A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)
Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)
Family: Oenothera: evening primrose family
Other Names: fever plant, German rampion, night willow herb, suncups, sundrops
Healing Properties: helps alleviate stomach and intestinal cramps, coughing, and bronchial spasms
Root: eases coughing and hemorrhoids
Oil (seeds): eases effects of hangover, heals endogenous eczema, eases eye and mouth dryness (Sjögren’s syndrome), aids healing of liver; eases menopause symptoms, multiple sclerosis, PMS, polyarthritis
Symbolic Meaning: transience, inconstancy (in the Victorian language of flowers), secret love, reincarnation
Planetary Affiliation: Sun
Very few people know that evening primrose is a very tasty edible root. For that reason it “should” appear here in the category of forgotten and rare vegetables, but I present it here because it deserves a central place in a modern vegetable garden. Why? Because it is an outstanding source of nourishment that also ranks among the best healing plants.
The great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) named the flower Oenothera biennis, but, interestingly, etymologists aren’t sure what he intended. Oenothera could mean something along the lines of “smelling of wine” (oinos), or “catcher of donkeys” (ono-théras). Another puzzle as to his choice: in ancient Greece there was another plant with this name, a kind of fireweed (Epilobium) that also belongs to the evening primrose family. The second name, “biennis,” is clearer, as it concerns a plant with a two-year life span.
Given how many tales about the evening primrose there are to be found in European plant lore, one might assume it to be a native of the region. But, as it came originally from the eastern forest area of Northern America, it is actually an invasive alien plant (neophyte) to the Old World. Curious botanists sowed the evening primrose for the first time in Europe in 1612—in a seedbed in the famous botanical garden of Padua, Italy. How astounded the gardeners must have been to see the tall flowering plant for the first time! The amazing spectacle of the opening of the flower bud occurs about half an hour after sunset. Within a few minutes four brilliant yellow flower petals burst open, much like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. A pleasant vanilla scent soon fills the air and in no time moths swarm in, seeking the sweet nectar. The Renaissance spectators found it so fascinating they might have even postponed heading to the theater until after this flower’s performance. Every European aristocrat of the Baroque era grew evening primroses. Not long afterward members of the bourgeoisie, proud of their exquisite gardens, could not resist following suit. And, of course, the pattern continues to the common folk. Thus the evening primrose—this lazy maiden, who does not get up until after sunset—also took her place in peasant gardens.
Europeans had numerous names for the unusual alien plant: “key to the night sky,” “nightlights,” “lazy girls,” “dim candle,” “sleeping virgins.” These all relate to the fact that the post-sunset blooms last only one night and day before wilting. The references to light derive from scientists puzzling as to whether the petals of this flower are luminescent or whether they simply reflect the last evening light.
Poets were readily inspired by this unusual flower, seeing in it a symbol of the transient nature of life, or a sign of heavenly love. Upon seeing the evening primrose one such lovelorn poet, C. F. Bürger, was inspired to write this verse:
When the night has rewarded
all who are tired with sweet slumber,
I stealth off to the cottage
where my sweetheart lives.
For about a hundred years the evening primrose remained just the object of aesthetic admiration. Then the peasants, simple tillers of the soil, discovered that the plant can be eaten as food; soon thereafter it was regularly cultivated in vegetable gardens for its tasty, fleshy taproot, which develops at the end of this biennial’s first year. (In the second year the root becomes woody and tasteless.) The light pink color of the root looks like tender cooked ham; the flavor is comparable to the delicate taste of salsify, which we’ll discuss later on.
Illustration 38. Roots and seedpods of the evening primrose
Though health advocates of the day believed the root provided more nutrition than oxen meat, it was its likeness to ham that prevailed in this enigmatic plant’s mystique. In Catholic countries the evening primrose was dedicated to the patron saint of pigs, St. Anthony. For that reason a French evening primrose dish is called “jambon de St. Antoine” (St. Anthony’s ham). Soon enough, the vegetable became known as “ham root,” “edible root,” “wild stalk,” “Spanish rampion,” or “Rapunzel celery”—depending on regional delicacies that developed out of the fashionable garden vegetable. Then, in 1863 a cultivated variety developed by German gardeners arrived in the land of its origin. This novel root vegetable, ironically called “German rampion,” became a success in North America.
Unfortunately, the use of evening primrose as a vegetable has for the most part been completely forgotten in the West. But in Russia—and of course in my garden—this vitamin-rich appetizing root still has a place of honor. The young leaves are also very good eaten as a green vegetable or added to soups. The yellow blossoms can also join other edible flowers—nasturtiums, the heavenly blue borage, the delicate pink radish, and the daisy—in garnishing a summer salad.
The Healing Potential of the Evening Primrose
According to biodynamic gardeners following the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, in the evening primrose’s first year—as is the case with most biennials—lunar forces (using the ponderous elements of water and earth) are at work building the root and rosette. In the second year, the influence of the sun and the distant planets (using the imponderous—lacking weight—elements of air and fire) brings the plant to shoot into flower and seed.
In the twentieth century practitioners of “flower remedies”—the therapy originally developed by the English physician Edward Bach in the 1930s—discovered the evening primrose. The Californian Flower Remedies prescribe the essence of evening primrose as therapy for those traumatized in the womb because they were unwanted, that is, those whose mothers considered aborting them. Therapists claim that “evening primrose helps the soul be literally reborn by providing the emotional nourishment that was missing in the beginning of the incarnation” (Kaminski and Katz 1996, 294).
In the 1980s medical science turned its attention to the evening primrose, but neither for its flower or its root, but its seeds—specifically the seeds’ oil. Massaging this oil into the skin is said to help for PMS (premenstrual syndrome) and endogenous eczema; it can also be ingested for polyarthritis, burns, dry eyes and skin, and brittle nails; it is even said to help with scleroderma, Sjögren’s syndrome, and multiple sclerosis. It’s also considered to help lower high blood pressure, and improve digestion, circulation, and function of the endocrine glands. There are also reports that it has a general strengthening effect on the immune system, helps wounds heal, improves skin turgor, and helps rejuvenate livers damaged by alcohol. To add to the bounty: it’s not known to have any side effects.
How is it possible that this plant oil indicates such a wide spectrum of beneficial effects—especially since the above-named effects were hitherto unknown in traditional healing lore? Is evening primrose oil just another “snake oil”? Well, let us consider its earliest-known beneficial effects. Country folk knew it had certain healing properties: tea made from the blossoms was used for coughs, bronchial spasms, and stomach and intestinal cramps. In American folk medicine practice the leaves were cooked with honey to make a cough elixir. The North American natives used the plant to calm the lungs and stomach. The Ojibwa made a poultice out of stamped leaves for major bruises and sprains. The Cherokees made tea from the roots for obesity, or applied the hot roots topically to hemorrhoids. Johann David Schoepf (1752-1800), who wrote the first Materia Medica Americana Potissimum Regni Vegetabilis (Medical Material of America—Especially of the Vegetable Kingdom), which included four hundred native plants, mentioned the plant as ideal for healing wounds.
The list continues. The Iroquois chewed the seeds “against laziness;” players of the sacred Lacrosse ball game would chew the seeds and then rub the pulp into their arms and leg muscles to keep them strong throughout the game. The southwestern Navaho cooked the roots of this “life medicine” and rubbed their limbs with the brew when carrying heavy loads. Young maidens waiting to be married wore the blossoms in their hair at festivals. Zuni sun priests gave the young ladies evening primrose blossoms to chew and then rub on their breasts, arms, neck, and hands to help them do the ritual dance intended to guarantee plenty of rain and a good corn harvest. Other Native Americans such as the Payute rubbed their bodies and moccasins with chewed blossoms and seeds when they went deer hunting, for double benefit: attracting the deer while also repelling snakes (Moerman 1999, 361).
But somehow much of that knowledge was lost. It wasn’t until modern day that British researchers took recent interest in the oil from the seeds. They discovered that the oil is mainly made up of essential fatty acids, of which a large portion (around 10 percent) is gamma linolenic acid (GLS). GLS is a fatty acid from which the body can produce the tissue hormone prostaglandin (PG), which is found plentifully in the human organism in mother’s milk and in semen. A deficiency of prostaglandins implicates a diversity of health issues, including dermatological, cardiovascular, and gynecological problems. Indeed, premature babies who spend their first days in an incubator are in danger of not developing the capacity of producing enough PG; such runs the risk of these symptoms developing in adulthood. Alcoholism, a diet of junk food, old age, or the effects of radiation can also hamper the organism’s ability to produce enough of its own prostaglandin (Mabey 1993, 89).
Thanks to these clinically tested discoveries, today evening primrose is grown commercially on a wide scale and the wonderful oil is available in health stores everywhere. An industrial variety has even been bred that has stronger seed pods that won’t break open when harvested by machines—however the question remains whether or not other qualities were also bred out in the process.1
Those up for an adventure can seek out wild evening primrose seeds. Besides getting seeds in wild plant nurseries, one can find this pioneer plant growing profusely in the wild, along waysides, in bushy overgrown areas, and around gravel pits and abandoned fields. In autumn many seedpods ripen on the top half of nearly one-yard-high stalks. Each pod contains about half a teaspoon of the tasty seeds, which are easily harvested by shaking the ripe capsules upside down into a bag. If one doesn’t have an oil press, the seeds can be ground in a mortar and pestle or even chewed directly. The poppy-like seeds can also be strewn into cereals or salads, baked into bread, added to soups, or used to garnish the tops of buns.
Both in the garden and in the wild evening primrose prefers full sunlight—the seeds need light to germinate—and a relatively dry location. In Europe the wild plant likes to settle on railroad embankments—giving it the name “railroad flower.” It’s also known as the “Swiss freeway flower”: in recent years Switzerland has used fewer herbicides on freeway shoulders; as a result, the evening primrose found a new spot in which to flourish.
CULTIVATION: Evening primrose is frost-hardy and long lasting; once established in a garden it will come back year after year. The seeds can be sown directly into the garden bed from late spring into early summer. The bed should be dug over, the seeds sown thinly and covered only lightly, then left to germinate. Weeds must be kept out of the bed, especially during the growth period. The seeds develop after the plant blossoms and ripen during late summer and fall. Interestingly, in the wild the plants thrive in quiet places with meager soil and need hardly any care. (LB)
SOIL: Evening primrose likes fertile and porous soils. And though it prefers a sunny location, it can also thrive well in less-sunny spots.
Evening Primrose Roots with Walnuts ✵ 2 SERVINGS
4 evening primrose roots, finely grated ✵ turmeric ✵ 1 pinch ground coriander seeds ✵ chives, finely chopped ✵ 1 teaspoon mustard ✵ 1 teaspoon lemon juice ✵ 2 tablespoons tahini ✵ sea salt ✵ black pepper ✵ walnuts (for garnish)
In a medium bowl mix the evening primrose roots with the turmeric, ground coriander, and chives. Add the mustard, lemon juice, and tahini and stir well. Season with sea salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a serving dish, garnished with walnuts.
Evening Primrose Stew with Stinging Nettle Pesto ✵ 4 SERVINGS
STEW: 2 yellow onions, cubed ✵ 2 carrots, cubed ✵ 1 small celery root, cubed ✵ 1 small savoy cabbage, finely chopped ✵ 6 potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, cubed ✵ 8 evening primrose roots, cubed ✵ small quantities of sage, bay leaves, clove, thyme, and lovage (about ¼ cup total) ✵ 2 tablespoons olive oil ✵ 1½ quarts (1½ liters) vegetable broth
PESTO: 2 handfuls baby spinach (or orache) ✵ 1 cup (225 grams) bread, cubed ✵ ¼ cup (60 grams) olive oil ✵ sea salt
In a large pan, sauté the vegetables with the seasoning and herbs in the olive oil for about 20 minutes. Add the vegetable broth and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl. In a blender, blend pesto ingredients until smooth. Serve with the stew.