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Magnolia Medicine

magnolia-grandiflora-flowerThe 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.

04b8f9f9bb2fd86f4b3c1b8658a8b31cOur 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 climiate, 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.

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.

While 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.

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
L,” 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.   

S. 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.

Natural Immunizations

So I would like to put this out there publicly to answer a question I’ve been receiving, a lot l lately.

I guess it all started because a  local chiropractor recommends homeopathic nosodes as “natural immunizations”.   I’ve heard that he is referring people to a homeopath in a town some hours away,  who is  charging people $100 for the nosodes and signing off on immunization cards,  saying that clients have been immunized.   Quite a few people have contacted me and asked me if I could do the same thing.

I am not a homeopath.   I do not use homeopathic nosodes and I certainly would never dream of signing an immunization card, or a medical exemption form.   I am not even sure that ethically  I would be comfortable  doing so, given my concern that research on the subject has shown that the nosodes do not result in production of specific antibodies.

Putting the question of efficacy aside, these nosodes do not meet immunization requirements.  I contacted the school district to confirm this.   They told me that not only do these “natural immunizations” not meet state requirements,    but that unless a practitioner signing off on the immunization card is a licensed medical practitioner in the state of Iowa, signing the medical exemption form, or an immunization card, can be considered fraud.    Herbalists and homeopaths, no matter how many letters we have behind our names are not licensed medical practitioners.   Chiropractors are also not able to sign off on the forms.

When the boys were little a local chiropractor filled out medical exemption forms for them.     It was a bit of a mess for me to extract myself from when I found out he wasn’t legally able to do this.   In that case, I think that it was simply his belief that no one ever looks at the cards, once they are turned in.

For those who don’t think that the district actually looks at those forms, let me assure you that our local district does.   When I turned in the aforementioned medical exemption card,  I was very   quickly contacted by the district letting me know that legally a chiropractor cannot sign off on immunizations.       Years later I was contacted because the date that the notary wrote on a form didn’t match the date that was written on the form.  So just from my own experience, I know that the school does a thorough audit of their health forms.

In the end, how you choose choose to handle the situation is  your decision.  I am not going to weigh in on either side of the debate.   There is a religious exemption available to parents in Iowa and it is against your first constitutional rights for a school to demand that you tell them what religion you are.

I just wanted to put this out here, to explain the legalities of the situation, because I think as  holistic healthcare practitioner, being aware of these legalities is part of our responsibility to our clients.   I would hate to ever put a client in an uncomfortable situation due to my own ignorance.

Herbal Resurgence

It’s been a week now since I’ve been away from my friends and I am sitting here missing them like mad, tonight.   The Herbal Resurgence Gathering has come and gone, for 2013.  The attendees  are all home to our various communities feeling recharged and inspired.  As always, there was something about the feeling of camaraderie  that occurs at this conference that makes you wish you could bottle it and just take little sips all year long.

Also appealing is the fact that MormoTWHC 095n Lake is a beautiful place. That  first night wandering around on the mountaintop campsite, illuminated by the light of the full moon, reminded me that this gathering was a timeless event. Since the very earliest days, people have been drawn to converge on places like this. Snuggling in my sleeping bag; listening to the elk bugle lulled me to sleep faster than any lullaby.

I have to admit, I am prone to choosing to attend the classes held outdoors. Learning underneath the towering pines is infinitely preferable to being stuck in a hotel conference room.   The trees hold us in their healing energy and open our heart and our minds to the messages we are hearing.  No class made that more clear than the class Julie Caldwell taught on Sentience of Place. I also think that I think teaching in that environment brings out the best presentations, as well.

TWHC 103There were so many amazing offerings this year, it was hard to choose between them all.  Teaching myself this year,  made that even more challenging.  I missed some classes I really wanted to attend, especially Sean and Jim’s class which I heard was amazing.  Still, I managed to get my fill of herbal wisdom.  I finally  got to take a couple of classes  from Matt Wood on Tongue and Pulse diagnosis.  Larken Bunce’s presentation on her work with free clinics was inspiring and Sam Coffman’s class on GMP’s was almost enough to make me relax about that issue,  just  a little.    I was especially happy to watch  my friend Traci’s class on holistic body image because she brought up a lot of topics that need to be discussed and addressed about we as providers approach the idea of encouraging a positive self-image in our clients.

TWHC 044Even the vending hall is just fun.  Instead of a place where people are trying to sell you stuff, it takes on the its own unique character as a social  gathering place and a venue for learning.    The medicine makers who come to this conference freely share their wisdom and ideas.  Rebecca outdid herself this year with inspiring new products and familiar favorites.

I am always amazed by the fact that year after year Kiva and Wolf manage to send participants home fired and ready to take herbalism back to the people in their communities.   The people who come to this conference aren’t just business people or  there to network.  They are people who share a calling- each one of them is lured by the plants to spread a message of empowerment and independence.  And the plants connect us all in a

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way that the term colleague doesn’t quite cover.    It is an honor, and a blessing, to be a part of that community.

See more pictures in my Facebook album.

Garden Therapy

IMG_7690 copyThe cherry blossoms are blooming and the land is finally coming back-to-life.   I spent the last two days gleefully playing in the dirt and have found something coming back to life in me, as well.    The last full moon brought with it the tumultuous charge of new learning and responsibilities.    I find my peace and respite from the chaos in my garden.  It is my balance.

The new additions to the family.

The new additions to the family.

I am so busy with all my work, but today when I was turning the soil, planting and mulching, I felt carefree.   I only became momentarily overwhelmed when I saw how much work there is to done in the back,  after last summer’s decimation.  I admit to shedding a momentary tear because it looks as though it was too much for my 2-year-old goldenseal and stone root.  I decided to catalogue my garden while I do my work, partly to make myself feel better about those plants I did lose to the drought.


I suddenly feel settled here.   There is a spot in my garden,  between my rugosas and  the yew that calls to me.    For a few years now this spot has called to me to plant a hawthorn there.  For whatever reason, I have put this off.  I somehow feel that planting it there will anchor me to this spot, in some way that I don’t understand.   After I nestled the angelica in front of the roses today, the spot almost sang to me.  I think my design friends would be pretty appalled by the way my garden is planned.     I came in from my work,  sat down and ordered my hawthorn from Richo along with a few other plants I need for the front yard before I move into the back.


Herbs I Have Growing




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Anise Hyssop
Black Cohosh (new in 2013)
Bloodroot (new in 2013)
Evening Primrose
Flat Leaf Parsley

Hawthorn (new in 2013)
Lady’s Mantle
Lemon Balm
Monarda fistulosa



R. Rugosa
Red Clover
Red Raspberry
Solomon’s Seal (new in 2013)
Trillium (new in 2013)
Tulsi (annual)
St. John’s Wort
Stinging Nettle
Sweet Basil
Sweet Woodruff

Vervain (new in 2013)