Earlier in the month Rachel went on a trip to Mallorca, with a group of 1st year undergraduates from the University of Manchester (for more information see her blog post: https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/04/07/surviving-salt-and-waterlogging-on-the-albuferita-mallorca/). During her time there she saw a number of sea squills (Drimia maritima) so I thought I would write a post about this interesting plant.
Drimia maritima is a poisonous plant that grows in rocky coastal habitats across southern Europe, western Asia and northern Africa. It grows from a large bulb that can be up to 20 cm wide and a kilogram in weight. In the spring, the bulb produces a rosette of dark green, leathery leaves that can reach up to a metre long. The leaves die away by autumn, when a shoot containing the flowers grows from the bulb. This flower-bearing shoot can achieve a height of up to 2 metres. Pollination of the Drimia maritima flowers occurs by both insects (specifically the western honey bee, the Oriental hornet, and the paper wasp) and wind.
Drimia maritima has been mentioned as far back as the 16th century BCE in the Ebers Papyrus (an ancient Egyptian medicinal text). In the 6th century BCE the Greek philosopher Pythagoras wrote about the uses of squill and, along with Dioscorides (1st century ACE and author of De Materia Medica), recommended hanging the bulb to protect against evil spirits.
One of the earliest medical applications of the sea squill came from the Greek physician Hippocrates (4th century BCE), who advocated its use to treat jaundice (yellowing of the skin), convulsions and asthma. Over the centuries, Drimia maritima was used as a common treatment for dropsy (abnormal accumulation of fluid in tissues) before the more effective foxglove (Digitalis sp.) became the standard treatment during the 18th century. The plant has also been used in folk medicine as a laxative and to clear mucus build-up.
In addition to its medicinal use, squill has been employed as a poison. All parts of the plant contain toxic chemicals. Once such compound, called Scilliroside, was shown in 1942 to be an effective rodenticide that is avoided by most other animals. In the 20th century, Drimia maritima began to be experimented on to develop highly toxic varieties for use in rat poison. Though not the most common rodenticide, interest in squill’s rat killing abilities has increased dramatically since many rats became resistant to the coumarin-based poisons previously used.
During my research into the Materia Medica collection (plant, animal and mineral based medicines used in from the 1800s) at the Manchester Museum, I have notice a recurring feature; many of the plants had in fact been used by humans for thousands of years and a large portion of these by the ancient Egyptians!
Plants featured heavily in Egyptian culture: in food, medicine, religion, perfumes and beyond. Early medicinal texts, such as the Ebers Papyrus from 1550 BCE, provide detailed insight into their extensive herbal knowledge. Unfortunately no complete record has yet to be found, but the fragments that have survived show just how knowledgeable these ancient peoples were when it came to plants and their uses. Many of the applications documented are the same used right up until the introduction of modern medicinal practices. Even today, large portions of herbal remedies used as ‘alternative’ medicines feature plants used for similar purposes as those used by the ancient Egyptians.
Not all of the plants known to and used by the Egyptians were native to their homeland. Their extensive knowledge on the topic can partly be attributed to trade. Caravan and water routes connected Egypt to trade routes around the world, allowing the exchange of tradable items like spices and fabrics. Silk traded from China has been found on Egyptian mummies dating from around 1000 BCE. As well as the benefit of trade, this connection to the rest of the world also made it possible for botanical knowledge to spread to Egypt from distant countries like China and India.
Another notable factor that played a role in the vast accumulation of plant knowledge was that the Pharaoh’s actively sent out plant exploration parties. These parties, such as those sent by Queen Hatshepsut around 1500 BCE and by Pharaoh Sankhere in 2500 BCE, were sent to discover more plant resources that could be exploited.
There is one particular Pharaoh that is worth mentioning in regard to the mass accumulation of botanical knowledge in Egypt: Thutmose III. He was an 18th dynasty Pharaoh who reigned between 1479–1425 BCE (part of which was as co-regent with Queen Hatshepsut). During his rule, Thutmose led numerous military expeditions, from which many foreign plants and animals were brought to Egypt.
It was during his reign that the ‘Botanical Garden’ was erected in the temple of Akh-menu at Karnak. This ‘garden’ is a chamber whose walls depict carved representations of the plants and animals collected by Thutmose. Because of its physical isolation from the rest of the temple, the ‘Botanical Garden’ of Akh-menu is a particularly sacred chamber and believed to be the place in which the priests of the god Amun were initiated.
For part 2, click on the following link: https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/botany-in-ancient-egypt-part-2/