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.

Sunday 31st March 2013

I wondered if I might be able to write a blog about the poisonous plants that have folklore associated with the execution of Jesus Christ and quickly realised that there are a lot of them and I might struggle to include them all.

Before getting to specific plants it is worth thinking about how this folklore comes about. It is similar to the Doctrine of Signatures that I wrote about recently. That is, it is part of trying to understand the world in the absence of the understanding of the science involved. If you want a better description of what I mean by that, together with plenty of laughs, try this YouTube clip of Tim Minchin.

There are, as you would expect, a number of different views about what the site of the crucifixion was like since it has never been identified. Its name, Calvary, is said to have something to do with skulls and some people say it was an area strewn with skulls, others that it was a mount and others describe it as a bare hill.

Arum maculatum, cuckoopint

Arum maculatum, cuckoopint

I haven’t come across anyone saying it was a garden, which it would need to have been if all the plants said to have been present at Christ’s death were to be accommodated. Arum maculatum, cuckoopint, along with Conium maculatum, poison hemlock, are said to be speckled (the translation of maculatum) because they were growing under the cross and were spattered with Jesus' blood when his side was pierced. With the poison hemlock, the speckled appearance only starts in the early spring so the plant is said to be participating in the annual remembrance of the event.

Fritillaria imperialis, crown imperial

Fritillaria imperialis, crown imperial

Though they managed to avoid getting blood-spattered, plants in the Fritillaria genus were present because they hung their heads in shame and have stayed that way ever since. There are a number of other non-poisonous plants that are also said to be displaying sadness and shame. Take any plant with a downward pointing flower and you are likely to find that this folklore is attached to it by, at least, some cultures.

Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss, is also known as ‘our saviour’s flannel’ but so, in Kent, is Verbascum, mullein, making it difficult to determine which of the two’s leaves were made into the flannel used to wipe Christ’s brow.

Whilst not necessarily present at Calvary, Ilex aquifolium, holly, must have been available in the area given that its involvement in Christmas is said to derive from its use to make the crown of thorns.

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

Two other plants are said to have played important roles in the story. Viscum album, mistletoe, is a parasitic plant that roots under the bark of another tree. It, therefore, never grows in the ground. It is said that wood from the mistletoe was used in the manufacture of the cross and this involvement condemned the plant to never being permitted contact with God’s earth. The second is somewhat different because the folklore is associated with debunking the story rather than supporting it. This is the belief that the sponge passed up to Jesus when he protested about being thirsty was soaked in the juice of Mandragora officinarum, mandrake, a plant capable of inducing deathlike sleep. This induced coma resulted in him being removed from the cross before death and accounts for the apparent resurrection three days later.

Other plants have some connection with Christ and Easter but it is less clear how this comes about. I’ve written before about Pulsatilla vulgaris, pasque flower, the plant supposed to bloom on Good Friday regardless of the weather or the timing of Easter. (Spoiler alert for anyone thinking of reading the previous piece – it doesn’t.)

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Then there’s Ricinus communis, castor oil plant. This is also known as palma Christi - Christ’s hand – but I haven’t been able to find a complete explanation of why this is. It is true that the leaves are palmate, hand-shaped, but that only explains the ‘palma’ part of the name. You might expect there to be markings on the leaves suggestive of stigmata but that is not the case. Whether it is simply the red colour of the mature leaves that is taken as indicative of Christ’s blood is impossible to say with certainty.

Other stories about plants with some folkloric association with the life of Jesus Christ don’t seem to have their origins with the events of Easter. The involvement of Hedera helix, ivy, in Christmas, for example, seems to be a simple transfer of a pagan belief it its power to bring luck. And the association between Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia, and Christmas, though said to date from the 16th century seems, in fact, to rely on florists in the 1950s realising they were onto a nice little earner.


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.