Anemone: Medicine, Poison, Pollen, and Melodrama
Written and Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
We embark upon our floral journey with Anemone.
Courageous of bloom, anemone often endures wind and freezing temperatures of the early spring or fall (depending on the species). I first fell in love with the anemones while visiting the high boreal and alpine expanses of the Rocky Mountains in early summer. The silver fuzzy seed heads, illuminated by the slanting early morning light, and bobbing 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 pastels, 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 with 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, this golden manna is the main attraction. Note the pollinator below working the stamens of Japanese anemone.
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 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 words for wind or breath, anemos, and habitat, mone, - certainly many an anemone grow 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
Medicine of Anemone:
Many of the 85 species of anemone have been used as herbal medicine in 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. 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 dandy to determine a dosage you feel comfortable with.
I use the leaves and flowers of wood anemone, Anemone quinquefolia, prepared as a fresh tincture 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. The dosage can be repeated up to four times in a day. Wood anemone grows throughout the entire eastern and central United States and Canada, and can easily be identified in the early spring as large expanses of the forest floor are abloom with the diminutive white flowers. 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. I process anemone outdoors and carefully wash all tools with warm water and soap.
Anemone contains an acrid constituent, protoanemonin, which is a strong irritant of the mouth and gastrointestinal mucosa and skin. Toxic doses can lead to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, and, if high enough doses were 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. Drying anemone radically changes its biochemistry; the dried plant primarily contains the less toxic anemonin, and does not have the same toxicity or medicinal value as the fresh plant.3
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.
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. 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.
1. Heywood, V. H. Flowering Plant Families of the World. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2007.
2. Sanders, Jack. The Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-known Facts, Folklore, and History. Guilford, CT: Lyons, 2003.
3. Wink, Michael, and Wyk Ben-Erik. Van. Mind-altering and Poisonous Plants of the World. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2008.
Meet The Green Mastermind Behind Blog Castanea
JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.
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