Precolonial menstrual solutions? Plants, of course | Bleader

Precolonial menstrual solutions? Plants, of course


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Dont burn that papyrus! Theyre perfectly good tampons!
  • Ingo Wölbern
  • Don't burn that papyrus! They're perfectly good tampons!
I've been in Berkeley, California, all this week. Plants and flowers proliferate. Streets are big gardens made of smaller gardens; the sidewalks sprout flowering things from fractures caused by nearby roots. Even the gutters grow. Way up in the Berkeley Hills near Grizzly Peak, where I am lucky enough to be staying, you can walk a few blocks to the nearest bus stop and pass raspberry and blackberry bushes, and lemon, orange, pear, plum, and apple trees. Lavender, tarragon, mint, rosemary, sage, and thyme spring up almost at random. Then there are the flowers: bleeding hearts, pink flowering currants, drooping pink foxglove, purple lilac, yellow geraniums, fuzzy blush-brush flowers with long and floppy pine-needle finger-shaped leaves. Oh, and redwoods grow in people's backyards.


I thought nothing could be better suited to Botany Week than a post about California horticulture. That—plus two camping trips into coastal redwood forests—provides for plenty of material. But then I received an e-mail from my mother about Softcups ("Have you heard of these?  My co-worker uses them and says they’re great. Love Mom"). I thought about what menstrual solutions were available to women before the Internet.

Modern commercial pads and tampons have their origin in bandages used to save wounded soldiers from blood loss on the battlefield. So, if you tend to think of tampons as brutal tools, imagine jamming one in a bullet wound. Pads staunching gashes are not nearly so gruesome by comparison—this is a relief. Morbid ladies, feel free to call your menstrual regimen "field dressing."

But back to the question: where did precolonial periods go? Just like today, one solution was cloth pads that were washed. Rags make sense, of course (given the idiom), but what about earlier times, before textiles were mass produced ? (I wondered what Desdemona wore in Cyprus—"Blood, Iago! Blood!" indeed.) People didn't always have cloth to spare for ladies' menses. A lucky guess: plants.

Turns out that in the 1600s women either menstruated into the ground (underpants came later)—they wore open chemises or dresses that facilitated nature's return to nature—or they used extant menstrual products, which were often plant based. Mosses, cotton wool, and vegetable fibers were popular; wood fibers and pulp as well. Ancient Egyptians used softened papyrus; in equatorial Africa, rolls of grass served the bloody purpose.

Application was basically what it is today, minus the sterile manufacture and, of course, the gift of plastic applicators. Depending on what continent you prefer to vacation, you might keep these plants in mind next time someone's monthly flow spurts unexpectedly. There was certainly a hiker in our number who could have benefited from the knowledge: the unlucky girl got her red gush right at the waterfall destination of our camping trip's long hike—with three hours left to go. If you want to be prepared but still have the botanic experience, purchase water hyacinth sanitary napkins in advance instead. Or stick by commercially available tampons, with their recognizable petal formations, because really, isn't that close enough? 

Flowering plants used in alternative-medicine panaceas are also said to regulate the menses and alleviate cramps. I'm not a scientist, but hey, if they ever worked, I bet they still do! And if not, well . . . it looks pretty harmless. Unless you're allergic, then please don't try it. 

Without further ado, botanical recipes for your menses:

1. For pain: Drink two tablespoons of marigold infusion twice daily.

2. For irregular menses and cramps: Drink two-thirds cup parsley and beet juice.

3. For heavy bleeding: Cook and eat one banana flower with one cup of curd.

4. For heavy bleeding: Drink one part mango bark extract with 12 parts water.

5. For delayed period: Boil five heads of hemp until water halves; cool then drink.

Also relevant, from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, "Who invented tampons?"

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