Anemone: Medicine, Poison, Pollen, and Melodrama
Written by Juliet Blankespoor with Meghan Gemma
Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
Courageous of bloom, anemone often endures the wind and freezing temperatures of early spring or fall (depending on the species). I first fell in love with anemone while visiting the high boreal and alpine expanses of the Rocky Mountains in early summer. The fuzzy silver seed heads, illuminated by the slanting early morning light as they bob in the bracing wind, are enchanting, even to the botanically cold-hearted.
The blooms of windflowers, as the plants in the genus are often named, are deceptive with their dainty pastel hues, for these plants are potent medicine and acrid with poison.
Anemone is in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), which is noted for its combination of poison and medicine. Many members are simply poisonous, and most of the medicinal members possess toxicity in larger doses. I know of only one edible in this family—the marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)—and its edibility is marginal at best.
Anemone species lack both petals and nectar, and yet their flowers are abuzz with pollinators.1 Flowers, in general, offer up two rewards to entice pollinators: nectar and nutrient-dense pollen. In the case of anemone, the golden manna of pollen is the main attraction. Note the pollinator below working the stamens of Japanese anemone (Anemone hupehensis var. japonica).
As with many members of the buttercup family, anemone has sepals that appear to be petals. In most flowers, the sepals are the green structures just underneath the petals, but in anemone the sepals serve the same pollinator-attracting function as petals; botanists call them petaloid-sepals. Many a student has asked me how to differentiate a petaloid-sepal from a petal and, in all honesty, I have to admit that I cannot readily tell them apart, but if I’m looking at a buttercup family member and it lacks any green structure under the “petals” then I’m probably looking at a petaloid-sepal.
The origin of the name anemone is enshrouded in mystery. I dug up many different etymological explanations, but the truth lies with the ancestors. Anemone comes from the Greek word for wind or breath, anemos, and habitat, mone—certainly many an anemone grows in high windy places. In addition, most species produce winged achenes (seed-bearing fruiting structures), which are dispersed by the wind.
There are several mythological stories, beset with the colorful melodrama of the ancient gods and goddesses, associated with anemone. The first tale involves Adonis and Aphrodite. According to Greek mythology, Adonis was struck down by a boar and met his fate. In her mourning, Aphrodite cried tears on the earth, and anemone sprung up from her grief. An alternate version holds that Aphrodite mixed nectar with the blood of Adonis, which gave birth to the windflowers. The Semitic word for Adonis is Naman, believed by some to be the original root of the word anemone.
Another dramatic story involves the nymph Anemone, beloved of Zephyr, who was transformed into a flower by the jealous Flora. Zephyr was the gentle wind of the west, father of the spring wildflowers, and aptly involved with the likes of anemone.2
Wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia) grows throughout the entire eastern and central United States and Canada, and can be easily identified in the early spring as large expanses of the forest floor are abloom with the diminutive white flowers. Other species of anemone can be gathered as well—look into your local windflowers!
I take only one leaf and flower per plant so the plants can regenerate. It is a slow gathering process, but thankfully not much medicine is needed, as it is a low-dose medicinal. Take care to wash your hands after gathering and avoid contact with your eyes and mouth, as anemone can be quite caustic. I process anemone outdoors, and carefully wash all tools with warm water and soap.
Anemone’s Medicinal Uses
Parts Used: Leaves and flowers
Medicinal Preparations: Tincture
Tincture ratios and dosage: Fresh leaves and flowers 1:2 95%, in very low doses: 1–5 drops (NOT droppers full) to start, and up to 15 drops if the lower doses are not effective. Take up to 4 times per day.
Medicinal Uses: Many of the 85 species of anemone have been used as herbal medicine throughout China, North America, and Europe. I tend to shy away from our more toxic botanicals, but fell in love with anemone as a medicine while studying with my teachers, 7Song and Michael Moore; over time I grew to feel comfortable with its judicious usage.
Michael Moore taught that any species of anemone could be experimented with as a potential medicinal by testing orally for acridity (as a measure of medicinal strength). The flavor of anemone is quite distinctive, metallic, and burning/stimulating. It is not a common plant of commerce. If you are interested in using it, do your research first and then ask around your herbal community, or learn how to identify it and gather your own. Please only use species that are abundant, and collect the above-ground parts instead of the more potent roots.
I use anemone to help people ground and calm during panicked states, such as acute anxiety, panic attacks, or after traumatic events. It is my herbal version of the flower essence blend, Rescue Remedy, which makes it an excellent first-aid medicinal. Many people find that anemone lowers their center of gravity when they are caught in their head or their heart feels way up in their chest. If you are prone to such states, you may want to try anemone when you are feeling at ease to determine a dosage you feel comfortable with.
I use the leaves and flowers of our local wood anemone, Anemone quinquefolia, prepared as a fresh tincture. This is a low-dose medicinal, as there is potential for toxicity in higher doses. Take 1–5 drops (NOT droppers full) to start, and increase dosage up to 15 drops if the lower doses are not effective. This dosage can be repeated up to four times a day.
Drying anemone radically changes its biochemistry; the dried plant primarily contains the less toxic anemonin, and while it does not have the same toxicity as the fresh plant, neither does it have the same medicinal value.3
Safety and Contraindications: Anemone should be avoided in pregnancy, breast-feeding, low blood pressure, bradycardia, and those who are weak or seriously ill. As a very heroic bioactive medicinal, it is likely to interact with and/or potentiate certain pharmaceuticals.
Anemone contains an acrid constituent, protoanemonin, which is a strong irritant to the mouth and gastrointestinal mucosa and skin. Toxic doses can lead to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, and, if high enough doses are consumed, respiratory distress. The estimated amount of anemone needed to kill an adult is twenty plants (figured by determining the lethal dose in rodents, and then accommodating for weight—species of anemone not specified). The only way someone would eat that much of the acrid, intense anemone is if they wanted to travel to the underworld and never return.
In my experience, overdose usually involves nausea and altered sensory function (i.e., feeling woozy and just plain weird). During an extra challenging romantic moment in my very distant past, I called upon anemone to help me stay grounded and in my heart. I was taking 5 drops of the tincture frequently and reached my personal threshold with some powerful visual disturbances. In case any of you think this sounds like fun, think again—anemone is not the kind of plant to play nicely.
*Most of the flowers pictured in this article are the Japanese anemone, a species in abundance as an ornamental. I haven’t used it as a medicinal, and would love to hear from any of you who have.
I conclude this article with two very important suggestions:
- I invite you to try out my daughter’s favorite tongue twister “anemones enemies” when you aim to impress.
- The next time you are face-to-face with an anemone try saying, “My, what big stamens you have” and see what anemone has to say back to you.
- Heywood, V. H. Flowering Plant Families of the World. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2007.
- Sanders, Jack. The Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-known Facts, Folklore, and History. Guilford, CT: Lyons, 2003.
- Wink, Michael, and Wyk Ben-Erik. Van. Mind-altering and Poisonous Plants of the World. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2008.
JULIET BLANKESPOOR is the founder, primary instructor, and Creative Director of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, an online school serving thousands of students from around the globe. She's a professional plant-human matchmaker and bonafide plant geek, with a degree in botany and over 30 years of experience teaching and writing about herbalism, medicine making, and organic herb cultivation. Juliet’s lifelong captivation with medicinal weeds and herb gardening has birthed many botanical enterprises over the decades, including an herbal nursery and a farm-to-apothecary herbal products business.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession through her writing and photography in her online programs, on her personal blog Castanea, and in her new book, The Healing Garden: Cultivating and Handcrafting Herbal Remedies. Juliet and her family reside in a home overrun with houseplants and books in Asheville, North Carolina.
MEGHAN GEMMA is one of the Chestnut School’s primary instructors through her written lessons, and is the principal pollinator of the school’s social media community—sharing herbal and wild foods wisdom from the flowery heart of the school to an ever-wider field of herbalists, gardeners, healers, and plant lovers.
She has been in a steady relationship with the Chestnut School since 2010—as an intern and manager at the Chestnut Herb Nursery; as a plant-smitten student “back in the day” when the school’s programs were taught in the field; and later as a part the school’s woman-powered professional team. Meghan lives in the Ivy Creek watershed, just north of Asheville, North Carolina.
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