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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 31st July 2011

If you live in the UK, you will, probably, have seen the adverts for the new project on the BBC website. ‘Your Paintings’ aims to make around 200,000 paintings, from collections all-round the UK, available to view online and gives the public the chance to add tags to the pictures to help future visitors search for paintings that might be of particular interest to them.

So far, there are 62,980 paintings on the site and, of course, I started with a search using the term ‘garden’. It produced 246 results and the first one that interested me was entitled ‘Yew Hedge in Gilbert White’s Garden'.

Taxus baccata, yew

Taxus baccata, yew

White, of course, is known for his 1789 book ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’. This work, based on 25 years spent noting the annual progress of over 400 plant and animal species, is said to be the fourth most successful book in English ever published after the Bible, the complete works of William Shakespeare and John Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’.

White’s place in history is often cited as the first ecologist and ‘one of the founders of modern respect for nature’. That may be so, but I can’t help wondering about that when you see how manicured the Taxus baccata, yew, around his house is.

It strikes me as an example of man bending nature to his wishes and that is an old fashioned view of how the world works rather than the modern view that mankind is just one of the species inhabiting the Earth.

Much of the folklore surrounding poisonous plants comes from the idea that the human race was at the centre of the universe and everything else had some role in serving mankind’s needs. This is the premise behind what is known as the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’. This name was first used in the 17th century for the idea that the look of a plant gave an indication of how it should be used by man. But, the idea goes back much further than that.

Pliny the Elder wrote his 37 volume ‘Natural History’ during his long career in the Roman army. He, in effect, summarised all the written information of the time. He was said to write the book as he was being read to by slaves and, it seems, he was read to even during meals and when bathing. This means, you never know what Pliny experienced for himself and what he simply précised from other people’s work.

Lithospermum officinale, gromwell

Lithospermum officinale, gromwell

But, when it comes to the idea that became known as the Doctrine of Signatures, Pliny, or whoever he is plagiarising, wrote of the Lithospermum officinale, gromwell, ‘the jeweller’s art had arranged gleaming white pearls symmetrically among the leaves…[meaning it is] indisputable [that it] breaks up and brings away stone...[I]ts very appearance...[means] people can become aware of this property’. This led to its use to treat kidney and gall stones. In fact, gromwell is hepatotoxic in the same way as Senecio jacobaea, ragwort, though there are no reports of it ever causing harm.

There is nothing about the look of the yew that gives it alleged medicinal properties under the Doctrine of Signatures, but its growth habit is supposed to make it useful to humans in a bizarre way. There are various claimed reasons for having yew in a churchyard. The two that were most likely to have been pagan beliefs transferred to Christianity are that yew produces a broad spread of shallow roots just below the ground making an impenetrable net that the dead could not breach to return to life or that the yew produces very fine roots that are small enough to grow through the eyes of the dead thus preventing them from seeing their way back to this world.

There is a mass of other folklore about the yew but I haven’t seen any reason for clipping it into living sculptures other than aesthetics and, what seems to me to be, a desire to indicate a control over nature. I wonder if Gilbert White would agree.