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The power of flowers – 2

There has been an interesting response to “the power of flowers” post. I think all of us who treasure gardens, and do our best to cultivate the land sensitively, respond to their beauty and appreciate all that they give us. More widely, I’m inclined to think that of all the “kingdoms” defined in taxonomy, the plant kingdom is the most fascinating and perhaps, in general, the least appreciated.

I read recently that 20 years ago, “the therapeutic potential of more than 90% of botanical species remains to be studied.”* Not: understood or tapped, but: studied.

This set me thinking: In the first place, I doubt we have made great inroads in examining that 90% since the early 1990s, so the statistics won’t have changed all that much. In the second place, when you consider the importance of some plants in medical breakthroughs – from cinchona bark (genus: Cinchona) for treating malaria to the Madagascar periwinkle or vinca (Catharanthus rosea) for childhood leukaemia – then who knows what incredible potential there might be in our gardens. I guess we are all, unknowingly, growing a pharmacopoeia out there!

The ancient Egyptians, it seems, had a wide variety of plants at their disposal for treating complaints as varied as liver disease and inflamed eyes. These included blue and white lilies of the Nymphaea genus – erroneously referred to as lotus plants by Egyptologists – and the poppy (Papaver somniferum).

Lilies in flower, and lotus leaves (at right), at Kew Gardens in 2014

Lilies in flower, and lotus leaves (at right), at Kew Gardens in 2014

It seems that medical practitioners in ancient Egypt – who were first and foremost scribes, I am happy to note – were aware that soaking some plant materials in alcohol could release the active substances. So lily leaves, used for liver complaints, were steeped in beer or wine overnight. The physicians could not have known that the substances were alkaloids, but they observed the effects and drew their conclusions.

The use of poppy seeds is rather more baffling: the only prescription we know of is for mixing them with the faeces of flies, to be administered to a persistently crying child. An alarming way to pacify an infant! Later in history, they were combined with several other ingredients, including nightshade (see below) to make a soothing skin ointment.

Among the problems in understanding the work of ancient physicians is the difficulty of identifying the ingredients they used with any certainty; the use of complex mixtures, which makes it hard to discern which were the most important components; and the serendipitous nature in which sources, usually papyrus rolls, have survived. The handling of surgical cases – battle wounds and the like – seems more straightforward to grasp.

All of this brings me back to what we have in our garden. The much loved vincas that we used to grow extensively in our garden in the Gulf are here (but not flowering yet: they like it hot!) We have numerous herbs, and celery (Apium graveolens), that the ancient Egyptians knew and used; interestingly, celery leaves were occasionally incorporated in garlands, perhaps as a way to combine a rich green colour and strong smell with colourful blooms.

But, as I noted before, we don’t have the flowers they treasured: no cornflowers, no mandrakes, no poppies. And no woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) either. Berries from this plant were included in a mixed garland placed in the innermost coffin of King Tutankhamen, though the significance of the choice is not understood.**

The variety of flowering plants in the Jasmine garden reflects the wide-reaching nature of commerce nowadays – with plumbago (P. capensis) from South Africa and dwarf sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) from England, as well as calendula which seems to thrive just about everywhere. Also, perhaps, our passion for something new – creating dwarf and other varieties to fit whatever size pots we choose!

  • See: Ancient Egyptian Medicine by John Nunn, British Museum Press, 1996
  • ** From An Ancient Egyptian Herbal by Lisa Manniche, AUC Press, 2006
2 Comments Post a comment
  1. What kind of Vinca do you grow? Over here I spend a considerable energy removing Vinca major like a weed as it would choke anything if left on its own. As it is flowering just now I don’t think this is the Vinca you have. Amelia

    April 12, 2016
  2. Hello Amelia, your Vinca sounds like some we had in our garden in England years ago – vigorous, with long stems and smallish purple flowers. It was useful for filling difficult corners! In the Middle East, we grow the Madagascar periwinkle or Vinca rosea/Catharanthus rosea. It is compact, about 45 cm tall with small flowers, either white (sometimes with a red centre), or reddish-purple. Interestingly, it came up in a talk I attended last year at the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew’s Wakehurst Place as it contains chemicals used in cancer treatments. It flowers in the summer, so I will upload some photographs later on.

    April 12, 2016

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