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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 13th July 2011

Sometimes nothing makes a difference. That’s not a statement of despair. I don’t mean ‘everything makes no difference’, which is the sense normally applied to that first sentence. No, I mean that, on occasion, adding nothing can alter, if not real events, then, at least, the way we think about them.

Before this becomes too obscure, let me explain. I’m thinking about the difference that can arise by inserting a space into a word and making two words with nothing between them. ‘Womankind’ covers a whole gender where ‘woman kind’ is one pleasant representative of that gender.

‘Eyestrain’ and ‘eyes train’ are two very different things and there’s a whole list of domain names for websites where removing a space results in a perfectly acceptable business name turning into something else; anything from slight innuendo capable of provoking a smirk to outright obscene. I’ll stick to an inoffensive example. If your business supplies clothing to young people, calling it ‘Children’s Wear’ is fine. The trouble comes when your domain name is childrenswear. Just Google ‘funny domain name’ if you want to find other examples.

I’ve been thinking about this since Monday 11th July when I wrote about the way that, in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, witches were said to ride out on the stalks of Senecio jacobaea, ragwort. We all recognise the idea of witches riding around on broomsticks and, thanks mostly to the Disney Corporation, we most of us conjure up the same image of a point-headed hag astride a broomstick, silhouetted against the moon.

But, what happens if you put nothing, that is, a space, into the word. Could it be that, originally, witches rode around on broom sticks rather than broomsticks? It’s very difficult to dig back into the history of the story and be sure you’re not seeing later interpretations added on to what looks like ancient belief.

The first problem is trying to determine, in plant terms, what is meant by ‘broom’. Wikipedia lists 25 genera that have plants that are referred to as broom but says that three, Chamaecytisus, Cytisus and Genista, are the ones most often given that name or a variant of it like ‘French broom’ for Genista monspessulana. As usual, common naming rapidly causes confusion because ‘Spanish broom’ is not a different species of Genista but Spartium junceum.

Many ‘brooms’ are poisonous and I shall have to try and put together a page for this site covering all of them. But, a harmful effect on humans is almost unknown. Spartium junceum is a Category ‘C’ plant on the HTA list of potentially harmful plants though it is believed to have only ever caused mild upset. The name broom is, sometimes, ascribed to plants in the Laburnum genus but, even that plant, so well-known for its apparent danger, causes few serious poisoning incidents.

So, was there something special about ‘broom’ that made it a favourite for witches over other woody plant stalks? There does appear to have been something significant about it. Geoffrey V of Anjou, who lived from 1113 to 1151, is said to have put a sprig of broom in his helmet when going into battle. He was the father of Henry II of England. Henry was the first of the Plantagenet kings and the name is said to come from his father’s wearing of broom since the French for ‘broom’ is ‘genet’. It is usually said that Geoffrey’s helmet foliage was to enable identification but, I wonder, if the broom was believed to confer some power.

Of course, with the name being so widespread it is possible that the naming is reversed. That is, an implement made from branches and twigs and used to sweep floors may have been called a broom before that name passed to the plants that were used to make the tool.

There may also be a chemical reason for choosing broom. At least some of the plants referred to as broom have hallucinogenic properties. Cytisus canariensis, with the common name ‘genista’ just to aid the confusion, was used by the aboriginal people of northern Mexico, especially the shamans, though it originates in the Canary Islands.

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade

Witches are said to have used hallucinogenic salves to create the feeling of flying, particularly for novices learning their trade. The salves were made from a variety of plants but notably Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane, and Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade. ‘The Herbal or General History of Plants’ was written by John Gerard and published in 1598 but it is the 1633 edition, substantially revised by Thomas Johnson, the man said to have first discovered Cannabis sativa growing in England, that has survived to our time.

The writer, whether Gerard or Johnson you cannot say, uses delicate language to try and convey many of the less delicate ways that plants have been used, medicinally and in folklore. He writes about this witches salve and says it would be applied to the ‘armpits and other hairy places’. That being so, it would seem that the broomstick in the Disney archetype should be rotated through 90 degrees.

So, was ‘broom’ selected because it could add to the power of the hallucinogens needed to create the illusion of flight? Or was every type of wood used to make a tool for sweeping called ‘broom’?

Reading this back, I’ve realised that I’ve rather rambled around the possibilities and not reached a conclusion. But that’s OK because, often, you cannot come to a clear conclusion about things that happened hundreds of years ago and have been reported over those years in a sort of historical Chinese whispers. That’s something I always try and remember when you get one of those TV programmes that claims to be able to reveal the ‘truth’ about a matter from long ago.