Thursday, January 15, 2015

Arse weed des Américains

In volume 8 of the Michaux Herbarium lies this lovely specimen, which Michaux called Polygonum hydropiper. That species name is no longer recognized by ITIS and has been replaced by the name Persicaria hydropiper though the USDA sticks with Polygonum hydropiper. I'm not making any declarations as to whether that is the exact determination of this specimen; we're nowhere near volume 8 yet.

What interests me is this note up at the top right corner of the page:,1.0&FIF=/project/homer/Sloane/michaux-ptiff/michx-08-56-n.tif&RGN=0.574,0.1247,0.321,0.0747&WID=9000&CVT=JPEG

Apparently the plant is very peppery, hence the specific name "water pepper." It was found in Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, and Illinois - that's easy. But that last line?

"Arse weed des Américains" is one of the more evocative phrases I've encountered in these specimens. What on earth can it mean?

Googling the term first results in a bunch of hits from cannabis growers. There's this rather bizarre blog account, which I hesitate to credit. This plant name book provides a list of common names for P. hydropiper, which include Arse-smart and Arsenick.  Merriam Webster confirms the Arsesmart usage for this species. It's apparently a synonym for Smartweed, which is another popular common name for P. hydropiper.

Which brings us to the reason for the name, courtesy of WebMD: Smartweed, or arsesmart, scientifically known as Polygonum hydropiper, is a plant widely used as a medicine for bleeding hemorrhoids. It's also used to treat uterine bleeding and diarrhea. The plant contains large amounts of vitamin K, which help blood to clot. The active ingredient is known as polygonic acid. It was of interest to pharmacists in the 19th century. Researchers in Bangladesh have recently proven that the plant does have antibacterial properties, validating its use in traditional medicine.

Michaux, here we go!

Patrick and I have finally started pawing through the Michaux specimens to make modern determinations. It's going to take us a while.

We've got nearly 3000 images in the collection, all from the Michaux Herbarium at the Jardin des Plantes. They're organized into 21 volumes. Each volume is divided into two parts. Each part - each folder in the herbarium - contains between 90 and 110 specimen sheets. They've already mostly been organized, but according to Linnaean taxonomy, and though many of them have sort of modern determinations, we have to double check them all. Some names have changed. ITIS is invaluable for keeping up with the twists and turns of nomenclature. (Thank you, federal government!)

At some point, I need to get the barcodes off the specimens into my database. Then we'll totally have our data linked to the physical specimens, and it will be possible to conclusively say which of our determinations goes with which dried plant on paper.

So, volume one - it starts with Plantaginaceae, the plantain family that includes some waterweeds, pulls in some Oleaceae, back to Plantaginaceae, into Acanthaceae, a few of the Lentibulariaceae, and then plunges into the massive mint family, Lamiaceae. Why mixed up like that? Because the Linnaean classification system groups most of this mass - almost everything in Volume 1, except for the first few - into Diandria Monogynia. By Michaux's lights, all of these plants were in the same family.

We've already found a bunch of Eurasian plants - more on that anon, as I organize the data further. We found a specimen of Dicliptera sexangularis (1:30), commonly called sixangle foldwing, which only occurs in Florida. Presumably Michaux collected it during his voyages in Florida, which I hope to learn about from the book André Michaux in Florida.

Clearly I'm also going to have to read Michaux's diary in some loving detail; an English translation is online, but I need to find the French one. The specimens come from all over the place - Trois Rivières in Canada, Hudson Bay, Lake Mistassini, Carolina, Kentucky, presumably Florida. It must have been an adventure collecting them all!