Archive for the ‘Hugh's Herbs’ Category

Great Museums! Florence! Natural History and the house of wax

December 12, 2012

Hugh Paxton’s blog will spare you the rest of our wax photos. It went from grim to ghastly.

The day in the museum!.pptx

Hugh’s Greatest Museums: Darwin Centre Images

November 9, 2012

Some time ago Hugh Paxton’s Blog posted a story on the Natural History Museum’s fascinating Darwin Centre but neglected to attach any supporting images. If you’d like to read the post check “Hugh’s Greatest Museums” in the “Categories of Posts” list on the home page.

Methuselah’s oak – Home Park, Hampton Court

January 23, 2012

This in from Andy! Great stuff!

Hi Hugh,

Was walking the dog today and passed the old Medieval Oak said to be 750 years old ( ) that sits in Home Park, Hampton Court, so I thought that might be a useful little snippet that the Japanese might like, so I photographed the tree and signboard, here are some low res attached.

I was struck by how this tree looks like the living trees in the Lord of the Rings, it almost looks like it has a face from this angle and is about to come to life!



Focus on Plants. First in a series – Plant Neurobiology?

May 30, 2011

“we are just now starting to understand how evolved the communication system of plants really is. Until now, research has been essentially directed to the investigation of the chemical substances used by plants to communicate with each other; I, however, am convinced that plants are also able to use other communication systems.”

                              Professor Mancuso

With this year’s Chelsea Flower Show fresh in our minds – it seems a fine time for some botany, to launch a series that focuses on plants. We all know that animal life is, to a very great extent, dependent upon the plant life that cohabits our world, and indeed makes it habitable for us and most other creatures, but there is a great deal more about the Plant Kingdom to be generally appreciated. It is pretty wonderful.

Starting with plant sensitivity and communications, I would like to introduce the work of  Italian botanist Stefano Mancuso  – the father of plant neurobiology and co-founder of the LINV (the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology). LINV is at the cutting edge of plant science, their BIOKIS experiment rode into orbit on the Space Shuttle Endeavour recently and is currently underway on the international space station under the oversight of Italian ESA astronaut Roberto Vittori.

Though lacking neurons per se, he informs us that plants appear to transmit signals using action potential in the transition zones of their root tips. Prof. Mancuso states with infectious enthusiasm that “each root apex is able to detect and monitor concurrently at least 15 different chemical and physical parameters.” He presents a fascinating comparison of the internet with the root system of a Rye grass plant and reminds us that human network specialists can learn fro the plant world.

Before viewing Professor Mancuso’s presentation, you might wish to read an exclusive and insightful interview with him by Vikas Shah, Our Understanding of Life   on  Thought Economics blog.

Here is Professor Mancuso’s presentation for TED.

Great Gardens of the World: Kandy’s Peradeniya

May 23, 2011

If you visit the Sri Lanka hill capital of Kandy and fall in love, be content. You are in illustrious company.

Mahatma Gandhi extolled the natural scenery as “probably unsurpassed on the face of the earth.”

Said French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, “It is so beautiful one should go there after the struggle is over and just glide away.” And Humphrey Davy, an army surgeon, really threw down the nature travel writing gauntlet back in 1819, when he wrote, “No description . . . could do justice to the scenery.”

Hugh Paxton’s Blog likes a challenge. I’ll try.

Kandy, the city itself, is raucous, bustling. The streets are clogged with motor scooters, monks, the occasional elephant and no shortage of people anxious to introduce you to gem merchants. In this respect, it is a typical Sri Lankan city. It is its history and location that lift Kandy from the entertaining to the delightful.

Kandy lies 500 meters above sea level. The upland climate is cool and refreshing. The hills around Kandy are lush, green, relaxing to the eye and hold the ancient city in a bowl, through which glides the Mahaweli River. The Mahaweli’s source is in the mist-shrouded highlands of Horton Plains. After winding nearly two-thirds the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, it empties near Trincomalee on the eastern coast. It is a lovely, legend-haunted river, the longest in Sri Lanka and the lifeblood of the lowland dry zones. The Kandy stretch is noteworthy for the vast flocks of fruit bats that squabble and fuss in the branches of the taller riverine trees.

The star Kandyan attraction for most visitors is the Temple of the Tooth, a shadowy, echoing, rather queer place wreathed in incense and piled high with lotus-flower offerings. Here rests Sri Lanka’s most precious relic: one of the teeth of the Buddha, rescued from his funeral pyre in 543 B.C. and smuggled into Ceylon 800 years later wrapped in the hair of a princess. It’s been all over the place, this tooth has. It was taken back to India by invaders. Then recaptured by an army led by one of those Sri Lankan kings whose name you can only pronounce if you’re Sri Lankan. It has been housed in the ruined cities of Ceylon’s northern jungles and the Portuguese even claim to have taken it to Goa for ritual destruction. A claim no true-blooded Sinhalese pays much attention to.

During the New Moon festival, a replica of the tooth’s casket processes through Kandy, accompanied by massed ranks of ritually decorated elephants and thousands of Kandyan drummers. It happens in July/August, but think about booking your hotel room now. It is one of Asia’s most dramatic spectacles, particularly when the elephants break loose and stampede through the packed crowds.

Kandy has more to recommend it — palaces, museums and legions of craftsmen turning out batiks, silverware, “antiques” and brass thingamajigs. The traditional Kandyan dances that take place nightly by the central lake are gorgeous, with opulent color and thrilling motion. But for us, Kandy’s most compelling lure is the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya, probably the best botanical gardens in all Asia.

“Four days in Peradeniya gave me more knowledge of the life and nature of plants than as many months of serious study back home,” wrote Ernst Haeckl in his “Indischen Reisebriefen.” That was in 1882. Four hours in 1999 were enough to thrust my botanical learning curve into dangerous heights of ambition.

The 67-hectare site sits in a loop of the Mahaweli River with sediment-rich water on three sides. It was formerly a royal court of the Kandyan Kingdom. Then a royal pleasure garden. Finally, under the British, it became the botanical gardens one can visit today.

Sri Lanka’s flora has always been one of the country’s finest assets. Some 24 percent of Sri Lanka’s 3,900 plant species are endemic. Noteworthy among the latter being the cinnamon tree which drew spice caravans from as far away as Egypt (where it was used to embalm pharaohs) and Rome (where to impress his wife, the Emperor Nero one night burned more cinnamon than Rome imported in a year). Even today, with the exception of Java and the Seychelles, which export a little, Sri Lanka is the world’s only source of true cinnamon.

The primary motives of the British in establishing the botanical gardens were mercantile. Rubber trees smuggled out of Brazil were grown here to break the Brazilian monopoly. The gardens were the site of the world’s first rubber exhibition. Cinnamon, camphor, cloves, coffee and cinchona, the tree whose bark yields the antimalarial remedy quinine, were likewise propagated for distribution to planters. From humble beginnings in 1821, the gardens, by 1867, were distributing over 1 million plants annually.

But there was more to the endeavor than just hard cash. George Gardner, superintendent, tried to acquire and propagate every single endemic species in Ceylon. He died, presumably of exhaustion, at the age of 37.

The gardens now move at a much less frenetic pace, but have matured and diversified. Four thousand species and cultivars can be seen, including the Baobab (a.k.a. “The Dead Rat tree” due to its hairy, dangling fruit) which was first planted in Ceylon as camel fodder by Arab spice traders 2,000 years ago. Biggest and boldest is the Java fig on the Great Lawn. Its branches cover a surface area of close to 2,000 sq. meters. More than 1,000 people can take shelter here when it rains. Or so “they” say. And if you’ve ever seen how many Sri Lankans can fit into a Temple of the Tooth, you’d believe “them.”

The plants look great. But, as the knowledgeable guides explain, they also do the most intriguing things. Here you will find trees that yield aromatic gums, fast-growing bamboo species that have been used in times past by certain imperial armies to slowly impale prisoners, plants that can stun fish and orchids that distribute up to 4 million seeds in capsules no larger than a speck of dust.

Insect and bird life is prolific. Gardeners take great delight in exhibiting large scorpions they have encountered while pruning. Huge colonies of fruit bats dangle their days away in the Bat Forest.

Fountains of Life by Mario Perera and Marie Jain is a “must read” guidebook crammed with botany, legends and anecdotes.

The Ceylon Tourist Board publishes a free booklet listing accommodations, festivals etc. Call (03) 3289-0771 or fax (03) 3289-0772, for more information. Strongly recommended is the colonial-style Tree of Life hotel which sits in beautiful gardens full of ornamental and medicinal plants high in the hills above Kandy. Aromatherapy, herbal baths and ayurvedic massages are on offer. The views inspire comments of the second paragraph type. Botanical, adventure, mountain bike and natural history tours are offered by Lanka Sportsreizen. For more information, fax (0094) 1-826125 or e-mail:

My favourite museums: Part one in an occasional series. London’s Natural History Museum and Darwin Centre

December 17, 2010

Hugh Paxton’s Blog begins a new occasional series – my favourite museums. The series will profile museums, collections, botanical gardens etc and will feature institutions that are favoured for their magnificence and interest. But it will also introduce all the above categories that I came to love because they were (or still are) so badly organised, incomprehensible, numbingly dull (think the Keswick Pencil Museum or the extraordinarily soporific Macau collection of agricultural artefacts). If you have a favourite museum Hugh Paxton’s Blog would love to hear from you. But as a kick-off to the series you’ll have to hear from me!

Hey ho! Let’s go!     


I’m head to head with a mutated octopus stained a ghastly yellow by its embalming alcohol. To its left is a bottled shoal of sea bass.

Above and below (and all around) are 850,000 other jars. They contain a total of 22 million zoological specimens ranging from plankton to giant squid.

No, I’m not in the world’s largest Traditional Chinese Medicine shop. I’m in the London Natural History Museum’s (NHM) Darwin Center (DC) and – phew! – it’s an eye opener.

More of the DC shortly. First the NHM. Simply stated, it is one of the most enthralling places in London. Situated near Harrods and Kensington Palace, the building is an architectural masterpiece of Victorian steel and terracotta decorated with countless carvings of animals and plants. 

Its cathedral-like exhibition halls are home to over 70 million natural history specimens – the widest variety of animal, plant and mineral items ever assembled – and the displays really are a knockout.

Life size animated dinosaurs bellow, simulated earthquakes destroy Tokyo, birds chirrup and hoot from walk-through rainforests… And even if you’re the sort of person who falls asleep two minutes into a Discovery Channel programme, you’ll be, as the British indelicately put it, “gob smacked.” 

Since its opening in 1881, research has been very much the name of the NHM’s game; particularly in the fields of taxonomy, genetic research, and conservation. During World War II Special Operations Executive (SOE) scientists more exotically moved in to develop, among other things, exploding rats (mobile rodent skins stuffed with dynamite destined for unwitting Gestapo HQs in France).

But until the DC opened, very few members of the visiting public had any idea of what was going on in the maze of labs, vaults and storage corridors behind (and under) the scenes.

The DC has changed that. Named after the man who brought us evolution, origin of species and crackpot creationist book burners, it shows us the guts of Natural History and the work going on at the NHM.

Moreover, visitors can see the scientists at work and, best of all, don white coats to tour the eerie world of the “Wet” or “Spirit” collection. 

There are seven storage floors in all. The lowest also functions as a morgue where autopsies are carried out on cetaceans and other marine creatures that wash up on British shores enabling scientists to monitor pollution levels in the marine environment. So if you see a whale being winched off a truck on the Cromwell Road, no, you’re not hallucinating. It’s heading here.

Beside the morgue are specimens collected by Darwin himself on his epic trans-global voyage on HMS Beagle.

The temperature in the Wet Collection (also known, irreverently, as the “WC”) is a constant 13 degrees centigrade. Quite chilly actually, but designed to prevent fires which, in an environment so dense with bottled alcohol, would be catastrophic. 

The jars occasionally explode. Take a careful look at the older ones – and some of these specimens were first bottled over 600 years ago – and you will see that the glass is thicker at the bottom than at the top. Glass is technically liquid. Gravity and time have dragged the glass down leaving the base thick and distorted and higher parts of the ancient jars perilously thin.

Touch the wrong one in the wrong place and crack! You’ll be showered with an intriguing blend of ethanol, oarfish fat (if it is a jar containing an oarfish), baboon brain (if it is a jar containing a baboon brain) and so on. Et voila! Eau de Darwin Centre. Guaranteed to turn heads at a hundred meters and attract absolutely nobody!

There are 350 scientists at work here. Each day one of them delivers a free lecture. We watched expert, Douglas Russel, waxing lyrical on the subject of birds’ eggs. Whether he’ll still be as enthusiastic about his subject matter when you meet him is a matter for conjecture. The NHM’s egg collection numbers between one and two million specimens But no-one’s actually ever got around to counting them. Russel had just been assigned the job. Lucky fellow.

Lectures range from fleas in literature and popular culture, dolphin by-catches in the trawling industry to” the warped world of deep sea fish.” And trust me their world is seriously warped!

If you are visiting London (or live there) this lot is not to be missed!

NOTE: To watch Darwin Center online, see the full calendar of events, read lectures or sign up for regular updates, visit:

Singapore: Mad Rubber Ridley’s Gardens

July 17, 2010

START:  Singapore – the Garden Isle

“The Gardens.” That is how the locals refer to them. Just “The Gardens.”

“As if”, to quote Bonnie Tinsley author of Visions of Delight, ” there were no other”.

There are none, in truth, quite like Singapore’s Botanic Gardens, though Sri Lanka’s Peradeniya gardens come close.  

Covering 47 hectares in the Tanglin district, their first Director was Henry Nathaniel Ridley, a moustachioed, hyper-energetic Briton with piercing eyes and a keen interest in everything from theosophy to rhinoceros beetles. Ridley added 50,000 specimens to the Gardens. He also had a thing about rubber. He would carry seeds with him to social events and press them on fellow guests. “Mad Ridley,” they called him derisively, or “Rubber Ridley.”

Which just goes to show how little they knew. When Malaya’s coffee crop collapsed as a result of disease and Brazilian competition, Ridley’s rubber seeds (collected from just 22 plants) were suddenly in such demand that requests for up to a million seeds a day poured into the Gardens.

The 1900 “Rubber Rush” basically changed the face of the ASEAN region. It also brought economic success to the Gardens. In 1955, with justifiable pride, Ridley (irrepressibly celebrating his 100th birthday) wrote, “It is a great delight for me to have lived to see Malaya so prosperous and the Gardens the Best Tropical Gardens in the World.”

Mind you, it’s been touch and go.

When Singapore fell to the Japanese the Gardens were pitted with shell craters, trenches and littered with war materiel. Three of the lawns had been ignominiously converted to demonstration plots for growing vegetables. Gun-fire had mercifully spared the priceless Herbarium.

Whatever else went on during the Imperial army’s turbulent occupation however, the Japanese did right by the Gardens. Professor Hidezo Tanakadate of Tohoku University immediately assumed control and evicted the military. Perhaps with the direct mandate of the Emperor, Tanakadate retained the British directors to administer and assist in repairs.   

The Gardens sailed out of the turbulent seas of war in a lot better shape than most of Singapore. Then just got better and better.

Visitors today will find an expanse of glowing green ranging from lush patches of the original tropical rain forest that once swathed all of Singapore to undulating billiard table-smooth lawns decorated with somnolent Singaporeans. 

“It’s too green,” is a perhaps surprising complaint on the part of some visitors. There is some truth to it though.

Flowers bloom most extravagantly in areas that experience seasonal change. Pollination in such zones can only occur at limited times so plants are compelled by competitive peer pressure to show off.

Singapore, lying just 137 kilometers north of the equator falls short in the “four seasons” department and its endemic plants are more reticent than their temperate, sub-tropical or even sub-arctic counterparts. 

The rarity of colour in much of the Gardens, however, makes its occurrence more aesthetically pleasing.  It startles then welcomes one’s gaze.

Those who insist on bright pinks, mottled purples and tumescent reds are advised to visit the Gardens’ orchid collection which houses 60,000 plants, 700 species (including the two ton tiger orchid) and 1,200 hybrids.

Orchids have been described (by me, actually) as herbal pornography.  Many mimic intimate feminine body parts with an enthusiasm that borders on the unnecessarily suggestive.  Perhaps that is why growing them is so popular. Orchid poaching is a major problem in national parks world-wide and why, in its infancy, the orchid collection was be-devilled by thefts. 

If it’s size that counts, the Gardens boast specimens of the coco-de-mer, an endemic Seychelles palm whose seeds resemble two coconuts suffering from Siamese Twins syndrome. Once believed to grow out of the navel of the Indian Ocean they were valued by Italian politicians as a proof against poison. As late as the eighteenth century a single seed could fetch $4,000. This is the largest (1.5 meters long) heaviest  (18 kg) seed on earth.

Sun-bathers bound for the Seychelles beaches take note. Pack helmets.

If you want to say it with flowers – in this case with the flowers of the Corypha umbraculifera , otherwise known as the Talipot palm- then you’ll need a pick up truck to help you deliver the message. This palm produces the largest florescence in the plant kingdom with as many as 60,000,000 flowers per tree hanging in great drooping plumes.

Listing all the other Gardens’ features, blow by blow, is boring. It’s a ‘see it’ place, not a ‘describe it’ place. Buy a guidebook when you get there and it will explain what’s what and where.  Admission’s free. Serious botanists won’t need this column to tell them that the Gardens house a Herbarium stocked with more than half a million preserved specimens available for academic research. Or that the library has 20,000 books. Amateur gardeners can enrol on any of the many inexpensive short courses offered by the Gardens’ School of Ornamental Horticulture.  

While on the garden trail in Singapore don’t ignore the Chinese Gardens. These are tucked away beside the Singapore River estuary. Most people do ignore them which results in a serene, other-worldly calm. Monitor lizards pad heavily past pagodas or swirl through Lilly pools beneath red arched bridges. 300 bird species have been recorded in Singapore and the Chinese gardens ripple with bird song.

Attached to the Chinese Gardens are the Japanese Gardens. These latter are basically indistinguishable from the former. If it’s Japanese gardens you want, stay in Japan.

A more sombre experience is afforded by a visit to Fort Canning Park. The trees rise tall, throwing gloomy pools of mosquito-haunted shadow. It was in the underground bunker here that the Allied forces made the decision to surrender in 1942. The bunker is now an eerie museum called The Battle Box that uses holograms to recreate the events that led to Singapore’s fall and the subsequent horrors of the Burma Railway. Place gave me the creeps.  

A cheerful antidote to Fort Canning lies beneath the hill in the Singapore History Museum’s Goh Seng Choo gallery which is currently running a gorgeous exhibition of botanical art commissioned from local Chinese artists by Major General William Farquhar, Commandant of Singapore from 1819-1823. The Farquhar collection is unique in that the drawings and paintings mix high standards of scientific accuracy with the aesthetics of traditional Chinese art.

The result here, as in all Singapore’s gardens is East meeting West and both gaining immeasurably from the interaction.

Fabled ‘vegetable lamb’ plant contains potential treatment for osteoporosis

April 1, 2010

Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

Here is a good read from Science Daily, apparently the fabled Vegetable lamb of tartary could help reduce osteoporosis! Click the link below to see if this is an April Fool joke or not!

Fabled ‘vegetable lamb’ plant contains potential treatment for osteoporosis.

Hugh’s Herbs: Herb Rosemary – the Gourmet’s Guardian of the Garden (Rosmarinus officinalis)

February 18, 2010

This is one of the “Swiss-army knife” herbs, it has a wide range of traditional uses, many have been corroborated by modern science, others validated by practical use, and some as yet are unproven, but intriguing. Apparently at the height of London’s 1603 plague outbreak, a handful of Rosemary could fetch as much as six shillings, roughly equivalent in price to 36 barrels of beer or six fat pigs!

Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical Database attributes Rosemary with no less than 746 active compounds, 52 of them anti-oxidant, 27 anti-viral including 13 ‘actives’ that are specifically anti-HIV. Amongst the others 46 are anti-bacterial, 43 anti-inflammatory, 47 cancer-preventive and 25 anti-tumour. As with anything medicinal, reasonable use is advised, it is possible to be allergic to, and overdose on, Rosemary leaves. Its ingestion is contraindicated by people with anemia and epilepsy. The essential oil is toxic by ingestion, dilute it for topical and aromatic uses.

Plant a bush beside your threshold and you’ll be maintaining a host of time-honoured traditions: culinary, medicinal and folkloric. Alongside superb flavouring, this herb has provided a hair rinse, skin cleanser (11 actives are anti-acne), moth repellance, a good gargle for sweet breath – also said to soothe a sore throat, and a headache remedy, furthermore you may find your household less troubled by witches and other evil influences. A sprig under the pillow was believed to prevent nightmares.

The flavour and aroma are invigorating, mildly resinous and camphorous with something of the freshness of new mown grass.The boughs were burnt as a fumigant in French hospitals and will freshen your living room fire. This herb features in Eau de Cologne.

Need to clear your head a bit? This herb will probably help. The anti-oxidants are believed to protect the brain against free radicals and thus may have preventive effect against Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases. Just the scent of Rosemary was found sufficient to significantly enhance the detail of recollection according to a Newcastle University study published in The Journal of Neuroscience 2003, though it may have slowed the speed of recall.  This finding ties in with the widespread belief that this herb aids memory. Rosemary has been traditionally associated with weddings (an ingredient in the bridal wreath) so that the bride shall not forget her life before marriage and with funerals to aid in remembrance of the departed. Why not pin a sprig of this herb to your kid’s lapel next time there’s a history examination and see what happens?

A tisane can be made by steeping leaves of Rosemary in a covered cup of boiling water for 5-15 minutes. The resultant liquor is said to produce fragrant shine when rinsed through your hair, ease a sore throat when gargled, ease a headache and help settle the stomach when drunk. Applied topically it makes a great face wash (some advocate steeping the leaves in wine to draw more actives from the leaf for this purpose). The tisane can be used fresh or refrigerated for use a day or two later.
In the kitchen, Rosemary associates well with tomato, onion and garlic. It’s a staple feature in Mediterranean cuisine, enhancing fish, meat and vegetable dishes and is a frequent ingredient of the French Bouquet garni.  Chopped fine, it is an important herb for pizza and in pasta sauces. Try a few chopped courgettes (zucchini) and onions fried in butter, deglazed with a splash of white wine and a desert spoonful of  Rosemary leaves and you’ll see the power of this herb in its purity. Simple, but epicurean! Too much will make the dish quite acrid and bitter so add little by little and find your preferred flavour level.

A handful of leaves or three or four sprigs is sufficient for perfect seasoning of chicken, pork, rabbit and lamb – often in marinade. If you want the flavour without the prickles, you can make a tea of the leaves and use that in your gravy or sauce. The jus and gravy are transformed! It’s a fine ingredient in stuffings. The leaves can be inserted under lamb skin with garlic cloves for a hedonistic roast!

On the brai, but especially on covered BBQs rosemary sprigs can be applied (alone or with onion and bacon slices) directly to the coals to flavour the smoke. Some people use the wood to make flavour imparting kebab sticks!

It will also elevate sauteed or fricasseed chicken and roast potatoes to glorious heights and the leaves should either be chopped fine, or left on the sprig to be removed entirely as they can get dry and spikey in the oven.


Rosemary provides arid gardens with vigorous, long flowering, evergreen swathes beloved by humans and nectivorous insects alike.

Named ‘dew (ros) of the sea (marinus)’, probably for its pretty light blue flowers and coastal growing habits, this drought-resistant, woody, evergreen perennial shrub of the mediterranean region is related to the Mint family and has waxy, poignantly aromatic needle-shaped leaves, dark above, pale below, which can be stripped from the branch by a downward sweep of the hand. The leaves resemble pine needles and are tastiest when cooked soon after plucking, but they can be chopped and dried for later use.

Easy both to cultivate and to propogate by stem cutting, Rosemary prefers well-drained soil and sunshine and will feel quite at home in a Namibian garden, patio planter or window-sill pot. It likes neutral soil of average fertility and provides welcome evergreen foliage interest and flowers in arid gardens. It takes well to topiary and pot-grown specimens need to be trimmed to avoid legginess. It can grow to form small trees six feet tall.

There are a variety of different cultivars available, notably with white, blue and pink flowers, more silvery or variegated leaves or differing attitudes of growth, bush-like, procumbent, creeping and pyramidal.

Do Animals Self Medicate with Plants?

February 16, 2010

Apparently some do. If you have seen a dog eating grass prior to vomiting then you may have witnessed animal self-medication of a sort. The jury is still out on whether this is a conscious use of an emetic or not. Would the dogs have vomited eventually anyway? This is a question sometimes raised and in response it could be said that people would probably recover from a headache eventually, but we tend to reach for the medicine cabinet to move things along a bit.

Some other examples are less equivocal. Primatologist, Dr. M.A. Huffman of Kyoto University noted that when one of his Chimpanzee study subjects in Tanzania was looking ill and lethargic he witnessed her seek out and eat the pith of the Bitter leaf tree (Vernonia amygdalina). When Huffman’s assistant Mohemadi Seifu Kalunde informed him that the local Tongwe tribe used various other parts of the tree to treat Stomach Cramps, Malaria Fever and Intestinal Parasites, Huffman noted the connection and then established a new medical use for a part of the plant hitherto unrecognized in the 40 years that the plant has been known to medical science. In the abstract of his paper “Animal self-medication and ethno-medicine: exploration and exploitation of the medicinal properties of plants” Dr. Huffman writes

“Early in the co-evolution of plant-animal relationships, some arthropod species began to utilize the chemical defenses of plants to protect themselves from their own predators and parasites. It is likely, therefore, that the origins of herbal medicine have their roots deep within the animal kingdom… Both folklore and living examples provide accounts of how medicinal plants were obtained by observing the behaviour of animals. Animals too learn about the details of self-medication by watching each other.”

That’s pretty unequivocal.

My search of the NCBI PubMed database for animal self medication yielded 295 published medical papers, evidence of a growing branch of human science, Phytopharmacognosy, dedicated to the acquisition of pharmacological knowledge from the animal kingdom. So the answer seems to be that some animals do self medicate with plants, and that science can learn from them.
Some animals also self-medicate to counter undesired phytopharmaceutical influences. After eating toxic plant matter African elephants and Brazilian parrots eat mineral rich clays to detoxify their vegetarian diets.

Recently, via a program on Community TV channel I heard of a translocated black rhino in Namibia that died from ingested plant toxins and I now wonder whether it ate unfamiliar plants or whether its new habitat lacked the specific minerals that could have countered the toxicity? It may be necessary to move their medications together with these animals for successful translocation.


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