Saturday, November 7, 2015


The Holidays are right around the corner which makes this the perfect time for us Outlander fans to buy ourselves a little something. Here are a few items that caught my eye. 

1. Scent your home with Frasier Fir candles, soaps and infusers. I love these products - they really do make your home smell like Christmas! And of course, there's the Clan Fraser connection...

2. Deck the halls with strings of dragonflies! Use these lights as holiday decorations now and leave them up until Season 2 of the TV show, based on the book Dragonfly in Amber, airs in spring of 2016.

3. Who says coloring books are just for kids? The Official Outlander Coloring Book offers 45 pen-and-ink drawings for grownups to color. Stock up on colored pencils and gel pens, and unleash your inner artist.

4. Are you a budding herbalist? You might enjoy having your own Outlander Mini Mortar and Pestle Set.

5. Need something to read during Droughtlander? The Lord John Series 4-Book Bundle should help to tide you over. The bundle includes these books by Diana Gabaldon: "Lord John and the Private Matter,"  "Lord John and the Hand of Devils," "Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade," and "The Scottish Prisoner."


Friday, September 25, 2015

Variegated Holly: Plant Badge of the Clan MacKenzie

Clan MacKenzie symbols: The crest with the clan motto; 
a MacKenzie tartan in the background; 
and sprigs of variegated holly, the clan plant badge. 
"He could, of course, announce that he did not mean to swear his oath to Colum, and head back to his warm bed in the stables. If he wanted a serious beating or his throat cut, that is. He raised an eyebrow at me, shrugged, and submitted with a fair show of grace to Willie, who rushed up with a pile of snowy linen in his arms and a hairbrush in one hand. The pile was topped by a flat blue bonnet of velvet, adorned with a metal badge that held a sprig of holly. I picked up the bonnet to examine it, as Jamie fought his way into the clean shirt and brushed his hair with suppressed savagery. 
The badge was round and the engraving surprisingly fine. It showed five volcanos in the center, spouting most realistic flames. And on the border was a motto, Luceo non Uro. 
'I shine, not burn,' I translated aloud. 
'Aye, lassie: the MacKenzie motto,' said Willie, nodding approvingly at me.' " 
-- OUTLANDER,  by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 10, "The Oath-Taking"
According to lore, plants associated with individual Scottish clans are referred to as clan or plant badges. The European yew, for example, is the plant badge of Clan Fraser. It is said that clansmen wore sprigs of their badge attached to their caps. Women pinned plant badges to their tartan sashes at the shoulder. (If you have Scottish ancestry and are curious about what plant might be the badge for your clan go here to look it up.)

The Clan MacKenzie has two plant badges:
Deer's grass (also called heath club rush - sometimes confused with club moss) and Variegated holly

I have not succeeded in tracking down the botanical name for deer's grass/heath club rush, so I am not sure what that plant is. If you are familiar with it, please leave me a comment.

The variegated holly, however, is quite easy to reference and find in the local landscape. In fact, here in the Northwest, we have two plants that go by the common name "variegated holly." One is an English holly with leaves that have cream-colored margins. The other is a member of the Osmanthus clan. Both have variegated foliage and prickly leaves.

Botanical Information

Variegated English holly
Family: Aquifoliaceae
Genus: Ilex
Species: Ilex aquifolium 'Argenteo Marginata'

This is an evergreen shrub that can eventually become a small tree, up to 10-15 feet tall and 5-10 feet wide. These plants are quite hardy and do best in the northern part of the US. They produce white flowers in spring, followed by red berries in fall.

English holly berries contain high levels of certain alkaloids, along with caffeine and theobromine. They are regarded as poisonous to humans, although death by holly berry is rarely reported.

In her book, A Druid's Herbal, Ellen Evert Hopman has this to say about the magical uses of English holly, especially at the time of Winter Solstice:
"Holly, with it's warrior-like bristles, is known as an herb of protection. Cast it about to repel unwanted animals and spirits... Holly is one of the evergreens brought into the home by the Druids. It symbolizes a willingness to allow the nature spirits to share one's abode during the harsh, cold season."
Variegated holly (shown in photo above)
Family: Oleaceae
Genus: Osmanthus
Species: Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki'

Native to Eastern Asia and southern Japan, this shrub's striking foliage makes it a desirable addition to the garden. In Japanese, "goshiki" means 5-colored - look for shades of cream, yellow, pink, white and orange in its foliage.

This variegated holly, sometimes called holly olive, is a slow growing, mound-shaped plant, eventually reaching 3-5 feet in height and width. Because of its compact, dense growth habit, it rarely needs pruning, which is a good thing, given the prickly foliage.

This plant produces clusters of tiny, white, fragrant flowers in late summer and early fall. They are followed by oval-shaped, purple fruits that mature about 9 months later.

Friday, September 18, 2015

It's All About YEW

The Reflection Pool at Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island,
Washington, is surrounded by a formal, clipped yew hedge. 
"The still air of the church shivered suddenly into bits, the echoes of a scream scattering the dust motes. Without conscious thought, Roger was outside, running, stumbling and scrambling over the tumbled stones, heading for the dark line of the yews. He pushed his way between the overgrown branches, not bothering to hold back the scaly twigs for Brianna, hot on his heels. 
Pale in the shadows, he saw Claire Randall's face. Completely drained of color, she looked like a wraith against the dark branches of the yew. She stood for a moment, swaying, then sank to her knees in the grass, as though her legs would no longer support her.
 - from DRAGONFLY IN AMBER, by Diana Gabaldon

Besides this scene in DIA, yews have another Outlander connection: the European yew is the plant badge of the Clan Fraser. It is said that members of the Clan often wear small branches of yew in their caps as a protection.

According to lore, plant badges or clan badges are sprigs of plants used to identify members of specific Scottish clans. Men typically wear these bits of foliage attached to their caps. Women pin the badges to their tartan sashes at the shoulder. For more on the history of these plant badges and a list of which clan wears what, take a look at this Wikipedia page.

When I think of yews, I think of stately, dark evergreen hedges. Unlike spectacular plants that call attention to themselves with  colorful flowers or traffic-stopping fall color, yews are the silent sentinels of the garden. They stand quietly by, creating garden walls and providing a backdrop for the garden showoffs.

That said, there is one garden I can think of where yews play a starring role. It is the Reflection Pool at Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, Washington (pictured above). This garden features a large, rectangular, spring-fed pond, which is edged with lawn and surrounded by a formally clipped yew hedge. Outside the hedge, majestic conifers stand tall: western red cedar, Douglas fir, and blue atlas cedar. When you enter this garden, you feel a Presence - it's as though you have stepped into a cathedral. If you took away the hedge, it would still be a beautiful place, but the majesty of it would be lost.

(For stunning photos of this garden and others within the Reserve, take a look at this article on The Intercontinental Gardener's website.)

Botanical Information 

Family: Taxaceae
Genus: Taxus
Species: Taxus baccata
Common name: European yew

Yews are evergreen conifers native to Europe, Northern Africa and Southwest Asia. They are some of the longest lived trees in the world. The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland, for example, is said to be between 1500 and 3000 years old.

Yews bear small, single-seed cones. As the Latin name "baccata" indicates, they produce small red berries which appear in fall.

Medicinal Uses

Caution: all parts of this plant are poisonous, except for the flesh of the berries. However, compounds contained in the bark of the European yew have been found to be useful in fighting cancer. Taxol, a plant alkaloid derived from the leaves of European yew and it's cousin, the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, is a chemotherapy agent used in the treatment of breast, ovarian, bladder, lung and other cancers.

Monday, September 14, 2015

3 New OUTLANDER Releases This Fall!

Season 2 of the OUTLANDER TV series is rumored to start airing in March or April of 2016 - which is a long way off. Fortunately, three new releases this fall will help us pass the time. Here they are in the order that they will be released. All are available for pre-order now.

September 25, 2015
Volume 2 of Bear McCreary's Original Television Soundtrack for OUTLANDER

September 29. 2015
Volume 2 of the first season of OUTLANDER
Episodes 9 - 16

October 27. 2015
At 656 pages, this will keep us busy for a while!
This COMPANION is for the last 4 books in the series: The Fiery Cross, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, Echo in the Bone, and In My Own Heart's Blood.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

This Bud's For You - Cannabis

Flower bud of Cannabis sativa 'Sour Diesel'
Photo credit: Cannabis Culture 
"...the atmosphere in the room was thick with oil of peppermint, eucalyptus... and cannabis. Despite the wet cloth, enough smoke had escaped the brazier to form a hanging cloud of purling wisps, moving pale as ghosts in the darkened air. 
I sprinkled more water on the muslin tent and sat down in the small armchair beside the bed, breathing the saturated atmosphere in cautiously but with an agreeable small sense of illicit pleasure. Hal had told me that he was in the habit of smoking hemp to relax his lungs and that it seemed to be effective. He'd said 'hemp,' and that was undoubtedly what he'd been smoking; the psychoactive form of the plant didn't grow in England and wasn't commonly imported. 
I hadn't any hemp leaves in my medical supply but did have a good bit of ganja, which John had acquired from a Philadelphia merchant who had two Indiamen. It was useful in the treatment of glaucoma, as I'd learned when treating Jamie's aunt Jocasta, it relieved nausea and anxiety - and it had occasional non-medicinal uses, as John had informed me, to my private amusement." -- from WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART'S BLOOD,  aka MOBY, Chapter 12, by Diana Gabaldon
So what IS the difference between hemp and ganja (or marijuana)?

Botanically, they are the same plant. Both are cultivars of Cannabis sativa. The difference is in the breeding. Hemp strains are bred for their fiber, which have many industrial uses, including rope, biodegradable plastics, textiles, paper, moisturizers and bio-fuel. Marijuana strains are selectively bred for their high levels of the psychoactive compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the substance responsible for making people "high." Hemp, on the other hand, has negligible amounts of THC.

But like all Outlander Plants, there's much more to the story than that...

Botanical Information

Family: Cannabaceae
Genus: Cannabis
Species: There are 3 major categories: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis sativa forma indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. 
Common names: Marijuana, weed, bud, ganja, dope, maryjane, pot, herb, grass

Cannabis is native to central and southern Asia. The species name "indica," as you may remember from this post on Latin botanical names, means native to India. The Philadelphia merchant's Indiamen undoubtedly called it "ganja," the Sanskrit word for cannabis.

The oldest record of cannabis use dates to the time of Herodotus, the Greek historian. In 440 BC, he wrote about the Scythians taking cannabis steam baths, a process that sounds quite similar to the scene from MOBY above.
 "The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed [presumably, flowers], and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy."[41] 
The species grown most often for medical and recreational use are C. sativa and C. indica. These species have been interbred and hybridized to produce countless subspecies with names like 'OG Kush,' 'Girl Scout Cookies,' 'Grandaddy Purple,' 'AC/DC,' 'Blue Dream,' and 'Sour Diesel.'

THC may be the best known compound extracted from Cannabis plants, but it is by no means the only one. THC is one of 85 known cannabinoids, a class of chemical compounds that bind with receptors in the brain and in the immune system.

Cannabinoids are produced in tiny hair-like structures called trichomes, which grow in large numbers on the calyxes and bracts of female plants. A mature bud fairly bristles with them.

(Stinging Nettles, another popular Outlander Plant, have trichomes, too. Trichomes are the tiny "needles" that deliver chemicals that cause the sting when you touch the plant.)

Medicinal Uses

There seems to be a lot of misinformation about how marijuana is used as medicine. There's a perception that people use medical conditions as an excuse to get high. And that, indeed, the "high" is what relieves pain or anxiety.

Neither of these is necessarily true. First of all, not all medicinal cannabis contains THC. Some strains, such as AC/DC, are bred for high levels of another cannabanoid, called CBD (Cannabidiol). CBD is not psychoactive and thus does not produce a "high." It has been used effectively to reduce anxiety, and to treat Dravet sydrome, a rare, extreme form of epilepsy that strikes infants. The video at the end of this post has an interview with the mother of a child with this disease, who tells about her experience. Thanks to CBD, her daughter is able to live like a normal little girl without seizures, without the heavy sedation that comes with conventional drugs, and without getting stoned.

Cannabis strains containing THC are used to treat nausea and vomiting that accompanies chemotherapy and HIV/AIDS, chronic pain including neuropathy, and anorexia. The use of cannabis to treat PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is controversial. The use of some combination of THC and CBD shows promise, but more study is needed.

Most strains have varying amounts of THC and CBD. In Washington state, producers are required to label recreational products showing the percentages of THC and CBD the items contain. But even with that information, when you discover just how many strains are on offer, how do you know which one will produce the desired effect? The Medical Marijuana Strains website lists many of these subspecies with user reviews and suggestions for which strains are best for specific illnesses or complaints.

All that said, because the use of marijuana has either been illegal or operating in some sort of grey area for so long, only limited research has been possible. That's gradually beginning to change as the US government is allowing some grants to fund studies. The video at the bottom of this post includes a segment about research being done at Washington State University. 

Who knows what benefits further study could provide? It is interesting that our cells have receptors for cannabanoids. Our cells have receptors for opiates, too, and research has shown that our bodies produce opiates, called endorphins. Is it possible that we can manufacture our own cannabanoids?

A Wee Bit O' History

You've probably heard someone describe themselves as being "420 friendly,"meaning that they either like smoking pot or don't mind if other people do. But how did the number 420 come to be associated with marijuana?

Our friends at the Urban Dictionary explain that a group of high school kids in San Rafael, California, who called themselves The Waldos, coined the term back in the 1970s. They would meet after school  at 4:20 p.m. and go off together to smoke some weed. They started using the time, 420, as a code word for getting high, and it has been used by pot aficionados ever since.

The Politics of Pot

US federal law prohibits growing or using Cannabis of any variety. So individuals who grow, sell or use marijuana in states that have legalized it for either medical or recreational purposes run the risk of prosecution. For now, it appears that the federal government is taking a "wait and see" approach to legalized marijuana, watching the industry unfold.

To date, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. I live in Washington state, which along with Colorado and Alaska, are the only states that have legalized both medical and recreational marijuana. It is a brave new world for growers, retailers, dispensaries and consumers, not to mention legislators grappling with how best to regulate this quasi-legal business.

This video, produced by my local Seattle PBS station, takes an in-depth look at the marijuana business in Washington. It covers edible products, research on how pot affects the brain, how medical marijuana benefits a child with epilepsy, and takes us inside a growing facility.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Medicinal Gardens at Bastyr University

Yesterday was The Outlander Plant Guide's first anniversary. I celebrated by meeting a couple of Outlander fans at the Medicinal Gardens at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. I wanted to take a look around and prepare for the Outlander gathering we are having there on April 18th.

The Botany Beds have plants arranged by botanical family.
I've often thought that if Claire Fraser was to travel back in time to the 21st century instead of the 20th, she might have chosen Bastyr as the school where she would get her medical degree. Bastyr was the first university in the United States to offer an accredited, science-based, natural medicine program. Their approach is so like that of Claire's - combining science with botanical medicine. 

Since its founding in 1978, Bastyr has expanded its course offerings to include degree programs in nutrition, acupuncture, midwifery, psychology, public health, Ayurvedic medicine, exercise science and wellness, along with naturopathic medicine. 

The medicinal gardens at Bastyr are a collection of several gardens in one large garden space. All provide hands-on teaching experiences for students. One garden features Botany Beds, in which plants are grouped by botanical family. Another garden contains plants used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. There is a 4 Element garden, based on the ancient Greek "humoral" system of medicine, featuring plants that represent water, fire, air and earth. There is also a Nutrition Garden which provides fresh produce and herbs for the university cafeteria. 

This bed features plants that benefit the musculo-skeletal system.
For those of us who are most interested in plants used to treat specific ailments, there are the Physiological System beds. The bed shown above, for example, features plants that benefit the musculo-skeletal system. They include: crampbark (Virburnum opulus), comfrey (Symphytum officinale), St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum), and meadow arnica (Arnica chamissonis). Other beds have plants that benefit the brain and central nervous system, the reproductive system, genitourinary system, respiratory system, cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal system, immune system and endocrine system. All are clearly labeled. 

If you live near Kenmore, Washington, I hope you can join us for our Outlander gathering at noon on April 18. If you aren't able to stroll the gardens with us then, I hope you've enjoyed this brief virtual tour. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Black Hellebores and A Little Girl's Tears

  Christmas Rose or Black Hellebore (Helleborus niger)
" 'Barberry leaves, three handfuls in a decoction, steeped overnight, poured over half a handful of black hellebore.' I laid the list of... ingredients down on the inlaid table as though it were slightly slimy to the touch. 'I got it from Madame Rouleau. She's the best of the angel-makers, but even she says it's dangerous. Louise, are you sure you want to do this?' 
Her round pink face was blotched, and the plump lower lip had a tendency to quiver. 
'What choice do I have?' She picked up the recipe for the abortifacient and gazed at it in repulsed fascination." 
 - from DRAGONFLY IN AMBER, Chapter 13, by Diana Gabaldon
I love hellebores. I have been growing them for years. They are highly prized in the gardening community for their exotic flowers and the fact that many of them bloom in the dead of winter.

So finding out that black hellebore, Helleborus niger, was used to end unwanted pregnancies, and given their level of toxicity, probably also the lives of the mothers, was like discovering that a longtime, dear friend has a troubled, secret past.

The Helleborus niger that I know isn't usually called "black" hellebore, although niger means black in Latin. It's called Christmas Rose because it blooms around Christmastime. It is also associated with Christmas because of a sweet bit of folklore. The story goes that a little girl was traveling to Bethlehem to visit the baby Jesus. She started to cry because she had no gift to bring him. Where her tears fell to the ground, these flowers sprang up, blooming in the snow.

The Helleborus niger that I know doesn't have black flowers. Its flowers are white or pink. There are hellebores with near black flowers, but they are hybrids. The word niger in the botanical name refers to the dark color of the rootstock, not the flower color or some sinister character trait.

The Helleborus niger that I know isn't slimy. It has leathery leaves and flower petals (which are actually sepals, botanically speaking) that feel to the touch like that of a rose.

(Apparently, I'm not the only one who found the news about hellebores disturbing. Our friends at Outlander PodcastGinger and Summer, discuss their reactions in Episode 74: Hellebore.)

I hope you won't let toxic stories from the past cause you to turn away from hellebores. In the present day garden, they offer great beauty in exchange for very little work on the part of the gardener. More than that - watching their flowers emerge from the cold, damp earth in winter is nothing short of inspirational.

The Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis), so-called
because it blooms during Lent, typically has pink flowers,
but there are also white, chartreuse, and deep purple varieties. 

Botanical Information

Family: Ranunculaceae
Genus: Helleborus
Species: Helleborus niger
Common Names: Black hellebore, Christmas rose

There are many species of Hellebores. Helleborus foetidus is called "stinking hellebore" because of the odor given off when the leaves are crushed. Helleborus orientalis, the Lenten Rose, blooms right around the time Lent begins. Helleborus argutifolius, the Corsican hellebore, blooms in early March. There are new introductions of hybrids arriving in nurseries every year, sporting unique flower colors and leaf characteristics. They are popular with collectors.

Hellebores are easy to care for. They are shade plants and will bloom even in deep shade. The foliage replaces itself every year after blooming. Simply cut away the old, ratty foliage when the new growth appears. Give your plants a generous top dressing of compost as the new foliage emerges and keep the soil evenly moist.

I've seen aphids on my plants after the blooms fade. Hellebores like moist conditions and when the soil begins to dry out in late spring, I think they get a bit stressed. That's when they become susceptible to aphid infestations. But no worries, the aphids don't do any real damage and can be easily sprayed off with the hose.

Helleborus foetidus - it's too bad such a lovely plant is
stuck with such an ugly name - Stinking Hellebore.

Corsican Hellebores (Helleborus argutifolius)
grow wild in Corsica and Sardinia. They can

take more sun and drier conditions than other species.
Want to know more about hellebores? The Gardener's Guide to Hellebores, by Graham Rice and Elizabeth Strangman,  is a wonderful reference if you want to learn more about these beautiful plants.

Ancient Medicinal Uses

According to Wikipedia, Helleborus niger was used to treat gout, paralysis and insanity. Mrs. M. Grieve's Modern Herbal lists conditions such as dropsy (edema), amenorrhoea, various nervous disorders and hysteria as responding to treatment with black hellebore.

However, all sources warn that the plant is highly toxic. Mrs. Grieve describes it as being "violently narcotic," in addition to having "drastic purgative, emmenagogue and anthelmintic properties," meaning laxative, menstrual stimulant, and anti-parasitic, in that order. Wikipedia lists side effects that include: ringing in the ears, dizziness, stupor, thirst, swelling of tongue and throat, and death from cardiac arrest.

Helleborin, hellebrin, and helleborein are cardiotoxic compounds found in hellebore roots. These compounds, which cause cardiac arrest, are probably most responsible for  the lethal reputation of the black hellebore. However, studies done in the 1970s showed that Helleborus niger roots did not contain those compounds. It is likely that other species of Hellebore, such as Helleborus viridis, green hellebore,  which do contain the compounds, were confused with Helleborus niger and the black hellebore was blamed for the cardiac complications.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to avoid ingesting any part of this plant for any reason. Be safe - and just enjoy the flowers.

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