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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday, 27th April 2012

Every generation thinks it has discovered everything and, frequently, looks back to previous generations with some degree of derision for what they did not know. The truth, of course, is that whilst we may have got much better at finding things out than our ancestors from hundreds of years ago we have not necessarily applied our new found techniques to every aspect of life.

A press release from University College London1 says that not enough is known about the effect of prescribed medication on a developing foetus. One reason for this is that pregnant women are usually not selected to take part in clinical trials and, once a drug is approved, there is not always research into this area.

Pregnancy and childbirth are recurring themes in the stories of poisonous plants. I’ve written quite a lot about Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort, and the damage it does to the kidneys, bladder and related ‘plumbing’. There is no way of knowing how often that damage was the cause of problems during and after birth for women given the plant in the belief it made childbirth easier.

But birthwort is only one of numerous plants said to either assist childbirth or terminate pregnancy. Of course, a substance that assists childbirth is also likely to cause a termination at an earlier stage in a pregnancy so there is no conflict between the two effects.

Aquilegia atrata, columbine

Aquilegia atrata, columbine

Aquilegia, such as Aquilegia atrata, columbine, is reputed to have been used as an abortificant but the best known reference to it comes in Thomas Johnson’s 1633 revision of John Gerard’s ‘Herbal’ where Johnson says that Clusius, the 16th century Flemish botanist, reports its use by Dr Francis Rapard to facilitate labour when the seeds are crushed and mixed with wine. It was thought to be widely used as a home remedy provided by the wise woman of the village.

Aquilegia provides a good example of something we could know but don’t. Partly, perhaps, because it is in the Ranunculaceae family with Aconitum, it has been suggested that columbine produces aconitine but no-one, it appears, has troubled to prove or disprove that even though the scientific techniques to do so are available.

Actaea racemosa, formerly called Cimicifuga racemosa and sold as a herbal remedy to help control hot flushes associated with the menopause under the name black cohosh, is said to be capable of causing a miscarriage.

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake, is the plant with more folklore than any other, much of it applicable only to specific countries. In Germany, mandrake root was considered a good luck charm and kept in a wooden box. It had to be taken out and bathed on a Friday or it would begin to shriek but the effort of bathing it could be made worthwhile by selling the used water to a pregnant woman to rub on her stomach and, thus, achieve pain free childbirth. 

Salix alba, the white willow

Salix alba, the white willow

Salix alba, the white willow, has almost as much folklore as the mandrake much of it involving fertility of one sort or another. All the pregnant women in a village would place one garment each under the willow tree. A leaf falling onto a garment was an indication that the willow goddess intended to grant an easy delivery.

Juniperus communis, common juniper, has been shown to be capable of causing abortion in cattle and, of course, is used to flavour gin well-known, at least before contraception and legal abortions, as ‘mother’s ruin’.

Moving from old folklore to a more recent study, it has been reported2 that consumption of caffeine from Camellia sinensis, tea, and Coffea species, coffee, can lead to reduced foetal size.

Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary, is more than just a nice way to flavour lamb or roast potatoes. John Gerard cites its use in some places to ‘provoke the desired sickness’ that is bring on menstruation or, possibly, to cause a miscarriage. It’s a fine example of how a plant may be completely innocuous for the majority of the population but for women going through the enormous physical changes required to produce a new life it is something to be concerned about.

A lot of the above is unproven and simply based on things said long ago and passed down. There is a lot we could know but we haven't got around to finding it out.

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