Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 10, 2008

Asclepius Incarnate

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:17 pm

   In another time or reality, I might have styled myself as the “Flesh-colored God of Medicine” (an FcGM for short). I would have been a great healer adorned with a panther robe and wielding some kind of large stick topped with a Dik-dik skull. My pale white skin would have channeled the northern lights and reflected all the bad stuff back into space. I would employ magic herbs for the benefit of humankind and never kill mice.

  Fortunately, that frightening alternate universe will never be a reality. I am stuck with the simple self applied label of “Fleshy Northern Guy.”   A “F.N.G.” has no special powers other than the ability to summon goose bumps on my skin when I am cold and the skill to recommend Tylenol for headaches. I will continue to kill bad mice when needed.

  Even though I may not be sure how to employ them properly, I do have the ability to locate magic plants.  One of these plants is commonly called the White Indian Hemp, but is better known as the Swamp Milkweed. It may not look like much on a frosty mid-winter morning, but is easily identified by the numerous clusters of upward pointing pods (here it is).  Back in September, these pods were exploding with silky down (see here) but are now void of their cargo. The empty seed heads retain a graceful form and add a subtle freckled beauty to the cold landscape.

  Swamp Milkweeds are the slender wetland cousins of the more robust Common Milkweeds. The entire family is named after Aesulapius, the Greek God of medicine, and all the individual members have the tribal name of Asclepius.  In the case of our Indian Hemp, the species is called Asclepius incarnata – meaning “the flesh colored god of medicine.” You’ve got to admit that’s a pretty impressive title (and thus the reason for my earlier flight of fancy).  Imagine that on a name tag: Hello, my name is…”

  The healing properties attributed to this plant are found in the milky white sap. I am not actually a great healer (although I play one in a parallel universe), so I won’t launch into a list of benefits. Let’s just say that the list is a long one and leave it at that. I’d like to direct your attention to the dead winter stems instead. Though drained of their precious blood, these woody skeletons also have something to offer in the form of strong fibers for rope making.

  If you attempt to snap the stem in two, it will not break cleanly. The two sections will be linked by dozens of fine silky threads in the outer layer.  These fibers have been utilized by Native Americans for making a stout twine which was used in woven bags and fishing nets. In 1850, a western traveler recorded in his observations that the “Ottoes and Omahas (Indians) make lariats of the bark which are said to be stronger than those made of hide.”

  It is necessary to beat the living tar out of the stems in order to separate the glossy white fibers from the rest of the plant tissues.  I’ve done it before, but my efforts did not result in anything resembling a lariat.  My pitiful F.N.G. twine product would have better served as a lariat for roping bad mice out of a herd of “mouses” or leashing in a wild Dik-dik.

1 Comment »

  1. A big thank you for your article.Much thanks again. Will read on…

    Comment by Woodrow Ellerson — May 20, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

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