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Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Here is an interesting and horrifying flower!  This is henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) which also goes by the name “stinking nightshade.”  It is one of the noteworthy poisons of classical antiquity.  Henbane is a member of the Solanaceae family—the nightshades—one of the most important of all plant families to humankind.  The Solanaceae family includes eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, but also nightshade, datura, and tobacco!

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane too is rich in psychoactive alkaloids.  Small doses result in dilated pupils, restlessness, flushed skin, and hallucinations.  Other symptoms of henbane poisoning include a racing heart, vomiting, extreme body temperature fluctuations, the inability to control one’s muscles, convulsions, coma, and, uh, death, so it’s probably well to steer clear of eating (or touching or taunting) this particular plant.  The ancient Greeks and Romans did not read my blog, so they sometimes ingested henbane.  In particular, Pliny documented its use by fortunetellers. The priestesses of Apollo would take the plant in order that they might fall into a hallucinogenic trance and then pronounce auguries. It should be noted that priestesses of Apollo tended not to last too well.  Henbane also had associations with the world hereafter, and dead souls wandering the margins of the underworld were said to wear henbane laurels.

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Henbane originated in southern Europe and western Asia, but classical civilization spread it widely across all of Europe (from whence it traveled to the rest of the world). Incompetent medieval pharmacists used it as an anesthetic and for other sundry “medicinal” uses.  It was also popular with poisoners (scholars think it is the most likely candidate to be “hebenon” the poison from Hamlet) and was the means of death for many murders even into contemporary times.  It also has a sad place in the witch panics that affected Europe during the dark ages and the early modern era.  Witches were said to use it in their potions.  Domestic animals would also sometimes eat it accidentally and run wild or perish. Thus witch-hunters would look for the plant and use it as evidence in their trials (although it grows wild as a weed).  Also, because of its powerful psychoactive properties, henbane could well give a user the impression of flying and of various supernatural happenings.

Witches' Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

Witches’ Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

On a more mundane level, brewers used henbane to flavor beer until this was recognized as a bad idea (which occurred much later than you might hope) and it was universally replaced with hops.  Evidence of henbane’s use as a flavoring agent for beer goes all the way back to the Neolithic era.  There is clearly evidence that henbane does something for (to?) humans, but there is even clearer evidence that it is tremendously dangerous and toxic.  Maybe it’s best to appreciate this ancient plant through reading about it and looking at pictures of the strange weedy flowers.

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Argh!

The winter is gradually passing away into spring–which should be an exultant season for flower gardeners.  Yet the results in my back yard are extremely discouraging because the ferocious squirrels of Brooklyn have eaten all of my crocuses!  Despite planting an immense number of the hardy little flowers, I am still bereft of spring color.   I guess I should have expected something like this after the infernal bushy-tailed rodents ate all the glass bulbs from the Christmas lights…

The Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus)

As it turns out, squirrels are not the only ones who love crocus flavor.  One of the world’s most precious spices is made from the little flowers.  The gourmet spice saffron literally consists of the harvested stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus).  The saffron crocus plant has been domesticated since antiquity to provide the costly spice and the plant literally owes its existence to human appetite for the powdery threads.  Crocus sativus is a descendant of Crocus cartwrightianus, a wild crocus from the rocky skree of southwest Asia.   As humankind selectively planted the plants with the longest stigmas (and hence the most delicious saffron) the little crocus developed into a completely different—and completely dependent—species.  Crocus sativus now has magnificent spiraling stigma covered in deep yellow pollen, but the artificial selection came at a terrible cost.  The plant is a male sterile triploid, incapable of sexual reproduction thanks to its extra chromosome.  Saffron crocuses can only reproduce asexually and they require human assistance to prosper.  The spice is still prohibitively expensive since the little plants must be planted and harvested by hand.

A majority of the world's saffron currently comes from Iran.

Saffron is known to recorded history as early as the 7th century BC (when it was mentioned in a Assyrian botanical treatise) however archeological and genetic evidence suggest that saffron has been harvested for at least 4 millenia!  Since saffron contains over 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds, I am not going to try to describe it to you—you’ll just have to get some yourself.  My favorite dish which uses the yellow pollen is mussels, saffron, vermouth, and cream!

Of course I am cheating a little bit by writing this article in the spring–the saffron crocus is really an autumn flowering plant.  However I felt like my slaughtered crocuses deserved some sort of memorial tribute.  Of course if I really wanted to commemorate the slain flowers I could turn to my paint box. In addition to being a spice, saffron is also a color—a deep orangey gold reminiscent of foods prepared with the spice.   Strangely, for a color so steeped in the sensory joys of living, saffron has also come to represent worldly renunciation.  Buddhist monks wear robes of deep saffron and the top bar of the Indian flag is the same rich orange-yellow.  The flag’s designers hoped that the color would inspire India’s leaders to set aside material gains and dedicate themselves to the welfare of the people, but, alas, in all societies such selfless dedication is even rarer than the rarest spice.

Buddhist Monks in Laos

Vanilla is easily the most popular flavoring on the market.  Not only does vanilla outsell all other ice cream flavors, it is the principle flavor in innumerable cakes, cookies, candies, fillings, icings, and drinks. It is also the dominant scent in many perfumes, cosmetics, and scent-based products. Vanilla (and fake vanilla) is so popular that the word has acquired a second definition as an adjective meaning “commonplace, boring, or lacking any special features.”  The second definition seems tremendously incongruous with vanilla’s fundamental nature.  True vanilla extract is derived from a beautiful and exotic tropical orchid.  For a long time it was one of the rarest and most precious ingredients available.  The plant’s cultivation history involves subjugation, genocide, stingless bees, slaves, and the fate of nations.  Many many things in this life are dull and unexciting but certainly not vanilla.

Vanilla planifolia, the Flat-leaved Vanilla Orchid

Vanilla is derived from tropical orchids of the genus Vanilla.  These plants are epiphytic vines which climb trees or other similar structures. Vanilla vines produce white, yellow and green flowers which look like narrow cattleyas.   Although the Vanilla genus consists of more than 110 species of plant, almost all vanilla extract comes from one Mexican species, Vanilla  planifolia–the flat leafed vanilla–or from cultivars derived from V. planifolia.  According to Orchid Flower HQ, “The name vanilla comes from the Spanish word vainilla, a diminutive form of the word vaina which means sheath. The word vaina is in turn derived from the Latin word vagina, which means ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’.”  As you might imagine from such an etymology, the long narrow annealed lips of a vanilla flower do indeed resemble a sheath.

Hmm...

Once they are fertilized, vanilla flowers produce fruits in the form of long black pods.  Totonac people—pre-Colombian Mesoamericans who were indigenous to mountainous regions along the eastern coast of Mexico—were the first people to realize the food potential of these pods.  Although initially inedible, the pods produce the sweet heady smell and taste of vanilla when sun-ripened for several weeks.   The Totonacs had a myth that the vanilla flower originated when Xanat, a princess and priestess to the goddess of the crops, eloped into the jungle with a handsome lover whom she was forbidden to marry. When the pair were discovered hiding in the forest, they were beheaded.  Where the lovers’ blood mingled on the jungle floor, the first vanilla vine first sprouted.

Vanilla Pods

The Totonac people did not get to enjoy their vanilla unmolested for very long.  From the mid 15th century up until the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs subjugated the Totonacs and forced them to pay stiff tributes–which included vanilla pods. Not only did the Aztecs use vanilla for medicine and as an aphrodisiac, they added it to their sacred drink xocolatl—a bitter beverage made of cacao which they had learned about from the Mayans.  When Cortés marched to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, he met the Totonacs along the way and they joined the conquistador as allies. Totonac support was instrumental to Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs. It was Cortés himself who introduced vanilla to the courts of Europe.

Hernán Cortés, food adventurer

Vanilla was initially used only as a chocolate additive in Europe, but it soon became popular as a pricey stand-alone ingredient.  Like the Aztecs, jaded European aristocrats regarded it as an aphrodisiac and a sensual aid.  It was also found to be perfect for baking and producing confections. Colonial powers rushed to plant the vine in Africa, Polynesia, Madagascar, and other suitable climates, but there was a problem: although the vines flourished, there were no pods.   It was not until 1836, that Charles Morren, a Belgian horticulturist unlocked vanilla’s secret.  The vanilla flower (Vanilla  planifolia) can not be pollinated by any insect other than the stingless Melipone bee.

Melipona subnitida--the Stingless Melipone Bee, the only natural pollinator of flat leafed vanilla flowers

Unfortunately the method of artificial pollination devised by Morren proved too expensive and difficult to be commercially viable. It was only when Edmond Albius, an orphaned slave sent to serve a horticulturist on the island of Reunion,  discovered a quick easy method to pollinate vanilla by hand that vanilla plantations became viable beyond Mexico. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies, Albius was freed, but he did not see any recompense for his discovery.  He ended up imprisoned for jewelry theft and died in poverty.

Portrait of Edmond Albius, circa 1863 (Antoine Roussin / Publisher )

Fortunately Albius’ discovery made plentiful inexpensive vanilla internationally available.  The flavoring rose to dominance because it is almost universally pleasing to humans (although vanillin acts as a trigger for a small minority of migraine sufferers). During the twentieth century, organic chemists discovered how to synthesize vanillin (a phenolic aldehyde predominant in vanilla extract) from wood pulp bi-products.  Compared to natural vanilla extract (a mixture of several hundred different compounds) it tastest quite vile:  anyone who has compared real vanilla extract with synthetic vanillin could easily expound on the superiority of the former.  Real vanilla has a taste of orchids, Central-American jungles, and divinely transfigured princess  which synthetic compounds can never capture.

And that is why home-made cookies are so much better.

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