It is with extreme sadness, I must note the passing of our wonderful blog friend Mary Hart. Some readers may recall her participation in the blog a year ago and more from Worcester in the U.K. where she had been confined to a wheelchair. Mary was a botany student in my program during the early 90s at the University of the West Indies, Barbados, and was an avid horticulturist and naturalist, smart as a whip, a basketball fan, and a ton of fun. She is missed.
After some time away, John and George revisited Seabranch State Park yesterday to preview a nature walk we plan to lead there tomorrow. Greeting visitors at the park entrance, climbing in the low scrub vegetation, is a weedy-looking morning glory vine with some history and mystery. (Most of what I know that history comes from a 2007 article in the journal Economic Botany by the late morning glory expert Professor Dan Austin.)
Noyau literally means, “nut.” In the Caribbean context the term refers to almonds. You guessed it. Noyau vine is almond-ish. Not that that’s good for those who think the joy of wild plants is to eat them; essence of almond is associated with cyanide, just as in apple seeds and those laetrile apricot pits.
But a little toxicity never gets in the way of plant uses; in fact poisonous-ness flags medicinal applications. As Dr. Austin documented, Merremia dissecta has served the variety of purposes in traditional medicines, flavoring, and even as a root food in Argentina, presumably prepared to free the entrée of cyanide.
As with so many bioactive plants, the historical medicine cabinet is boring and redundant, although ointments against skin ailments ring plausible as cyanide-based toxicity obviously may grant antibiotic powers.
What I find more interesting than the individual uses is a broader implication based on the breadth of uses: People move useful plants around, and this creates complications in branding species as native or not native to any given region. There are many cases perhaps where such designation should not occur, and we have before us a good example. When you don’t know, you don’t know.
Is noyau vine a Florida native? Look in different books and find different answers. Should we rogue it out with malice as an abominable invasive exotic weed? Or is the vine a native ethnobotanical treasure? Without the possibility of certainty, Dr. Austin tilted toward the latter, and I’m aboard on that.
Given that the species is native around the Caribbean Basin, there’s a fair chance it arrived in Florida free of human help. To make little more interesting, of course there has been commerce around the Caribbean Basin for a very long time before Columbus spoiled the fun, although the degree of involvement of Florida in pre-Columbian Caribbean commerce is an open question. Could it have come in a canoe or around the Gulf of Mexico from points south and west? Sure. We can ask the same about papayas, agaves, and more. William Bartram encountered the vine in Florida in the late 1700s. How did it get around so early? Non-human dispersal? Native Americans? Early Europeans? A combo?
Whenever the original geographic limits, noyau vine now with the help of people is worldwide in warm climates, and even some that aren’t so hot: Pennsylvania, Arizona, Africa where it has developed an ethnobotany of its own, and even Australia as a weed.
On tomorrow’s nature walk, we won’t eat any, but we might smash it up and see if it smells like almonds.