Sigesbeckia is an annual herb from the Asteraceae family that grows approximately 1 metre high. There are three species used in traditional medicine for joint and muscle pain, Sigesbeckia orientalis, Sigesbeckia pubescens and Sigesbeckia glabracens, although the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, only recognised two species, with S. pubescens considered a subspecies of S. orientalis. Sigesbeckia orientalis and its subspecies pubescens are the most commonly used medicinally.
The branches are covered purple-brownish hairs, as are the triangular leaves, which gives it its subspecies name pubescens. It has yellow tongue-shaped flowers that appear in late summer and early autumn. Its full scientific name is Sigesbeckia orientalis L. subsp. pubescens (Makino) H.Koyama, but it is more commonly known as Sigesbeckia, St Paul’s wort and in some circles as ‘pig pungent weed’.
The name of the plant has an interesting background story. In the 1700s, Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist formalised the naming system for organisms with a system called binomial nomenclature. His work led him to be known by the epithet “the father of modern taxonomy”. Linnaeus’ new classification system for plants was based on plant’s sexual organs, namely the stamens and pistils. This system was not well received in many circles as it was felt to be ‘unnatural’, and the Pope even forbade the introduction of Linnaeus’ works to the Vatican library. One of the critics of Linnaeus’ work was the German doctor and botanist Johann Georg Siegesbeck who felt the system was ‘repugnant and immoral’. Siegesbeck tried to refute Linnaeus’ sexual system, but couldn’t back up his arguments with sound scholastic arguments.
One of Linnaeus’ ideas in his work Critica Botanica is that there should be a link between the plant and the botanist after whom it was named. For example, magnolia has ‘handsome leaves and flowers, which recalls the splendid botanist Magnol’, whilst ‘Dorstenia has insignificant flowers, faded past their prime like the work of Dorsten. It is not surprising therefore that in the classification book Hortus Cliffortianus that Linnaeus had named a little stinking weed Siegesbeckia.
Whilst some authors still refer to the plant as Siegesbeckia, the correct spelling of the genus, according to The Royal Botanical Gardens (Kew), is Sigesbeckia.