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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.

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