I knew this was going to be my last article in the wonderful, local Mississippi magazine, Catfish Alley. I’ve moved to Tennessee, so we knew we had to part ways… However, I didn’t know that this was going to be Catfish Alley’s last issue.
I’ve loved getting to know the publisher, Birney Imes and the editor, Stacy Clark, over the years. Such great people to work with! Although I’ve only been submitting my column for about two years, they’ve been churning out soulful, Southern stories from east-central Mississippi for about 6 1/2 years.
Farewell Catfish Alley, you will be missed! And, to all of you plant lovers out there, here’s some meanderings on the lovely mimosa (which is in bloom now!).
(This is the unedited article that was submitted to Catfish Alley. They tightened things up a bit for the magazine and added some good flow.)
The fanning leaves, silky pink flowers, and meandering trunks and branches of the mimosa tree have become a fixture in the Southern landscape. Each year, I await the summer fanfare of this tree when it blooms May to July. The blooms waft a faint, heavenly sweetness in the air that is heady and unmistakable. Growing up to 40 feet in height, this legume family tree (Fabaceae) also fixes nitrogen into depleted soil while providing nectar for bees and butterflies.
An invasive species from Southeast Asia, the first mimosa seeds were brought to the northeast in the late 1700s. The trees found their way into Philadelphia gardens and even Thomas Jefferson grew a mimosa tree at Monticello. By the mid-1800s this tree, favoring milder winters, made its way to the southeast to become naturalized.
Unfortunately, during the mid-1800s all the way to the 1930s, the Deep South was undergoing deforestation that it had never experienced before. The coastal long-leaf pine habitat and the mixed hardwood forests of the mainland were all but lost to the logging industry which took a deafening toll on the landscape once railroads were introduced. This massive disturbance opened a doorway for a variety of invasive species to take root.
In his book “Invasive Plant Medicine,” Timothy Lee Scott argues that “by enhancing biodiversity, invasive exotic plants create healthier and more efficient ecosystems.” Basically, an invasive species arrives to fulfill a particular role in the forest ecosystem that was lost due to (mostly) human disturbance.
The native plant purists out there may wince at Scott’s suggestion. But, based on my experience with plant medicine and with the land, I find that invasive plants provide necessary stability for a damaged ecosystem. Fortunately, they also provide medicine for what ails our bodies and minds. That plant kingdom has always been generous and ingenious in its approach to healing exploited land.
Often, when I teach about herbal medicine, I encourage students to start with and harvest invasive plants. Many of our native plants are in precarious positions due to habitat loss or poaching (as is the case with American ginseng). Invasive plants are hardy, easy-to-find, and…well…for most people, a vegetative nuisance.
Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) has become a nasty invasive in the Appalachian mountains and into the northeast. The root of this plant has become the first line of defense for Lyme’s Disease. Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius) has become invasive in Florida. As it turns out, it is also being researched at Emory University for ridding the body of MRSA and other superbug infections.
Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin), too, offers beneficial medicine for humans. Known as he-huan-pi (mimosa bark) or he-huan-hua (mimosa flowers) in China, the name translates to “full happiness.”
I remember one of my herb teachers calling this tree, the “happy tree.” It is no mystery why mimosa is called this. Used traditionally in China for depression, anxiety, and insomnia due to anxiety, the flowers and bark of mimosa are sure to afford you an inner smile. They are both slightly sweet to taste with a slightly drying effect.
The bark is known to have more potent medicine and has a wider range of applications than those listed above, such as mild pain relief, a circulatory stimulant, and a diuretic. The bark is also centering and grounding to those who may feel disconnected or going through inner tumult.
The bark is prepared by decocting (simmering in water for 20 minutes) or tincturing (in alcohol). You can also make a topical poultice with the bark for painful wounds or even fractures. Mimosa bark will reduce swelling, decrease pain, promote blood circulation for healing at the wound site, and help regenerate tissues.
I must say that the bark of the mimosa tree is a delight to peel. Not all barks are created equal (smile). Some are very difficult to peel from the wood (like tag alder!). Considering that the medicine of the tree is in the phloem and cambium of the bark (the inner green layer that allows sap to flow), you need to peel the bark off to make medicine. Mimosa bark peels off easily and leaves behind a smooth, light wood that can be used for arts and crafts.
The flowers can also be dried and used in teas or tinctured fresh. They are a milder sedative and can also be helpful for upset digestion due to nervousness or holding tension in the stomach. They are also sweet, but have a slightly bitter taste making them a good digestif to sip on after a meal. The bitter taste always helps the digestive system secrete digestive juices and enzymes. And, according to Foster & Duke’s “Peterson’s Field Guide,” the flowers are being researched as an anti-obesity herb as the flowers may inhibit triglyceride accumulation.
My personal favorite use of mimosa is to elevate the mood, shift out of a funk, and part the clouds, say. I have personally used the medicine of this tree to move through gloom before with marked effect after just one dropper full of tincture (of the bark and flower).
The bottom line is, not all invasive plants are bad. And, maybe, just maybe, a majority are here to help us in soil recovery, forest renewal, and even to brighten our own human spirits. If so, mimosa is the perfect teacher.