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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 11th July 2011

According to the cliché, ‘the truth is stranger than fiction’ and, in the seven years that I’ve been reading exclusively non-fiction, I’ve read some very strange stuff by way of folklore about poisonous plants and claims about the effects of poisons that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

But, recently, I’ve returned to reading fiction after a conscious decision to make more time in the day for leisure reading. But, it seems, I can’t completely separate reading for fun from my business and a line in the book I’m currently reading started a train of thought that is still incomplete.

There was a time when we used to buy the latest Terry Pratchett book as soon as it was published but we’d fallen a few years behind so I decided to catch up. I’m not a slavish devotee of Pratchett’s work. I think the earlier Discworld books are, generally, better because he seems to have come to believe his own publicity that his writing is relevant to modern society. For me, that means some books work too hard to crowbar in contemporary issues. But, a less good Terry Pratchett novel is still a far better read than any of the books from many ‘successful’ novelists.

In catching up, I’m actually finding I’m enjoying the books aimed at younger readers more and it was reading ‘Wintersmith’ that sparked this blog entry. I won’t attempt to summarise the plot but it heavily features witches and one line struck me as very true; ‘A witch was just someone who knew a bit more than you did.’

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

You can’t have an interest in plant folklore without coming across witches and the many ways they are involved in our approach to poisonous plants. I should say that I don’t for one moment believe in the existence of witches, although I have met a few. That’s not just a way of insulting some of the women I’ve encountered, which is how many people use the word these days. I mean that, during my time at Alnwick Garden, I met a number of people who professed themselves to be witches and although I knew they couldn’t be I didn’t argue with them because what they were was paying customers.

There are many ways that witches enter the stories of poisonous plants. Whether it is their use of hallucinogenics, like Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane, to create the feeling of flying or the various plants that can be used to keep them from entering the house. Most English people know about Ilex aquifolium, holly, and, in Scotland, the same job is performed by Sorbus aucuparia, the rowan or mountain ash. Fewer are aware, these days, that Buxus sempervirens, box, has the same role.

I’m not sure why holly and rowan have that reputation but I do know the background to the power of Buxus. The story goes that witches are compelled to count the leaves of a box bush and so, having one growing close to the door means that a witch will get her attention diverted from entering the house.

Ilex aquifolium, holly

Ilex aquifolium, holly

Anyone who knows the plant will know that it has a very compact habit and very small leaves. I augment the basic folklore by saying that witches rely on knowledge to give them their power over people. (See, that’s the Terry Pratchett connection.) This means that a witch can tell you every detail of every plant; every branch, every stem, every flower, every leaf. Except for the box, where the complexity of its structure and the sheer number of its leaves means that a witch will always lose her place as she tries to catalogue it completely and have to start all over again.

Actually, that wasn’t the Terry Pratchett connection I had in mind when I started writing this. I was thinking more about the difference between a wise woman and a witch and the importance of that distinction in modern heart medication. In 1774, when Dr. William Withering began investigating the use of Digitalis plants, foxgloves, to treat dropsy, he was partly interested because of stories that the wise women in a village in Shropshire were using the plant effectively.

Buxus sempervirens, common box

Buxus sempervirens, common box

That gives me a simple distinction between a ‘wise woman’ and a ‘witch’. If the herbal remedies provided to the rest of the village proved efficacious then she was the wise old woman. If they were either ineffective or actively harmful she very quickly became the old witch.

There are a lot of stories about witches and, I’m sure, I’ll return to them in future but I want to finish by thinking about the overlaps between witches and fairies. Especially in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, it is said that witches use the Senecio jacobaea, ragwort, rather than broomsticks, to fly around on. At least, this has been said since the 16th century. Prior to that it was fairies who used ragwort for this purpose.

The overlap between fairies and witches also happens with the holly. Though, as mentioned before, holly, in England, should be planted close to the door to keep witches away, in Ireland, holly is the home of the fairies and should be kept in a quiet part of the garden to avoid disturbing them.

It is only since I started writing this that I’ve realised that I don’t know how it comes that folklore attributed to fairies became ascribed to witches somewhere in the 16th century. It also makes me wonder if this change from supernatural icons that were essentially good to those innately evil in some way reflects a general change in the nature of the British, perhaps, even being part of why we always seem to want to see the worst in situations rather than the best.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to find an answer but, it seems, more non-fiction reading is required.