Tag Archive: History

Ethnobotany: Where History and Medicine Meet the Forest

Ethnobotany: Where History and Medicine Meet the Forest

The passionflower vine is beautiful and attracts butterflies, but can also be used for food and sedation drugs. Photo credit: Dorothy Birch

Ethnobotany lies at the intersection of culture, medicine, and mythology. The “witch doctors” and voodoo practitioners, the followers of the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria, and the wise elders of ancient Chinese civilizations are all ethnobotanists. So, too, are the modern day field biologists who discover and develop medicinal plants into an estimated half of our pharmaceutical drugs. Simply put, ethnobotany is the study of how people and cultures (ethno) interact with plants (botany).

For tens of thousands of years, humans have been learning about plants’ chemical, nutritious, and even poisonous properties. Plants evolve these properties to defend themselves against pathogens, fungi, animals and other plants. Other properties, like color, scent, or sugar content may attract beneficial species. Humans most likely started paying attention to plant characteristics to decide whether to eat them. From there, one can imagine people started using plants to build structures or use fiber for ropes, baskets, and clothing.

My first experience with the idea of ethnobotany was as a college student on a study tour of Belize. A professional ethnobotanist took us on a tour of the Maya Rainforest Medicine Trail, pointing out dozens of native trees, shrubs, and grasses used for medicinal and cultural purposes by local tribes. From birth control and pain relief to chewing gum and pesticides, the forest provided nearly everything Central American civilizations needed to survive for thousands of years and into the present. The tour captured my imagination as I considered the possibilities yet undiscovered in the deep rainforests worldwide.

Of course, there is no need to travel out of the country, or even the state, to learn about useful native plants. One of my favorite publications put out by UF IFAS Extension specialists is “50 Common Native Plants Important in Florida’s Ethnobotanical History.” Another fascinating source of information about historic, cultural, and even murderous uses of plants is Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities. Plants with interesting historical uses make for great stories along a trail, and help create a connection between the casual observer and the natural world around them.

A handful of interesting native plants with significant medicinal properties include the cancer-fighting plants saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) and mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). Saw palmetto berries are used for prostate cancer treatment, while the $ 350+ million annual Florida mayapple harvest helps produce chemotherapy drugs for several types of cancer. The carnivorous bog plant, pink sundew (Drosera capaillaris) uses enzymes to break down insect protein, and Native American tribes used the plant for bacterial and fungal skin disorders.

Sundews, tiny carnivorous plants found in pitcher plant bogs, use an enzyme to dissolve insect proteins. Native Americans recognized this property and used the plant for skin maladies. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Many plants had (and still have) multiple uses. Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) leaves brewed as a highly caffeinated tea were used ceremonially and before warfare by many southeastern American Indian tribes, and then later by early American settlers when tea was difficult to import. Holly branches were used for arrows, and the bark for warding off nightmares. The purple passionflower, or maypop (Passiflora incarnata) vine attracts butterflies and produces a pulp used for syrups, jams, and drinks. Passionflower extract has also been developed into dozens of drugs and supplements for sedation.

Early civilizations living closer to the land knew many secrets that modern medicine has yet to unlock. Thanks to the ethnobotanists, the field and forest will continue to heal and provide for us for many generations yet to come.

CAUTION: Many of the plants listed or referenced can have hazardous or poisonous properties without appropriate preparation or dosage. Allergic reactions and prescribed drug interactions may occur, and many unproven rumors exist about medicinal uses of plants. Always consult a physician or health professional before trying supplements.


Author: Carrie Stevenson – ctsteven@ufl.edu

Coastal Sustainability Agent, Escambia County Extension

Carrie Stevenson

Permanent link to this article: http://franklin.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2017/08/12/ethnobotany-where-history-and-medicine-meet-the-forest/

Are We Losing Our Natural History Skills?

Are We Losing Our Natural History Skills?

Recently I attended a conference that included a series of talks at the University of Florida’s Whitney Marine Lab. One of the talks was presented by the director of the lab, Dr. Mark Martindale, who discussed the history and mission of the lab.  However, in that talk he made a comment that caught my attention.

Is this a Cuban Tree Frog? Do I have to rely on DNA barconding to know for sure before I decide to euthanize it? Could I be making a mistake? Image by Dr. Steve A Johnson 2005.

is this a Cuban Tree Frog? Do I have to rely on DNA barconding to know for sure – before I decide to euthanize it? Could I be making a mistake?
Image by Dr. Steve A Johnson 2005.

He was discussing the work of the lab and mentioned the great diversity of microscopic life that existed in the Intracoastal Waterway right out their back door. But while discussing this he also mentioned that today’s biology students identify organisms by DNA markers.  Going are the days of collecting the creatures and using taxonomic keys to identify using physical characteristics of the organism.  What do I mean by this?  Well, the “old timers” would wonder through the woods and shorelines, collecting specimens, and observing their physical characteristics… do they have legs? How many legs do they have?  How many antennae do they possess?  These “old timers” would observe the natural world, develop taxonomic keys (list of characters to help identify), have them peer reviewed, published, and occasionally updated.  New microscopic techniques would alert them to mistakes they may have made and thus corrections and “re-do’s” could be done.  There were specialists in this field called taxonomists.  If you brought in a seashell, they would be able to identify relatively quickly.  If they were confused on a few characters, they would contact their colleagues and an agreement would be reached on the proper identification.  And so it went.


Today, this is not needed. The sequencing of genomes of many species have been done.  The barcode method of identification by the “new school” is more accurate… as long as the sequence is correct, your identification is correct.  There are fewer mistakes.  Now problems like identifying what is partially digested in a fish gut can actually be done accurately.  In some cases, we are learning that the classic “taxonomic tree” may have some flaws.  Creatures whose physical characteristics suggest they are related, may in fact not be.  We are looking at the progression of life all over again – it is an exciting time for biologists in many ways.  But are we losing something by letting the “old natural history” methods go?


One example I can give is identification of a small marine creature called a lancelot.  I was doing a survey of marine life at a local restoration project and collected several of these.  I was trained by old school biologists and remembered there were four species of these found in our area.  I looked through my old college notes to see if I could find how to tell them apart.  I could not find those specific notes.  So I thought I would contact local biologists for assistance… no one knew… they suggested I try this… try that… I finally decided that the only one who still knew was my old vertebrate zoology professor, Dr. Herbert Boshung.  Unfortunately, Dr. Boshung – like so many other of the “old school” – had passed away.


And there I was… with a creature that I could not identify. The “new school” was not able to help.  Could this be happening across the country, across the world.  As the “old school” move on and the “new school” move in could we be losing a part of natural history that we won’t be able to get back?  This concerned me some.  To have people who should know, look at something and say “I do not know what that is” was a little disconcerting.  Dr. Martindale thought we may have to “re-discover” all of this knowledge within the “new school” – start again.


I am a marine science educator who is in between the two schools. I was taught and trained by the “old school” – folks like Dr, Boshung and Dr. William Cliburn.  I learned a LOT about our natural world through them and have used their “old school” methods to teach my students.  The “new school” method of learning about the natural world has made wonderful discoveries and it is exciting to see what corrections will be made and what lionfish are actually eating.  But I still feel the loss of the “old school” natural history is a true loss.  We in Extension are often asked “can you identify this creature?”  Those who have been trained “old school” can – or least to genus.  “New school” not so much anymore.  They can, but not by looking at it.  This just seems to be a part of science education we should hold on to.


There is one place where the non-scientist interested in learning some of the “old school” methods still can… the Florida Master Naturalist Program.  This program consists of three modules – uplands, wetlands/freshwater, and coastal.  Participants will learn about the natural history and how to identify specific groups of creatures found in these systems – the old school way.  For those interested in this I think it is a great program.  It is offered through most county extension offices across the panhandle.  To find out more about the program, and what modules are being offered in your area, visit http://www.masternaturalist.ifas.ufl.edu/


Author: Rick O’Connor – roc1@ufl.edu

Sea Grant Extension Agent in Escambia County

Rick O’Connor

Permanent link to this article: http://franklin.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2016/09/30/are-we-losing-our-natural-history-skills/

Tupelo Honey – Rich in Local History and Medicinal Value

The Annual Tupelo Honey Festival will be held on Saturday, May 21st from 9 AM – 4 PM at Lake Alice Park in Wewahitchka. It’s an exciting event, and your chance to take part in this local delicacy. Area honey producers will be on hand, selling their honey in a variety of sizes. There will also be food, art & crafts, and live music.

For decades, tupelo honey has been synonymous with Gulf county. The pollen from the tupelo gum tree (Nyssa ogeche), produces some of the finest honey in the world. The common name “tupelo” is derived from language of the Muscogee Nation, also known as the Creek Indian Nation. The meaning of the word is “swamp tree”, as this tree flourishes in areas of wet soils and seasonal flooding. Gulf county, especially in the Dead Lakes and Apalachicola river region, provides prime habitat for one of the largest tupelo forests on earth.

The tupelo pollination process kicks off during April. The tupelo bloom begins to form as a small bud. Within a few weeks, the bud explodes into a cluster of many nail or spike like attachments. At this point, honeybees begin to descend and capture the pollen.


Figure 1. Honeybee visiting tupelo blossoms.

Credit. Gulf County Tourist Development Council.

The tupelo bloom season lasts from approximately mid-April to the end of May. This is an anxious time for beekeepers. Tupelo blooms are very temperamental and delicate in nature. For this short period, beekeepers hope for little wind or rain and no cold temperatures, as any of these factors can decimate tupelo honey production. Regardless of seasonal impacts, the demand for Gulf County’s tupelo honey never subsides.

A bonus to honey’s great taste, is the medicinal value. Honey has been used for medicinal purposes throughout time and cultures. Ancient Egyptians used honey in the embalming process, wound dressing and treatment for burns. Honey can be used as an antimicrobial agent. This is mostly due to low concentrations of hydrogen peroxide produced naturally from sugar compounds. Honey contains large amounts of sugars, approximately 97%. Most of the sugar content is glucose and fructose. Honey also contains smaller amounts of vitamins and minerals.

The color of honey is a factor when grading content. Generally, a darker honey will have a higher concentration of polyphenols. This means the honey is higher in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Exposure to area honey has been thought to help people who suffer from area specific seasonal allergies. However, there is no consensus among the scientific community to support the claim. Though there is research supporting honey as medicinal purposes, please consult with your physician before using as a medical treatment.

Enjoy tupelo honey and see you at the festival!

For more information on Gulf County Tupelo Honey, please visit:



Supporting information for this article can be found in the UF/IFAS EDIS publication “Health Benefits and Medicinal Value of Honey” by Sara Marshall, Liwei Gu and Keith R. Schneider: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/FS/FS26700.pdf

An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Nick T. Place, Dean for UF/IFAS Extension. Single copies of UF/IFAS Extension publications (excluding 4-H and youth publications) are available free to Florida residents from county UF/IFAS Extension offices.




Author: Ray Bodrey – rbodrey@ufl.edu

Gulf County Extension Director, Agent II Agriculture, Natural Resource & Community Development

Ray Bodrey

Permanent link to this article: http://franklin.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2016/05/13/tupelo-honey-rich-in-local-history-and-medicinal-value/

New Flowers, Incredible History

New Flowers, Incredible History

diascia basketSince 2005, multiple varieties of Diascia have added to the U.S. fall market of winter flowering plants. Its delicate flowers are far from ordinary though.  In the early part of the last century most British gardening encyclopedias listed just one diascia – Diascia barberae – derived from seed collected by Col. J. H. Bowker and sent by Mrs. Barber to Kew Gardens, England, in 1870. Annual and perennial diascias had, of course, already been discovered and classified by several botanists visiting South Africa much earlier.  The  dainty, little annual, Diascia barberae, is not a very showy flower, but one which will appeal to the true flower lover. The flowers are rosy pink with yellow-green spots in the throat. The flowers are lipped, being related to the Snapdragons, but have two spurs on the lower lips, and are sometimes called twinspur.  It was not until John Kelly was given a plant called Diascia cordata by Edrom Nurseries in 1971 that anything notable happened to diascias again. He took pollen from his Diascia cordata and applied it to one flower of Diascia barberae. Of the nine seeds he obtained, just one was worthy of attention. He named it Diascia ‘Ruby Field’ (not for the color of the flowers, but for a lady who devoted her live to the long-term care of deprived children). Despite the popularity of this new, hardy hybrid, little more happened with diascias for yet another decade.  The boom in the diascia trade began only recently. Today’s diascia offers larger flowers, larger plants with a more open growth habit and colors ranging from scarlet through salmon and coral into pink. They bloom throughout the cooler weather and may behave as a perennial in warmer sites.  But, the uniqueness of their flower structure and ecological role are as fascinating as the flower is beautiful.  diascia flowerThe common name of twinspur refers to the two downwardly pointing spurs found on the back of the flower.  The spurs contain an oil which is collected in the South Africa wild by Rediviva bees.  The female bees have unusually long, hairy forelegs that are used to collect the oil to feed her larvae.  However, the Greek origin of the Diascia name doesn’t refer to the spurs, but rather the two sacs found in the upper part of the corolla.  The flower petals help the bees to rediviva beeorient themselves to the oil glands of the spurs.  While North Florida isn’t home to the Rediviva bee, we can grow Diascia and it is a wonderful opportunity to show the unique connection insects and plants can have.  Look for other specialized flower structures and you will find other animals that fit them perfectly, even within the species found in the Panhandle.


Author: Sheila Dunning – sdunning@ufl.edu


Sheila Dunning

Permanent link to this article: http://franklin.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2014/11/04/new-flowers-incredible-history/

History of Snowfall in North Florida

History of Snowfall in North Florida

North Florida is not a stranger to snow and ice, as we experienced this week.

As we experienced this week, Florida is no stranger to snow and ice!  Photo by Judy Ludlow

North Florida experienced a weather delight (or distress depending on your point of view!) this week in the form of freezing rain and snow!  The words “Florida” and “snow” are two words most people would not place together in the same sentence, but you may be surprised to learn that snow has been documented a number of times in Florida as revealed by records as early as 1891.  In Tallahassee, measurable snow has not fallen since 1989. 

The following information is taken from the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office Tallahassee, FL  about the history of Snowfall in Tallahassee:  Several winters ago, NWS Tallahassee Climate Focal Point, Tim Barry, responded to an inquiry from a reporter concerning snow climatology in Tallahassee. Some of those questions and answers are listed below:

In ten-year intervals, how many times has it snowed in Tallahassee Florida?snow graph How frequently does Tallahassee see snowfall?

From the information provided in the 1st question, we see that it snowed 32 times in Tallahassee since 1891. Please note that all but 7 of these occurrences were only Trace amounts. If we were to divide the period of record (117 years) by 32 we would get a frequency of once every 3.66 years. But as you can see from above, the more frequent occurrences of snow in the 50′s ,60′s and 70′s have skewed the results. The return period for measurable snow is just once every 17 years.  The most snow recorded in a 24-hour period was 2.8″ from February 12th – 13th, 1958.


A snowy scene from Crestview Florida, January 29, 2014.  Photo by Larry Williams.

Any interesting or exciting facts about Tallahassee winters?

There is a significant difference between the climate of north Florida and the southern portions of the peninsula. On average, we experience 35 days with minimum temperatures at or below freezing with most of these occurring from December through March. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Tallahassee was -2 F on February 13th 1899. More recently, we dipped down to 6 degrees F on January 21st, 1985.


Extra feed was a welcome relief for backyard wildlife this past week!  Photo by Judy Ludlow

Additional local research on conditions that favor snowfall in Tallahassee can be found in the following publication: Pattern Recognition of Significant Snowfall Events in Tallahassee, Florida 



Author: Judy Ludlow – judy.ludlow@ufl.edu

Judy Ludlow is the Agriculture and Natural Resource Agent in Calhoun County, Florida

Judy Ludlow

Permanent link to this article: http://franklin.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2014/02/01/history-of-snowfall-in-north-florida/

Know Your Field’s Herbicide History Before You Plant!

Aminopyrolid damaged peanuts Photo by Joel Love, FDACS

Aminopyrolid damaged peanuts Photo by Joel Love, FDACS

Planting behind Bahia Grass has long been a favored practice for watermelon growers and now row crop farmers are increasingly planting into Bahia and Bermuda grass sods. There are many benefits to the practice, but you need to know what herbicides were used when these fields were in pasture or hay production. Producers leasing or sub-leasing crop land need to pay particular attention.  Herbicides with aminopyralid as the active ingredient (e.g. GrazonNext and Milestone) are a fairly recent development, but they are being used much more commonly by grass producers.  The photo above shows peanuts planted in a leased Bahia grass field. UF weed specialist Dr. Jay Ferrell identified the damage as aminopyralid residual damage and remarked, “GrazonNext is labeled for “permanent grass pasture” – and they mean it.”

This information is of course on the product label, but many growers aren’t yet fully aware of its impact. Aminopyralid is not only an issue with subsequent crops. Use of hay from treated fields as mulch or use of manure from livestock grazing treated fields as compost may affect plant health. As the manufacture puts it “When treating areas …that are or will be grazed or planted to forage, important label precautions apply regarding harvesting hay from treated sites, using manure from animals grazing on treated areas or rotating the treated area to sensitive crops.” http://www.ipaw.org/invaders/AminopyralidFamilyBrochure.pdf

“The label is the law”, but this is a case where you need to check out more than the label. Applicators are required to keep track of pesticide use. If you’re leasing land for crop production, make sure you see the previous farmer’s pesticide application records. It’s not just the law, it’s a good idea!

For more information on aminopyralid herbicides, please see the following publication: Aminopyralid Family of Herbicides



Author: Jed Dillard – dillardjed@ufl.edu

Jefferson County Livestock and Natural Resources Agent with a commercial cow/calf background. My degree is in animal breeding, but I do more work wth forage systems. Long time clover/legume booster for both livestock and wildlife

Jed Dillard

Permanent link to this article: http://franklin.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2013/09/07/know-your-fields-herbicide-history-before-you-plant/