Monday 11 December 2017

The Ancient Herbalists Assigned Herbs to Planetary Rulers

Why the Ancient Herbalists Assigned Herbs to Astrological Rulers

Nicholas Culpeper (Photo: Public Domain)

As far as we know, there are no more planets in this Solar System that have plants growing on them, though some people have suggested there may be vegetation of some sort on Mars. Ancient herbalists, however, had a system of assigning herbs to planetary rulers; in other words, they claimed that deities linked with the heavenly bodies held dominion over herbs that grow on Earth. Let us take a look at a selection of herbs that were placed under the astrological ruling of other planets, and see why it might have been that herbalists, like Culpeper, decided to assign them to specific heavenly rulers.

Herbs of Mars

Dragon Tree (Photo: Public Domain)

Nicholas Culpeper was one of the most famous herbalists who believed that medicinal and culinary plants could be grouped in this way, according to their various characteristics that were linked to those of a specific god or goddess. For example, because Mars was regarded as the god of war, herbs that had something aggressive about their physical appearance or something that resembled blood, were candidates for being ruled by this planet. The strange Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco) is a perfect example of a herb ruled by Mars because it has sword-shaped leaves, reddish-coloured berries and it bleeds a resinous sap that goes a dark red when dry and is known as dragon’s blood. The Dragon Tree comes from the Canary Islands, and a specimen in the town of Icod de los Vinos is thought to be 1,000-years-old or more. It is known as the "Drago Milenario," has its own park, and is a tourist attraction nowadays.

Steve Andrews explains why the Dragon Tree is a herb of Mars

Mistletoe (Photo: Public Domain)

Herbs of the Sun

Herbs of the Sun include the Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and the Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis). These two plants have petals that radiate out from a central disk like the rays of the Sun, and the Sunflower is, of course, a bright yellow, which is a colour linked with the central star of our Solar System. The St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is another herb in this group. It has yellow star-shaped flowers and is harvested in midsummer when the Sun is at its strongest and the days are at their longest. St John’s Wort has become well-known as a herbal antidepressant, and one of its alternative names is Sunshine Herb. Mistletoe (Viscum album) is an herb of the Sun because it was traditionally harvested by Druids at the time of the Winter Solstice. It was cut down from an oak tree using a golden sickle.

White Water Lily (Photo: Public Domain)

Herbs of the Moon

Herbs ruled by the Moon were often ones that are associated with water, because the Moon is linked with the oceans because it causes the tides. White flowers or a silvery colour on the foliage are other characteristics linked with the Moon, and plants that have something to do with the night might also be thought of as herbs of the Moon. The White Water Lily (Nymphaea alba) is a herb ruled by the Moon. This is because of its white flowers, rounded leaves, like full Moons, and because it grows in lakes and ponds. The Jasmine (Jasminum officinale) has white blooms and its perfume is strongest at night. The White Willow (Salix alba) is another herb under the dominion of the Moon. Willows, of course, like to grow by water. The Lettuce species (Lactuca spp.) are ruled by the Moon too. This is because they have a white milky sap if cut. This sap is known as "Lettuce opium" and has similar sedative effects.

Fennel (Photo: Public Domain)

Herbs of Mercury

Mercury was thought of as the messenger of the gods, so herbs ruled by this planet have to really communicate to us in some way. Strongly aromatic herbs were often chosen as herbs of Mercury. The Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a great example of a herb in this group. It communicates to our senses with the visual appeal of its tall graceful stems and ferny foliage, to our tastes with its sweet and spicy flavour like aniseed, and with its scent like anise when crushed. It is used both as a culinary herb and in herbal medicine.

Periwinkle (Photo: Public Domain)

Herbs of Venus

Herbs ruled by Venus, not surprisingly include the Rose, which is a symbol of love and passion, and, of course, Venus is the Goddess of Love. The pretty blue-flowered Periwinkle (Vinca spp.) is another herb in this group, and this is because it has been used in love potions and spells. It was thought that merely sprinkling this herb under the bed of a couple of lovers would increase their passion. In fact, the Periwinkle is a poisonous plant but that never stopped it being linked with love.

Lime Tree (Photo: Public Domain)

Herbs of Jupiter

Jupiter is a giant planet and expansion is one of the characteristics associated with it as a planetary ruler. Various trees come under its dominion because of their spreading branches. One of them is the Lime Tree (Tilia spp.), a tree which gives us lime flower tea, which is known to help relaxation and is very popular in many parts of Europe. It was once thought that anyone suffering from epilepsy would be healed by merely sitting under a Lime's branches. The Oak (Quercus) is a very important and sacred tree for Druids, and it too comes under the rulership of Jupiter.

Deadly Nightshade (Photo: Public Domain)

Herbs of Saturn

Saturn is another gigantic planet and famous for its rings. To the Ancient Herbalists it was associated with the passing of time and with old age and death. It symbolises the “Grim Reaper.” Many poisonous herbs come under its dominion. The Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna), the Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) are all very dangerous herbs that were once used by witches as ingredients for their “flying ointments.” The Morning Glory (Ipomoea violacea) is another herb under the dominion of Saturn. Its flower has a circular mouth to a funnel-shape and could remind us of the Rings of Saturn. Its seeds, especially in varieties like "Heavenly Blue," contain lysergic acid amide, which as hallucinogenic effects and has often been used by hippies and shamans because of this. This flower looks so beautiful it could be from another world, and its psychoactive effects could make you feel like you were on one.

Morning Glory (Photo: Steve Andrews)

In Conclusion

Thinking about how the herbalists assigned various herbs to the rulership of planetary deities, according to their characteristics, certainly makes for a fascinating study and something for us to think about. My new book Herbs of the Sun, Moon and Planets (Moon Books) explores this subject in greater detail.

Herbs of the Sun, Moon and Planets explained by author Steve Andrews

Friday 1 December 2017

A day out in London exploring nature

A day out in London exploring nature
Magpie in tree in Regent's Park  (Photo: Ashley Coates)

London is a massive and bustling city in the UK, but surprisingly, despite all its shops and streets, and traffic and buildings, it is a good place for exploring nature if you know where to go. As a matter of fact, as much as 47% of London is actually green space, though this may not be evident if you are just looking at all its building developments, housing and roads.
If you are a naturalist with a special interest in a particular area of study, you can come to London and spend an interesting time there seeing what you can find. For example, a botanist can see how many wildflowers they can find growing in the urban environment, and see what trees they can discover in the city’s streets, parks and gardens. If you are a bird-spotter, you can be on the lookout for different species, and it is possible to get some surprises.

The very rare bittern is a species that has been seen in wetlands just a few km from the city centre. The American robin made national news and excited twitchers when it was seen in London in the Peckham Rye station area back in 2006.

American Robin (Photo: Tim Sackton)

Regent’s Park
It is the parks that are the obvious place to look for nature and the city of London has a wonderful selection of parklands, which are home to all sorts of incredible wildlife. Regent’s Park not only supports an interesting flora and fauna in the wild, including frogs, toads, common newts, herons, cormorants, bats, hedgehogs, foxes, and as many as 21 species of British butterfly, but is also home to London Zoo, which is worth a visit to see many exotic species.

Urban fox (Photo: brett jordan)

Where to stay on a Day Trip to London
Perhaps you have already heard about what a great place the big city can be for connecting with nature, and have decided to make a day trip to London? Perhaps you are planning to take a look at some of its parks but fancy somewhere to be able to rest between morning and afternoon explorations. There are plenty of hotels by the hour on DayBreakHotels site, where you can book a room for your use just for the day. Having such a hotel room can be convenient as a place to leave any baggage you brought with you and also for any shopping you may have done while in London. Even though your day trip is to discover nature and urban wildlife you may well be tempted by the incredible range of shops on offer in London. Convenience is important for you to get the most out of your day in the big city and Hyde Park is in convenient distance to Regent's Park.

Hyde Park
Heron and spring flowers in Hyde Park (Photo: Sarah Castillo)

Hyde Park is a popular park in the heart of London that is a great place for spotting wildlife, and on a day trip to the city perhaps you could visit this park in the second half of your day.  Hyde Park has plenty of wildflowers in its meadow and the these plants attract lots of butterflies and pollinators in summer. The Serpentine Lake attracts many waterbirds including great crested grebes. The park has a great variety of birds, including long-tailed tits, dunnocks and robins, and buzzards have been sighted here too.

Go Wild In the City
There are also organisations in London that provide services that help introduce residents and visitors. Wildinthecity is one such non-profit organisation that provides guided walks in the green spaces and natural areas of the London area, and includes foraging, bushcraft and camping in the wild as skills you can learn. Wildinthecity shows people how to connect with nature and teaches about the pleasures to be gained outdoors, as well as how to identify edible fruits and plants, for example.

Foraging for berries (Photo: Simon James)

London may be a busy metropolis but is still a wonderful place for discovering the natural world.

Saturday 2 September 2017

Ponds in 750 words

PONDS (in 750 words in 3-word sentences only)

Ponds are wet. Ponds are deep. Pondwater is cold. Edges are shallow. Marginal plants grow. Willows grow poolside. Ponds house frogs. Ponds house newts. Ponds house sticklebacks. Fish need ponds. Water lily floats. Frogbit floats too. Duckweed floats too. Dragonflies hunt insects. Damselfly is graceful. Damselfly is smaller. Damselfly looks exotic. Dragonfly looks prehistoric. Dragonfly is prehistoric. Mud is deep. Mud is stinking. Mud is mucky.

Ducks swim together. Ducks can dabble. Drakes are attractive. Ducks attract humans. Humans feed ducks. Humans hunt ducks. Ducklings are cute. Waterfowl need ponds. Grebes like ponds. Grebes are divers.

Swans like ponds. Swans are beautiful. Swans build nests. Water weeds choke. Parrot’s feather invades. Pond weeds invade. Canadian pondweed invades. Watercress is edible. Pondskaters surface walk. Water crickets skate. Water measurers walk. Pond surface fascinates. Flowering rush flowers.

Tadpoles form shoals. Frogs spawn annually. Male frogs croak. Toads gather too. Males grab females. Males kick males. Ponds are source. Spawn is jelly. Amphibians need freshwater. Dragonfly nymphs hunt. Nymphs eat tadpoles. Nymphs are masked. Camouflage works well. Nymph transforms magically. Caddisfly larva hides. Herons hunt frogs. Herons eat fish. Herons stand tall. Herons stay still. Herons seek ponds.

Water boatmen sing. Water bug predates. Water bugs bite. Water beetle hunts. Water beetle flies. Water boatmen fly. Reedmace is edible. Summer evaporates water. Newts all leave. Water snails feed. Water scorpions hunt. Leeches sometimes swim. Pondwater is home. Ponds are stagnant. Flatworms are weird. Moths need reeds. Waterfowl need reeds.  Bats like ponds.

Ponds are fascinating. Ponds smell natural. Ponds are ornamental. Winter ponds freeze. Water is icy. Pond surface freezes. Spring returns life. Ponds attract kids. Kids catch tadpoles. Ponds are dangerous. Deep water drowns. Humans drain ponds. Ponds are needed. Rare pondlife exists. Ponds have parasites. Humans destroy pondlife. Humans destroy ponds. Wildlife find ponds. Wildlife seek ponds.

Snakes need ponds. They hunt frogs. Snakes eat newts. Human ponds help. Ponds get fewer. Ponds were childhood. Ponds were traditional. Village ponds existed. Farms had duckponds. Parks had ponds. Parks use ponds.

Ponds supported wildlife. Ponds give life. Ponds are natural. Humans need ponds. Ponds form habitats. Ponds are worlds. Ponds are wetlands. We explore ponds. Pondlife is amazing. Pondlife must adapt. Microscopic pondlife lives. Microscopes view rotifers. Cyclops are crustaceans. Water fleas swarm. Water mites vary. Amoebas can divide. Ponds appeal aesthetically. Lily pool appeals. Ponds inspire artists. Ponds are photogenic. Ponds were youth. Ponds were upbringing. Ponds are missing. Pond explorations excite. Ponds can stimulate. Ponds inspire poetry. Ponds inspire art. Some pondlife float. Some pondlife swim.

Some are mud-dwellers. Some pondlife arrive. Some pondlife depart. Ponds are fun. Ponds are intricate. Ponds delight naturalists. Ponds delight botanists.

Ponds delight people. Ponds are visual. Ponds are seasonal. Ponds dry up. Ponds fill up. Ponds are fleeting. Ponds are alive. Ponds are memorable. Ponds look ancient. Ponds look new. Ponds form connections. Ponds are green. Ponds reflect sunlight. Ponds reflect moonlight. Ponds show seasons. Ponds can drown. A pond protects. Ponds get cold. Ponds can endure. Ponds are leafy. Ponds absorb death. Ponds cause death. Ponds engender life. Ponds use decomposition. Ponds feed animals. Ponds feed birds. Ponds feed amphibians.

Ponds feed insects. Ponds feed invertebrates. Ponds feed mammals. Ponds provide water. Ponds can shine. Ponds can sparkle. Ponds go dark. Ponds fool us. Ponds scare people. Ponds are joy. Each pond differs. Ponds age well. Ponds change quickly. Ponds process life. Ponds are polluted. Ponds are clean. Ponds show cycles. Ponds show signs. Ponds give clues. Ponds take water. Ponds need water. Ponds are temporary. Ponds inspire thinking. Ponds can flood. Ponds can lessen. Ponds can disappear. Ponds can return. People make ponds. People desire ponds. People sell ponds. Plastic ponds work. Ponds are artificial. Concrete ponds endure. Ponds need protection.

Ponds beautify parkland. Ponds beautify gardens. Ponds need attention. Ponds are returning. Ponds were common. Pond mud sets. Pond mud cracks. Clay ponds exist. Marshes surround ponds. Bogs surround ponds. Streams form ponds. Trees overlook ponds. Reeds surround ponds. Ponds warm up. Ponds can chill. Ponds are environments. Ponds support vegetation. Ponds need conservation. Ponds feed us. Ponds are worldwide. Ponds need rain. Ponds collect water. Ponds drain land. Ponds provide sustenance. Ponds nourish lifeforms. Ponds are calm. Ponds are peaceful. Ponds are balanced. Ponds show harmony. Ponds are mirrors.

Ponds reflect faces. Ponds are dreams. Ponds inspire introspection. Pond snail sticks. Ramshorn snail spirals. Kingfishers like ponds. Ponds fill depressions. Ponds swallow excess. Ponds fill fast. Vernal ponds expire.

Tuesday 18 April 2017

Why are Portugal's Pines and Palms Dying?

Portugal’s Palm and Pine Trees are under attack
Dead Pine (Photo: Steve Andrews)

As you travel around in Portugal you can’t hope but notice the dead palms and dead and dying pine trees, but what is causing this disaster? It is a combination of drought, disease, and in the case of the pines, because of a tiny nematode worm and species of beetles that transport it. The pines and palms of Portugal are under attack. Let’s take a look at the two problems, starting with the pines.

Male Pine Wilt Nematode (Photo: A. Steven Munson, USDA Forest Service,

Pine trees, which are a very common tree in the forests of Portugal, are under threat from a very tiny worm known as the pine wilt nematode (Bursaphelenchus xylophilus), which causes “pine wilt,” as well as from a fungus known to science as Fusarium circinatum, which causes pitch canker disease. The worm’s name is often abbreviated to the letters PWN.

The nematode worms are spread to healthy trees by bark beetles and wood borer beetles that have become infested with the worms in a dead and decaying tree. After a tree is infected the needles become brown and the tree can die within a matter of months. The early stage of this nematode does not feed directly on the pinewood but on fungi in the decaying wood. Once the worm is in a healthy tree it feeds within the resin canals and spreads throughout the roots, trunk and branches. It reproduces rapidly in summer. It first caused terrible and noticeable tree loss in Japan in 1905, but is found in and has spread in many other parts of the world, including America, Canada, Mexico, China and Korea. In Europe it has become a problem in Portugal, and there are serious concerns that it could spread to other countries, including the UK, where it would be a threat to the Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris).

Monochamus galloprovincialis (Photo: Siga)

In Europe, the pine wilt nematode is known to be spread by the Timberman Beetle (Monochamus galloprovincialis). In Japan the epidemics have been particularly bad in hot, dry summers, and the problem appears to be spreading in drought conditions experienced in Portugal. Drought weakens the trees and they become prone to attack by beetles.

I have become alerted to the pine wood nematode by witnessing the dead and dying pines near where I live in the Quinta do Conde area. The authorities here are chopping the trees down and then cutting up the trunks in an effort to deal with this threat to the forests. The wood can be fumigated or kiln-dried to kill the worms and beetles or it can be burned or chipped.

Infected pines (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Some species of pine appear to be more resistant to attacks by PWN than others. This can be seen in forests where there are stands of dead trees and others surviving.

Red Palm Weevil

Destroyed Palm Crown (Photo: Kuchenkraut)

The threat to the palms of Portugal, and to those in many other countries around the world, is being caused by an insect known as the Red Palm Weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus). The grub of this weevil eats the crown of the tree and burrows into the palm trunks making a long tunnel and killing its host as it does so. The adult insects are quite attractive and large, reaching a size of between 2 and 4cm.

Red Palm Weevil (Photo: Luigi Barraco)

The females lay their eggs on palms, especially in the crowns, and on recently pruned leaf scars and in lesions in the trunks. They can lay as many as 500 in total and an infestation of these weevil larvae will kill the host palm. After eating their fill the grubs pupate in a cocoon they weave of palm fibres and usually make in leaf litter.

The insects attack many species of palm, although a favourite for this weevil is the Canary Date Palm (Phoenix canariensis), a very popular ornamental palm that is frequently planted in gardens, parks and in city streets and squares. The Date Palm (P. dactylifera) is also a victim of this pest. Fortunately the Washingtonia palms seem to be resistant to attacks by the insect. The weevils can fly and this is how they invade new territory but they can also be transported in infested palms.

In Portugal, most of damage caused by Red Palm Weevils has taken place in the Algarve and south of the country, but over the years this insect pest has spread to other parts as well. In the heart of Lisbon you will see what’s left of palms that have been killed by the Red Palm Weevil.

In some parts of the world, including Borneo, Vietnam and Indonesia, the grubs are regarded as a delicacy, and are eaten alive or cooked. In countries, like Spain and Portugal, they are a very serious problem that are destroying ornamental palms.

There are various ways of treating infested palms, and insecticides injected into the trunk is a method that has often been used. It is possible to save palms under attack by these insects but often the damage has become to severe and a very beautiful tree will die and get removed.

Both palms and pines add to the beauty of Portugal and it would be tragic if they were lost from many parts of the country.

Thursday 13 April 2017

Why Common Swifts are no longer common

The Common Swift is not so common in the UK anymore
Common Swift (Photo: Justyna Baytel)

The common swift (Apus apus) was once an aptly named bird, so often seen screaming and screeching as it swooped and soared over our streets but this is no longer the case. The common swift is no longer common in the UK. My father Bill, who lives in Cardiff, used to keep a diary in which he recorded the dates the swifts arrived each year at the start of summer. He no longer bothers because no swifts arrive where he lives any more. He often rightly complains that these once common birds have vanished from the road he lives in.

The common swift's British breeding populations are known to have dropped drastically in numbers, and the RSPB have the bird on the "Amber List" for species in danger.

So where have all the swifts gone? What has happened to them and what can be done about it?

One of the main reasons for their serious decline is how houses are being built and maintained today. In old buildings the swifts used to nest under the eaves but now roofs are sealed and the birds cannot find any way of entering or anywhere to nest. Renovations to old houses are sealing the roofs too. Making the problem worse, is the fact that swifts like to return to buildings where they have nested before, and they are not keen on newly built housing. Demolition of old buildings demolishes the nesting sites used by swifts.

Swiftlets in nest box (Photo: Public Domain) 

Fortunately, there is a solution. Nest boxes can be placed on houses and buildings and access to roofs can be left by people who care about the conservation of these summer visitors. One group that is actively monitoring the swift population in the UK is aptly named Action For Swifts. It is reassuring to know that there are people all over Britain that are very concerned about this problem and who are taking action to try and do something about it before it is too late. I emailed a contact I found for Action For Swifts in the Cardiff area and was delighted to receive a reply from a lady called Julia. She confirmed what my Dad had been saying, that the situation for swifts in Cardiff is not good. But she informed me that there are a couple of known colonies in the suburbs of Canton and Cathays, and that Cardiff University is helping with conservation measures to help the common swift. The university has accepted advice on renovation work that is swift-friendly and has put up a large number of nest boxes on its halls of residence.

"Swift City"

Julia informed me that “Glamorgan Bird Club is also doing a variety of things, including raising awareness and has recently installed nest boxes in a church tower in the Vale.

And the RSPB is looking to make Cardiff a "swift city" - to work with the Council, house builders, etc, to increase nest sites, amongst other things.”

My father was very glad to hear this news and spread the word to a group of local radio amateurs he is friendly with. Obviously, the more people that know about the threat to the common swift and what steps can be taken to help them recover, the better it will be for these amazing birds.

Why Swifts are truly remarkable birds
Common swifts are truly incredible for many reasons. They have very short legs and because of this they are unhappy when landed because they are unable to walk. They use their short legs and feet to cling to vertical surfaces, such as the wall of a house. Because they do not land on the ground, the birds spend most of their lives on the wing and they even sleep when flying. Non-breeding young birds can spend as much as 10 months of a year in continuous flight. No other bird spends as much time on the wing.

Speaking of flight, swifts migrate all the way to and from equatorial Africa, all the way to the UK and many other parts of Europe and the Northern Hemisphere.

Swifts gather their nesting materials on the wing too, using feathers and small bits of vegetable matter that they find blowing about. They bond it together to make their nests using their saliva as an adhesive.

A remarkable bird, I am sure you will agree, so let’s do all we can to make the common swift, common again!