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The vitamin C in lemon and oranges (50 mg/100 g) are exceeded in the needles and bark of several conifers...

It was believed that a number of conifer trees, known as "Annedda," were responsible for providing a remarkable remedy for scurvy to Jacques Cartier's severely ill crew in 1536. This cure was credited to Vitamin C, extracted from an Iroquois concoction made from the bark and leaves of the "tree of life," now commonly referred to as arborvitae. Examination of the amino acids in these potential "trees of life" indicates that the decoctions prepared in the challenging winter months probably contained significant levels of arginine, proline, and guanidino compounds.

The semi-essential arginine, proline and all the essential amino acids, would have provided additional nutritional benefits for the rapid recovery from scurvy by vitamin C when food supply was limited. The value of arginine, especially in the recovery of the critically ill sailors, is postulated as a source of nitric oxide, and the arginine-derived guanidino compounds as controlling factors for the activities of different nitric oxide synthases. This review provides further insights into the use of the candidate "trees of life" by indigenous peoples in eastern Canada. It raises hypotheses on the nutritional and synergistic roles of arginine, its metabolites, and other biofactors complementing the role of vitamin C especially in treating Cartier's critically ill sailors.

The recovery from scurvy in Jacques Cartier's crew in 1536

Scurvy is an acute chronic illness caused by a dietary deficiency of ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Humans are not able to synthesize vitamin C from glucose because they lack a gluconolactone oxidase [10]. There are two active forms of vitamin C: L-ascorbic acid and dehydroascorbic acid. Ascorbic acid is absorbed by the small intestine and requires an energy-dependent active transport system. It is stored in all tissues. Exposure to long periods of cold temperatures can lead to ascorbic-acid insufficiency.

The first symptoms of scurvy occur when the total-body pool of vitamin C falls below five grams. The body requires vitamin C to efficiently use carbohydrates, fats, and protein. It binds and neutralizes the tissue-damaging effects of free radicals. It is an essential cofactor for the formation of collagen, the body's major building protein, and is essential to the proper functioning of all internal organs.

Scurvy is characterized principally by anemia, hemorrhagic manifestations in the skin (ecchymoses and perifollicular haemorrhage), and in the musculoskeletal system (haemorrhage into periosteum and muscles). The gums start to bleed. Teeth are loosened [24]. With no vitamin C intake, the symptoms of scurvy would occur after one to three months. Unless treated, scurvy is fatal.

At Stadaconna (46° 49' N, 71° 13' N) and in November1535, Canada's cold struck with its entire rigor, and ice thickened to two fathoms. In December, over 50 of the Iroquois died from an unknown sickness (scurvy). The sickness began to spread to Cartier's crews in all three of his ships. By mid-February 1536, of the 110 member crews, 8 were already dead and more than 50 past all hope of recovery. Excerpts from Burrage [1, p. 73] reveal that the unknown sickness in Cartier's crew

"spread itselfe amongst us after the strangest sort that ever was eyther heard of or seene, insomuch as some did lose all their strength, and could not stand on their feete, then did their legges swel, their sinnowes shrinke as blacke as any cole. Others also had all their skins spotted with spots of blood of a purple colour: then did it ascend up to their ankels, knees, thighes, shoulders, armes and necke: their mouth became stincking, their gummes so rotten, that all the flesh did fall off, even to the rootes of teeth, which did also almost fall out".

"Our Captaine seeing this our misery, and that the sicknesse was gone to farre, ordained and commanded, that every one should devoutly prepare himselfe to prayer, and in remembrance of Christ, caused his Image to be set upon a tree, about a flight shot from the fort amidst the yce and snow, giving all men to understand, that on the Sunday following, service should be said there, and that whosoever could goe, sicke or whole, should go thither in Procession, singing the seven Psalmes of David, with other Letanies, praying most heartily that it would please the said our Christ to have compassion upon us ... That day Philip Rougemont...being 22 yeeres olde, and because the sicknesse was to us unknown, our Captaine caused him to be ripped to see if by any meanes possible we might know what it was...he was found to have his heart white, but rotten, and more than a quart of red water about it: his liver was indifferent faire, but his lungs blacke and mortified, his blood was altogither shrunke about the heart, so that when he was opened great quantitie of rotten blood issued out from about his heart...Moreover, because one of his thighs was very blacke without, it was opened, but within it was whole and sound." Scurvy continued to spread until not more than three sound men remained in the ships. None were able to go under the hatches to "draw drink for himselfe, nor for his fellows."

At Stadaconna, Cartier encountered the native Domagaia, who

"not passing ten or twelve dayes afore, had bene very sike with that disease, and had his knees swolne as bigge as a childe of two yeres old, all his sinews shrunke together, his teeth spoyled, his gummes rotten, and stinking. Our Captaine seeing him whole and sound, was therat marvelous glad, hoping to understand and know of him how he had healed himselfe...He answered, that he had taken the juice and sappe of the leaves of a certain Tree, and therewith had healed himselfe: For it is a singular remedy against that disease."


"sent two women to fetch some of it, which brought ten or twelve branches of it, and therewithall shewed the way how to use it... to take the barke and leaves of the sayd tree, and boile them togither, then to drinke of the sayd decoction every other day, and to put the dregs of it upon his legs that is sicke: moreover, they told us, that the vertue of that tree was, to heale any other disease: the tree in their language called Ameda or Hanneda..." Other translations refer to the tree as "Annedda", "Anneda" or "Hanneda" [2]. This sickness was treated with a boiled decoction from the bark and leaves of "a tree as big as any oak in France".

Cook [25] translates that

"The Captain at once ordered a drink to be prepared for the sick men but none of them would taste it. At length one or two thought they would risk a trial. As soon as they had drunk it they felt better, which must clearly be ascribed to miraculous causes; for after drinking it two or three times they recovered health and strength and were cured of all the diseases they had ever had. And some of the sailors who had been suffering for five or six years from the French pox [syphilis] were by this medicine cured completely. When this became known, there was such a press for the medicine that they almost killed each other to have it first; so that in less than eight days a whole tree as large and as tall as any I ever saw was used up, and produced such a result that had all the doctors of Louvain and Montpellier been there, with all the drugs of Alexandria, they could not have done so much in a year as did this tree in eight days; for it benefitted us so much that all who were willing to use it recovered health and strength, thanks be to God."

We do not know how much ascorbic acid was lost during the boiling of the decoction and in the recovery of the "dregs", but it is clear that sufficient vitamin C was available to initiate a cure.

In today's healthy men, the body is estimated to store 1,500 mg of ascorbic acid. It is used at an average rate of 3% of the existing pool per day [26]. After three months of vitamin C deprivation, the stores become largely depleted. The earliest signs of depletion begin during the first month of deprivation. Bleeding gums are not the most characteristic feature of scurvy and are a late manifestation.

Except in the most severe cases, vitamin C would stop spontaneous bleeding within 24 hours and bleeding of the gums would stop in two to three days. Muscle and bone pain would quickly fade [24].

In advanced scurvy another group of symptoms becomes identifiable [15, 24]. They include ocular haemorrhages, loss of secretion of salivary and lachrymal glands, swelling of the parotid and submaxillary glands, loss of hair, femoral neuropathy, oliguria with edema of the lower extremities, psychological disturbances, impaired vascular activity, poor responses to stimuli that normally activate vasomotor adaptive mechanisms, and scorbutic arthritis, which is clinically similar to rheumatoid arthritis with pain, swelling, joint effusions, and limited motion.

All of the above would respond completely to therapy with ascorbic acid given the added nutritional benefits of the conditionally and essential amino acids and other biofactors in the decoction.

Identities of Annedda and the trees of life

Before 1547 and during the reign of François 1er, seeds of Annedda were delivered to the Royal Garden (Jardin du Roi) at Fontainbleau and presented to the King. Apparently seeds were collected from a tree or trees similar to Annedda [2]. In 1553, Belon wrote in the Bulletin Dendrologique that Annedda was growing in the Royal Gardens at Fontainbleau. Nearby was another small tree, a five-needled pine, referred to as the second tree of life. Wood from these trees were used as medicine.

In Hickel's translation [27] of Belon's book, we read that

"...à cette époque, les seules espèces exotiques introduites étaient l'Arborvitae (Thuya occidentalis) et Pinus strobus, et que, d'autre part l'auteur confond plus ou moins diverses espèces de pins." When Belon visited Turkey, he found a tree similar to the one at Fontainebleau, which was brought from Canada and called "Arbre de Vie". Moore [6] citing the works of Bolle [28] and Annon. [29], who both reexamined Belon's records, proposed that the identity of the Annedda was not eastern white cedar, but a five-needled white pine (Pinus strobus). It is now evident that two trees of life were introduced from North America as exotic species [2, 6].

In 1632, the botanical garden, established in Paris in 1632 by King Louis XIII of France, was intended for the cultivation of medicinal plants

"The fate of the pine at Fontainbleau is not known" [6]. Bolle [28]"could not find any further record of eastern white pine growing in Europe until 150 years later when it was introduced into England".

In 1632, the botanical garden, established in Paris in 1632 by King Louis XIII of France, was intended for the cultivation of medicinal plants [5]. Landowners and naturalists were engaged in testing the effects of climate upon growing new exotic species arriving in France. A Bridgeman Art Library archive shows a "burgeoning bower" resembling eastern white pine in the botanical garden (Nature 2001, 410, 303). The King's garden survived the French Revolution (1796–1798) and its nurseries were used to provide patriotic 'trees of liberty'. They were planted in front of public buildings. The first trees of liberty were actually maypoles planted by peasants as a symbol of revolt against local lords in the winter of 1790.

Today, Annedda is commonly referred to as eastern white cedar or arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis L.). This appellation was based on botanical evaluations, historical documents, naval and folklore medicine, notes of Cartier's contemporaries, and on the estimates of biochemical content of vitamin C [2]. The anti-scorbutic benefits of the candidate trees of life are abundant in the records and reviews of indigenous Maritime medicine [2, 3, 3033].

Conifers, native along the travel routes of Jacques Cartier, and with known high levels of vitamin C are Picea rubens, Pinus resinosa, Pinus nigra, and Pinus banksiana.

In the "Native Trees of Canada", Canada Forest Service Bulletin 1919, No. 61 the botanical names of conifers had popular names. Thuja occidentalis was called cedar, and referred to as white cedar, and arborvitae. Pinus strobus was called white pine, and sometimes referred to as Weymouth pine, pattern pine, eastern white, yellow, and Quebec pine. Picea canadensis was called white spruce, and sometimes northern, skunk, cat spruce, and pine. Pinus banksiana was called jack pine and sometimes grey pine, cypress, juniper, and Banksian pine.

Today, the eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis L.) has the largest number of cultivars, and many do not resemble the species type [34]. Mature trees will reach 30 to 40 feet tall with a spread of 15 feet. The upright cultivars are much shorter. The latter would unlikely be "as big as any oak in France". In eastern Canada, white pine was reported to reach a height of 250 feet and a diameter of 6 to 15 feet [35].

Conifer decoctions for the treatment of scurvy

Domagaia cured himself with the "the juice and sappe of the leaves of a certain tree". Adult scurvy is now treated with 300–1000 mg of ascorbic acid per day [15]. In clinical dermatology, ascorbic acid is recommended three times a day, 100 mg is given until 4 g is reached, and then 100 mg/d becomes curative in days to weeks [24]. Repletion studies demonstrated recovery from daily doses of only 6.5 [26]. Larger doses gave more rapid improvement and increased ascorbic acid storage in the body. The plasma levels of ascorbic acid attained depended on body weight (dose per kg of body weight) and on whether or not any prior depletion had been adequately repleted [16].

In early explorers, a deficiency of vitamin C repeatedly caused morbidity and death [36, 37]. Teas, brews, and beers, prepared from the needles of spruces and pines, were used to treat the symptoms of scurvy [38, 39]. Scurvy remedies were being made, sold and used under the name of "sapinette"[2]."According to the physician Gardane, in Des maladies des créoles (Paris 1784), this was a decoction of "sapin du Nord", or Picea abies . In Canada sapinette was made from the buds of the "Prussian fir", a name which was used indiscriminately for Abies alba , A. balsamea , and Picea abiesby Cartier. Sapinette was widely used in Canada, but the recipe seems to have come originally from the Baltic coast and sapinette was being used by the Russian navy long before the French took interest in it. The Russians in fact did use fermented pine buds with their fir decoction, though the species here is not specified. But it seems the French used fir, even in Canada" (Spary, personal communication [5]).

Spary writes, "The French were experimenting with sapinette on their long-distance voyages during the 1780s, and it was stocked on board the Laperouse expedition vessels"..." sapinette was bought ready-made from London. All things considered, this does not suggest that there was a direct connection between Pinus strobusin particular and the antiscorbutic programme, though it is entirely possible that this species was brought to Paris to be investigated for its virtues in that regard". The British knew of the anti-scorbutic benefits of sapinette and of lemons and oranges in a cure for scurvy [37]. In 1753 scurvy was recognized by the British medical community as directly related to dietary deficiency.

Spruce beer was used as an anti-scorbuticum by James Cook in his second Pacific voyages in Western Canada (1772–1775) [40]. Cook obtained this recipe for spruce beer from Joseph Banks who had visited Newfoundland before Cook [41]. The beer was prepared from fresh needles of a spruce tree, which in New Zealand was Dacrydium cupressinum [42]. On Cook's third voyage near Alaska, Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) was used but it was not as acceptable as the brew from Dacrydium. [43]. A similar drink called "Kallebogas" was used in Newfoundland. Variations involved the addition of rum and maple sugar [44].

Vitamin C was first isolated from paprika, chemically identified, and its metabolic role worked out by Albert Szent-Györgyi. He found that vitamin C also required cofactors to function properly. These cofactors are now known to be flavonoids. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1937 for his discoveries in biological combustion with special reference to vitamin C and for the catalysis of fumaric acid, an intermediate in the citric acid cycle. These factors, taken together, were probably available in the decoction used to cure scurvy.

Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and black spruce (Picea mariana) served as ascorbutica [32, 44]. The indigenous peoples of the Maritime Provinces of Canada used roots, twigs, leaves, and bark, but rarely strobili or seeds in decoctions taken as a cupful in the morning [3]. Teas, prepared by steeping or boiling leaves from conifers, served as refreshing drinks and a tonic of medicinal value [33]. Green tissues offer high moisture content, vitamin C, folic acid, minerals and other biofactors. Roots are a good source of minerals but provide only small amounts of vitamins in a 100-gram portion [32]. The bark was usually collected from the east side of the tree. The selected root or branch ran to the east [3]. The reason was that these collections benefited from having more potency obtained from sunlight.

The vitamin C in lemon and oranges (50 mg/100 g) are exceeded in the needles and bark of several conifer spp.

The vitamin C in lemon and oranges (50 mg/100 g) are exceeded in the needles and bark of several conifer spp. [33]. Reduced ascorbic acid in 100 g of fresh needles and shoots was reported in Abies balsamea (270 mg), Picea rubens (169 mg), Pinus strobus (32 mg, bark contained 200 mg), Thuja occidentalis (45 mg) [2]. R. B. Thomson at the University of Toronto found a content of 20–80 mg reduced ascorbate in 100 g of white spruce bark [2]. For the treatment of scurvy, spruce (white and black) was considered as a likely candidate for the tree of life based on the ethnobotanical literature. Spruce is frequently recorded as being antiscorbutric and common in Quebec City.

White pine was also widely used.

The extracts from Cartier's tree of life raised considerable interest as a cure for all diseases. In 1494 King Charles VIII of France had already invaded Italy. Within months, his army collapsed and was routed not by the Italian army but by a mysterious new disease [45]. The disease was spread through sex and killed many of Charles's solders. European physicians were already aware of the root of sarsaparilla (Smilax officinalis) as a tonic, blood purifier, diuretic, and sweat promoter. Cartier's claim for the Iroquois decoction as a cure of all diseases may have been overstated to impress King François 1er (1515–1547). It is unlikely that vitamin C and other components from the trees of life would have cured syphilis in Cartier's crew at Stadaconna.



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