On Sunday afternoon, October 27th, a rapt audience of 20 was treated to an illustrated talk by Deirdre Larkin of New York City and Bovina which she titled “Norton’s Pharmacoepia”. Deirdre, a plant historian who oversees the botanicals at the Cloisters in Manhattan, chose as her subject an exploration of the herbs and other botanicals that were compounded at Norton’s Apothecary in Andes in the late 19th century. Many of the drawer labels are still in evidence in the same space, now the site of Paisley’s Country Gallery.
In each case the narrative and visuals were fascinating as Deirdre explained how the substance was used historically, specifically during Norton’s tenure, and whether it’s in current use. She differentiated among various American, European and Asian species and allocated each botanical to a category describing its action on the body: purgative/laxative, stimulant, digestive, carminative, anti-inflammatory, diuretic, antiseptic, antibiotic, or alterative. A couple of examples: Valerian (valeriana officinalis is one of many species): a mild sedative made from the plant root which is found alone or in combination on pharmacy shelves today and often used as a sleep aid (though when consumed habitually, contradictory effects may occur) as it was in early Europe, where it was also employed to treat St. Vitus dance. We learned that it is attractive to cats and though the root is stinky, the flower is sweet. One fascinating tidbit Deirdre offered was that it was used as rat bait in the Middle Ages, and legend has it that the Pied Piper of Hamlin was successful in his venture because he secreted valerian roots about his person! Uva ursi, known as bearberry, or kinnick kinnick by the AmerIndians who favored it, was employed as a smoking mixture in its dried leaf form. Until the 1930s (before Sulfa and other antibiotic drugs were developed) it was commonly used to treat urinary tract infections.
Deirdre referred audience members to Homer House’s Wildflowers of New York and favored websites for more information: www.botanical.com and www.henriettesherbal.com. Her own blog is endlessly interesting as well and beautifully illustrated and photographed: http://blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens.
From comments heard afterwards there was universal acclaim from audience members and ardent hope for another talk at the library by Ms. Larkin. ~