Magnolia Medicine

M. grandiflora

M. grandiflora

The leaves of the Magnolia grandiflora and Magnolia virginiana (southern varieties of magnolias with evergreen leaves) have long been used by indigenous populations in the Southeast for medicine.

Modern research has confirmed this practice. M. grandiflora contains phenolic constituents shown to possess significant antimicrobial activity, several of which exhibit significant action against Gram-positive and acid-fast bacteria and fungi.  The leaves of M.grandiflora contain coumarins and the sesquiterpene lactones: costunolide, parthenolide, costunolide diepoxide, santamarine and reynosin. M. virginiana has been shown to have two additional sesquiterpenes: ostunolact-12β-ol and its acetal dimer.

I have heard many herbalists say that medicinally speaking all magnolias species and dogwood are interchangeable, but I question if that extends to the varieties that grow locally. I’ve never been lucky enough to be in Nashville to see my husband”s grandmother”s trees bloom, but I have had a chance to munch on some spring leaves. Given that it is the the sesquiterpene lactones in the leaves which account for the plants actions, I really don”t believe after having smelled and tasted the grandiflora leaves that our local variety have nearly the same chemical make-up.

Magnolia .x soulangiana

Magnolia .x soulangiana

Our trees are pretty but the leaves are very different, they are deciduous and not nearly so aromatic. The taste, what little there is, seems entirely different. Steve tells me if I ever get to smell a blossom from Grandma”s tree, I will be sure of it.

Whether this is due to variety or growing in a different climate, the plants of the magnolia species that are hardy enough to make in Iowa are such a different creature that I don”t understand how they could possibly have the same energetics and actions and I haven”t been able to find much on their sesquiterpene content. My guess is that the northern deciduous varieties are not nearly so potent, although there has been some interesting work done in identifying the acetylcholinesterase inhibiting chemical taspine in the Magnolia x soulangiana species, which will grow here in Iowa.

This seems to be supported by differential traditional use of indigenous groups. In the the southeast the Cherokee utilized the bark of Magnolia acuminata L far stomach ailments and toothaches. The Iroquois also utilized the bark as a medicinal. The active constituents in M acuminata bark may be the lignans present in the bark and root. While that variety is hardy in this area, it is not necessarily native to Iowa. I couldn’t find any record of our local plains tribes using it. That being said I do have a nice press release from the ISU archives on which magnolias grow well here and sometimes you just plant something because it is beautiful to have around.  Not everything has to be useful.

Magnolias for Iowa Gardens
By Cindy Haynes Extension horticulturist
Iowa State University Extension

One of the most beautiful groups of flowering trees is the magnolia. The regal flowers of southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) grace landscapes throughout the southeastern United States. They have even appeared on a postage stamp. However, this southern beauty is just that… southern. Southern magnolia will not tolerate Iowa”s harsh winters. However, there are several other magnolia species with equally attractive flowers that perform well in Iowa. Their elegant flowers appear from early April through May.
Magnolias are a diverse group of plants with pink, purple, white and even yellow flowering types. Flowers on most are fragrant, varying slightly with species. Plant size can vary greatly as well. Many are medium to large trees with some reaching more than 50 feet tall. Others are considered large shrubs only reaching 8 to 12 feet tall. Because of their diversity, there is a magnolia for virtually every site in the landscape.

Cucumbertree magnolia (Magnolia acuminata) is native to the United States from Louisiana to New York. It is hardy to Minnesota. This tree is “large” in many respects. The leaves can be up to ten inches long and the tree often reaches 50 feet or more in height. However, the flowers are relatively small — only 2 to 3 inches long and greenish yellow in color. While the flowers are quite attractive, they are not readily seen since they are often hidden by the foliage. Flowering begins in late spring and is rarely affected by frosts. The fruit, appearing in late summer, is worth searching for since it resembles a cucumber, hence the common name.

nWhile the flowers on the cucumbertree magnolia often go unnoticed, the blooms of some of its offspring are quite showy. Because of their unusual greenish yellow flowers, the cucumbertree magnolia has been crossed with other magnolia species to develop yellow-flowering selections. ”Elizabeth” was the first yellow-flowering magnolia sold and is still one of the best available on the market today. Recently, several other yellow magnolias have been introduced. Competitors such as ”Butterflies,” ”Yellow Bird,” ”Yellow Fever,” ”Yellow Garland,” ”Sundance” and ”Miss Honeybee” reportedly offer more vibrant yellow flowers. Only time will tell if they can surpass the elegance of ”Elizabeth.” ”Elizabeth” will reach 30 feet tall with a 15 to 20 foot spread. Unlike the cucumbertree, the yellow magnolia hybrids flower before the leaves emerge fully in spring, making the show much more spectacular. Since the yellow-flowering hybrids bloom later than most magnolias, they are rarely damaged by frosts.

Another large magnolia with showy flowers is the saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana). Sometimes called the tulip tree, this magnolia puts on a spectacular show producing large, pinkish purple flowers in early spring. When this tree is in full bloom it can stop traffic. The flowers are lightly fragrant. Unfortunately, our fickle weather in early spring can be a problem. Freezing temperature can turn beautiful flowers into dead, brown masses. Give this species plenty of room, since saucer magnolia normally reaches 30 feet tall with a spread of 20 feet.\r

In locations where smaller trees are needed, the loebner magnolias (Magnolia x loebneri) are excellent choices. With heights from 15 to 25 feet, they are suitable for sites near the home. ”Merrill” is one of the hardiest of the loebner magnolias surviving beautifully at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (USDA Hardiness Zone 4a). The white flowers are smaller than the saucer magnolia but contain more petals (tepals, technically). They also flower a couple of weeks later than the star and saucer magnolias, oftentimes escaping injury from late frosts. ”Leonard Messel,” another lobener magnolia cultivar, is noted for its pale pink flowers.

Coming down in size once again is the star magnolia (Magnolia stellata). Star magnolia is the first magnolia to bloom. As a result, the flowers are occasionally zapped by late spring frosts. Don”t cross the star magnolia off your list because its white flowers are occasionally destroyed. In 3 or 4 years out of 5, it”s fantastic! Flowers are smaller than those of saucer magnolia but the petal count is much greater. Mature heights range from 12 to 20 feet with spreads around 12 feet. It is also one of the hardiest magnolias.

For plants with smaller statures but equally impressive floral displays there is the Little Girl series of magnolias. This series of hybrids was developed at the National Arboretum in the 1950s for shrub-like form and colorful flowers. Each of eight different cultivars, aptly named ”Jane,” ”Judy,” ”Betty,” ”Ann,” ”Ricki,” ”Susan,” ”Randy” and ”Pinkie,” are large shrubs ranging in height from 8 to 15 feet. Flowers vary slightly between cultivars but are generally challis-shaped and usually pink or purple in color. Flowers appear later in the spring season thus avoiding destruction by late spring frosts. Flowers usually appear just prior to or with the emerging leaves. The habit varies slightly between cultivars with ”Ricki” being rather upright and ”Betty” more spreading or rounded.

Planting and Maintenance

Magnolias prefer a full sun location with well-drained soils. They are adaptable to soil types, even tolerating clay soils, but they insist on good drainage. Waterlogged soils often lead to an early demise. Spring planting of larger specimens is best as most root growth occurs in spring.
Magnolias are relatively pest and disease free. On occasion, magnolia scale or mildew will attack a tree. These problems only warrant treatment in severe cases as they tend to be cyclic in nature. Contact your county extension office for treatment options if problems arise. As one magnolia aficionado once said, “Their biggest problem is not pests, it is that they don”t flower long enough.”
Magnolias are considered one of the oldest families of flowering plants. They have survived on earth for thousands of years. Thankfully they are still around to add a little elegance to our landscape every spring.

Alice Clark et al., “Antimicrobial activity of phenolic constituents of magnolia grandiflora Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 70 (1981) 951–952.
Blunden Yang et al., “Coumarins and sesquiterpene lactones from Magnolia grandiflora leaves,” Planta medica,60 (1994): 390-390.
J. Rollinger et al., “Taspine:  Bioactivity-Guided Isolation and Molecular Ligand−Target Insight of a Potent Acetylcholinesterase Inhibitor from Magnolia x soulangiana,” Journal of Natural Products 69 (2006): 1341-1346.
 Farouk et al., “Isolation and characterization of the sesquiterpene lactones costunolide, parthenolide, costunolide diepoxide, santamarine, and reynosin from Magnolia grandiflora L.” Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 67 (1978) 347–350.
Q.Song et al., “Sequiterpenes from southern Magnolia virginiana,” Phytochemistry 47 (1998): 221-226.

Nocino from a Historical Perspective

walnut harvestIt isn’t really close to time for starting nocino in my little part of the world, but I recognize that for some of you the time is drawing very near. I’ve been asked for the recipe more than a few times this spring so I thought I would do something ahead of time, for a change

There are so many recipes floating around out there that I thought I would speak about it more as an herbalist and less as a foodie, for a novel approach. Before we get into all of that, we should clear up a question that I have been asked a few times now as to which species of walnut to use in the preparations of nocino?

walnutidFor those who need some identification help, I’ve added the picture to the left. As you can see the leaves of the two types of walnut trees are quite different from one another so you should have no problems. The leaves on top are from a black walnut (Juglans nigra) and the bottom leaves are from an English walnut (Juglans regia). The most authentic recipes call for English walnuts. If you look at Libovitz”s recipe you can see that he is using English walnuts, however, I remain unconvinced that one must use English Walnuts. I would imagine the that recommendation is based on the fact that these were the only type of Walnuts growing in Europe until the mid-17th century, but I see no reason why they aren”t interchangeable.The early American colonists seemed to think they were, especially as they had a hard time getting English walnuts established.

I have black walnuts growing behind my house, so black walnuts are what I use and I have been quite happy with the results. If I stumble across a plentiful supply of the English variety, I will have to do a comparison. The sacrifices I must make for my research…

As usual I like to research the history of my preparations. I tried to pin down the origin of the drink. I had almost given up on the idea when I found a journal article which attributes its origins to the Celts. The authors of the journal cite literature from an Italian monastery which also confirms the use of the preparation “as a tonic and digestive aid” and attributes the origins of the drink to the Druids who traditionally collected “green unripe walnuts”at the end of their summer solstice rituals. It remains traditional in Italy to gather the walnuts for this preparation on St. John the Baptist’s day which is the Catholic holy day that seems to have replaced the pagan solstice rituals. So every year on St. Johns Day, I pick his wort and start my nocino.

The following is the recipe for nocino as translated (probably poorly, I used Google) from a pdf published by the Ordine del Nocino Modenese, the monastery which claims to have originated the drink in Italy.

1 liter of alcohol 95
700-900 grams of sugar
kg of walnuts (33-35 nuts about depending on the size but always in number odd)

The nuts must be strictly locally sourced and free from any treatment. They also need to be , as tradition indicates , collected at the turn of the feast of St. John the Baptist .The right consistency of the nut should be assessed and pierce it with a pin and / or verified visually by splitting in half with a knife.
Optional: Cloves and cinnamon in small quantities and dosed in such a way that the aroma prevalent in liquor is always that of the walnut and the overall bouquet you create a harmonious result.

The nuts, once harvested, they must be cut into 4 pieces and placed in a glass container (no rubber seals) together with the sugar. After being kept in the sun for 1-2 days and stir.
Periodically, the nuts are ready to be added alcohol and any flavorings. The product thus obtained must be positioned in an area partially exposed to the sun, occasionally opened and shuffled, and not filtered before 60 days.
It is advisable to bottling in glass containers dark and / or refine the product in small wooden barrels… can choose either chestnut oak that provided that the barrel has been properly treated before use. The preservation of the walnut must be carried out in a cool place and for a minimum period of 12 months if you want to fully appreciate all the characteristics of this liquor.
nocino brewingThis is certainly a recipe that screams to be played around with a bit so this year I have decided to make a traditional batch with some cloves and another batch flavored with Angelica now that I have that growing in abundance.
The brew is not without a medicinal history. Although M.Grieves focuses on pickling the young nuts, there are historical references to green nuts combined in some way with sugar and used as a digestive aide.Gerard says “the greene and tender nuts boiled in sugar… are a most pleasant and delectable meate, comfort the stomach and expel poison.” Culpeper recommends a very similar preparation saying, “The young green nuts taken before they be half ripe and preserved with sugar, are of good use for those who have weak stomachs.” He also mentions that ounce or two of a distillation of the same age of husk, is used to “cool the heat of agues and resist the infection of the plague.”

That might be a new tradition to add to my summer solstice celebration. I’d guess a black walnut distillation smells amazing. I may also have to give Susanna Avery’s recipe for pickling the green nuts a try as well.

Let your nutts be green as not to have any shell; then run a kniting pin two ways through them; then put them into as much ordinary vinegar as will cover them, and let them stand thirty days, shifting them every too days in ffrech vinegar; then ginger and black peper of each ounce, rochambol [ Spanish garlic] two ounces slised, a handfull of bay leaves; put all togeather cold; then wrap up every wall nutt singly in a vine leaf, and put them in putt them into the ffolloing pickel: for 200 of walnutts take two gallans of the best whit vineager, a pint of the best mustard seed, fore ounces of horse radish, with six lemons sliced with the rins [rinds]on, cloves and mace half an ounce, a stone jar, and put the pickel on them, and cork them close up; and they will be ffitt for use in three months, and keep too years.


Alamprese, C., “Characterization and antioxidant activity of nocino liqueur,” Food Chemistry (2005): 495-502.
Avery, S. Her Book, 12 May 1688 “To Pickel Wallnutts Green.”
Culpeper, N., Culpeper”s Complete Herbal and English Physician, (Manchester: J Gleave and Son, 1826), 194.
Gerarde, J., The Herbal or General History of Plants, 1633 edition, (New York: Dover,1975), 1441.

Trapolin’s Rhubarb Pie

We visited my extended family over the weekend and as always, I came home a little wistful for rural living. My parents and my sister have adjoining acreages just outside of town. They live out by the gun club, the dam and a cute little vineyard named the “Hollywood Vine” ( I mention this because I find the juxtaposition of the vineyard and the fun club and the vineyard to be amusingly ironic.) They have just enough woods to hunt for morels and enough sunny spaces for lots of gardening. But my family are not your run-of-the-mill, “look at my rare hostas” kind of gardeners.

My family grows food. We always have. Even after they lost the farm, Dad always managed a respectable garden anywhere we rented. I think I can unbiasedly say that his pickles are the best pickles in the world.  Since Mom retired last year, their whole set up is beginning to remind me of when I was young. They have built four new vegetable gardens this year, sharing a couple with my sister who lives in town. They are planting more fruit trees and herbs. Mom even started a Facebook group about preserving food. Now all they need is chickens and a milk cow, named Blondie Cow It is kind of enough to make a girl with a .12 acre lot, neighbors who like to spray too many chemicals and a lot of city planting restrictions envious.

So I came home from the visit feeling a little jealous and a little down but with a plastic bag of rhubarb from my sister’s patch. I was thinking I”d make jam but Steve likes rhubarb pie so we made a pie.  You will need a double pie crust for a 9 inch pie. We just use a good old-fashioned flour, butter, water recipe.   My oldest son helped me tweak this one, so it is forevermore dubbed.

IMG_2180Trapolins Rhurbarb Pie.

4-5cups of finely chopped rhubarb
1 1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
1 tbsp. lemon juice
saffron threads
3 tablespoons finely ground coconut
4 tablespoons flour (tapioca flour works here if you are gluten free)
2 tablespoons butter cut into small pieces

Finely chop the rhubarb. This is the key to avoiding the stringy chunky texture which causes youngsters to object to rhubarb pie, sometimes. Mix in the threads of saffron and the coconut and then add the juices.

Ground coconut was today's secret ingredient.

Ground coconut was today’s secret ingredient.

I like to let it set for a bit at this point to let the saffron infuse into the juice so I start the oven preheating to 350 degrees and roll the dough out for the pie plate, at this point. Once the oven is preheated, I add the sugar and flour to the rhubarb juice mixture.

Pour this into your pie crust and then sprinkle the chopped butter over the filling. Cover with the second pie crust, crimp the edges and cut vents in the top. Bake this for 45 minutes. If you like you can make an egg wash at this point by mixing an egg briskly with a teaspoon of water. Brush this on the pie and return it to the oven to cook for another 15 minutes.