Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cimex, -icis +fuga

When, in 6th grade Latin Composition, the surly and hopelessly lazy (Izod pique knit collar flipped UP) Brian grumbled to my wonderful teacher "Latin's STUPID. No one uses Latin..." I recall turning to him and explaining that "you're just saying that because you don't underSTAND it, idiot. Guh." So endearing, I had a lot of friends in middle school. I still do, so many friends, especially my local Health Department's Weed Inspector who would really like me to brushhog my weeds ...weeds like Aster cordiformis, Carex davisii and the rest of the 68 woodland species that grow naturally on my single family lot in west central Columbia.

But knowing Latin and Greek has its perks in the world of casual botany in which I participate. There are easy names, like the hirtas and the luteas, quite a few hispida, -us, -um relatives. But then there are the fun names, like Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh.

Horace used the word cimex a few times in his writings, but not to mean bug=insect. It's actually used as a term "of reproach." Translated literally as "a bug," then coupled with fuga: to flee, or flight, it seems that the genus of this remarkably tall and lovely woodland plant has so fetid a fragrance as to attract specific beetles and other insects (or that insects flee it). Considering that when I've seen black cohosh in bloom, it's mobbed by insects of various orders, I'm going with the idea that the flower stalks smell so curious that the plant is appreciated by insects attracted to certain pungent smells. In one field guide, the smell was described as "fetid, almost medicinal." But it's really not that bad.

Black cohosh --long used in homeopathy to treat disorders pertaining to menopause, depression, menstrual issues-- grows throughout the Ozarks in dry, rocky woodlands. You'll likely see it on north and east facing slopes, roughly midslope, in dry mesic situations. Nowhere in literature does it mention the colonizing behaviour of this plant, but C. racemosa is rhizomatous and in situations where little else grows around it, the plant can form large colonies. In one overgrazed and now deer-infested woodland, an entire hillside was a monoculture of black cohosh.

While I certainly appreciate the laudatory medicinal properties of so many of our native plants, I do not condone collecting native plant material from native settings for these purposes. Root digging for plants of the genus Echinacea, for example, destroys glades and woodlands; digging up plants turns these fragile areas into barren wastelands with few plants but disturbance-loving Sporobolus neglectusand dense, overcrowded coneflowers rooted from the little pieces left behind during the digging exercise.

Last year, thousands of Scuttelaria lateriflora plants were harvested from the Ozarks for the medicinal trade. We simply don't have enough of our naturally occurring plants in native settings for this kind of intense harvest. And moss? For some reason, there's some market for native mosses. Hundreds of pounds of moss have been harvested illegally from our public lands in the Ozarks. Our damaged, ill-managed, and fragile landscapes can't recover from these intense extractive practices. 200 years ago they may have been able to heal quickly, but today, our natural landscapes are diminishing.

Check out the beautiful stalks of flowering black cohosh this month, look for the beetle that I only ever see on this flower, and if you buy the black cohosh remedy for hot flashes, make sure it's from a farmed or otherwise sustainable source.


Anonymous said...

Just to clarify...substances prepared in homeopathic form is faaaar less destructive than tinctures made in herbal form. yes, it does take quite a bit of harvesting to make herbal tinctures, which is why, I believe, most reputable companies grow their own in greenhouses or appropriate climate. When substances are prepared in homeopathic form, the mother tincture (which may only consist of a few plants or minerals from one highly specific location) will last for many years, due to the process of potentization. I won't get into that here, but just know that homeopathic remedies don't require even a fraction of what herbal remedies require to work effectively. AB

Allison Vaughn said...

Very interesting. We've had lots of herbal remedy harvesting going on in Missouri that's been really detrimental to the whole ecosystem. I know you wouldn't support anything that would be destructive...
Is it true about the healing properties of Cimicifuga?

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear people are still being insensitive to the landscape, that's just not ok. You know I agree with you totally on that matter, I just dont want homeopathy getting the bad reputation.
Yep, Cimicifuga in homeopathic form is a fantastic remedy... if the entire symptom picture fits. You know how it is with homeopathy, super individualised.

Allison Vaughn said...

You know I wouldn't denigrate homeopathy at all! I think the trade has died down a little bit lately in the Ozarks, but for a while, large advertisements were published throughout the state by herbal remedy shops that proclaimed "Buying Echinacea roots! Top Dollar!" and then they'd show a picture of a nice Ozark glade in an area I work in, covered in coneflowers. I know a few blogs in the Ozarks that tout the benefits of native plant remedies, and how the land "just keeps giving" but the land can naturally only give so much. I'm glad there are greenhouses out there (as I knew there were) for reputable buyers; it just wouldn't seem to be a sustainable business practice to depend on USFS land and illegal harvest. You know all that, and I know all that. You know I support homeopathy--I have a healed psoas without surgery to prove it. I need some help with my torn rotator cuff (before fire season).