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Urbain Jean Faurie: French Missionary and Botanist Extraordinaire (and the continued efforts of Natural History Museum, London)

July 8, 2012

Urbain Faurie care of the Kyoto University Museum

This post is another in a long line of tributes/blatant copies of the great work going on at the erstwhile GPI partner Natural History Museum, London (BM) on the Plant Collectors’ Database. This information is almost verbatim what the great team at London did and so we should consider this post really a testament to their tireless work. My take on the subject is the collector’s work in Asia, predominantly in China and Japan, but also with some incredible work in Korea. So with that preface we move on to the post.

Background: Asia, the late 19th-early 20th centuries, and missionary work

As it was almost everywhere, the late 19th-early 20th centuries was a time of turbulent change. The climax of colonialism, the clash of civilizations made possible by technology and trade, and advancements in many fields made the time a period of great upheaval. This was a particularly acute phenomena in Northeast Asia as China, Korea, and Japan responded to the furnace of modernity with slightly different responses. All tried to modernize to some degree. China and Korea were not as ‘successful’ in this capacity as Japan. Japan modernized so quickly and efficiently they were soon keen to adopt the Western powers’ predilection towards colonial acquistions. Korea fell formally in 1910, but a de facto colonialism was in place well before that.

It was in this upheaval of change, acquisition, shifting power balances, and modernization attempts that religion penetrated Northeast Asia. Truth be told, it predates much of this late 19th century activity, but the world of Urbain Jean Faurie was one where missionaries rode on the coattails of commerce and colonialism into Asia. Some were avid historians who recorded observations of these so-called dying cultures, some did their utmost to preserve the culture itself in the face of modernity, and some chose to record and scientifically document the natural world around them. Faurie falls into this later category. And record he did.

On a side note, missionary work was never the safest business one could undertake in Asia at the time. There were many executions, purges, natural calamities, and even illnesses that overcame these missionaries. Recorded in great detail and again.

If you want background on the subject from the time itself complete with the biases of the time, be sure to check out these free articles.

Urbain Jean Faurie (1847-1915)

I am taking this directly from the Collector entry from JSTOR Plant Science from the team at Natural History Museum, London so I will quote it verbatim:

French missionary and botanist. Père Urbain Faurie was born at Dunières. He joined the Society of Foreign Missionaries in 1869 and after being ordained priest in 1873 went to work in Japan, arriving in Niigata in 1874. Nine years on he was to be found at Hakodate on Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido, which he explored from the Straits of Tsugaru to Aomori in 1897. In the preceding years he had also collected plants in northern and central Honshu and on Kyushu, and visited the northern Ryukyu islands and southern Korea. After his time in Hokkaido he moved to Formosa (Taiwan), where he spent the rest of his days. His collection of several hundred thousand herbarium specimens was deposited in Paris, with duplicates at the University of Kyoto, the British Museum, Kew and elsewhere. Faurie died at Taihoku, Formosa. Many plant species are named in his honour, such as the alpine poppy Papaver fauriei (Fedde) Fedde ex Miyabe & Tatew. and the alder Alnus fauriei H.Lév. & Vaniot.

So, Faurie travels from Niigita to Hokkaido to Korea to Formosa (Taiwan), all relatively far off the trodden missionary track at the time. Along the way, he explores (on foot) these vast lands and collect plants along the way (and attends to his priestly duties, presumably). During this time, he collected several hundred thousand specimens (see below for an example). Quoting from the following source (which the Faurie Collector record also refers to), we see the impact of these collections.

Faurie’s collections have subsequently been studied by many botanists: Maximowicz, and later Franchet and Savatier, cite some of his Niigata collections. A number of specialists studied particular groups such as ferns, sedges and trees as well as specific genera. It is not surprising to find his name attached to many different genera. In gardens we may see the alder, Alnus fauriei, the alpine poppy Papaver faurieiFauria (Nephrophyllidiumcrista-galli, or Rhododendron brachycarpum subsp.fauriei; he is also remembered in a species of lady fern (Athyrium), a saxifrage, an ornamental pear,Ligularia fauriei, a veronica and several other genera.

On JSTOR Plant Science, we have approximately 2500 specimens collected by Faurie throughout China, Japan, and Korea in some of the most far-flung places one could imagine.

Syntype of Adina fauriei H.Lev. collected by Faurie in Quelpaert (modern day Jeju Island), Korea in 1906.

Batik and the plants that dye them: distilling worldviews from plant-based dyes

June 25, 2012

Batik as seen (and purchased) by the author in Makola Market, Accra, Ghana

I had written a year or so ago on the use of dyes in clothing to represent social rank in Korea, one of the more popular posts on this blog, and someone had recommended that I expand on this social structuring via color through the medium of batik. The recommendation came specifically for the use of batik in Indonesia (more specifically, Java), but I thought a broader discussion of batik and the specific plants used for the various dyes was in order.

What is batik?

Batik is a cloth that is made using a dyeing technique with wax. Melted wax is applied to cloth before being dipped in dye. The most common waxes are beeswax and paraffin wax (or sometimes a mixture of the two). The beeswax will hold to the fabric and the paraffin wax will allow cracking. This process of waxing and dyeing can be repeated or condensed depending on the region and the sophistication of the technique. What results from this process tend to be fairly dynamic both in terms of color and pattern. Batik is practiced in many different regions, including Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore), Northeast Asia (Japan, China), Central/South Asia (Azerbaijan, Armenia, India, Sri Lanka) and West Africa (Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Sierra Leone).

Before jumping into the significance of batik in some of these regions, we should discuss the botanical significance of this topic, namely the plants being used for the various dyes in these regions.

Bixa orellana L. from Mali

Bixa orellana L. from Mali, aka annatto- a common dye in batik.

Colorful Plants

Below are some of the more commonly used plants for batik dyeing, although there are many many others in common use as well. The link provided will take you to representative materials (and specimens) on JSTOR Plant Science.

  • Alkanet: Alkanna tinctoria-a plant in the borage family Boraginaceae with a bright blue flower, used to provide a red dye.
  • Annatto: Bixa orellana  -A yellow dye, prepared from the testa, is used chiefly for colouring greasy foodstuffs (including, as I just learned, Cheddar cheese). The plant is also grown for ornament or hedging and used medicinally. Not as commonly used as a clothing dye as it wears out quite easily. Learn more about this versatile plant at the Use Record.
  • Brazilwood: Caesalpinia echinata-a species of Brazilian timber tree in the Fabaceae family. This plant has a dense, orange-red heartwood that yields a red dye called brazilin.
  • Cochineal: Dactylopius coccus- is not a plant, but rather an insect that is used for dyeing. Carminic acid, typically 17–24% of dried insects’ weight, can be extracted from the body and eggs then mixed with aluminum or calcium salts to make carmine dye. Gross, but a dye in great currency in Central America throughout the 15th century.
  • Henna: Lawsonia inermis- a flowering plant from which dye is extracted. Most commonly used for temporary decorative tattoos.
  • Indigo: Indigofera tinctoria- several species, particularly I. arrecta, I. articulata, I. coerulea and I. tinctoria, were once of international importance as the source of the blue-black dye indigo, but now they are only used locally (according to the Flora record).
  • Kamala: Nelumbo nucifera- more commonly referred to as the lotus, is the national flower of India and Vietnam

There are many many more dyes used in batik, but the above gives a bit of a sample of some common ones found in batik regions.

Lawsonia inermis

Lawsonia inermis, from which henna is extracted.

History and Significance of Batik

Batik is an ancient art form. It existed in Egypt in the 4th century BC. Linen for wrapping mummies was soaked in wax, and scratched using a sharp tool. In Asia, batik is found in China during the T’ang dynasty (618-907 CE), and in India and Japan during the Nara period (645-794 CE) (presumably with China as the conduit between India and Japan). In Africa it was originally practised by the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, Soninke and Wolof in Senegal.

It spread throughout Indonesia most likely via India or Sri Lanak in the 6th or 7th century, although some believe it is a native practice that has existed for many centuries prior to this date. The significance of batik depends on the region involved, but Indonesia and West Africa seem to attach great levels of significance to the plant being used and the color extracted from its dye.

For example, in Java it is linked to a religious view of the universe. The colors most commonly found in Java in batik, indigo, dark brown, and white represent the three major Hindu Gods (Brahma, Visnu, Siva). The colors used almost, not coincidentally, happen to the most common dyes available in the local plants. On a slight variation of the practice in Korea where certain colors were restricted to certain social classes, in Indonesia certain patterns are restricted. So, colors and patterns are almost universally used to denote rank and status and all of this is tied to the plants available for use.

In Sierra Leone (and throughout West Africa), plants used for dyes in batik generally have a host of useful properties (as medicines, food, dyes, etc.). In Sierra Leone, indigo (gara) is chief among the natural dyes to be found.

To learn more about the interwoven relationship of plants, clothing, and cultural significance made evident in this process of batik, consider some of these additional sources:

The Pistachio: History and Luxury in Antiquity

June 18, 2012
Type of Pistacia khinjuk Stocks var. heterophylla Engl.

Type of Pistacia khinjuk Stocks var. heterophylla Engl.

Some posts are inspired by the work of the Global Plants Initiative (GPI), some are explorations of the intersections of plant science and history, and some are inspired by what the author happens to be eating at the time. This post falls into that last category. Today, as I crack open a few pistachio shells, we explore the placement of the pistachio, Pistacia vera, at the crossroads of ancient history. I had no idea it was such a valued, even opulent, commodity. First the plant itself.

Pistacia: Some botanical background

Taken from the Flora Somalia, Vol 2 (1999) Author: by M. Thulin [updated by M. Thulin 2008]

Names: PISTACIA L. [family ANACARDIACEAE], (1753)

Information: Trees or shrubs with resinous bark, dioecious. Leaves alternate, pinnate, rarely simple or 3-foliolate. Flowers in axillary paniculate or subspicate inflorescences, without a perianth but surrounded by 1–3 small bracts and up to 7 tepal-like bracteoles. Male flowers with 3–5(–8) stamens inserted on disk, filaments very short, anthers basifixed. Female flowers with 1-celled ovary; style short, (2–)3-lobed. Drupes globose or ovoid, compressed.

Range: Some 12 species, mainly in the Mediterranean region to western Asia, but also in south-east Asia, China, the Atlantic Islands, Mexico and southern USA.

Notes: The flowers of Pistacia are unusual in that they lack a true perianth, and are surrounded by bracts and bracteoles. The genus has sometimes been placed in a family of its own, Pistaciaceae.

The nut of the pistachio is considered a culinary nut and not a botanical one (I honestly didn’t know there was a distinction before writing this) and each tree produces roughly 50,000 nuts every two years (Boniface, Nugent, 2005). The shells are stained red or green depending on commercial preference, but they are naturally a beige color. Since they are a member of the Anacardiaceae family (poison ivy, sumac, mango, and cashew), pistachios contain urushiol, an irritant that can cause allergic reactions (Mabberley, 1993).

The health benefits of pistachios are considerable and include significantly reducing levels of LDL cholesterol while increasing antioxidant levels. Additionally, a studied showed that 32–63 grams per day of pistachio nut can significantly elevate plasma levels of lutein, alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and gamma-tocopherol, which all sound scientific enough to be important for your body (Kay et al, 2010). Pistachios have also been used as a folk remedy historically from anything from toothaches to liver problems.

History of the Pistachio and the Roots of Luxury

The pistachio has a long, long history of human cultivation and consumption being native to the Middle East. Archeological evidence in Turkey suggests that humans were enjoying pistachios as early as 7,000 B.C. Since they are quite durable in hot climates, they spread through the Mediterranean and quickly became a valued commodity.

There are many instances of mentions of pistachios in the annals of history so perhaps it best to just mention a few of the highlights.

It makes sense to start where everything starts, at least from a Biblical perspective. The pistachio is one of two nuts mentioned in the Bible. The pistachio is mentioned in the Book of Genesis:

Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry down to the man a present, a little balm and a little honey, gum, myrrh, pistachio nuts, and almonds.

The Queen of Sheba decreed pistachios an exclusively royal food, going so far as to forbid commoners from growing the nut for personal use. One wonders whether Sheba brought the pistachio with her to Jerusalem to impress Solomon along with the other gifts of spices, gold, and precious stones. Something must have worked as Solomon is reputedly supposed to have fathered her child (Menelik) and forever connected the two kingdoms in history (and perhaps the Ark of the Covenant).

In ancient Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar had pistachio trees planted in the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon (which I have written about before from a plants perspective). The enzymes of pistachios have been found in the remains of embalmed Egyptian nobility (most likely as an ingredient in the embalming fluid itself) (Kaup et al, 2001)

It seemed to have entered the Roman world via Iraq to Syria being mistakenly identified as being native to Syria by none other than Pliny in his Natural History. His mention that the pistachio is “well known among us” leads us to believe that the nut was well established in Roman consumption by that time. He also states that the nut was introduced into Rome by the Roman consul in Syria (around 35CE) by Lucius Vitellius the Elder (and simultaneously into modern-day Spain by Flaccus Pompeius).  There is every indication that the pistachio was well regarded in Roman society throughout antiquity, being introduced in Rome itself by the Emperor Vitellius in the 1st century.

Once it spread to Rome, it spread throughout the Roman Empire (including Hispaniola) and this is where (due to the inhospitable climates of Germania and northern Gaul) it became an exclusive luxury. There is indication in the archaeobotanical evidence (yes, that is really a thing) of the remains of pistachios in various Roman settlements throughout Central Europe. This evidence was gathered from the remains of officer’s latrines in Roman settlements throughout conquered territories indicating an initial reliance on a traditional Roman diet (including the highly portable pistachio) and then a switch to a more localized diet (Bakels, Jacomet, 2003). Hence, items like rice, chickpeas, pomengranate, garlic, almonds, pine nuts, and pistachios, all valued items, took on luxury status in the farther reaches of the Empire.

Additionally, along with almonds, pistachios were frequently carried by travelers across the ancient Silk Road that connected China with the West. And it has fascinated us ever since, as made evident by the letter from Calvert to Joseph Dalton Hooker from Alexandria, Egypt, 1869, describing his hopes of sending pistachio seeds (amongst others). By the way, the Directors’ Correspondence Collection from Kew, where this letter is taken from, is a real gem.

As for the pistachio, quite a length of travel for a highly portable food source.

Pistachio letter

Letter from Henry Hunter Calvert to Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker; from Alexandria, Egypt; 5 Aug 1869. Calvert writes to tell Hooker that he has sent him seeds of Lawsonia inermis and Cucumis colocynthis and he hopes by the present post to send some Pistacia terebinthina, Cineraria maritima and Canna annaei seeds.

The Life and Times of Erik Leonard Ekman (1883-1931)

June 11, 2012

This post doubles as both an educational exploration of a fairly amazing botanist and plant collector, Erik Leonard Ekman, as well as an attempt to draw some attention to the great work being done at GPI partner Natural History Museum, London (BM) on the biographies of plant collectors. The great team from the Natural History Museum, London (I have written about them before). So, when you stumble across a plant collector biography on JSTOR Plant Science, you know where they came from. In fact, what follows is verbatim from this particular plant collector biography. Except for the little bizarre asides, which are completely mine. So on to Mr. Erik Leonard Ekman (1883-1931).

The Life and Times of Erik Leonard Ekman

Erik Leonard Ekman was born in Stockholm, but his interest in plant collecting developed at school in Jönköping in central Sweden, where economic difficulties had forced his family to move when he was 11 years old. In 1907, after graduating from Lund University (a Global Plants Initiative (GPI) partner!) with a bachelor’s degree in botany, he was given free passage on a Swedish ship bound for Argentina. He spent three months collecting Poaceae and Asteraceae in the area around the Swedish colony in Misiones (there was a Swedish colongy in Argentina?), and as a result was offered the position of herbarium assistant at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm (also a GPI partner).

In 1914 he was awarded a doctorate from Lund University and successfully applied for a fellowship to collect in Brazil. Before he could sail, the Swedish Academy made him change his plans. His application had been seen by Ignatius Urban of the Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem (you guessed it, a GPI partner), an expert on the flora of the Antilles, who had persuaded them that his efforts would be more profitably used collecting in Hispaniola. Ekman accepted the assignment only after the Academy threatened to withdraw the fellowship completely. With characteristic obstinacy and independence, he made an unscheduled stopover in Havana and once there used the news of political unrest in Haiti as an excuse to remain in Cuba and continue his study of Vernonia.

After two years of delay, during which time his knowledge and interest in the Cuban flora had greatly expanded, he was again ordered to Hispaniola. When he refused to leave, the Academy cut off his funds. Ekman retaliated by withholding his collections. Their battle ended when the Academy agreed to provide him with more money for his original mission with the provision that he collect in Hispaniola en route to Brazil. Ekman began collecting in Haiti in 1917 but after only three months in the field an attack of malaria forced him to return to Cuba. With no promise of further funding, he worked on a sugar plantation until he had saved enough money to continue plant collecting in the Cuban countryside. Then in 1924, under pressure from the Academy, he finally agreed to return to Hispaniola. After four years of intensive field work in Haiti, he traveled eastward to spend the remainder of his life collecting in the Dominican Republic.

Type of Acalypha platyodonta Urb

Type of Acalypha platyodonta Urb collected by Ekman in 1925 in Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti).

At the time of his death, from a combined attack of malaria, black water fever, and pneumonia, he was on the point of sailing for Venezuela. By an odd coincidence, he died only a week after Urban, with whom he shared authorship of many of the new species he discovered. During 17 years of continuous collecting, he amassed nearly 36,000 numbers, 19,000 from Cuba and over 16,000 from Hispaniola. Of these, more than 2,000 were new species, even though the floras of both islands were presumed to have been exhausted by previous botanical collectors. At least six new genera bear his name.

Ekman also collected zoological specimens, and has several birds and snails named after him. His publications on the West Indies were few because he intended to write later, but they include several papers on the plant geography of the islands, especially Hispaniola, besides his monograph on tropical American Vernonieae. He is commemorated in street names in Santiago and Santo Domingo, a special department in the Botanical Garden in Cuba, and a Swedish foundation that promotes scientific and cultural exchange between Sweden and the Caribbean countries. In 1950 the American Society of Plant Taxonomists collected funds for the erection of a statue and plaque near the unmarked grave where he was buried in Santiago.

A fairly amazing individual and some great work by the Natural History Museum, London. To see the thousands upon thousands of specimens he collected in JSTOR Plant Science, click here.


  • Brummitt, R.K. & Powell, C.E., Authors Pl. Names (1992): 184;
  • Holmgren, P., Holmgren, N.H. & Barnett, L.C., Index Herb., ed. 8 (1990): 198;
  • Knobloch, I.W., Phytologia Mem. 6 (1983): 24;
  • Lanjouw, J. & Stafleu, F.A., Index Herb. Coll. A-D (1954): 173;
  • Lanjouw, J. & Stafleu, F.A., Index Herb. Coll. E-H (1957): 180, 188;


JSTOR Plant Science & Social Media: Measuring Engagement and Impact

June 3, 2012

Disclaimer: I am not a scientist (information or otherwise)

Disclaimer #1: Although this post isn’t about plants, plant science, or anything remotely botanical, I thought it might be interesting enough for those who are trying to start, maintain, or justify their social media presence for their respective services. At JSTOR Plant Science, we run about five social media outlets (Twitter, Vimeo, blog, Flickr, and DISQUS-I am classifying DISQUS as social even though it is essentially a commenting system) and this requires time more than anything. We draft, edit, schedule, track, and evaluate everything we post and, as an organization, we are looking for some ‘return’ on that social media investment. In this instance, ‘return’ doesn’t mean anything commercial, but rather a greater level of engagement with the site, the materials, and the community that uses these materials.  That is a long disclaimer, but essentially I wanted to let everyone know this is a post about social media.

Disclaimer #2: I will be revealing in this post the simplistic approach I take to measuring the value of the social media services I run for JSTOR Plant Science, the site, the 1.5 million type specimens, reference works, art, and other primary sources, and the community. I have written about our use of DISQUS for sourcing data correction and resource improvement (mostly a healthy experimentation with trial and error), but over the last few years a certain pattern has emerged that I consider promising. While this data and these patterns might be promising, my use of charts is not so please bear with me. End of disclaimer.

What is ‘meaningful’ social activity around academic content?

The questions many of us involved in social media have, especially at the organizational level, are generally geared towards resource allocation and impact. Is it worth it and what is ‘it’ exactly? Time is a precious commodity and so this needs to generate an observable phenomena. Logic like this (and organizationally, this is extremely welcome logic) drives decisions. But in this instance, we have a hybrid breed of organizational logic applied to academic investigation. How do we measure impact for services geared towards academic and scientific practice?

In the case of the plant sciences database, we (for lack of imagination) identified the scientific process being practiced (collect plants, identify plants, classify plants, preserve plants), and latched onto that practice. We use it as a guide for what is relevant to our community, what adds value, and what might be useful for their practice. So, our social policy is driven towards

  • data correction and updating (on the site)
  • identifying plants and debating those identifications (on the site)
  • education-telling the word what these scientists are doing and why it is important

So the above guides our posts and communication, it is often difficult to determine what demonstrates that social media is having an impact (even if that impact is greater exposure to the work of the community).  I think different metrics beyond the simple visits, page views, and followers is needed to demonstrate meaningful social activity. Although I have included visits and page views, I am more curious about the social activity that surrounds these content accesses. Some of that data is elusive (for me) and many of the measures I will be including in the subsequent graphs are apple/orange comparisons. But it is a start.

In the chart below, we see site use and social media interaction over three different time periods (these are monthly averages more or less). While I shouldn’t have presented site vists and page views together (only one is necessary, in my estimation), I am interested in the general uptick of social media use over those same times. While all metrics are increasing, the social media metrics are growing as a percentage of overall use. That seems promising to me.

Working Assumption: Social Activity as Percentage of Overall Activity is measure of user investment in the resource

So basically we have two different kinds of data, the site data (usage of the Plant Science site and materials) and then the social activity around that site and those materials. Two interwoven, symbiotic bits of data, but distinct enough to drawn attention to.

So, my working assumption was that social activity as percentage of total activity would be a good working metric to determine impact. So for the purposes of JSTOR Plant Science, we are hovering around 8% of social traffic as percentage of overall activity. We have modest visits and page views for the site overall (around 35000 visits and 100,000+ pageviews per month). The social media use is around 8000-10000 ‘interactions’ per month. So, we are looking at about 110000 ‘interactions’ on a good month.

As for the DISQUS and Twitter traffic listed below, this represents ‘significant interaction’ in my estimation as it is a measure of trust in sharing content (Twitter, retweeting or otherwise); for DISQUS the comments generally represent an investment in improving the site or the plant materials contained therein (towards meeting the scientific goals of the community overall). As most of the comments are directed towards data correction or plant identification (and some genealogical research), I believe this stands true.

What doesn’t really work is the inclusion of DISQUS and Twitter on this chart as it equates all of this activity as equal. It isn’t, but I just didn’t know where else to put it. Over the last year we have seen steady increases in traffic overall (for both the site and the social media services) and an increase in the percentage of social activity vs. overall use. I believe this represents a positive investment from our audience in using the site and, I believe, warrants the resources our organization dedicated to it. We are most curious to hear how others are measuring the value and impact of their efforts in social media so please let us know and we would be happy to start a dialogue.

The Natural History of Shakespeare: botanical sophistication is at a level near that of the herbalists of the time

May 20, 2012

Reading through the Open Library recently, I stumbled across and read the following book which reminded me a bit of this post:

E. Slater, according to the title page, was bookseller and publisher to H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, who in 1877 was Edward Albert, Queen Victoria’s son and later King Edward VII. So there you have it. The book itself deals with Shakespeare references to all things natural and for the purposes of this post, all things plant.

Many of the preliminary chapters deal with the expected roses, lilies, and marigolds of the Shakespeare world and their romantic metaphoric structure (and downright snarky disillusionment with love):

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds. - Sonnet XCIV.

The Book is arranged in groups of Flowers, Wild Flowers, Weeds, Trees, Fruits, Nuts, Vegetables, Herbs, and Medicines. One of my particular favorites is referring to garlic:

And, most dear actors, eat no onions, Nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath- Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act iv. Scene 2.

However, it is Shakespeare’s remarkable knowledge of medicinal plants that has driven a lot of academic research. Several resources I list at the end of this post analyzing Shakespeare’s remarkable medicinal ability, but for now we can see evidence that this knowledge of the plant world is infused throughout his work. References to ginger, mace, saffron, cloves, mint, and more lace his work and not always for their aesthetic accompaniment or for the purposes of alliteration. They were often used as a medicinal plot device to install urgency into the plot. And they were a good excuse for Shakespeare to show off the breadth of his botanical knowledge. According to Edward Tabor, “Shakespeare’s botanical sophistication is at a level near that of the herbalists of the time” ((Tabor, 1970) as made evident by this passage from Romeo and Juliet where Shakespeare describes the duality of plant properties:

Friar Laurence. Many for many virtues excellent,
None but for some, and yet all different.
Oh, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities.
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live,
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
And vice sometime’s by action dignified.
Within the infant rind of this small flower
Poison hath residence, and medicine power.
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part,
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.
(Romeo and Juliet, II.iii.13-26)

So, a few quotes from Shakespeare and accompanying specimens followed by additional resources for you to peruse this new week.


Macbeth, What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative
drug, Would scour these English hence? -Macbeth, Act v. Scene 3.

Senna alexandrina Mill. act as purgatives and are similar to aloe and rhubarb in having as active ingredients anthraquinone derivatives and their glucosides. The latter are called sennosides or senna glycosides. Senna alexandrina is used in modern medicine as a laxative; especially useful in alleviating constipation.

Common names: English: senna; Aden senna; Alexandrian senna; Nubian senna.French: séné; séné vrai (true senna). West African: MALI TAMACHEK aghe-agher (JMD) egerger (JMD)NIGER ARABIC (Niger) senna jebeli (Aub.) senna makha from Makha: Mecca (Aub.) NIGERIA ARABIC-SHUWA senna jebeli (JMD) senna mekka = Mecca senna (JMD) HAUSA filáskón mákà from Maka: Mecca (JMD;)


Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou ow’dst yesterday.
Othello, Act iii. Scene 3

Papaver somniferumHerbs or rarely shrubs or even trees, with white, yellow or orange latex. Leaves alternate or rarely whorled, without stipules. Flowers usually solitary and rather large, bisexual, regular. Sepals 2–3(–4), imbricate, free or united, usually soon falling. Petals 4–6(–12), rarely absent, imbricate, arranged in 1–2(–3) whorls. Stamens usually numerous, free; anthers 2-celled with longitudinal dehiscence. Ovary superior, usually 1-celled; ovules usually numerous on parietal placentas; style present or absent; stigmas usually forming a disc-shaped, lobed structure. Fruit usually a capsule dehiscing by valves or pores. Seeds small, numerous, with abundant endosperm.

Ancient Egyptian doctors would have their patients eat seeds from a poppy to relieve pain as poppy seeds were later revealed to contain both morphine and codeine.


Falstaff. … for though the camomile, the
more it is trodden the faster it grows, yet youth, the
more it is wasted the sooner it wears.
King Henry IV., Part I. Act ii. Scene 4.

Matricaria chamomilla

Often used in herbal medicine for a sore stomach, irritable bowel syndrome, and as a gentle sleep aid. Also a mild  anti-inflammatory and bactericidal. One of the active ingredients of the essential oil from chamomile is the terpene bisabolol. Bisabolol is used to treat skin conditions, has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties and has some positive effect when used to treat leukemia and cancer. Chamomile may also have modest effect on anxiety disorders. All of this as well as making you sleepy before bedtime.

The book itself is well worth a look so I encourage you to read it at Open Library, download it as a PDF or send it to your Kindle. If you are interested in learning more about Shakespeare’s uncanny grasp on plants, medicine, and nutrition, be sure to give the following a read:

Artemisia annua and malaria: treatments from ancient China found in unearthed tombs

May 13, 2012

Artemisia annua, not unlike the specimen seen below from China, has been used in Chinese herbal medicine for thousands of years to treat malaria. The specimen seen below was collected by George Forrest in Yunnan, near the Mekong Valley in China, in 1917. This plant holds great significance in the fight against malaria, as it has for thousands of years.

Syntype of Artemisia annua L. forma macrocephala Pamp., collected by George Forrest in 1917 in the Mekong Valley in China.

Artemisia annua: The History

Artemisia annua has been used in China for thousands of years to treat many illnesses, including malaria. The first known mention of using Artemisia annua for malaria treatment dates back to about 200 BC in a text called Fifty-Two Prescriptions (Wushi’er Bingfang五十二病方), which was actually unearthed in a tomb. Documenting how advanced the ancient Chinese were in both ethnobotany and documenting scientific discovery, the book lays out, methodically, 52 different treatments for 52 different ailments. It was only discovered in 1973 during the excavation of the Ma Wang Dui tomb in Changsha, Hunan.

Reading like something out of a movie, when the archaeologists uncovered the tombs they discovered numerous drugs found in sachets, two of which were clutched in the hand of a skeleton. No, really. The drugs contained in these sachets include a regular medicine chest of herbs and spices, including:

As well as the silk scroll copy of the book the Prescriptions for the Fifty Two Diseases, which outlined the use of Artemisia annua to treat malaria. What diseases and ailments were being treated, you ask?

  • Skin ulcers
  • Urinary problems
  • Hernia
  • Wounds and injuries
  • Frostbite
  • Snake bite
  • Warts/tumors
  • Hemorrhoids (both internal and external)
  • Poison arrow wounds (a common enough phenomena to decipher a cure for it)
  • Male sexual disease (see witty aside above)
  • Mad dog bites (repeat witty aside)
  • Infantile convulsions (not the metaphorical kind)
  • Malaria

All of this inscribed on a silk scroll found in a cave from over 2000 years ago.

Public domain image of “The Prescription for fifty-two kinds of diseases” from Prof Ying Li, Chinese Academy of Science.

However spectacular that skeleton clutching story is, since the book was only discovered in 1973, the Chinese were drawing from a different text for centuries in their use of Artemisia annua. And this book was named the Shennong Herbal (神农本草经), completed in the 1st-2nd centuries AD. It is this text that was used when treating malaria. Unfortunately, as best my research has indicated, there were no skeletons involved. This book was read with renewed interest after the Chinese Army in the 1960s attempted to find a good treatment for malaria based on Chinese traditional medicine (which had recorded over 5000 different treatments for malaria recorded over the centuries).

Ultimately, the reason Artemisia annua was chosen was because it worked faster and more effectively than the other remedies, removing the parasite faster. Also, it is an extremely common plant found naturalized throughout the world in great supply, but native to Asia.

Naturally, the drug extracted from the plant, Artemisinin, is in great demand and (short supply). It has been used effectively to treat malaria in several African nations as well as throughout Asia, but there is some evidence that malaria is building a resistance to this treatment.

If you are interested in learning more about this powerful plant, I suggest a few of the following articles. Most of these are older, but still do a good job introducing how Artemisinin is being used to treat malaria:


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