Attack of the Killer Thumbs: Mosquito-Repelling Plants, Safe Herbal Abortions, and Other Myths

by | Jul 12, 2022 | EAT DRINK

“Attack of the Killer Thumbs” aims to provide answers to your garden quandaries and your houseplant conundrums. We think plants make our lives and homes and balconies a better place to be. But we also know that you aren’t made of money. Here you will not find “recommendations” for our “favorite” ninety-dollar gadgets or “quick and easy” tutorials that will cost thousands of dollars to accomplish. We will focus, wherever we can, on solutions that are cheap, easy, and kind to the environment.  

Hello and welcome to Attack of the Killer Thumbs!

It’s real summer now, y’all! We’re sweaty! We’re dodging increasingly dramatic storms! We’re studiously pretending that flash flooding and heat islands aren’t a problem because local government thinks urban trees and water-smart infrastructure are less of a priority than a casino! 

If you have a yard, this is a great time to make note of any places where you’re like dang, it would be really nice if I had some shade here — you can be the shade you wish to see in the world! By which I mean, in October/November, you can consider filling that spot with a tree. And there are so many options to choose from: productive fruit trees, statement-making ornamentals, shade trees, dwarf varieties, and towering, fast-growing behemoths are all out there. The world can be your arbor! (Just make sure you call 311 and get your utilities marked before you accidentally slam a root ball on top of your sewage line. You don’t want the shit literally hitting the fan.) 

If you don’t have (or own) a yard, but you’re still itching for that good natural shade on your porch or balcony, consider putting a tree in a big pot. You can put it anywhere! You can move it with you from apartment to apartment like a maniac! Your friends may never help you move again, but hey, you have a tree to be your friend now! Not that I’m speaking from experience! 

I am trying a new tactic for squash bugs where you start everything later than usual to avoid squash bug mating season or whatever–I put all this newspaper down in the rain because hey, I’d have to get it wet anyhow (it’s to keep the weeds down!). Photo by Grace Todd.

Seasonal vibe check

July is a great time to go ahead and finish up any chores you’ve been putting off, because while it’s heating up now, August is only going to be hotter, and the novelty of buttcrack sweat will have worn off by then. If it can’t wait for the cooler days of fall, do it now! 

This is a time of year when I like to wander around, look at what’s thriving and what’s begging for the sweet release of death, and make plans for next year or the end of the season. Do you need to move any of your perennials come fall? Or put those annuals somewhere else next spring? Take notes now! Like, literally take notes. You will not remember, no matter how much you think you will. Dedicate a gardening notebook. Email yourself. Send your friend a letter with another self-addressed letter inside for them to send back to you. Whatever it takes. Get that shit in writing. Thank me in January, when you will have forgotten what being hot was even like and you can’t remember where you planted any of your bulbs. 

Houseplant friends, I’ve neglected you the past couple months in my feverish excitement for spring. How y’all doing? 

If you’re the kind of person who cycles your tropicals outdoors for the warm weather, keep an eye out for any friends or foes that might take up residence while they’re on your porch or patio. My banana plant is currently hosting an itsy bitsy spider, which is chill with me, although I probably won’t bring him back inside with us come fall.

Now is also a great time to repot your houseplant babies if they need it — they’re in active growth, ready to be fed with fresh soil and extra breathing room, and you won’t have to startle them too badly if you need to do the actual potting outdoors. 

Also, a word to the wise! Depending on where your house is situated, the sun exposure of your windows might be completely different in the dead of summer than the dead of winter, so make sure your houseplants aren’t being roasted/dying alone in the dark. I have a bunch of plants I have to move to the opposite side of my house twice a year, like little retirees going to Florida, to either take advantage of, or avoid, direct sun. 

Finally, for our vegetable gardeners, it’s time to start planning your fall crops! I find the turnover to be tricky here — our frosts are so late that you can be harvesting tomatoes well into the fall, and so where gardeners further north can just tear out their summer crops, knowing there’s only so much time left, I wind up doing a bit more of a dance for space. In July, especially toward the end of the month, you can go ahead and throw in seeds for peas, beets, carrots, greens, and broccoli. Lots of fall crops will grow well in containers, so if your garden bed is at capacity with tomatoes, peppers, or cucumbers because you got carried away (still definitely not speaking from experience idk what you’re talking about), you can always put a few pots or buckets or barrels at the end of your veg beds for those autumn harvests. 

The squash (and corn) a few days later and after a thorough mulching! I’ll let y’all know if this gambit works or if I wind up with NOTHING at the end of the season. Photo by Grace Todd.

Your quandaries, conundrums, queries, and cares:

Do “mosquito repelling” plants actually work?

No. 

Wait, aren’t you going to explain yourself?

But that means I have to go do research so I can justify my instincts and applied knowledge as a means of earning your TRUST or whatever and it’s hot out and I have a cold beer in the fridge — ugh, FINE. OKAY. Let’s talk about SCIENCE. 

I see these plants every year — at nurseries, in listicles, on your aunt’s neighbor’s Facebook posts — with bright, eye-catching labels. Repels Mosquitos! Keeps Pests Away! But those are lies. Lies, I say! They might repel mosquitos from themselves, but they will not repel them from you. Capitalism’s ceaseless need to commodify and brand every single thing within an inch of its life strikes again! 

This is not to say that there are not lots of plant-based ways to keep from turning into a walking pile of welts; only that advertisers have capitalized on a fundamental misunderstanding of application. 

This flowering tobacco will not keep mosquitos away from you, but it does smell really lovely and also has sticky leaves that catch gnats and stuff, which is a fun feature. Photo by Grace Todd.

Mosquitos, the vampiric little bastards, are a true marvel of evolutionary design. Female mosquitos (the ones that want to eat you; male mosquitos are harmless, horny little vegetarians, which tbh sounds familiar) have special nerve cells with receptors for detecting carbon dioxide (which we exhale) and what are very creepily termed “skin odorants” that are produced when we sweat and whatnot. 

The way that mosquito repellents work, generally, is by covering or neutralizing your human stink with a smell that theoretically fills mosquitos with tiny, airborne loathing, so they’ll stream away from you, spewing tiny mosquito swear words, and attack your less-prepared friends instead. Ha, suckers.

You might already be noticing the problem with live-plants-as-mosquito-repellent: they might work quite well, if you were planning to physically lie inside of them all day. But you probably aren’t (hey, no judgment though), which means that the catmint or citronella or “mosquito plant” geranium you stuck in a pot on your porch isn’t going to do a single damn thing to help you. The oils in those plants need to be activated (read: smooshed out of the leaves, or extracted, or set on fire) and then either applied to your physical person or suspended in the air in an invisible but odorous bubble around you. Otherwise, they accomplish nothing. There are lots of products out there that operate on this principle — essential oil–based repellents made of neem, or the ubiquitous citronella candle — and work quite well. If you’re feeling cheap, you can technically smoosh some of those plants and then just smear ’em all over yourself, but I don’t recommend it: some can give you a rash, and also, you’re going to look pretty weird with smooshed leaf bits all over your arms when you could just as easily use a spray or something. 

A lot of those “mosquito repelling” plants, though, are wonderful additions to the garden, and I highly recommend planting them on their own merits! Lavender, catmint, citronella grass, rosemary, bee balm, cedar-scented geranium — they’re all lovely plants. Just don’t expect them to keep you from getting itchy. 

I scattered these Zephyranthes around the garden to give myself a fun lil surprise now and again_ they’re sometimes called rain lilies or naked ladies. I never know where they are until they bloom and then they vanish again (or when I accidentally dig them up, lolwhoops). Photo by Grace Todd.

What I’m pondering in the garden this week

Your garden will not save you. 

Look, I had a whole other thing that was meant to go here. I was going to joke about the NYT canceling the Fiddle-leaf fig, and it was going to be fun and lighthearted, and now this is going to be a goddamn mood pivot because we were all just joking about mosquitos, and I’m sorry. I didn’t want to make this yet another space where Politics Happen. I know everyone wants a fucking break. But our useless government has triggered a conversation that is Very Much in My Wheelhouse and I feel like I have to step in and say a thing, so HERE WE ARE. I hope everyone is HAPPY. 

As we have been failed, over the last centuries decades few years, by government on pretty much every level, from city council to the Supreme Court, I often see people advocating for personal, “natural,” or “DIY” solutions to systemic problems. Inflation skyrocketing, food systems breaking down, over-reliance on herbicides leaving the future of large-scale farming devastatingly uncertain? Grow your own! Baby formula impossible to find? Make your own! Fundamental healthcare, including abortions, no longer nationally legal? Do your own abortion, with plants! At this rate I feel like I’m going to see someone be like, Is your state attacking trans folks in ever-more alarming ways? Have you tried herbal gender-affirming healthcare????  

Fuck, shit, piss, and hell.

Anyway.

People are throwing up these lil infographics on Twitter and Instagram, being like well now we can’t have safe abortions, here’s what you need to know to do them yourself, like oldey-timey lords and ladies. How fancy! I mean, they wrote about it in Chaucer! And first off, if you’re like, Chaucer who, correct, he’s famous for writing one of the first major literary works in English and not being the contemporary of folks who could offer you a safe abortion without a side of organ damage. Or death. 

So yeah let’s talk herbal abortifacients. They’ve been around forever — in every culture, all over the world. And yes, a lot of them worked. There are hundreds of plants that will cause the pregnant body to become un-pregnant, with side effects ranging from manageable to deadly. The information being passed around online usually features herbs and plants from western medical traditions — you’ll see a lot of pennyroyal, rue, cotton root, mugwort — mostly because it’s easiest to read historical texts in English if you’re an English speaker. And I’m not going to go as far as to say herbal abortifacients 100% do not work and are not worth it but y’all, herbal abortifacients work sometimes and are often not worth it. The tipping point between not-pregnant and liver failure can rely on something as complicated as how the herbs were grown, never mind how they were processed and prepared and dosed. And while those complexities don’t make for a cute infographic, people’s lives can depend on them. 

I have four or five books with recipes along the lines of take one handful of goat’s breeches and one handful of bard’s breath and distil in a Fine Wine until aromatic and give to the Afflicted Woman thrice under a full moon. Some of them worked. Some of them didn’t. The same books recommend stuff like keeping goat’s testicles around your neck as a means of contraception. They recommend making “clear waters” out of wildly poisonous plants to treat an upset stomach. You can do a lot of damage without dropping dead on the spot; we used to use lead as makeup, remember? The Trotula didn’t necessarily understand things like long-term organ damage or how different medications (even herbal treatments) might interact with one another. 

The issue is this: herbs used as healthcare are healthcare. And what old books and social media posts lack is the nuance and applied, individualistic knowledge that make healthcare safe. How much pennyroyal tea do you need for a pregnant person who weighs 130 pounds? How about 230? What if they have preexisting medical complications that render their kidneys less able to handle the onslaught of the very compounds that make it effective? There are people out there with that knowledge, with the years of practice and education to guide someone through the process, but there aren’t many of them. And, as with all “non-traditional” medicine, it’s difficult to tell if the person giving you advice has decades of experience or spent an hour and a half on Wikipedia before deciding they were ready to go pro. 

My first pepper of the year!!!!!!!11!!11!!! Photo by Grace Todd.

If nothing else, fall back on Occam’s razor: if there were a straightforward herbal remedy that was safe and effective, that didn’t require extensive background knowledge to correctly prepare and dose, would that knowledge have just whoopsy-daisied its way out of our common understanding? Wouldn’t it still be in active use, for any number of reasons, instead of relegated to history the minute something actually safe and effective came onto the scene? When was the last time you sat around chewing willow bark instead of taking an aspirin? 

I think there’s this weird idea that herbal remedies are inherently safe. I’ve read medical accounts of women who were hospitalized after taking herbal abortifacients when a safe abortion was readily available because they thought it was more “natural” and less risky. Because they’re just plants, right? How badly can a cup of tea really fuck you up? But there are plants in my garden I could assassinate people with. No cooking, processing, or extracting required. Anything strong enough to be efficacious is going to be dangerous. Pregnant people die all over the world, every day, as a result of misused herbs. 

I worry that these books and tweets and listicles will cause harm, yes. But I’m also worried there are people out there whose sense of urgency is blunted by the idea that there are “safe” options out there still. People who care a little, who conceptually understand that this is a problem but either aren’t directly affected or are sure that they will be able to care for themselves, even if theoretical faceless others won’t. We are a society of individualists, for better or worse; our ability to project ourselves into the struggles of others is rusty, stiff from lack of use. We know intellectually that shit is going sideways, but we don’t always feel it. And so we share infographics on Twitter and donate ten bucks to Planned Parenthood and promise each other that we’ll definitely vote in November. That’ll fix it!

I am tired of the garden being asked to make up for the shortfalls of what should be a modern society. A square of dirt will not save you from skyrocketing food and fuel prices, any more than a fistful of pennyroyal or rue will reliably end your unwanted pregnancy. Stop falling back on gardeners and witches when you want legislation and solidarity and an end to gerrymandering. Stop offering individual solutions to systemic failings. Plants and gardens are wonderful. They are important. They connect us to the natural world; they feed us and nurture us existentially and physically; they provide a sense of reflection and beauty that we all very much need in our lives. Especially when things are hard. But even the most efficient urban homestead cannot replace a functioning society. You are asking too much of it. Medical abortion and mifepristone and misoprostol are fucking miracles. Any person with an unwanted pregnancy in any prior era would have given anything to have access to something so safe and effective. 

I’m sorry that this is the world we’re living in. I’m so, so sorry. I do not judge people who will risk anything to terminate a pregnancy. I understand that devastating side effects are chances, possibilities, whereas forced birth is a certainty if nothing is done. I know that these are complicated calculations undertaken in a moment of crisis. But the very real danger is that it won’t work. That it won’t work and still have devastating health consequences. And I refuse to lose sight of the fact that these calculations shouldn’t be happening at all

<3. Photo by Grace Todd.

Do not let the idea of herbal abortions comfort you. Do not for one moment think it is a viable or acceptable alternative. Do not for one moment allow yourself to think at least — when you should be thinking: what can I do, right now, in this moment, to fight for the safe, effective, and inalienable resources we already have? 

Got a plant question you’d like answered here? Spent the afternoon making houseplant memes and none of your friends are finding them as funny as you hoped? Send queries, conundrums and inside jokes to Grace on Twitter @MissHelleborus, on Instagram, also @MissHelleborus, or via email at misshelleborus@gmail.com.

Top Photo: I am already tired of buttcrack sweat. This zinnia, though: Unbothered. Moisturized. In her lane. Flourishing. Photo by Grace Todd.

Grace Todd

Grace Todd

Grace Todd is a writer, editor and gardener living in Church Hill, where she drinks cider, hangs out with her dogs and wages battles of attrition against the crabgrass in her garden beds.




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