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Lesser Periwinkle (Vinca Minor)

Lesser Periwinkle (Vinca Minor)

This little flower is Vinca minor, the lesser periwinkle. It is native to Central Europe spreading down through Southern Europe into Asia Minor (although at this point it has naturalized throughout the temperate world as an invasive garden plant). In the United States they are sometimes confusingly (mis)called “myrtle”.

A magnificent carpet of lesser periwinkles (Vinca minor) near Vienna in Austria (photo:

A magnificent carpet of lesser periwinkles (Vinca minor) near Vienna in Austria (photo:

Lesser periwinkles are subshrubs (which would have made for a good insult in grade school). They grow only to 40 centimeters (16 inches) high and do not climb—though they spread rapidly into large clonal colonies. Periwinkles are members of the hardy Aster family (the plant family not the snooty otter-killing magnates from New York). With vigorous evergreen leaves and shapely five-petaled flowers, the plants can be used as perennial ground cover for flower gardens.


The best and most famous feature of lesser periwinkles is the distinctive blue-purple color. In English the flower and its color have become synonymous—the latter surpassing the former in popular recognition! Periwinkle is a very lovely and soothing color which seems purple in some light and blue in others. It makes an ideal color for walls and home furnishings as well as garments.


Yesterday’s post concerned smallpox, one of the most dreadful scourges to ever afflict humankind.  I shied away from writing about the physiological aspects of the disease–which is caused by two viruses, Variola major and Variola minor–because the symptoms are absolutely horrible (as I can fervently attest after some internet research involving photographs which were apparently taken in the cruelest depths of hell).  Smallpox was badly named.  It should have been called “deathrash” or “bloodskin” or “face-melt-fever”, but apparently Roman stoicism came to the fore and the Latin name merely means “spotted” or “pimple.”  Not only did smallpox effectively kill off the native population of the new world (and later of Australia, which experienced a similar plague), but for thousands of years it regularly culled a sizable hunk of humanity from Africa, Asia, and Europe.  Like influenza, the smallpox co-evolved in response to our immune reactions to it, so, even in parts of the world where people had inherited some resistance, the pestilence sometimes flared into a full scale pandemic.

Death and the Child (Sebald Beham, woodcut, early 16th century)

But smallpox is gone (almost)!  Humankind joined together and beat one of the most horrible things we have ever faced.  Today the last remaining live smallpox viruses are imprisoned in laboratories in Atlanta and Koltsovo, Novosibirsk Oblast.

In grade school, we were taught that this stunning victory came about when an English physician named Edward Jenner realized that milkmaids who contracted a mild rash called cowpox became immune to smallpox.  By deliberately giving people cowpox, Jenner found a way of protecting them from the fatal smallpox.  Jenner thus invented immunology, one of the most useful and inexpensive forms of medicine.  His great work was taken up by subsequent generations of immunologists and physicians in allied fields who improved upon his findings.  Together they used national and international resources to immunize the world.  Smallpox was officially proclaimed to be eradicated in 1979.

Yet Jenner had antecedents who were not well appreciated because of the preconceptions and prejudices of the day, (also, by necessity, he worked with human subjects whose bravery went unheralded).  Jenner’s greatness is not diminished by looking back at the others who were involved in an epic struggle against history’s greatest killer.  There are descriptions of smallpox avoidance techniques in ancient Sanskrit texts from India dating back to 1000 BC, however scholars do not agree on whether these texts describe inoculation or not.  What is certain is that a medical text from Ming dynasty China does indeed describe an effective inoculation process.  The Douzhen xinfa  published in 1549 was written by Wan Quan, a pediatrician who believed that sunlight and fresh air were good for children (and that overfeeding and overmedicating were bad). Wan Quan described a method of variolation—by which means a healthy person was purposely infected with Variola minor, the less dangerous o the two forms o smallpox.  By the time of the Lonquing Emperor who reigned from 1567–1572 (and was the son of the addled Jiajing emperor) variolation was widespread–powdered smallpox scabs were blown up the noses of healthy children so that they would contract Variola minor.  This was effective in preventing smallpox, but it had a fatality rate of .05% to 2%–a dreadful margin (though nothing like the 30%+ mortality rate of smallpox pandemic).

Variolation gradually spread through the Chinese empire and through the Turkish and Islamic world, but it did not reach the attention of western medicine until the early 18th century.  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1716 to 1717 (as well as a sort of feminist pioneer, poet, and adventurer). After losing a brother to smallpox (and being disfigured by the disease) Lady Mary was eager for a means to protect her children from the scourge.  In 1718, the embassy surgeon inoculated her son and, based on the success of this procedure, she arranged for her daughter to be inoculated in 1721 (when the family was back in England).  The procedure attracted the attention of the medical establishment and the royal family.  Although many doctors were aghast at an “Oriental” procedure (which was being popularized by a woman, no less) the royal family intervened directly in the controversy when a smallpox epidemic swept England in the 1720s.  In order to fully test the safety of the inoculation, the King offered a full pardon to six (or seven?) condemned prisoners in exchange for undergoing variolation.  Not surprisingly the condemned prisoners chose an unknown medical procedure instead of the hangman’s rope, and when they survived they were duly freed.  Variolation was also tested on six orphan children–who also survived.  After these human tests, the royal children were inoculated against smallpox.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants (Jean Baptiste Vanmour, ca. 1717, oil on canvas)

Inoculation spread quickly among the rich and powerful of Europe, but it was staunchly opposed by reactionaries and by churchmen (who believed it was contrary to God’s will).  Against such a background, came Jenner’s discovery of a cowpox based vaccine which was vastly safer than using live smallpox.  But even with the much safer vaccine, it was a long time before the immunologists started to win over many ignorant and superstitious people to the life-saving virtues of the vaccine (and nearly two hundred more years before they stomped out the loathsome blight of smallpox).

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

August 2020