An Outbreak Of Flirtwort? Or Would That Be batchelor’s Buttons, Featherfoil Or Midsummer Daisy?

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These days this shrubby little plant of the daisy family is most widely known as Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium). Its original home is in the Balkans, but it is now widespread across the northern hemisphere, including in and around my garden, where it happily self-seeds. It reached Britain in the Middle Ages, perhaps brought by returning Crusaders (that’s only a guess). It was certainly used medicinally by the Ancient Greeks. As the name suggests it was used to relieve fevers. Other uses included the relief of headaches, particularly migraine, rheumatism and general aches and pains.

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Many migraine sufferers swear by it, and make sandwiches of the leaves, or chew them neat (warning: they taste very bitter). There have been a number of clinical trials. Some claim it works e.g Dr Stewart Johnson’s study at the City of London Migraine Clinic (Richard Mabey Flora Britannica). Other studies claim it was no more effective than a placebo, which always sounds damning.

Of course modern medicine is most interested in identifying and then commodifying the specific so-called active ingredient of any medicinal plant because then you can clinically test the substance in known amounts, and if it is deemed to work, licence and market it. But then plant chemistry is extremely complex, and medical herbalists do not think in terms of isolating specific ingredients. They use whole plant parts – leaves, flowers, bark in tinctures, decoctions and teas. Any so-called active components will be in very small quantities, and the treatment may take weeks or months to effect healing.

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Anyway here is the conclusion from a scientific study reported in Pharmacognosy Review 2011 Jan-Jun 103-110 and posted on The National Center for Biotechnology Information website. You can read the whole article at the link:

T. parthenium (L.) contains many sesquiterpene lactones, with higher concentration of parthenolide lipophilic and polar flavonoids in the leaves and the flower heads. The plant also contains high percentage of sterols and triterpenes in the roots. Flowers and leaves and parthenolide showed significant analgesic, anti-inflammatory and antipyretic activities, which confirmed the folk use of feverfew herb for treatment of migraine headache, fever, common cold, and arthritis, and these effects are attributed to leaves and/or flowers mainly due to the presence of sesquiterpene lactones and flavonoids. Feverfew also use as spasmolytic in colic, colitis and gripping, and as vermifuge and laxative. The uterine stimulant effect of the plant agreed with the folk uses of the plant as abortifacient, emmenagogue, and in certain labor difficulties and also agreed with the warning of the drug producer, which indicates the prevention of using feverfew during pregnancy but not agree with the folk use of the drug in threatened miscarriage. Taking great concern of the useful benefits of the plant, it can be advocated as a safe, highly important, medicinal plant for general mankind.

Anthology Baobab: African Story Tree

 

 

 

“Knowledge is like a baobab tree; one person’s arms cannot encompass it.”

Ghanaian proverb

South Luangwa - mighty poachers' baobab 2

This baobab in Zambia’s South Luangwa was used as a poachers’ look-out

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At the moment I’m working on a short story that includes a large and very ancient Adansonia digitata – in other words, a mighty baobab tree. These extraordinary trees have a way of finding their way into my stories (Mantrap, A Hare Who Would Not Be King amongst others). In fact, with so many legends about them, baobabs are nothing if not arboreal storybooks.

They are also like no other tree I can think of, although they are related to kapok trees. They grow in the hot lowlands of Africa and Madagascar and also in Vietnam and Australia. Their capacity to store vast quantities of water in their trunks has earned them the name Tree of Life.  A single tree can hold up to 4,500 litres /1,189 gallons.

In my story, however, the baobab has no such mundane function. It is a place of ritual – a spirit home on the Swahili coast, for here, as in other parts of Africa, it is believed that baobabs harbour the souls of the dead. And that is all I am revealing of my story  except to say that it also involves murder, unquiet spirits and unrequited love.

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As for the trees, in real life they have a mass of practical, medicinal and nutritional uses – for humans and wildlife alike. It all begins with the pollination of these oddly striking flowers.

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For nine months of the year, the baobab has no foliage. When the leaves come they are eaten like spinach by humans and browsed by both domestic and wild animals. The flowers, too, are short-lived. The bloom first at night, their pungent smelling nectar attracting bush babies and fruit bats which then pollinate the flowers. Bees also feed on the nectar, and farmers often hang their barrel beehives up in the branches of a baobab. Photo: Tuli Lodge, Botswana

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The resulting woody capsules enclose many seeds within an edible pulp. Both seeds and pulp are high in potassium, calcium and magnesium and are ideal foods for pregnant and breast-feeding women. The pulp is also rich in vitamin C, thiamine and antioxidants. Being high in pectin, it is useful for jam making and creating refreshing drinks. The seeds produce a fine oil that is used by the cosmetics industry. They can also be ground to make a coffee substitute. And so with all these attributes, the baobab has been classified as a superfood. Its many by-products are now sold worldwide. Photo: http://www.ifood.tv/blog/the-latest-superfood-from-africa-baobab

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http://www.ifood.tv/blog/the-latest-superfood-from-africa-baobab

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The growing world-wide demand for the baobab’s phyto-nutrients mean that seed harvesting has become a valuable source of income for many African families. This is one man’s story:

“My name is Andrew Mbaimbai and I am 63 years old. I live in Mtimbuka, a village in southern Malawi, with my wife, four daughters and eight grandchildren. In 2005, I heard that a new company was buying baobab and I knew this was a good opportunity for me.

“I collect and process baobab in my spare time because I also have a job as a cook. After gathering the fruit, I go to the processing centre, crack the shells and separate the fruit powder from the seeds. Then I sell it.

“I use the money to pay for my grandchildren’s school fees and to buy clothes for my family. Sometimes if a family member falls ill, I use the money to pay hospital bills. Without the money from selling baobab, I would not be able to meet all my family’s needs.”

http://baobabsuperfruit.com/andrew-mbaimbai/

As a consequence of ethically managed initiatives like the Eden Project’s programme in Malawi you will now find many baobab-derived products on line and in your local health food shops. Here is one of them. It can be added to anything and everything, creating, apparently, a  zesty flavour.

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The Eden Project’s baobab powder.

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Then there are the baobab bark products. The trunk of the baobab is very fibrous and can be processed into cloth, twine and ropes. Kenyan women are famous for their kiondo bags which they make both from baobab and (increasingly) sisal string. You will see women walking along the road weaving these lovely baskets, and I can attest that they last for decades. I have at least four. In time the leather handles might need replacing,  but the baskets endure, becoming more beautiful as their pigment dyes fade.

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Photos: africablogs

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A Kenyan kiondo woven from baobab fibre.

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Baobabs can of course grow to massive proportions  and into the oddest shapes. They may be thousands of years old.

The Legend of the Upside-down Tree

Photo: Eco Products

With age, many become hollow, creating large spaces within that are variously used as barns, churches, places to give birth, and for the burial of griots as in West Africa. In Botswana one was once used as a jail, the adjoining trunks for male and female prisoners.

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Kasane, Botswana, now has a new prison but the architect ensured that the original one was preserved: http://www.ofm.co.za/article/67788/Voices

Big Baobab

Sunland Baobab

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At Sunland Farm, Limpopo, South Africa, this baobab is used as a bar and wine cellar. It is believed to be the largest example in the world. It is 47 metres around (154 feet) and has a carbon date of around 6,000 years.  Below  are four of us trying to surround a much younger Kenyan baobab. This one is at Maweni on Tiwi Beach, South Mombasa.

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And now for some of those baobab legends I mentioned. There are many variations of these tales throughout Africa.

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When Creator was busy creating the world, the animals came to him and asked if they could help him finish his work. Creator was doubtful and said there were only the trees left to make. But the animals persisted, so Creator handed out specific seed types to each animal species, and they went away and planted them. Finally, only the baobab seeds remained, and these Creator handed to the hyenas. The outcome, of course, was to be expected, given the stupidity of hyenas. They planted the seeds upside down, and that is why the baobab always looks as if it has its roots in the air.

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Long, long ago the very first baobab sprouted up beside a small lake. When it saw the other trees with their tall, smooth trunks and bright flowers and large leaves, it thought how beautiful they were. Then one day, when the lake surface was smooth as glass, the baobab caught sight of itself, and oh, what a shock. Its flowers were so pale, and its leaves so small. But worst of all, it was appallingly fat, and its skin looked like the wrinkling hide of an old elephant.

The baobab cried out to Creator, complaining of its lot. Creator in turn was huffy. Many things had been made that were not quite perfect, he said. He retreated behind a cloud. But the baobab did not stop whining and whingeing. Finally, Creator grew so cross that he leaned out of the sky, and yanking the baobab from the ground, replanted the tree upside down. And so ever since, the baobab has lived on in silence, unable to see its reflection in the lake, but making up for its transgression by doing many good deeds for humankind.

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And if these baobab tales have not quite cheered you up, here are some clips from the life-enhancing Orchestra Baobab. This band from Senegal has had two lives, one back in the ‘70s, and now the current reprise which includes many of the original line-up, among them the Togolese guitarist, Barthélémy Attisso, who in the interim went away to become a lawyer. If you get the chance to see them live, go for  it.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

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