Ericaceae (Heath Family); Subfamily Rhododendroideae
Forms and Subspecies
Two Eurasian subspecies are distinguished: Ledum palustre L. ssp. palustre (European wild rosemary) and Ledum palustre ssp. sibiricus (Siberian wild rosemary). The Greenland wild rosemary has recently been recognized as a subspecies: Ledum palustre ssp. groenlandicum (Oed.) Hult. (Zander 1994, 341*).
The genus itself consists of only a few species.203
Ledum groenlandicum Oed.
In the summer of 1996, the American Horticultural Association incorporated the genus Ledum into the genus Rhododendron. Whether this taxonomic innovation will gain acceptance remains to be seen. Whether it is botanically justified is also an open question.
Altseim, baganz, bagen, bagulnik, bieneheide, bienenscheide, böhmischer rosmarin, borse, brauerkraut, bûpesbupt (Makah, “cranberry”), cistus ledonfoliis rosmarini ferugineis, einheimischer lorbeer, flohkraut, getpors (Swedish, “goat porsch”), gichttanne, gräntze, gruitkraut, gruiz, grund, gruut, hartheide, heidenbienenkraut, Hudson’s Bay tea, kiefernporst, kienporst, kienrost, klopovnik, kühnrost, Labrador tea, labradortee, ledo, ledón des marais, ledumporst, ledum silesiacum, lunner, marsh tea, mirtus, moerasrozenmarijn, moor-rosmarin, morose, mottenkraut, mutterkraut, myrto, nûwaqwa’ntî (Quinault), pors, porsch, porskraut, porst, post, postkraut, rausch, rosmarinkraut, rosmarinus sylvestris, roßkraut, sautanne, schweineposse, sqattram, sumpfporst, tannenporst, ti:mapt (“tea plant”), waldrosmarin, wanzenkraut, weiße heide, wilder rosmarin, wild rosemary, zeitheide, zeitheil
It appears that the authors of antiquity were not aware of wild rosemary. Pliny, however, does mention a plant named Ledum that had narcotic effects (Rowell 1978, 271*). In the later herbals of the fathers of botany, the plant appears under the name Ledum silesiacum (Clusius) or wild rosemary (Tabernaemontanus). Although the woodcuts that were included in the works of such authors as Tabernaemontanus and Gerard are botanically accurate and clearly identifiable, the first scientific description of the plant was made by Linnaeus, who even wrote a medicinal work about the plant in 1775 (Vonarburg 1995, 78).
Wild rosemary (Ledum palustre ssp. palustre) in bloom.
Greenland tea (Ledum palustre ssp. groenlandicum) is a North American species.
The fruits of wild rosemary (Ledum palustre ssp. palustre).
The North American wild rosemary species Ledum glandulosum ssp. columbianum.
The leaves of an as yet unidentified species of wild rosemary (Ledum spp.) collected in North America are almost twice as long as the leaves of related species.
“The shamans of the Giljak and the other Amur natives bend over a thick, strongly scented smoke that develops when dried leaves of wild rosemary (Ledum palustre) are laid onto glowing coals. Wold. Aerseniew was able to determine that every true shamanic activity of the Orotsha (as compared to the shamanic games) is begun by rubbing the knee with heated leaves of Ledum palustre.”
BEITRÄGE ZUM PSYCHOLOGISCHEN VERSTÄNDNIS DES SIBIRISCHEN ZAUBERERS [CONTRIBUTIONS TO A PSYCHOLOGICAL UNDERSTANDING OF THE SIBERIAN MAGICIAN]
Wild rosemary occurs almost exclusively in high and transitional bogs, often growing in association with pine and birch trees. Although very widespread, it is only rarely found in the wild. It grows in the region of the Alps and in northern Europe and in central, eastern, and northern Asia (Siberia), as well as Japan. A closely related species occurs in North America. In Germany, this rare plant is protected.
Wild rosemary is regarded as a relic from the ice age, as it is adapted to a cool and moist climate.
Propagation is possible from seed. However, there are few reports concerning experiences with cultivation.
Wild rosemary is a shrublike evergreen plant that can grow to a height of 1.5 meters. It has lanceolate leaves that are hairy on their undersides and white flowers in terminal corymbs. The capsule fruits are ovate and hang down. The plant flowers in May and June.
Wild rosemary is very easily confused with several closely related American species. The glandular wild rosemary (Ledum glandulosum Nutt. ssp. columbianum [Piper] C.L. Hichc.) is especially similar and also has a similar scent.
The name wild rosemary (Rosmarinum sylvestre) originally was applied because the plant’s morphology, particularly the structure of the resinous leaves, was reminiscent of that of the kitchen spice rosemary. The two plants, however, are not related (Greve 1938a, 1938b).
—Blooming wild rosemary herbage (herba ledi palustris, ledi palustris herba), dried or fresh; also the young shoots (used to produce alcoholic extracts and the homeopathic mother tincture)
Preparation and Dosage
The blooming herbage is air-dried in the shade. It then can be used by itself as an incense. When dried, wild rosemary is easily ignited and burns with a bright and crackling flame. When the burning branch tips are blown out, the leaves and stalks will continue to glow and give off a white, aromatic smoke. The scent is resinous, fragrant, pleasant, and somewhat reminiscent of that of juniper and fir. A delicate, resinous scent with a slightly acrid character lingers in the room. When used for psychoactive purposes, large amounts must be burned and inhaled.
Little information is available concerning dosages for oral use. When the herbage is prepared as a tea, psychoactive or toxic effects are rare. In contrast, alcohol extracts, which are rich in the essential oil, can have pronounced effects.
To produce Labrador tea, the leaves are collected in May (before the plant blooms) and roasted in an oven. The tea is made simply by brewing the roasted leaves with boiling water (Turner and Efrat 1982, 65).
In addition to juniper (cf. Juniperus recurva), the shamans of the Tungus (whose language has given us the word shaman) and the neighboring Gilyak used especially wild rosemary as a ritual and trance-inducing incense. They inhaled deep breaths of the smoke in order to enter a shamanic state of consciousness. Sometimes they would chew the root as well as inhale the smoke. The shamans of the Ainu, the aboriginal inhabitants of northern Japan, also esteemed wild rosemary incense. Ainu shamanesses would prepare a potent tea of wild rosemary to treat menstrual pains and coliclike lower abdominal cramps (Mitsuhashi 1976).
While wild rosemary was used in Europe for medicinal purposes, its primary significance was as an inebriating additive to beer (grutbier) and as a ritual plant. Alongside henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) and thorn apple (Datura stramonium), wild rosemary was the most important psycho-active additive to the Germanic beers (Wirth 1995, 146) that were brewed prior to the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 (cf. beer,Humulus lupulus). Because wild rosemary oil can provoke aggressive behavior, it has been suggested that the berserkers obtained their legendary “berserker rage” by drinking porst (wild rosemary) beer, which was common in Scandinavia (Sandermann 1980; Seidemann 1993).204
“When administered in excess, porsch irritates the mucous membranes of the stomach and intestines. Muscle and joint pains also appear, heart palpitations, cold shivers, persistent sensations of coldness, shortness of breath, sweating, sudden states of excitation, depressed moods, appearance of a sensation of sedation and drunkenness . . .”
LEDUM PALUSTRE L.— MONOGRAPHIE EINER ALTEN HEILPflANZE [LEDUM PALUSTRE L.— MONOGRAPH ON AN OLD MEDICINAL PLANT]
No artifacts have become known to date.
In Siberia, wild rosemary has a long history of use as a folk remedy. Bone and joint pains were treated by rubbing the joints with the fresh plant, and partially or completely dried herbage was burned to ward off insects. In Russia, wild rosemary was given to those who were as “drunk as a fish” (Rowell 1978, 21*).
Because of its narcotic effects, wild rosemary is used in folk medicine to treat whooping cough; patients both ingest it internally and inhale its smoke as a medicinal incense. The Sami (Lapps) inhale the steam of decoctions of the plant for colds. They also use a decoction to bathe painful joints and areas affected by frostbite. They drink a tea made from the plant for coughs. The Poles use wild rosemary as a fumigant to treat all manner of lung ailments (Greve 1938b, 76f.).
Many Indian tribes of northern North America drank Labrador tea as a tonic (Gunther 1988, 43*).
Because ledol, one of wild rosemary’s constituents, has abortifacient effects, preparations of wild rosemary were once used to induce abortions. This was often accompanied by strong toxic reactions.
Various potencies are used in homeopathy to treat articular rheumatism, sciatica, rheumatism of the shoulder, contusions, et cetera (Vonarburg 1995).
The entire plant contains an essential oil (0.5 to 1% in the leaves) composed of ledol (= ledum camphor), palustrol, myrcene, ericoline, and other substances. It also contains the glycoside arbutine, the flavonoids hyperoside and quercetin (cf. Artemisia absinthium, Fabiana imbricata, Humulus lupulus, Psidium guajava, Vaccinium uliginosum), resins, and traces of alkaloids (Roth et al. 1994, 452; Tattje and Bos 1981; Vonarburg 1995, 78).
The essential oil can induce states of inebriation and spasms, but also abortions. Ledol has potent inebriating and narcotic effects that definitely can assume an aggressive nature. The effects of the alcoholic extract are very similar to those of alcohol. Beer that has been brewed with wild rosemary or to which it has been added (grutbier) has much more potently inebriating effects as a result. Generally speaking, ledol potentiates the effects of alcohol (similar to Piper methysticum).
The isolated resin exhibits potent anesthetizing effects that may possibly account for the plant’s cough-suppressing properties (Greve 1938b, 79).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
Wild rosemary can be obtained from pharmacies without a physician’s prescription as a mother tincture under the name Ledum (D1) (Hahnemann himself introduced wild rosemary as a homeopathic agent). This preparation is produced from the dried, resinous leaves (HAB4a).
Wild rosemary is a protected plant in many areas and tends to grow in regions that are protected.
An early illustration of wild rosemary, which was placed near the aromatic cistus (Cistus ladaniferus L.) because of its resinous scent. (Woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants, 1633)
Brekhman, I. I., and Y. A. Sam. 1967. Ethnopharmacological investigation of some psychoactive drugs used by Siberian and Far-Eastern minor nationalities of U.S.S.R. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. D. Efron, 415. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Greve, Paul. 1938a. Der Sumpfporst. Hamburg: Hansischer Gildenverlag. (Almost identical with Greve 1938b.)
———. 1938b. Ledum palustre L.—Monographie einer alten Heilpflanze. Dissertation, Hamburg.
Mitsuhashi, Hiroshi. 1976. Medicinal plants of the Ainu. Economic Botany 30:209–17.
Rätsch, Christian. 1996. Sumpfporst: Eine archaische Schamanenpflanze. Dao 2/96:68.
Sandermann, W. 1980. Berserkerwut durch Sumpfporst-Bier. Brauwelt 120 (50): 1870–72.
Seidemann, Johannes. 1993. Sumpfporstkraut als Hopfenersatz. Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau 46 (11): 448–49.
Tattje, D. H. E., and R. Bos. 1981. Composition of essential oil of Ledum palustre. Planta Medica 41:303–7.
Turner, Nancy J., and Barbara S. Efrat. 1982. Ethnobotany of the Hesquiat Indians of Vancouver Island. Cultural Recovery Paper no. 2. Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum.
Vonarburg, Bruno. 1995. Homöopathisches Pflanzenbrevier. 16: Sumpfporst. Natürlich 15 (6): 77–80.
Wirth, H. 1995. Der Sumpfporst. In Heimische Pflanzen der Götter: Ein Handbuch für Hexen und Zauberer, ed. Erwin Bauereiss, 145–46. Markt Erlbach: Raymond Martin Verlag.