Thursday, July 17, 2014

Cup Plant (7/16/2014)

Our daughter bought this plant for us at a native plant sale in our area, and we had no idea what it was.  I am a botanist by training and have done a lot of wetland work in the past.  This definitively shows I have been away from playing with plants way too long; but after getting my plant identification books out, it was not difficult to identify this plant as a “cup plant” or Silphium perfoliatum. 

Cup plant is quite an interesting plant.  The plant’s leaves connect and form a cup around the stem which holds water that is used by birds and insects.  This of course makes me wonder about mosquitoes, but as my favorite quote of the week goes: “It is what it is.”  The web teaches me that the plant was used for human food (the young leaves seem to be ok, when cooked).  Furthermore, parts of the plant were used for medicinal purposes by some of the Indian tribes.  It appears to be able to treat everything from chest pain to asthma to liver disease to excessive menstruation.  Cup plant is high in various compounds that may have value as medicine.

Interestingly, the plant I studied for my Ph.D. research (broom snakeweed or Guiterrezia sarothrea) had some of the same medicinal properties.  I once read that the Native Americans used broom snakeweed (which has some of the same compounds as cup plants) for birth control (it causes abortions in livestock).

Plants hold a lot of secrets.  They have compounds and combination of compounds that can cure a person’s ailments or kill them.  They produce compounds that prevent other plants from growing nearby (also known as allelopathy or what I call chemical warfare between plants).  I have always had an interest in allelopathy and the field of ethnobotany.  As a Ph.D. student, I spent a week at Stanford discussing the intricacies of who owns certain plants and the chemicals in them.  The question was if a pharmaceutical company can patent a chemical in a plant that only grows in one country, or if they would need to pay royalty.  The same is the case if they found a medicinal use by studying a native tribe; would they have to pay royalty to the tribe from medicine they develop as a result of that study?  It is a fascinating subject and fun to think about it again. 

Anyway, it is also important to realize that when plants become rare, or go extinct we might lose some very important properties that we have not yet discovered.

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