The T. rex and other bloodsucking leeches

leeches

There are between 700 and 1,000 species of leeches throughout the world.  Most prey on insects, snails and other small creatures.  Some swallow their prey whole.  Others have an extendible proboscis, which they use to spear their prey and suck up their juices.

And then there are the “bloodsuckers.”  These sanguivorous (blood-feeding) leeches feed on fish, reptiles, waterfowl, small mammals, earthworms (their closest biological relatives) and, yes — humans.  Sanguivorous leeches generally have either two or three jaws, which contain small teeth or a sharp cutting edge.  A bite from a two-jawed leech leaves a V-shaped bite, while that of the three-jawed variety results in a Y-shaped one.

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Ergot poisoning: the original Purple Haze

Detail of The Temptations of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald, c. 1512-15

Detail from The Temptations of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald, c. 1512-15

“[A] Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.”  From the Annales Xantenses (857 AD).

 

It has been blamed for the Salem witch trials and the “Great Fear” of 1789,  which contributed to the French Revolution.  Its reemergence in the 20th century led to a treatment for migraine headaches and to the invention of LSD.

But in the Middle Ages, what we now call ergot poisoning, or ergotism, was a terrifying mystery known as “Holy Fire” (ignis sacer) because of the terrible burning pain it caused. Ergot — the common name for Claviceps purpurea – is a fungus that affects rye and other grains.  It contains ergotamine which, in moderate doses, causes the contraction of smooth muscle fibers, such as those in the small arteries.

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The delicious, nutritious dandelion is anything but a common weed

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Many people think of the dandelion as little more than an alternative to a daisy for playing “he loves me, he loves me not.”  Indeed, it’s said that if you can blow all of a dandelion’s seeds off with one try, then you are passionately loved. If some seeds remain, your lover has reservations about your relationship.  And if a lot of seeds stay stuck to the globe, you are supposedly loved very little or not at all.

But taraxacum officinale, as dandelion is botanically known, is good for much more than mere child’s play.  Full of Vitamins A, B, C, D and K, as well as iron, potassium and zinc, young dandelion greens make a tasty and nutritious addition to any meal.  In many parts of the world, dandelion is also consumed as a medicine, though claims about it have not been clinically tested in humans.  It has been used for centuries, however, to treat dyspepsia (indigestion/upset stomach), dropsy and liver disorders, and as a mild laxative for chronic constipation.  It is also said to improve the appetite and promote digestion.

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