The only natives I’ve found who claim to have used the leaves for diapers are the Lumbees of Robeson County, North Carolina, a people who know better than most the dangers of exoteric perceptions. Anthropologists consider them to be tri-racial, while local politicians defined them as legally black in an era when that condemned them to Jim Crow segregation.

They’ve been arguing ever since they’re pure descendants of the Cheraw who migrated to the Pee Dee river from the Danville area of Virginia in 1703. In 1737 they sold their land in South Carolina and moved north.

The source of their belief they used the leaves as diapers could have come from local Scots Irish, slave or Indian traditions, or could have been absorbed from stereotypes. I haven’t found any other group in Europe, Africa or this country who admits to such a usage.

In fact, according to Wikipedia, diapers have only been traced back to the 1590's in England, just before European settlement in North America and just as Protestantism was spreading and attitudes toward the body, bodily functions and child rearing were changing. In this country, Matilda Stevenson says Zuni children simply didn’t wear much clothing until they were four years old.

Even had mullein been used by Europeans for diapers, there was none here to be used in 1620. It ranges from Scandinavia to Africa and west toward China. Gene Wilhelm believes seeds were brought here by men who used them to stupify fish.

However, it also had to have been brought earlier for other reasons. Manasseh Cutler reported its long terminating yellow spikes were “common in old fields” in July in New England in 1785.

Dioscorides first mentioned great mullein was used in the Roman empire in the first century AD to treat old coughs, while Francis Quinlan suggested it was particularly valued in Ireland for treating tuberculosis in 1883. Its use for these and related respiratory problems has been reported by tribes with close relations to either the English (Cherokee, Creek, Delaware, Lumbee, Malecite, Micmac, Mohegan, Penobscot, Shinnecock) or the French (Iroquois, Menominee, Potawatomi).

Ben-Erik Van Wyk and Michael Wink suggest the efficacy of this and related members of the figwort family comes from the presence of triterpene saponins like verbascosaponin combined with mucilage in the dried petals. They also say it’s been used successfully for ear aches (Iroquois), hemorrhoids (Iroquois), sores (Catawba, Lumbee, Malecite, Micmac) and boils.

All these tribes live east of the Appalachians or around the Great Lakes. The only groups in the west who used the herb are the Atsugewi of California and the Salish of Montana. The first used it for colds and in their sweat lodges; the second for tuberculosis.

The small seeds may not have arrived in New Mexico until modern roads were built. Stevenson doesn’t mention its use by the Zuni in the early twentieth century when Elmer Wooton and Paul Standley could still list all the places it had been found: Cedar Hill, Pecos, Mogollon and along Ruidoso Creek.

It since has spread to many parts of the state, at least those parts where there are major roads. A tall plant’s blooming behind a steel barrier on the way to Santa Fé. Usually leafing stalks get cut by road crews, and only the ones that bolt after the onset of the monsoons survive to flower. They usually leave brown stalks about two feet high and seeds that can survive for decades in the soil.

Someone down the road has let one grow by the entrance to his front drive. The biennial would have appeared as a rosette of wide grey leaves last summer, and wintered over to send up its stem of compressed leaves this spring.

When mullein first appeared in the southwest, people apparently noticed its similarity to the local tobacco, Nicotiana attenuata, and experimented with rolling powdered leaves in corn husks. Local Spanish speakers called the tobacco punche and mullein punchón. As a consequence, they discovered inhaling the smoke was good for asthma symptoms.

The Zuni also recognized the plant’s similarity to tobacco when they finally saw it and called it anna lanna. In the 1970's, people said they had used powdered roots to treat athlete’s foot. They also called the plant amidolan kwiminne when they used the roots to treat sores, rashes and other skin infections.

The Ramah Navajo considered it to be a male plant which they combined with a female, Frasera speciosa or deer’s ears, whose leaves were mixed with mountain tobacco “to give strength and to clear mind if lost while hunting or if confused after returning from a hunt, enables clear thinking so the way to camp may be found.”

The Hopi called their tobacco paviva and mullein wupaviva. The chief smoked the tobacco mixed with Macromeria viridiflora to bring rain. When mullein arrived, people mixed it with yoiviva to “cure people who have ‘fits” or who are not in their ‘right mind’” or who have “power to charm at a distance.”

Dan Moerman thinks the last refers to witchcraft, which brings us back to the nature of plants that leads to the rediscovery of the same traits by different people in different places and different times. The Apuleius Platonicus herbal, a pastiche of Dioscorides, Anglo-Saxon and possibly north African beliefs surviving from the late 1000's, says Mercury gave the plant to Ulysses to protect him from the evil magic of Circe.

Apuleius Platonicus. Comments on Verbascum from P. Buchan, Witchcraft Detected and Prevented, 1824. In book 10 of The Odyssey, Homer has Ulysses say “The Slayer of Argus plucked from the ground the herb he promised me. The Gods call it Moly, and he showed me its nature, to be black at the root with a flower like milk. It would be difficult for men and mortals to dig up Moly; but the Gods can do anything” (translated by T. E. Shaw). There’s no scholarly consensus on the identity of moly, since it doesn’t sound like mullein.

Boughman, Arvis Locklear and Loretta O. Oxendine. Herbal Remedies of the Lumbee Indians, 2004.

Camazine, Scott and Robert A. Bye. “A Study Of The Medical Ethnobotany Of The Zuni Indians of New Mexico,” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 2:365-388:1980.

Curtin, Leonora Scott Muse. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.

Cutler, Manasseh. An Account of Some of the Vegetable Productions, 1785.

Dioscorides, Pedanius. De Materia Medica, book 4, translation found on Cancerlynx website. He claimed white phlomis was female and listed additional uses, including bruises and wounds.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998. He includes other uses not mentioned here, including its use as ceremonial tobacco by the Isleta and Menominee.

Quaker Dan. “Indian Diapers & Toilet Paper,” Back 40 Forums website, 8 August 2009. The discussion began when someone who called himself The Old Buzzard described the complex way he shredded first year leaves and placed the fragments within layers of leaves to create modern style diapers for his children.

Quinlan, F. J. B. “A Note upon the Use of the Mullein Plant in the Treatment of Pulmonary Consumption,” British Medical Journal 27 January 1883, pages 149-150. He read his paper at the 1884 International Medical Congress in Copenhagen. His talk and article were widely publicized in this country and its recommendations adopted by men like Herman Wilfert, who reported his experiments in “The Treatment of Pulmonary Consumption by the Mullein Plant,” The Cincinnati Lancet and Clinic 14:584-185:1885.

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

_____. Ethnobotany of the Zuni Indians, 1915.

Van Wyk, Ben-Erik and Michael Wink. Medicinal Plants of the World, 2004. They discuss another species, the one used today in commercial herbal medicines, but they indicate all Verbascums have the same properties.

Vestal, Paul A. The Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho, 1952.

Whiting, Alfred F. Ethnobotany of the Hopi, 1939. He used the synonym Onosmodium thurberi for deer ears.

Wikipedia. On-line articles on “Diaper.”

Wilhelm, Gene, Jr. "The Mullein: Plant Piscicide of the Mountain Folk Culture." Geographical Review 64: 235-52:1974. Although it’s widely cited, I haven’t been able to locate the article or an abstract to determine exactly what location he is describing. If it were Appalachia, the people could have been related to the Scots Irish who made contact with the Cherokee, Creek and Lumbee.

Wooton, Elmer O. and Paul C. Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915, reprinted by J. Cramer, 1972.

1. Giant mullein growing down the road, 6 July 2012.

2. Same plant, 5 June 2012.

3. Leaves on mullein growing along road to Santa Fé, 2 July 2012.

4. Leaf from above plant along road to Santa Fé, 2 July 2012.

5. Flower stalk from mullein growing down the road, 2 July 2012.

6. Dead stalks along road to Angel Fire, 18 June 2012.

7. Young plant growing along road on Santa Clara land, 2 July 2011.

8. Dead stalk on plant left in someone’s yard in town, 6 July 2012.

9. Close up of stem and leaves of plant on way to Santa Fé, 2 July 2012.

10. Flowering stalk from mullein growing along main road some years ago, 13 September 2008.

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