Saturday, February 25, 2012

Herbs and Contraception in Days of Yore

Last night I finished the book, Eve's Herbs, and I thought I'd do a little reflecting on what I've learned from the book. It was a very riveting read, and I really enjoyed reading it. Here are a few bullets of the more enthralling bits of information, some take-home points, if you will:
  • Despite popular belief otherwise, pre-modern humans were very aware of the connection between intercourse and pregnancy. As such, they developed means to prevent or abort unwanted pregnancies. 
  • Most scholars assume that contraception was achieved through more "mechanical" means, not through use of chemical agents. On quite the contrary, it seems that chemical-based contraceptives and abortifacients were the most common means of fertility control used by pre-modern humans and modern humans, although for the latter subset in more of a clandestine manner as a result of new laws based on humankind's changing perception on when life actually began. 
  • These chemical-based agents were derived from herbs!
  • Knowledge of which herbs could be used to control fertility, the effective and safe dosage, and how to administer them was originally retained and perpetuated by the common woman. While there were herbals and other writings published (all male authors except one) that trepidatiously discussed herbs used for "female woes," most of the knowledge transmission occurred orally. 
  • Original herbal compounds were simple, often consisting of only one herb or a few, which made them easy to prepare. As time progressed, common herbal knowledge was lost or steadfastly guarded or communicated in circumlocutions for fear of persecution and prosecution. In tandem with these trends, medical universities were beginning to teach advanced pharmaceutical theory, and more complex compounds were being developed by apothecaries. Here we have the advent of polypharmacy. This change in compound structure led to a shift of power in the reproductive realm. Common women were no longer self-reliant in regards to their reproductive status and had to depend on the apothecary or physician (men) to obtain guidance on appropriate herbal compounds for their needs. Interestingly too we also see the transformation of pharmaceuticals from cheap home remedies to marketable goods and the first instances of questionable relationships between pharmaceutical supplier/preparer and physician ("Rules were established periodically that sought to govern overly close relations between physicians and apothecaries." (Riddle, p. 107) )
  • Herbs are still used today in folklore medicine to control fertility. 
That's my synopsis, with conscious effort to stay focused on the herb part of the work and not get too sidetracked by the social and political factors that inevitably were discussed, even though they did creep in a little bit. I will say that being reminded of the social and political factors of ages past that disenfranchised women definitely incited the passion of my feminist side, and I now view herbs as representing feminine power/empowerment.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

And Finally, Introducing Chives

I have chosen my fourth and final herb to grow: the lucky winner was Chives. In the previous post I mentioned that the two herbs I was deciding between both started with the letter "C", and the other herb was Chamomile (German Chamomile). Initially, I had been leaning toward Chamomile for its medicinal properties, but the more I read about it, the more it was sounding that it's really not best to grow this herb indoors and in containers: you get the most yield from it when it's allowed to roam freely in an actual garden. Again, might be something I try to tackle later on down the line. So, I won't be making any infusions with Chives, but I'll definitely be using it a lot in cooking. Let's get to know this little herb better.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) share a genus with onions, garlic, and scallions, a brotherhood of stink. No mythological influence on the name with this herb: "all" means "stinky" or "pungent" in Celtic, a reference that stuck when the herb was given its Latin name. While we usually hear of the health benefits of garlic and onion, chives are just as beneficial, as it too contains the compound credited for garlic and onion's health benefits: allicin. Culpeper has little to say on Chives, and what he does say is mostly negative. Chives may not seem as "sexy" as the other herbs I chose, but I'm still happy to have it as part of my indoor garden.

Now that I'm all done choosing the herbs I will be growing, what will I do next? I think I'm going to prepare the containers I'll be using to grow the herbs in. The blender base hasn't gone into surgery yet, so I think I'm going to get to work on that, along with cleaning up the coffee cans and sprucing them up with some paint. The houseplants I re-potted are still alive, perhaps a harbinger of success to come (I know, that's a stretch, but any little thing!). I was worried they might collapse, resisting acclimation to the new soil, but all is well.

With February almost over and the days getting warmer and sunnier, I notice myself getting even more antsy to begin growing, especially now that I have my list of herbs concretized.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Drawwwwwing It Out...

My absence over the past few days has been partially due to recovering from a monstrous migraine, being occupied with other things, and hovering in indecision over which herb to choose as the fourth and final herb for my indoor garden. I thought I had pretty much made up my mind around the time that I made my last post, but after reading a little bit more about the herb, I decided it might not be the best herb to grow just starting off: it seems to be a bit ornery and particular. Thus, I decided to save that herb for later on down the line for when I'm more of an experienced herb grower.

In this present moment, I do feel close (again) to making the decision, and it is (again) between two herbs. "What exactly is she mulling over?", you might be wondering. Well, as I alluded to above, one of the factors that I'm taking into account as I select the herbs is ease of growth. Not to say that I'm avoiding a challenge, but this project--which is something that I've never done before--is already challenge enough. I don't want to add additional challenge by picking some herb that is notoriously ridiculously hard to grow. This relates to the whole confidence/morale issue that I've talked about here and there in previous posts.

I'm also factoring in the culinary and medicinal uses of the herbs. I want to pick something that is either fairly versatile in the kitchen or an herb that will be particularly useful for certain health ailments. For example, at one point I was considering growing Dill, but eventually I decided that I don't use it enough to warrant growing it. Of course, the jackpot would be an herb that has both culinary AND medicinal properties to it. But that's not always the case. To recap, my current list includes Basil, Peppermint, and Parsley. Basil's strength is its contribution to culinary delights. Peppermint, while definitely used in cooking, I picked more for its medicinal properties. Parsley is a well-rounded herb of prominence in a wide array of food dishes and benefit to one's health.

The final two herbs that I am decided between are not "jackpot" herbs: one I would pick primarily for its culinary use and the other for its medicinal use. I'll give you a hint: they both start with the letter "C". I'm going to do a little more reading on both today, and then make my decision. Enough dragging my feet already!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Introducing Parsley

Selecting the final two herbs has been a little more difficult than selecting the first two. But after careful consideration, I have made my third selection: Parsley. This was another herb that I kind of knew deep down that I'd be growing. Like with Basil, I use Parsley quite often in cooking, whether it be to liven up an egg salad or make fresh tabbouleh. Yum-a-yum!

I wasn't always as jazzed about Parsley as I am now. Parsley seemed at one time like more of a pariah to me than the other herbs I've discussed thus far. Yes, Basil used to occupy this status, but its contribution to gastronomic delight eventually supplanted the unwarranted fears incited by superstition. Maybe I am just reflecting on my own past preconceptions of Parsley, but until I started cooking with it, Parsley was never an herb that I got really excited about. Mostly I thought of it in its role as a garnish, overused to the point of culinary cliche and oft to be discarded. And as Culpeper notes, "it is so well known, that it needs no description." Perhaps it was this commonness, this air of mundanity, that effectually created a closed-mind toward this particular herb. But once I started cooking with it and learned more about it, my attitude toward Parsley changed forever. Here's everything and probably more than you wanted to know about Parsley.

I'll be growing common, or curled-leaf, parsley (Pestroselinum crispum). The genus name has its origins in Greek, petra (rock) and selinon (celery). Coincidentally, Persephone also played a role in Parsley's history: the herb was sacrosanct to she, the Goddess of the Underworld, and wreaths of Parsley were ceremoniously placed on tombs.

Parsley is a biennial and requires moist (but not constantly wet) soil for optimal growth. I've gotten mixed information on its lighting requirements. This might be a good question for when I call the Gardening Hotline. Also, the Big Book of Herbs (which I actually own now, thanks to Meg!) tells me that Parsley is useless as an herb after the first year of growth; the leaves turn bitter. This is mainly due to the flower stems emerging, so perhaps if I cut them, this will prolong the plant's herb-usage phase? Yet another question. Or if anyone out there has any experience, please let me know.

Parsley is replete with some of the big-name vitamins and minerals important to human health: A, B (1 & 2), C, calcium, iron, and niacin. Parsley leaves can actually be used in infusions to help allay symptoms of indigestion and to improve nutrient absorption. Culpeper was on to this medicinal usage of Parsley long before science; he found it "is very comfortable to the stomach." The essential oil found in Parsley leaves contains a compound called myristicin, which has been implicated in tumor formation suppression. There is more to this little garnish than meets the eye!

So that's Parsley for you. The unveiling of the fourth and final herb will be happening soon. I'm making my decision between two herbs, and a recent health episode has tipped the scale in favor of one of them. Oh, the suspense! =)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Re-potting Plants and... A Soul?

I completed my practice activity yesterday evening/this afternoon (re-potting my houseplants). It felt good to accomplish this task: it felt good to give these plants some fresh, healthy soil; and it felt good to do something that a.) I've never done before and b.) I planned on doing. I know it's not directly related to the herb-growing project, and it may seem like such a nominal accomplishment, but even still, I find that it has given me a certain measure of confidence in my ability to follow through with this project.

A little more about the process. First, I took an old paper grocery bag and cut it so that it was flat (like when you cut it up to use for shipping paper or the like). This was to serve as my work surface, a little island of cleanliness, in the middle of the common room on the floor. In all honesty though, I wasn't too worried about keeping everything contained to the paper; I just wanted to make cleaning up afterward easier than if I had done the re-potting on the bare floor. Once I was all set up, I simply brought each plant over and exchanged the old soil for the new. I also took the plants out of the little plastic container that they were in inside of the actual pot. Admittedly, this is probably something I should have done a long time ago. Well, the whole project is something I should have done awhile ago. But lamenting about the past is not what this post--or the whole project--is about. Check out the photos:

Looking rather sorry...
The Work-space
Looking much better.
Earlier today I was actually feeling like I could use a soil transplant of sorts: it would be nice to be infused with freshness somehow. Could someone please re-pot me? I'd quite like to be able to stretch my body-bound soulroots, tightly wound around and around the circumference of the container, mimicking an ouroboros but without the accompanying feelings of infinity and wholeness. During these bouts of stagnant humor, most appreciated are the invigorating effects of the gesture of a kind heart and a fortuitous encounter during a time of marked ambivalence.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Soil 101

As promised, I'm going to spend a little time talking about soil composition, and I'll do my best to keep it brief. This will probably be one of the drier posts, so feel free to skip it.

Plants need 16 chemical elements to thrive, three of which are absolutely essential for optimal growth: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Nitrogen comprises 50 percent of the plant's living cells, and as such, plants require larger amounts of nitrogen than the other chemicals present in its physiological composition. Nitrogen is best absorbed by the plant's roots in nitrate-form. In a previous post I mentioned I'll be getting a fertilizer that is calcium nitrate-based (the calcium part is to aid the plant's absorption of the nitrogen), so if you were wondering why, there's the answer. While only small amounts of phosphorous are needed, this chemical plays an integral role in seed germination, seedling growth, and root growth. Potassium helps maintain the plant's homeostasis, regulating water content and facilitating the combination of carbohydrates and proteins; it is also a constituent chemical in photosynthesis.

A meticulously-measured chemical composition of the soil means nothing if the acidity of the soil is not matched to the plant's acid preference. The Big Book of Herbs provides a nice little table that lists out common herbs and their min, mean, and max levels of soil acidity tolerated. I think I might also add a Ph tester to my list of materials needed so I can be super anal about tracking each plant's soil acid level. I foresee a graphing opportunity! ;)

I should note that while I have been using the word "soil" to describe the growing medium, I will most likely not be using soil in the true sense; I will be using what is called a "soilless medium." To some this may denote artificiality, but this is not the case at all: most soilless mediums are comprised of sphagnum peat moss, vermiculite, and other trace minerals, like this germinating soil mixture. Using a soilless medium has many advantages over using "real" soil: it's lighter and easier to store; it's pest- and disease-free; no pasteurization is required; and research suggests that plants grown in soilless mediums are healthier and with increased foliage.

Okay, this post is starting to get longer than I intended. Time to cut myself off.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pacifying Impatience

I'm starting to feel that subtle, gummy gnawing of impatience. I feel like I need to be doing something other than reading, something to keep the momentum going. I did make a list of materials that I will need to procure to start potting once the seedlings are ready:

1. Potting Shovel
2. Liquid Fertilizer (that uses calcium nitrate)
3. Soil

Is that really all I need? I already have the pots, and I currently use an empty Jim Beam bottle to water my other houseplants, so I'll be sticking with that.

As practice for the work to come, I think I might re-pot my houseplants. I've had a couple of them for 2 years or so now, so if I muff it up, it won't be a huge loss. It will be a good opportunity to get my hands dirty and perhaps nail down a process for potting indoors. Of course, once the weather gets nicer, I will probably do any soil work outside on the front "lawn." But it will still be good to have some sense of a plan of action if I need to or feel like doing potting inside (code for if I'm feeling too lazy to lug everything up and down 4 flights of stairs).

That's it for today's post. I do want to talk about soil composition and nutrients, but I'm feeling brain-dead today; I'll tackle that post over the weekend.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Introducing Peppermint

Another herb for my indoor garden has been decided: Peppermint. Two down, two to go (Yeah, I decided to just stick with four this time around). This was also a relatively easy decision. While with Basil, I made the decision primarily based on my culinary usage of the herb, my decision to grow Peppermint was largely based on the medicinal use of the herb. I drink Peppermint tea fairly often to soothe any gastrointestinal woes or to just round out a satisfying meal. It's delightfully refreshing and works wonders. Culpeper notes that "it is very profitable to the stomach", and I agree! I bet these affects will be intensified and enhanced in the form of an infusion with fresh Peppermint leaves. And of course, I'll also use the leaves to make a mint julep from time to time. ;) There are also some great summer salads that use Peppermint to enhance flavor. Here's the rundown on Peppermint.

Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is a species belonging to the Mentha genus. To be more specific, it is actually a hybrid of spearmint (Mentha spicata) and water mint (Mentha aquatica), and as such, is essentially sterile. There is a chance that it will produce fertile seeds, but it's a very, very slim chance. Don't you just love the juxtaposition of Peppermint's demure sexuality and Basil's lecherous promiscuity? Totally unplanned, but I like that it happened that way! Anyways, enough anthropomorphizing and back on track: more on the Mentha genus.

The origin of Mentha's name can be traced back to Greek/Roman mythology and the interactions of a nymph named, Minthe, with the King and Queen of the Underworld. In one version of the tale, Minthe was taken by the god, Pluto, and his wife, Persephone took violent, homicidal action against Minthe to ensure that no such extramarital affairs occurred between she and her husband ever again. In another version of the tale, carnal relations between Pluto and Minthe were avoided when Persephone intervened and transfigured Minthe into none other than the plant, mint. I think I like the second version of the tale better; the outcome is a bit more... refreshing!

I mentioned my use of Peppermint for gastrointestinal disturbances, and there is actually some scientific evidence that essential peppermint oil can assuage the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (Ford et al., 2008; NY Times Article). Additionally, essential peppermint oil has been found to have antiallergenic, antibacterial, and antispasmodic properties. Peppermint also contains the flavonoid, Luteolin, which acts as an anti-inflammatory agent and has been implicated in inhibiting cell mutation (Samejima, 1995). But again, best not to overdue the Peppermint consumption: the menthol present in its composition could have degenerative effects on the brain. Guard your noggins!  

My only reservation about selecting Peppermint is that the literature I've been reading says it requires full sun to part-shade. I might have to watch this herb's growth and development a little bit more carefully than the others I choose and adjust accordingly if problems arise along the way. But at least I'm aware of this going into the project. Also, I will definitely not be growing Peppermint from seed, per the recommendations outlined in The Big Book of Herbs.

There are currently three herbs in the running for the final two coveted spots in my indoor garden. I'm weighing culinary use, medicinal use, and ease of growth to make my final decisions. I'm not sure how this looks from an outside perspective--perhaps some think I am being overly-analytical in my methods--but from my perspective, I'm pleasantly surprised at how relatively painless the decision process has been. I was expecting to be so overwhelmed with wanting to grow everything right away, that I'd have an enormously difficult time only choosing four herbs to grow. Don't get me wrong, I still want to grow every herb known to humankind, but I guess I've reconciled with the fact that I need to be reasonable starting out if I want to have any chance of success.