Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The King's cure-all

Species name: Oenothera biennis

Common name: Evening primrose

Location: Ontario

Providing I have the correct identification for this species of plant, it's native to northeastern North America from Newfoundland to Alberta, south from Texas to Florida. The unfortunate part of this photo is that you can clearly see it's during the day. In fact, the timestamp on this photo says that I took it at approximately 1:15 pm. Why is that important? Well, if it was truly evening primrose, the blooms open at dusk on night, are almost immediately pollinated by moths and other nocturnal insects in the area, then wilt and die by noon the next day. So the fact that this flower is still going strong at 1:15 pm with no sign of quitting any time soon makes me suspicious. There is saving grace to my (somewhat crude) identification: I know I'm close. In fact, I'm willing to bet that at least half of this plant is evening primrose, the other half being some other species that's native to this area. As far as I know, no genetic study has been done on the genus Oenothera so no one truly knows how many species there are. On top of that, many of the currently recognized species (read: all of them) hybridize with each other, often producing offspring with intermediate characteristics to the parent plants. These offspring are also capable of producing seed, suggesting that the parent plants weren't two separate species at all, but just different variations on the same species. Oh, Biology! How thy confuse me so! So I'm just going to go with "evening primrose" on a whim and run with it.

As I mentioned, the flowering pattern of the true evening primrose is quite a spectacle to be seen, and the opening of the flower is actually visible to the naked eye. Sure, with most flowers you can see the bud opening (usually over several days) and you can say "this is more open now than it was yesterday night before I went to bed!" But to be able to say that in ten minutes? That's pretty incredible. In fact, there are some people across the United States that literally have Primrose Parties where they sit outside in front of an evening primrose plant sipping wine, and watch the flower flop itself open right as the sun is setting. I don't know about you, but that sounds like a fantastic way to spend an evening! I'll have to organize one of these next year. It's been reported that the primrose can be anywhere from one to five feet tall at maturity, and produce anywhere from one or two to fifty flowers on one plant. You can see why there's room for suspecting hybridization with other species, even if you don't do the experiment yourself. Another fantastic feature of these flowers is actually completely invisible to humans unless aided by ultraviolet light. Usually these flowers are pollinated by moths, but should a flower go all night without attracting a single moth (which I find hard to believe since the smell is so strong), then during the day they will light up like beacons to bees. The middle of the flower contains a brilliant eyespot that is only visible under ultraviolet light, which bees use to help find flowers (a reason why most bee-pollinated flowers are purple, or at least have some amount of purple on them).

This plant has another common name, the King's cure-all, which has a rather interesting history (leading to a common use of the plant even today). Way back in the "good old days," it was generally unacceptable to have a wife who's having a bad day. And since all bad days must be menstrual-related (trust me, I say this with sarcasm!), a husband would give his wife the extracted essential oil from this plant, obtained through a chemist, to ease her pain and have her back to acting like a good wife should. One also wouldn't want their wife to have any kind of facial blemish, and primrose oil does double-duty as being a good zit fighter. So this is all fine and dandy, but now that we know a lot more about medicine and how chemicals work this plant has no use, right? Well, turns out that the plant the King used to cure all of his wife's problems is actually useful for exactly those purposes! Primrose oil is the leading herbal treatment for PMS pain and irritability (and it actually works, according to several independent large-scale scientific trials), and seems to help clear up skin blemishes that are acne-related faster than traditional medicines containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.

Great! So evening primrose is a medicinal plant when the extracted oil is used properly. That alone would make this a pretty spectacular native species, but it gets better. The leaves of this plant are also edible, and are used in salads and cooked down like kale or swiss chard. This use has all but disappeared recently with more leafy greens being available in your local grocery store, but if you planted this species in your garden then feel free to munch on them once the flowering spectacle is over! If you're at all unsure of identification or think the plant you're looking at may be a hybrid, I would strongly caution you against eating the leaves.