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Detail from "Medicine" (Gustav Klimt, 1901)

Detail from “Medicine” (Gustav Klimt, 1901)

Earlier this month we featured a post about Robert William’s painting “In the Pavillion of the Red Clown” an enigmatic artwork which showed a sinister red-garbed clown using a golden snake to menace a pretty showgirl.  It’s a powerful painting and it provoked some enthusiastic and thoughtful comments, but it is also a painting with some real gender issues (particularly considering the clown’s menacing attitude and the showgirl’s scanty garb). To rectify the situation and even up the scales, here is an even more beautiful painting by the Vienna Secession master, Gustav Klimt.  Actually this is a detail photograph of a part of the larger painting “Medicine” which Klimt painted in 1901.  Sadly the original painting was destroyed by the S.S. in 1945, but photos and sketches of the original still exist.  The woman in red is the goddess Hygeia, one of the daughters of Asclepius.  Worshiped by Romans as the personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation, she holds a sacred golden snake, the ancient symbol of healing and looks haughtily down at the viewer.  Her strange lovely red and gold garb highlights her divinity and otherworldliness. Likewise the golden swirls on her dress and the red ribbons in her elaborately coiffed hair suggest a hidden world of medical secrets.

the Rod of Asclepius

the Rod of Asclepius

The rod of Asclepius—a serpent coiled around a staff–is a symbol from ancient Greek mythology which represents the physician’s art. Asclepius was a demigod who surpassed all other gods and mortals at the practice of medicine.  Because his skills blurred the distinction between mortality and godhood, Asclepius was destroyed by Zeus (an exciting & troubling story which you can find here).

Asclepius

Asclepius

There are several proposed reasons that a staff wrapped by a snake is the symbol of the god of medicine.  In some myths, Asclepius received his medical skills from the whispering of serpents (who knew the secrets of healing and revitalization because of their ability to shed their skin and emerge bigger and healthier).  Some classicists believe the snake represents the duality of medicine—which can heal or harm depending on the dosage and the circumstance.  Yet others see the serpent as an auger from the gods. Whatever the case, the rod of Asclepius is a lovely and distinctive symbol of medicine and has been since ancient times. Temples to Asclepius were constructed across the Greco-Roman world and served as hospitals of a sort.  The serpent-twined rod of the great doctor was displayed at these institutions and became a symbol for western doctors who followed.

Logo of the British Medical Association

Logo of the British Medical Association

However there is a painfully apt misunderstanding between the rod of Asclepius and a similar symbol.

Greek mythology featured a separate and entirely distinct symbolic rod wrapped with snakes, the caduceus—which has two snakes and is winged.  The caduceus was carried by Hermes/Mercury, the god of merchants, thieves, messengers, and tricksters.  Hermes used the rod to beguile mortals or to touch the eyes of the dead and lead them to the underworld.

Hermes holding the Caduceus

Hermes holding the Caduceus

In the United States the two rods have become confused because of a military mix-up in the early twentieth century (when a stubborn medical officer refused to listen to his subordinates and ordered the caduceus to be adopted as the symbol of the U.S. Medical Corps).  Since then the caduceus has been extensively used by healthcare organizations in the United States and has come to replace the staff of Asclepius in the majority of uses.  Commercial and for-profit medical organizations are particularly inclined to use the caduceus instead of the rod of Asclepius as the former is more visually arresting (although academic and professional medical organizations tend to use the staff of Asclepius).

The Caduceus

The Caduceus

To recap: the caduceus, which symbolizes profit-seeking, theft, and death, has replaced the staff of Asclepius, an ancient symbol of healing, throughout the United States.  Of course it is up to the reader to decide whether this is a painful misunderstanding, or a wholly appropriate representation of the actual nature of the broken American healthcare system.  HMOs, insurance companies, and hospitals, however have started to take note and are moving towards crosses and random computer generated bric-brac for their logos, leaving both ancient symbols behind.

hmo2

The Flower of Chiranthodendron pentadactylon

The Devil’s Hand Tree (Chiranthodendron pentadactylon) is an unusual evergreen tree from the cloud forests of Central America (Guatemala and Mexico).  The tree grows up to 12 meters (40 feet) tall and has distinctive oversized leaves with ruddy metallic veins and fuzzy undersides.

Chiranthodendron is Greek for “hand-flowering tree” and pentadactylon means five fingered (which makes this tree sound like a grabby pterosaur or an early fish).  There is good reason for the name though—as the common name indicates the distinctive flowers of this tropical tree look like demon hands.  The five blood red stamens are shaped like clawed fingers–each of which has a double row of saffron yellow pollen running along it. As the flowers fade they curl into claws.

The pollinators of the tree are nectar sipping bats and perching birds (particularly orioles) which drink sweet nectar from the bowl-like petals beneath the stamen “claw.”  Once the flower is fertilized it forms an extremely hard seed.

The tree was apparently revered by the Aztecs who knew it from a single grand specimen which grew alone in Toluca (in the Valley of Mexico).  The lone tree was famous and venerated.  Healers used parts of it to make medicine, but, despite—or because of—their respect, the Aztecs annually harvested every single flower off the tree to prevent it from germinating and producing others of its kind. However there were rumors about offshoots hidden in royal gardens (and in the private gardens of the tree’s tenders).

Extracts from the Devil’s Hand tree are reputed to have antimicrobial properties and to serve as heart stimulants—but I lack conclusive scientific evidence for these assertions.  If you want to stimulate your heart you had probably find some other means of doing so.

A Close-up photo of a Foxglove from "Ledge and Gardens"

The garden at my new residence contains a variety of beautiful old trees (like the cherry tree which I wrote about this spring).  While the trees are delightful and are clearly the best features of the garden, they do make flower gardening a challenge.  Fortunately there is a very beautiful plant that thrives in the dappled shade—the foxglove.  I just planted two mature specimens which I obtained from the nursery and I am delighted with them!  I thought I should feature a picture of them here before their flower spikes get broken.

Foxgloves in my Brooklyn Garden

Because they are so tall and elegant, foxgloves have been a garden mainstay for an extremely long time.  About twenty species of wild foxgloves (the genus in named “digitalis”) are indigenous to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.  The plants are biennials and they produce foliage in a low basal clump.  During the plant’s second year, a tall rosette rises from the leaves and produces a series of purple, white, or pink tube-shaped flowers.  The throats of these flowers are mottled with lovely speckles.

A Second Photo from the Garden

Foxgloves have long been associated with magic and myth.  In Roman mythology, the goddess Juno was angered that Jupiter had given birth to Minerva without a mother.  Juno aired this grievance to Flora, the goddess of flowers, who then lightly touched the queen of gods on her breasts and belly with a foxglove.  Juno was impregnated and gave birth to the war god Mars, who, in the Roman canon has no father (like certain turkeys!). The Scandinavians call the plant “fox bells” a name which references an ancient fairy tale about how foxes magically ring the flowers when hunters are coming (so as to warn their kind of peril).  On her botanical folklore website, Allison Cox wrote “In Wales, foxglove was called Goblin’s Gloves and was said to attract the hobgoblins who wore the long bells on their fingers as gloves that imparted magical properties.”

A Patch of Foxgloves

Unfortunately, the plant has a very real dark side. All parts of the foxglove are toxic.  Mammals that have ingested digitalis suffer tremors and nerve disorders (particularly xanthopsia, a visual impairment in which the world becomes suffused with yellow and haloes appear around lights).  Even a small amount of the poison is enough to cause deadly disturbances of the heart.

Because of its ability to affect the heart, digitalis was one of the very first cardiac medicines. The biochemistry website “Molecule of the Month” relates that, “Digitalis is an example of a cardio-active or cardiotonic drug, in other words a steroid which has the ability to exert a specific and powerful action on the cardiac muscle in animals, and has been used in the treatment of heart conditions ever since its discovery in 1775.”  The site has a very entertaining anecdote about how William Withering, the proper English doctor who made this discovery was forced to prowl the forgotten byways of Shropshire and bargain with a gypsy sorceress to find out which compound had healed a patient with a fatal heart problem.

Because foxglove was actually useful for certain heart problems, it was also prescribed (or self-administered) to people suffering from palsies and nervous disorders. There were very few effective neurological drugs available at the time and it was believed that digitalis might somehow help (an unfortunate fallacy). Legend relates that Van Gogh used foxglove to treat his epilepsy.  If true it might explain the yellow hue of his late paintings. Digitalis poisoning is known to cause xanthopsia, but whether Van Gogh was truly inspired by the poison flower or just loved yellow will probably forever remain unknown.

Le Café de Nuit (Vincent van Gogh, 1888, oil on canvas)

 

Here we are at the end of tree week—an event which isn’t real anywhere but on this blog and which I didn’t even realize was happening until now.  But don’t worry, I’ll be writing more about trees in the future.  I really like them. Anyway, to close out this special week I’m going to write about one of my very favorite trees, the yew.

Yews are a family (Taxaceae) of conifers. The most famous member of the family is Taxus baccata, the common yew, a tree sacred to the ancient tribal people of Britain and Ireland.  Although their strange animist religion was replaced by Christianity, a cursory look at the literature and history of the English, Irish, and Scottish will reveal that the yew has remained sacred to them–albeit under other guises.  The common yew is a small to medium sized conifer with flat, dark green needles.  It grows naturally across Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia but the English have planted it everywhere they went (so pretty much everywhere on Earth).  Yews are entirely poisonous except for the sweet pink berry-like aril which surrounds their bitter toxic cone.  The arils are gelatinous and sweet.

The Fortingall Yew in Scotland

Yews grow very slowly, but they don’t stop growing and they can live a very long time.  This means that some specimens are ancient and huge.  The Fortingall yew which grows in a churchyard in Scotland had a girth of 16 meters (or 52 feet) in 1769.  According to local legend Pontius Pilate played under it when he was a boy.  This is only a legend: Pilate was not in Britain during his youth.  The Fortingall yew however was indeed around back in the Bronze Age long before the Romans came to England.  The oldest living thing in Europe, the yew is at least 2000 years old.  According to some estimates it is may be thousands of years older than that.  It was killed by lackwits, souvenir hunters, and incompetent builders in the early nineteenth century…except actually it wasn’t.  The tree merely went dormant for a century (!) before regrowing to its present, substantial girth.  It is one of the 50 notable trees of Great Britain designated by the Exalted Tree Council of the United Kingdom to celebrate their revered monarch’s Golden Jubilee.

The Llangernyw yew tree in Llangernyw Village, Conwy, Wales

As noted, the people of the British Isles loved yews but they loved their horses and livestock even more and objected to having them drop dead from eating the toxic plant.  This means that they planted the tree in their cemeteries and churchyards (or, indeed, built their churches around ancient sacred groves).  According to pre-Christian lore, a spirit requires a bough of yew in order to find the next realm.  Many English poems about death and the underworld incorporate the yew tree as a symbol, a subject, or, indeed as a character.  Aristocrats also had a fondness for yew because it could be sculpted into magnificent dark green topiary for their formal gardens.

Yews as topiary in the formal garden of Levens, Cumbria

The substantial military prowess of the English during the middle ages depended on longbows made of yew.   A good bow needed to be made from a stave cut from the center of the tree so that the inelastic heartwood was next to the springy outer wood.  This meant that yews in England were badly overharvested and the English had to continually buy yew from Europe. To quote Wikipedia “In 1562, the Bavarian government sent a long plea to the Holy Roman Emperor asking him to stop the cutting of yew, and outlining the damage done to the forests by its selective extraction, which broke the canopy and allowed wind to destroy neighboring trees.”

Like many toxic plants, the poisonous yew has substantial medical value.  The extraordinary Persian polymath Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā’  (who is known in English as Avicenna) used yew to treat heart conditions in the early eleventh century—this represented the first known use of a calcium channel blocker drugs which finally came into widespread use during the 1960’s.  Today chemotherapy drugs Paclitaxel and Docetaxel are manufactured from compounds taken from yews.  It is believed that the yew’s fundamental cellular nature might yield clues about aging and cellular life cycles (since the yew, like the bristlecone pine, apparently does not undergo deterioration of meristem function).  In other words, Yews do not grow old like other living things.

A final personal note: I naturally put a yew tree in my walled garden in Park Slope.  It’s the only tree I have planted in New York. It grows very slowly but it is indifferent to drought, cold, or the large angry trees around it. It will probably be the only plant I have planted to survive if I abandon my garden.

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