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Catharanthus roseus, or Rosy Periwinkle

Catharanthus roseus, or Rosy Periwinkle

As a thank-you gift for judging a flower show I received a pot of Catharanthus (clear or pure flower) roseus (rosy colored), or Madagascar periwinkle or rosy periwinkle. I grew these in St. Charles as an annual and loved them. I don’t run into them that often here in Northern Michigan, but maybe I’m going to the wrong nurseries or not paying attention to the annual departments. I usually shop for perennials. My gift made me think maybe I need to shop better. Hybridizers have worked with this plant and produced the beautiful varieties available today. Warning: the sap can be poisonous. This means when children are around, you need to be extra careful they do not pick or eat the flowers.

Catharanthus roseus makes a colorful display from summer to fall for border or container plantings; sun or lightly shaded areas suit them best, but they perhaps needs a longer growing season than available where I live. I’ve read where they are very slow developing from seed, so planting outdoors isn’t an option here. Rosy periwinkle likes moist soil, not wet, soil and will tolerate dry. This generally means the plant lives on dry sites but looks awful. I left mine in its container and may bring it in this fall to see how it overwinters (not crossing my fingers).

Actually, Rosy Periwinkle (it was originally Vinca rosea when named in 1794), or whatever common name you call it, is a shrubby perennial in tropical and subtropical climates and is widely naturalized from its home habitat of Madagascar. European colonist introduced the plant throughout their travels partly because of its medical uses. WebMD “Despite serious safety concerns, Madagascar periwinkle is used for diabetes, cancer, and sore throat. It is also used as a cough remedy, for easing lung congestion, and to reduce fluid retention by increasing urine production (as a diuretic).”

In colder climates it is grown as an annual for its abundant five petal flowers of pink, red, or white with a deeper pink star in the middle.

The Kew Gardens pages stated “In traditional medicine, the Madagascar periwinkle has been used to treat a variety of ailments in Madagascar as well as in other parts of the world where the plant has naturalised.” Dr. Ombrello of the Union County College Biology Department in Cranford, New Jersey gives this astounding information:

The plant’s therapeutic uses came to the attention of Canadian and American medical researchers during World War II when they learned that soldiers stationed in the Philippines used Madagascar Periwinkle leaves to substitute for unavailable insulin. During the 1950’s… the researchers found them to have no appreciable effect on blood sugar levels, but they did reduce the white blood cell count in laboratory animals without significant side effects. More recently, 2 alkaloids in Madagascar Periwinkle leaves, vinblastine and vincristine, were identified as active anti-cancer agents that could be used in chemotherapy. Vinblastine is used for patients with Hodgkin’s disease and vincristine is used for children with leukemia. With the introduction of vincristine, the survival rate for children with leukemia jumped from 20 to 80 percent.

They also mentioned that during WWII soldiers in the Philippines used the plant to control diabetes when insulin was in short supply. I had no idea anyone with diabetes would be inducted into the army, so there was a surprise.

While a beautiful plant, its potential as a medicine makes me think about our many different ecosystems and what grows there. If we destroy even one habitat, make one plant extinct, we might well be destroying a plant with great potential for human well-being.

DandelionTheir yellow blossoms give dramatic proof of the dandelion’s presence in a well-manicured lawn. This plant inspires both appreciation and abomination. Four-year-olds pick the crayon-box colored disks to make sunny bouquets. Older children blow the silvery spherical seed heads to watch them shatter and send seeds floating through the air. Lawn purists spread herbicides to kill the hated weed. Gardeners dig them out, knowing how quickly they spread and how hard they are to eradicate. The trick is making sure to get the long taproot. Missing any segment will guarantee regrowth. I must admit I dig them out somewhat reverently, though, for I’ve come to see Dandelions as historical artifacts.

Dandelions settled in North America with European immigrants. Many of our common weeds arrived the same way. By 1748 observers already claimed they saw French Canadians digging dandelion roots, so they’ve been here a long time. Dandelions were a plant the colonist felt too valuable to be without. They remain an important food crop in Europe and other parts of the world. Originally they came from the Mediterranean regions and were mentioned by Theophrastus hundreds of years before Christ.

The name dandelion always rouses my curiosity. A Medieval German botanist for some unknown reason identified the plant as dens leonis or lion’s tooth. Through the ages it has been corrupted into its common English name, dandelion. Other common names include fairy clock, diente de leon, blowball, and Pee-the-Bed (probably due to it diuretic qualities). Its botanical name is Taraxacum offinale. The ‘offinale’ means the plant was an apothecary herb, important in health care. There are two accepted derivations for Taraxacum. Some believe it comes from the Greek taraxos for ‘disorder,’ and akos for ‘remedy.’ Others belief it is Persian in orgin, coming from tark hashgun meaning ‘wild endive.’

The colonists were right, dandelions are valuable plants. They contain high quantities of vitamins A, B, C and D and every part is edible. The tangy young leaves can be added to salads, or blanched and served like spinach (old leaves are bitter). Year-old roots can be cooked like parsnips or dried and brewed as a tea or added like chicory to coffee.

Historically, the plant was believed to heal health problems with everything from indigestion and constipation to blood disorders. My grandmother encouraged Dandelions greens as a spring tonic to cleanse winter blood. If you check the internet you will find many claims still made for herbal products featuring Taraxacum.

Dandelion was also used as a dye. The flowers provided a yellow color and the whole plant added magenta to the weavers’ craft.

Last, but not least, of its virtues, is dandelion wine. I’ve never had it, but it is claimed to taste somewhere between sherry and champagne. Feeling adventurous, I’ve decided I’m going to try making it. (Check out my blog at Night Writers. Pamela Jones, author of Just Weeds), claims the wine has “the most elusive, delicately fragrant flavors imaginable, the color pure liquid gold.” That makes me feel like picking Dandelion flowers.

Jones, Pamela. Just Weeds, History, Myths, and Uses. Prentice Hall Press, New York, NY. 1991. Print. Page 217.



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