THE POISON GARDEN website      Arum maculatum berries on a Cannabis leaf 


This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 7th June 2011

I suppose we’ve all got our heroes. Those people who we believe played a vital role in how the world works. It was perfectly clear from the first part of ‘Botany: A Blooming History’, shown on BBC4 this evening, that for Timothy Walker, the presenter, John Ray was such a hero.

The first programme was, supposedly, about how botany was created and how ‘the mysteries of the plant kingdom’ were ‘unlocked’. The approach was to suggest that the idea of plant classification started with John Ray in the middle of the 17th century bringing an end to beliefs based purely on superstition before following the story through to Linnaeus and his binomial system.

Now, I realise there are time constraints on TV programmes and I know some simplification is necessary for the general audience but really… No Theophrastrus. No Dioscorides. No John Gerard. No Fuchs. And no William Turner, who is often called the ‘Father of English Botany’ to distinguish him from Theophrastus who is given the epithet ‘Father of Botany’.

If anyone really wants to know about how plants got their names, they would be much better advised to read Anna Pavord’s excellent ‘The Naming of Names’. It is 403 pages of text and she brings John Ray in on page 372 with the words ‘the final protagonist of this story’. So, Ray is not where it all starts, he’s pretty much where it all ends.

This idea that it was only in the 17th century that we got clever enough to move beyond superstition does a great injustice to our ancestors.

Chelidonium majus, greater celandine

Take the Chelidonium majus, greater celandine. It was sometimes called swallow wort because of a claim made by Pliny that swallows would use a little of the plant juice to restore the sight of their blind young. But, it is also called wart wort because that same juice is caustic and was used to burn off worts. That’s not something you would want in your eyes.

Nonetheless for a long time it was recommended as a treatment for inflammations and other diseases of the eye. Anglo-Saxon medical books give recipes for its use that involve gentle heating for some time to remove the caustic effect. During this heating it is necessary to recite an incantation or the remedy won’t work. It’s easy to dismiss that as superstition or mumbo jumbo but that approach forgets that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t have watches or clocks so you couldn’t say ‘simmer for 3 minutes’. Saying ‘recite this thrice while simmering’ was a way to set a time for the heating to have an effect. Furthermore, I believe, having that recitation use strange or foreign words was a way of enduring a reasonably consistent speed in the speaker.

It really is time ‘experts’ stopped branding our predecessors as ‘superstitious’ and letting that be a synonym for ‘stupid’ and focussed on how much they did know about how the world worked and how much their efforts have shaped our knowledge. In we don’t do that, people in 300 years will be calling us ‘superstitious’.



Full Entries


Tuesday 25th October 2016
Saturday 20th August 2016
Sunday 6th March 2016
Wednesday 3rd February 2016


Saturday 28th November 2015
Friday 27th November 2015
Monday 17th August 2015
Wednesday 15th July 2015
Friday 26th June 2015
Thursday 25th June 2015
Thursday 30th April 2015
Wednesday 29th April 2015
Wednesday 11th March 2015
Tuesday 3rd March 2015
Saturday 28th February 2015
Sunday 22nd February 2015

November 2014

Monday 24th November 2014
Saturday 8th November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

Wednesday 24th September 2014
Monday 1st September 2014

August 2014

Tuesday 26th August 2014
Saturday 16th August 2014
Tuesday 5th August 2014
Friday 1st August 2014

July 2014

Sunday 27th July 2014
Wednesday 23rd July 2014
Sunday 13th July 2014
Sunday 6th July 2014
Tuesday 1st July 2014

June 2014

Wednesday 25th June 2014
Tuesday 24th June 2014
Sunday 22nd June 2014
Monday 9th June 2014
Wednesday 4th June 2014

May 2014

Monday 26th May 2014
Sunday 18th May 2014
Wednesday 14th May 2014

April 2014

Sunday 13th April 2014
Saturday 5th April 2014
Thursday 3rd April 2014
Tuesday 1st April 2014

March 2014

Monday 31st March 2014
Tuesday 25th March 2014
Friday 21st March 2014
Monday 17th March 2014
Sunday 16th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Thursday 6th March 2014
Wednesday 5th March 2014
Saturday 1st March 2014

February 2014

Thursday 27th February 2014
Monday 24th February 2014
Wednesday 19th February 2014
Monday 17th February 2014
Thursday 13th February 2014
Monday 4th February 2014
Monday 3rd February 2014
Saturday 1st February 2014

January 2014

Thursday 28th January 2014
Thursday 23rd January 2014
Friday 17th January 2014
Wednesday 15th January 2014
Monday 13th January 2014
Thursday 9th January 2014
Tuesday 7th January 2014
Wednesday 1st January 2014

December 2013

Monday 23rd December 2013
Friday 20th December 2013
Tuesday 17th December 2013
Friday 14th December 2013
Thursday 12th December 2013
Sunday 8th December 2013
Wednesday 4th December 2013
Sunday 1st December 2013

November 2013

Friday 29th November 2013
Wednesday 27th November 2013
Tuesday 26th November 2013
Friday 22nd November 2013
Monday 18th November 2013
Friday 15th November 2013
Thursday 14th November 2013
Sunday 10th November 2013
Thursday 7th November 2013
Wednesday 6th November 2013
Friday 1st November 2013

October 2013

Thursday 31st October 2013
Sunday 27th October 2013
Wednesday 23rd October 2013
Monday 21st October 2013
Friday 18th October 2013
Friday 11th October 2013
Wednesday 9th October 2013
Tuesday 8th October 2013
Monday 7th October 2013
Tuesday 1st October 2013

September 2013

Monday 30th September 2013
Saturday 28th September 2013
Friday 27th September 2013
Monday 23rd September 2013
Sunday 15th September 2013
Monday 9th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

August 2013

Sunday 8th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

Tuesday 27th August 2013
Sunday 25th August 2013
Monday 19th August 2013
Friday 16th August 2013
Tuesday 13th August 2013
Friday 9th August 2013
Friday 2nd August 2013
Thursday 1st August 2013

July 2013

Saturday 27th July 2013
Sunday 21st July 2013
Wednesday 17th July 2013
Monday 15th July 2013
Saturday 13th July 2013
Friday 12th July 2013
Thursday 11th July 2013
Wednesday 10th July 2013
Tuesday 9th July 2013
Saturday 6th July 2013

June 2013

Friday 28th June 2013
Tuesday 25th June 2013
Friday 21st June 2013
Thursday 20th June 2013
Wednesday 19th June 2013
Saturday 15th June 2013
Sunday 9th June 2013
Saturday 8th June 2013
Saturday 1st June 2013

May 2013

April 2013

March 2013

February 2013

January 2013

December 2012

November 2012

October 2012

September 2012

August 2012

July 2012 blog

June 2012 blog

May 2012 blog

April 2012 blog

March 2012 blog

February 2012 blog

January 2012 blog

December 2011 blog

November 2011 blog

October 2011 blog

September 2011 blog

August 2011 blog

July 2011 blog

June 2011 blog


The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.