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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 8th July 2011

Today is our wedding anniversary. For reasons that I won’t go into here, we don’t celebrate this, or any other annual festival but I thought I would use today’s blog post to look at some of the poisonous plants that have associations with weddings and marriage.

Hedera helix, ivy

Hedera helix, ivy

I’ll try and limit myself to those areas because once you start onto the overlap between poisonous plants and alleged aphrodisiacs you’re talking about a book not a blog post.

Let’s begin with Hedera helix, ivy. The ancient Greeks and, probably, many other early cultures, took ivy to be the physical form of the goddess of life because, being evergreen, it was one of the few plants capable of carrying life through the winter and passing it to the other plants in the spring.

Perhaps, it was this association with continuing life that resulted in its use in bridal wreaths. These were presented to the bride by the priest in an analogue of the supposed relationship between the goddess, Hedera helix, and the rest of the plant kingdom.

From this association with marriage came its alleged ability to ensure fidelity and fertility. Now, of course, it is well-known that alcohol can be a cause of a lack of fidelity and unwanted fertility so it is interesting that ivy was dedicated to Bacchus the god of intoxication. It is said that ivy can prevent intoxication from drinking alcohol simply by wearing a wreath around the head.

Vinca major, periwinkle

Vinca major, periwinkle

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy, has a number of folkloric associations with love and marriage. One of them has rather sinister intent but, mostly, they are associated with finding a husband. By placing a question about love inside an emptied seed capsule and sleeping with the capsule under her pillow, a maiden would dream the answer.

As often happens with folklore, there are regional variations on a theme and with the poppy, in Scotland, a maiden would scatter seeds around her bed on St Andrew’s Night in order to dream of her future husband.

You have to assume that only someone with evil intent would choose to place poppy seeds in a bride’s shoe in order to make her infertile. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to determine whether the effect was permanent or had some sort of time limit to it.

Vinca major, periwinkle, is mentioned in a 16th century book entitled ‘the boke of secretes of Albertus Magnus of the vertues of Herbes, Stones and certaine beastes’. This gives a recipe involving Vinca, leeks and dried earthworms that are to be made into a powder for scattering over the food of a married couple in order to restore their love for each other.

Narcissus, daffodil

Narcissus, daffodil

Again, there are regional variations and in the Ukraine Vinca is used at weddings in the same way as ivy described above.

Of course, not every plant associated with love and marriage has a beneficial effect on relationships. There are two stories associated with plants in the Narcissus genus, the daffodils, that lead to its negative reputation in matters of love. When Narcissus lost the love of Echo because she could only repeat the words of others and could not, therefore, tell him she loved him, he was punished for his lack of trust by being doomed to fall in love with the next person he saw. This turned out to be his reflection.

So the daffodil has links with lost love and sorrow. When Pluto grabbed Prosperine and took her to the underworld, he was able to capture her because her whole attention was focussed on picking daffodils. So it a plant of deceit and an indicator of impending death. Giving a bride daffodils for her bouquet would be a very unfriendly act.

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

I said I was going to stay away from the area of alleged aphrodisiacs but one is worth a mention because almost the first written reference to it concerns fidelity in marriage.

The book of Genesis, in the Old Testament, tells the story of Jacob who was married to Rachel but had slept with Leah her elder sister on the wedding night. Leah had children by Jacob but Rachel was barren. It was in the hope of overcoming this barrenness that Rachel asked Leah to let her have the Mandragora officinarum, mandrake, that Leah’s son, Reuben, found when out working in the fields one day.