Daily Archives: 14th of August 2012

Plant names, alchemy and Alchemilla

Alchemilla leaf with water droplets

Alchemilla leaf with water droplets 

Plant names often have an interesting history behind them: I came across Alchemilla while looking up a plant I photographed at the weekend. Thinking about the names often helps with remembering them, and also gives insight into the history of the species. Earlier in the year, we discussed the naming of a species after Professor Clive Stace.

More remarkable is the origin of the name of the Alchemilla genus/species. Like many botanist-photographers of Alchemilla leaves, looking from the window I was taken by the lens-like water droplets on the leaf surface – incidentally a plant leaf surface property that is the subject of several papers and another AoBBlog post. Wikipedia mentions  the interesting properties of the leaves that lead to the water balling up on the surface, but goes on to add: “These beads of water were considered by alchemists to be the purest form of water. They utilised this water in their quest to turn base metal into gold. Hence the name Alchemilla.”

As a molecular biologist, I have spent many days struggling with less-than-pure water, and much money obtaining pure water. I expect the ancient alchemists were completely correct in their view that the water on the leaf surface, from rain or dew, was as pure as they were likely to be able to find.

Meanwhile, I am using the leaf image as the wallpaper for my computer screen at the moment: the full-resolution image (upper) and lower image are available by clicking on the links or pictures and are downloadable as a jpg file. Right-click and select option to set as wallpaper on a PC or click-wait on Android (for fast loading, may need to be saved after downsizing).

Water droplets on Achemilla leaves as lenses

Water droplets on Alchemilla leaves as lenses

Pharmacopoeia Shakespeariensis

Image: L. Müeller/C.F. Schmidt, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, edited by Gustav Pabst, 1887.

Image: L. Müeller/C.F. Schmidt, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, edited by Gustav Pabst, 1887.

Continuing the ethnobotanical theme of previous posts, another great source of information regarding folk uses of plants is the writings of the Bard of Avon, England’s very own quillmeister, William Shakespeare. Take, for example, this line from Hamlet (Act 4, Scene V); Ophelia (to Laertes), ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…’ . Old wives’ tale, or sage advice (sorry, pun acknowledged, but unintentional)? Work by Mark Moss and Lorraine Oliver suggests the latter. They have demonstrated that performance on cognitive tasks is significantly related to concentration of absorbed 1,8-cineole (eucalyptol: 1,3,3-trimethyl-2-oxabicyclo[2,2,2]octane – a constituent of rosemary- Rosmarinus officinalis – essential oil). The effects were found for both speed and accuracy outcomes; which isn’t exactly ‘remembrance’, but related. Of more direct involvement in treating brain-related disorders is news that a semi-purified extract of the root of Withania somnifera ‘reverses Alzheimer’s disease pathology by enhancing low-density lipoprotein receptor-related protein in liver’. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but I do know it is welcome and encouraging news for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) sufferers, because AD is the ‘most common form of dementia… for which there is no cure… and which worsens as it progresses and eventually leads to death… and is predicted to affect 1 in 85 people globally by 2050’. OK, so much for the AD transgenic mice – in which test-organisms the work was performed – what about the human sufferers? No doubt treatment for those mammals is still some years away (at least in an officially sanctioned, state-approved, medical practitioner-prescribed, Western-style medicine approach…). In the meantime, I guess we just have to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that W. somnifera is a nootropical agent, which is one that ‘improves mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention, and concentration’. Presciently, W. somnifera gets several mentions in Michael Adams et al.’s survey of ‘plants traditionally used in age related brain disorders’. It will be interesting to discover what dementia-fighting properties the other >150 species surveyed therein might have…