Selected Herbs (2)

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Economic Plant Photographs #29

Selected Herbs & Spices For Food & Medicines

Star Anise and St. John's-Wort

A Variety Of Herbs & Spices

Top row from left: Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus, Scrophulariaceae), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla, Asteraceae), valerian root (Valeriana officinalis, Valerianaceae), cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum, Lauraceae); Bottom row: Chaparral tea or creosote bush (Larrea tridentata, Zygophyllaceae), star anise (Illicium verum, Illiciaceae), sarsaparilla root (Smilax officinalis, Liliaceae), Mexican logwood (Haematoxylum brasiletto, Fabaceae).

Star Anise Family (Illiciaceae)

Star anise (Illicium verum) is a small tree of the illicium family (Illiciaceae) native to southeast Asia and cultivated in China. It was once placed in the closely-related magnolia family (Magnoliaceae). Like the magnolia, the fruit consists of an aggregation of individual carpels, each bearing a single seed. Technically, each seed-bearing carpel is a dry fruit called a follicle. In the dried fruit of star anise there are eight carpels arranged in a star. The crushed leaves and fruits have a licorice aroma, hence the name "star anise."

See Flower & Fruit Of The Magnolia

The dried fruits of star anise are used for a licorice flavoring in curries, cookies, cakes, teas, poultry and meats. It was introduced into Europe in the 17th Century where it was used in baked goods and fruit jams. Star anise was used in Chinese medicine for centuries, including the treatment of indigestion, stomach ache, colic and facial paralysis. Scientists have also found that star anise may have possible cancer-fighting properties, particularly in the treatment of certain lung cancers. Another use for the seeds of this unusual tree is now making the news media in fall of 2005.

A star-shaped follicle cluster and several seeds of star anise (Illicium verum).
Each follicle (carpel) contains an individual seed with a shiny brown seed coat.

As of November 2005, the avian flu (also called bird flu) is considered one of the greatest potential threats to humans in the 21st Century. An airborne strain of this virus that infects humans appears inevitable, and could kill literally millions of people throughout the world. At this time a vaccine is not available and Tamiflu, the only medication known to reduce the severity of this disease, is currently in short supply. One of the key ingredients in the manufacture of Tamiflu is shikimic acid from the seeds of star anise. The manufacture of Tamiflu involves the conversion of shikimic acid into epoxide which is subsequently converted into an explosive azide. The final step involves the production of crystalline strands of oseltamivir, the active ingredient of Tamiflu. Oseltamivir is vacuum dried and placed in capsules. Star anise is only grown commercially in four provinces of China, and the quantity needed to supply the world's need for Tamiflu capsules is enormous.

Bag of dried star anise fruits for sale in an Asian market in San Diego.

St. John's-Wort Family (Hypericaceae)

One of the most interesting herbs of medieval Europe was St. John's-wort (Hypericum perforatum). Ground up flowers and upper leaves of this herb were used for a variety of ailments, including intestinal worms, wounds and bruises. European peasants thought the plant had magical powers and could drive evil spirits out of people who were possessed and insane. They gathered it on Saint John The Baptist's Day (June 24), and the name has persisted to the present. Wort is an old English word for plant. [Another plant named after John The Baptist is St. John's-bread (Ceratonia siliqua), a member of the legume family (Fabaceae). The ground pods of this tree are still used to this day as a chocolate substitute in cookies and brownies.] An extract from St. John's-wort called hypericin has been found to be effective in treating mild depression, mood swings, anxiety and insomnia. Because hypericin is a phytotoxic compound, hypersensitive people taking St. John's-wort may experience mild to severe dermatitis following exposure to sunlight. Animals grazing on St. John's-wort may also develop a skin irritation when exposed to strong sunlight.

St. John's-wort (Hypericum perforatum), a European perennial herb and the source of a popular herbal remedy for depression. This variable plant is naturalized in the western United States and is known as Klamath weed.

St. John's-wort is a naturalized perennial weed throughout mountainous regions of western North America. It is commonly known as known as Klamath weed. There are also several native species of Hypericum in the western United States, including San Diego County where Wayne's Word is based. Most references include Hypericum in the St. John's-wort family (Hypericaceae), although some authors have placed this genus in the clusia family Clusiaceae. Other authors place the genus Clusia in the garcinia family (Guttiferae).

Hypericum formosum var. scouleri, a native species of St. John's-wort in the mountains of San Diego County, California. The opposite leaves and yellow flowers with clusters of stamens make this plant fairly easy to identify in the field. It was photograped along Lower Doane Creek on Palomar Mountain, among the wiry leaves of Pacific rush (Juncus effusus var. pacificus).

Hypericum anagalloides, another interesting species of St. Johns-wort native to San Diego County. This is an aquatic species that is often called tinker's penny. It is a matted perennial that floats in the water along French Creek on Palomar Mountain.

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