THE POISON GARDEN website      Arum maculatum berries on a Cannabis leaf 


This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 20th March 2013

I wrote last month about an email from Dr Henry Oakeley explaining how Eranthis hyemalis came by its common name of winter aconite. The email exchange continued and moved onto the general topic of plant signatures.

I’ve always read that the term ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ was coined by William Coles in his 1655 book ‘The Art of Simpling’ though I knew that Pliny wrote about the concept when saying that the seeds of Lithospermum officinale, gromwell, show it should be used to treat stones.

Lithospermum officinale, gromwell

Lithospermum officinale, gromwell

Dr. Oakeley pointed out that ‘signatures’ are referred to by a number of writers from ancient Greece and later so I assumed that meant Coles had simply added the ‘Doctrine of’ to the process.

The way to resolve the matter was, of course, to get a copy of the book and see for myself. Thanks to one of those facsimile print services it was easy enough to do though it meant waiting a while for delivery.

It’s an interesting book for a number of reasons unconnected with the signatures issue so I’ll dispense with that first. The book has 33 chapters in 113 pages so each is very brief. The chapter on signatures covers only three pages and the phrase ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ does not appear. So, if Coles did not coin it, who did? That’s a mystery for another day.

Before leaving signatures, I was interested to see that Coles has a chapter ‘Of plants, that have no signatures’. In this he points out that just because a plant does not have a signature does not mean it has no medicinal use though he says it requires ‘great Courage and Industry’ to find out these uses in the absence of God given help from the appearance of the plant.

That may mean I have to revise my talks when dealing with the work of Dr. William Withering in the 18th century on the use of the Digitalis genus, foxglove, to treat the dropsy. I’ve been saying that a key part of his work was the realisation that the absence of any signature on the foxglove did not mean it had no uses and that this opened people’s eyes to the notion that plants could be used medicinally without this visual help. It seems this was known before but, perhaps, it is one of those things that people didn’t really appreciate.

Having dealt with Coles’ writing on the matter of signatures, and raised as many questions as I answered, I want to turn to the rest of the book.

In the preface, Coles laments that the art of simpling has become contemptible and anyone practising it is considered ‘a simple fellow’ and his intention is to bring people back to the notion of trusting God to have provided all that is required for the treatment of a particular condition in a single plant rather than needing the complex potions that were in favour in Coles’ time. There’s a contemporary resonance to that argument given that some advocates of Cannabis sativa, marijuana, legalisation argue that the pharmaceutical companies are partly to blame for the current situation because they don’t want their complex and profitable medications supplanted by the simple cannabis plant.

I mentioned that it is quite a short book and that, to me, seems to undo its main purpose. If Coles is seeking to educate people so they can identify which plants to use to treat what conditions then, I would expect, he needs to provide a lot of detail. In fact, many of the chapters end with phrases like ‘enough is as good as a feast’ or reference to cutting short his discourse so as not to try the patience of the reader. It is a little as though the Encyclopaedia Britannica ended at the letter ‘E’ on the basis that to continue would be too boring.

Obviously, the work has a good measure of superstition in it. When talking about the gathering of plants for medicinal uses, Coles says that the full moon is a good time to do this for plants where the juice is to be extracted though he claims this is because the plants have most juice at this time in the lunar cycle.

That is the only part of any astronomical connection to the efficacy of plants that Coles acknowledges. The much more complex interactions between plants and planets that are a particular feature of Culpeper’s ‘The Complete Herbal and English Physician Enlarged’, the edition of his work published in 1653, are very sternly derided by Coles. In the same chapter he says;

‘If Mr. Culpeper had but in a moderate measure understood this doctrine, or known but the tithe of what he has pretended unto, the world had not been abused with such lame and imperfect directions, as he (in his English Physician enlarged) has left upon it.’

He continues in this vein saying ‘he was a man very ignorant’ and complaining of ‘the scurrility wherewith he cloaked his ignorance’ and suggesting his books could only be of interest to those ‘willing to be cheated with words’.

And these comments are milder than those Coles gives in the dedication at the front of the book to Elias Ashmole. Here he talks of Culpeper’s ‘nonsensical stories’ and ‘fallacious assertions’ and says that country people may have ‘swallowed his bait’ and been ‘too too much deceived’ as a result.

Culpeper had died in 1854 and you can’t libel the dead so it seems that Cole, writing in 1855, took full advantage of the opportunity to release what sounds like a long-standing frustration that people paid attention to Culpeper’s mumbo-jumbo.

Though I have a copy of Culpeper’s herbal, I rarely refer to it because I entirely share Coles’ views and I was very pleased to discover that, even when those ‘nonsensical stories’ were contemporary, not everyone was taken in by them.

It is proving very difficult to find any biographical information for William Coles. I did find someone who says that Coles first reference to the Doctrine of Signatures comes in his 1857 book ‘Adam in Eden: or, Natures Paradise, The History of Plants, Fruits, Herbs and Flowers’. Though that is incorrect, given that the later work runs to 638 pages, it may be that he deals with the subject in more detail.

I may have some more reading to do.


Full Entries


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


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


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