Initially, 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?"