THE POISON GARDEN website      Arum maculatum berries on a Cannabis leaf 

Search thepoisongarden.co.uk:

This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

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.

 

Full Entries

2016

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

2015

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



IMPORTANT NOTE

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