A Very Short, Abridged History of Herbal Birth Control

In celebration of the recent Obamacare reforms taking place (and the fact that we won’t have to forage for our lady pills), I felt like typing up a little history of birth control relating to herbs. The subject is vast and exhaustive, and if I were to elaborate fully I’m pretty sure we’d be too old to need it by the time we finished. So I decided to focus primarily on two plants, one because it’s extinct (and has a good story with LESSONS AND SHIT), the other because it’s wildly prolific. Also, I shouldn’t even have to say this, but before starting a supplement or ingesting medicinal plants, consult with a doctor, holistic practitioner, etc (i.e. NOT ME). If you’re depending on ME and me alone for medical shit, we’re both screwed. 

First, we travel back to antiquity for our first plant: Silphium. A large fennel-like plant that grew along the Mediterranean coast, it became prized for its ability to keep women from becoming pregnant. The catch? It couldn’t be cultivated. Of fucking course not.  As with all things, supply and demand came into play. The price sky rocketed, and soon the seeds of this plant were literally worth their weight in silver. The Roman Empire actually stashed a cache of the plant for their treasury. Soranus (Rome’s celebrity gynecologist) openly praised it, claiming not only would it prevent pregnancy, but also terminate any existing pregnancy as well. The city of Cyrene (mostly its royalty) grew massively wealthy from the plant, where its flow was strictly controlled. It was also said to be an aprhodesiac (DOUBLE THREAT) – so much so that the famous Catullus wrote this little diddy:

You ask how many kissings of you, Lesbia, are enough for me and more than enough.

As great as the number of the Libyan sand that lies on

Seriously.

silphium-bearing Cyrene . . .

Needless to say, when everything is going well, shit’s gonna get fucked up. And fucked up it was, when upon all failure to cultivate their cash crop, it was literally foraged into EXTINCTION. The icing on the cake? The last asshole who was reported to have enjoyed it? Nero. Fucking Nero, he doesn’t even have a uterus. Let that sink in: the last specimen of a reputedly magical form of female contraception was ingested by some rich asshole for funsies.

Look familiar? Photo courtesy of Irrational Geographic

What can we possibly hope to gain from this horribly, horribly depressing story? Well, the first thing we can learn is something we, as a species, still haven’t grasped: infinite demand for a finite resource can never end well. The second thing we can glean from this story is actually found on one of their ancient coins. Yup, that’s right. It’s been said that our traditional “heart” shape is actually derived from the shape of Silphium seeds. Puts a whole new (kind of depressing) spin on Valentines Day doesn’t it? You may be single, BUT AT LEAST YOU’RE NOT EXTINCT. Now stop whining and go watch The Notebook again.

 

SWEET JESUS LOOK AT ALL OF IT

Our second plant is something more common and less extinct: Queen Anne’s lace (or wild carrot, OR for those feeling fancy, daucus carota). A member of the parsley family, this plant literally cannot be escaped. And those of you with allergies have probably tried but failed miserably. Because this shit won’t die. It’s a handy little plant, though. The roots are edible,and it has a bunch of medicinal uses aside from lady parts ( it’s been reported to help with kidney stones and if you have worms – WORMS). It’s nature’s doily happily waving at you from the ditch on the side of the highway, but it has a value that would have us all tearing it up at it’s wee edible roots if we all knew. Women around the world are using this happy little plant as contraception. And it appears to be working. It’s been used since the time of Hippocrates to stave off sperm, apparently by disrupting the implantation process.

What’s kind of scary but also amazing is that, recently, women put their own bodies on the line to test it. A study by

Note the wee black flower in the center. This can also be more reddish than black.

Robin Bennett and Mischa Schuler, in a study that ended in August of 2011, concluded that while some pregnancies may occur, if taken correctly, this herb can be an effective form of contraception for some women. By their own calculations, this form of contraception is 94%. I don’t know if I particularly agree with those numbers, but nonetheless, it’s still fascinating.  Also, it’s worth thinking about. I currently take the pill and was on depo in the past (I was morphed into a frigid beast that only took joy from eating and crying), but if a more conclusive study were to be done I think something as simple and lovely as picking your own birth control in a meadow could really catch on. Imagine, free medicine from the park near your apartment, compliments of Nature.

These seeds aren’t quite ready. Probably another week or so and they should be ready to pick. I also have really chubby fingers. Damn.

For the more adventurous of you who would like to harvest the seeds of Queen Anne’s lace for medicinal reasons (again, I am literally begging you not to just start snarfing this shit down, CONSULT SOMEONE before you begin taking ANY medicinal plants), it’s simple to harvest and identify. There are a few look alike plants lurking around waiting for you to unwittingly poison yourself on, so one of the key things when looking for a QAL plant is the single reddish black flower in the center. Not every QAL will have one, but if you’re worried, only harvest from plants bearing them. You will be looking for a plant with “hairy legs” (a kind of fuzzy-feeling stem). A note about where to harvest: heavily congested areas aren’t really recommended if you can help it, and the farther you can get from traffic the better. Plants are like wee little sponges, sucking up toxins with their water and air. Think like a plant, and you can harvest the cleanest plants. Harvesting the seeds is simple. You wait until you see a flower head that has curled in on itself and turned brown and dry. Snap the head off the stem and place it inside a paper bag. After waiting a few days for it to dry out, you can separate the seeds from the rest of the plant and keep them in a jar. Seeds should keep a year if kept whole and in an airtight container away from heat and sunlight.

And there you have it: a very short, abridged history of herbal birth control. It’s more like a then and now, except even the now was kind of from then, but you know what I mean.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Have an interest in reading more about this topic? Let the writer know in the comments section!

26 thoughts on “A Very Short, Abridged History of Herbal Birth Control”

  1. This was really fascinating, thank you. I’d heard about the silphium craze, but I was under the impression it was just a particularly prized spice. Even with the Romans’ famed love for food, it having a reliable, apparently safe contraceptive effect makes its popularity make so much more sense. Too bad it’s lost.

     

  2. Can you post the Bennett and Schuler study link? When I tried to search for it on Google Scholar I’m not finding anything; when I search it on google.com I get a lot of references to it but not the study itself. Is there any information on what the active ingredients might be?

    This is fascinating, but modern contraceptives are very probably a hell of a lot safer, as they’ve actually undergone clinical trials.

    1. http://robinrosebennett.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=44 That’s the best link I’ve found. Like I said in the article I don’t know if I agree 100% with their numbers, but from what I’ve managed to read aside from the study it seems like some women are having success with this plant.  I’ve read multiple methods of using the seeds, from tinctures to just grinding up the seeds and drinking them with juice. I’ve also read about different dosages, from a daily dose to only after sex. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t post dosage methods, if someone feels this is something they want to try I want them to go discuss it with someone trained in medicine or holistic plants instead of just taking it completely upon themselves. Considering some of the negative side effects of different contraceptives I’ve had in the past (depo and seasonique) and the function of the plant being the same as modern hormonal birth controls (disrupting implantation) if someone does their research and has good experiences with it, I’d say more power to them. I would absolutely love to see more tests done on QAL and other medicinal plants, that way it takes out some of the mysticism and provides a safe and scientifically sound base for people to make their own choices upon.

        1. I’m not disagreeing with you there, it’s one of the reasons I didn’t hang the entire basis of using QAL on that study (in the article I mention I don’t know if I really agree with their numbers). I included it because I found it fascinating that women would put their bodies on the line for such a study, and hopefully as a touching off point because I couldn’t find any other study done specifically on QAL. I did start reading another much more in depth study about the actual chemical compounds in several plants and how they inhibit implantation in mice, but I haven’t finished it yet so I can’t really include it in an article. I would really love to see more peer reviewed studies on these plants, but I don’t really know where the money would come from.

          1. I’d love to see any peer-reviewed properly conducted studies on it. I appreciate you’re not giving medical advice, but I think you could have been a lot more sceptical about that source – even describing it as a ‘study’ is a stretch.

            1. I won’t be so generous in the future! The problem with a lot of medicinal plant articles/websites is the lack of nuts and bolts science and solid studies, so the fact that there was even anything on QAL as a birth control in a “study” was a surprise. I’m researching for my next herbal article and thankfully there’s much better source material to draw on this time lol.

  3. This was really fascinating! I’d be really interested in knowing if there’s been any attempt to, I don’t know, resurrect silphium? I assume there are an awful lot of powerful folks who would rather not have that happen (pharmaceutical companies, conservatives, etc) but still!

  4. I totally did not know that about Queen Anne’s Lace. I knew you could eat the root, but the seeds are also useful? Good to know. Not that I have to worry about this, as my health plan is already good with the free contraceptives bit, but still.

  5. Hmn, this is really interesting. I remember a documentary about Silphium and just, in general, the knowledge they had around plants and contraception/abortion (among other things) – fascinating topic. Do feel more hesitant at suggestions of harvesting plants in order medicate – plants can be mixed up, uncertainty with dosages, and generally that just because something is “natural” that doesn’t make it safe. Either way, really interesting article.

    1. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t put down dosages and heavily encouraged people to consult someone before taking them. The reason I put harvesting info is because it’s not widely sold in stores, so if they do consult with someone and they agree on a dosage, etc, that they have a means of collecting it. There have been a few reported side effects in some women, (tenderness and discomfort during sex shortly after ingesting the seeds) so I agree it’s not for everyone. I just wanted to put the idea out there and give folks something to think about.

      1. I do appreciate that you didn’t include dosages and encourage seeking additional advice. I’m just cautious about the field of natural medicine as a whole; as I said, plants can be confused, among other issues, like the actual effects of the plant. The discussion as a whole of the history and feasibility of natural medicine is very interesting and it’s nice to see it here on Persephone, it just concerns me that people confuse natural with safe.

            1. I treat herbal medicine as I would more conventional medications, they’re not toys. You can hurt yourself just as easily as you could with more conventional means of healing. I was really careful in how I worded this article as not to make it sound like some Panacea and to try and encourage a respect for medicinal plants.

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