Friday, 12 October 2012

Naked Ladies Provide Gout Cure

The oncology bed of the Botanic Garden's medicinal plant collection has been glowing with colour in the autumn sun. The source of this radiance is the autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale. Along with several other bulbs, its habit of flowering before the appearance of any foliage has earned it the common name 'Naked Ladies.' The mythical origin of this plant has it springing forth from drops of a magical potion concocted by the sorceress Medea to restore youth to Aeson. As this myth suggests, the medicinal properties of Colchicum have been known about for some time. In fact, it is first mentioned in the Ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus three and a half thousand years ago.

Colchicum autumnale  flowering on the oncology bed
The medicinal uses of this plant have not changed over the millennia- it is still used for the treatment of gout and joint pain. Modern medicine is researching its potential as an anti-cancer drug. As with many medicinal plants, the genus is extremely toxic and should never be confused, despite its common names, for the autumn-flowering Saffron Crocus, Crocus sativus. The stamens of the latter are an astronomically expensive condiment. In Crocus species there are only three stamens whereas Colchicum species have six.

Amaryllis belladonna

Amaryllis belladonna is flowering now on the family beds. In its native South Africa it is known as the March Lily, reflecting the Southern hemisphere month of its flowering. But the lack of accompanying foliage gives it another common name - 'Naked Ladies.' Now, it is worth pointing out that Amaryllis belladonna belongs to an entirely different family from Colchicum. Unlike Colchicum, it does not contain the active chemical Colchicine and has no application in the treatment of gout or in cancer research. This, of course, is an example of the confusion that scientific names were coined to avoid.

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