Category Archives: Poisonous Plants

April 2017

I spent this month mainly with work on the next row of wooden seed boxes, adding new herbs to the set and reading up on them. The central theme this time were summer herbs (with the summer solstice in mind), which are sown in spring or early summer, such as poppies, cornflower, chamomile, evening primrose, yarrow, viper’s bugloss etc. Then I paid attention to Harold Roth’s book “The Witching Herbs” (signed copies available here), and included seeds for the magical herbs discussed there. Besides these I added some endangered plants such as the wonderful centaury and plants that are in decline, such as the field larkspur. With wood betony and motherwort there are some new old, forgotten about healing herbs joining the series.

Another herb I was curious about (and I know that you are too), is the enchanter’s nightshade. It is quite inconspicuous in appearance, almost invisible between other herbs. It is not poisonous at all and in fact, much more beneficial than, what its name suggests. This makes for some very interesting treats for employing this herb in sympathetic magic…

Along with adding more new herbs I also updated the sowing tables and added info texts for each. Further, my attention was drawn to the Euphorbiaceae plant genus. Last year I had been pointed to the spurge as part of a Martial incense recipe. I started researching but could not pinpoint which type of spurge was meant. There are many plants in that genus, which is found in large diversity all around the globe. But which is the one most relevant in Western medieval / renaissance magic? By chance and when searching for spurge seeds, I came across a seller on eBay who just mentioned randomly that the caper spurge (Euphorbia lathyris), with its impressive size, poisonous milky sap and auspicious shape, was the plant famously believed to break hexes and ward of witches from one’s home…. Well, here we go. It is now added to the selection of poisonous herbs coming with the boxes and I can’t wait to grow it myself.

What more? I finished and shipped the last of my “Poisoner’s” seed boxes. I will now overthink the concept and design for this one.

I also spent a lot of time in the garden, harvesting masterwort root, thinning and weeding out, pricking out seedlings and sowing more…

My shortage of henbane last winter led me to sow new henbane, which resulted eventually in hundreds of little plants of black, white and the rare Egyptian henbane! These have now been separated and planted in trays of 24 each + 1 mixed tray. The temperatures are still low and even though it did not actually freeze again, it is too cold for the small plants (the test tray doesn’t seem to like my outdoors experiment on the window sill). I am therefore keeping the trays with the white and the Egyptian henbane indoors, together with purple Indian datura and several moon vine plants. The tray with the black henbane seedlings stays in the unheated greenhouse.

This month’s harvest:

  • Lamarck’s Aconite (Aconitum lamarckii), thinning out, Tuesday (11th)
  • Masterwort root (Peucedanum ostruthium), thinning out, Tuesday (11th) and Thursday (27th)
  • Herb Gerard (Aegopodium podagraria), weeding out, Saturday (22nd)
  • Myrtle (Myrtus communis), pruning, Sunday (23rd)
  • Horse tail (Equisetum arvense), weeding out, Friday (28th)

Besides, l am now a lady with a barrow full of fragrant lily of the valley! 🌱🌱🌱 (Thanks to an unexpected gift from our neighbors, who are restructuring their garden.) I now have to prepare a spot for them to grow. Else, that barrow has now met its final destiny…

Herbs I plan to sow this and the following weekends:

  • blue hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis ‘Caeruelus’)
  • caper spurge (Euphorbia lathyris)*
  • centaury (Centaurium erythreae)
  • clary sage (Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica)
  • enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana)
  • evening primrose (Oenothera odorata ‘Sulfurea’)
  • honeywort (Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’)
  • lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus)
  • poison hemlock (Conium maculatum)
  • snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus ‘Night and Day’)
  • st. john’s wort (Hypericum perforatum ‘Tauberthal’)
  • thyme (Thymus vulgaris ‘Frnech Summer’)
  • wood betony (Stachys officinalis) *

So long, I wish my followers a Blessed Walpurgis!

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Male Fern Dragons, Knights Fighting Snails

Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas)
Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas)

The fronds of the male fern fade during the winter time and leave behind a flaky root-stock, which grows bigger every year and turns black at the center, whereas new fern fronds sprout at the periphery. I like to think, as the years pass, the root begins to look like the scaly back of a dragon hiding beneath the earth, whereas the fronds form the dragon’s wings…

Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) old roots
Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) old roots

…and one may even spot the dragon’s head lurking in the soil.

The root has been used until recent times as an anthelminthic to expel tape worms. This is supposedly due to flavaspidic acid, a Phloroglucinol derivate, which is contained in the glandular hairs. The root stock and leaf stalks are deadly poisonous, especially in young plants. Overdosage may result in severe poisoning and death.

Rainy spring day

Banded grove snails (Cepaea nemoralis) overwintered between withered fern fronds. Snails and slugs are a gardener’s nightmare, though I’d like to think these banded snails are the “good ones” as opposed to the brown Spanish slug (which I myself battle by the means of sharp iron tools and worse).

However, not only gardeners of modern times are struggling in the fight against terrestrial molluscs, but also medieval knights went to battle the creatures in full armor, as a recent article at the Smithonian.com website elucidates utterly strange and still unexplained depictions in medieval manuscripts:

The Queen Mary Psalter, c 1310-1320 via British Library

And as if that wouldn’t be enough, snails occur also as a metaphor for death and withering in the biblical Psalm 58:8

As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.

Not enough? I strongly recommend you to check out the Hunting for Snails blog, for a plethora of wondrous examples of snails in medieval manuscript art and this collection by the British Library.

Sources:

Echter Wurmfarn + Giftpflanzen.deGrove Snail + Why Were Medieval Knights Always Fighting Snails? + Knight vs. Snail Snail, Psalm 58:8Strong’s Concordances + Hunting for Snails +

Snowdrops and Snowflakes

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snowflakes blooming at the meteorological beginning of spring

Two early flowering plants in the amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae), the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) opens its flowers just a few weeks earlier than the spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum). Both carry white, bell-shaped flower heads, sporting a green or a yellow spot on each sepal. Both do also contain poisonous alkaloids, that are a natural self-defense against pests and animals. The same alkaloids are also found in plants of the Narcissus genus.

The flowers of the spring snowflake typically appear after the snow melts, usually in late February and beginning of March. They are shaped like a cup, which gave them the name Märzenbecher in German, literally meaning “March goblets”. The Latin name Leucojum consists of the Greek word leucos for “white” (a bright, shiny white) and ion for “violet”. The flowers emit a sweet fragrance. The epithet vernum comes from the Latin word for “spring”. Other names are snowbell, dewdrop and St. Agnes flower.

The flowers of the snowdrop open in early February, often as early as Candlemass. They are more tender and when still closed, resemble a tear drop or look like a popular type of earring,  called Schneetropfen in German. The English flower name snowdrop is thought to be a direct translation. The name Galanthus derives from the Greek words gala for “milk” and anthos for “flower”, whereas the Latin epithet nivalis means “of the snow” or “snow-covered”.

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snowdrops found in a sink, at the edge of a small forest

For some reason the snowdrop features more prominently in folklore and is now the flower associated with February, Candlemas cleansing rituals and the virgin Mary. I have blogged about this earlier. Interestingly, it seems to be missing in medieval scripture and early Christian paintings. Therefore, the snowflake is to be found on a painting of the Paradise Garden from the early 15th century. Here it is placed next to the infant Jesus and below the hem of Mary’s blue dress:

Paradiesgärtlein, ca. 1410-20,  unknown artist, Städel Museum, Frankfurt a. M.

I found this painting thanks to the Met Museum’s garden blog and include it here, as it features many interesting flowers… Another fragrant, white flowering plant portrayed there is the lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). It is a distant relative of the former and flowers much later, in May. Though named after the biblical “lily of the valleys”, it is uncertain which plant is originally referred to in the Song of Songs.

The spring snowflake is found spreading across river valleys and forest glades, taking advantage of the early spring sun and blooming when the trees are still leafless. I remember the sight of snowflake-covered meadows in the Polenztal, Saxon Switzerland: shiny white flower-cups and droplets from melting snow, reflecting the light of the spring sun; in the distance the sound of the bickering brook…

It is not surprising, the white flowers of early flowering plants would become symbols of purity and holiness. But there are also darker aspects connected to each of them, some of which I’m currently researching in context with a new incense formula. More about this later…

References:

Springs Snowflakes, by ferrebeekeeper + Snowdrop and Snowflake , at metmuseum.org +

New Plant Riddle

New Plant Riddle

Tonight I share this new artwork with you, which is again a riddle. The game is as usual: guess the plant depicted and leave a comment with your suggestion! If you have been following my recent postings here you will easily find the plant in question. A hint: it has to do with autumn. 😉

Colchicum

Colchicum autumnale
Colchicum autumnale ‘Giant’

true plant arsenic?

An incredibly interesting and very poisonous plant is Cholchicum autumnale in the family Cholchicaceae and order Liliales. It is better known as autumn crocus and meadow saffron. The flowers appear in autumn, whereas the foliage follows months later in spring the following year. You may find yourself wondering what those long lily like leaves void of any inflorescence are doing in your garden, only to find yourself wondering again, right at the beginning of fall, where all of a sudden these beautiful purple to pale pink, crocus-like flowers come from. The flowers belong to those leaves you had spotted months earlier and had probably long forgotten about. Another name for this wondrous plant is hence naked lady, because the flowers appear all barren. But there is more to this.

The ovaries of the autumn crocus are located deep in the ground. Due to this the flowers possess extremely long styles, often 10 cm or longer. What looks like a stem are in fact the tepals joined into a long tube and enclosing the prolonged, pale white styles. Each flower possesses three such styles, which remain free and unattached all the way to the ground. The flowers attract pollinators such as bees and flies. They are hermaphroditic and self-fertile.

The capsular fruit emerges in late spring together with the foliage. The ripe capsule is brown and swollen. It contains the small black-brown seeds, which possess white elaiosomes, literally “oil bodies”. These oil bodies attract ants, which then carry the seeds away and thus help the plant spread. (Other plants possessing such elaiosomes are e.g. Chelidonium maius, Helleborus and Sanguinaria canadensis.) Besides this the seeds are also spread by wind.

During the winter time all vital parts of the plant remain underground. (Such plants are called geophytes.) The old corm dies whilst a new one emerges. At the same time a lateral offspring develops into a second corm. The corms are brown and scaly, measuring 2,5 to 5 cm in diameter and up to 7 cm in length.

The German name Herbstzeitlose translates as “autumn time-less”; however, the name actually expresses a slightly different meaning, since “lose” derives from an old German word for divining or foretelling, hence “messenger of autumn” would be more correct. (And it’s quite a beautiful name too.) Other German folk names include Nacket Huren (“naked whore”), Herbstvergessene (“autumn forgotten”), Zeitlose (“timeless”), Herbstlilie (“autumn lily”), Wintersafran (“winter saffron”), Michelsblume (“Michael’s flower”), Winterhauch (“winter breath”), Leichenblume (“corpse flower”) and Teufelsbrot (“devil’s bread”).

Fading flowers of Colchicum autumnale. Wild Colchicums are said to contain more poison than cultivated forms.
Fading flowers of Colchicum autumnale. Wild Colchicums are said to contain more poison than cultivated forms.

History and legend

Dioscorides first mentioned a plant by the name Colchicum variegatum. The specific name autumnale refers to the time of flowering. The genus name Colchicum is derived from Colchis, the landscape on the Black Sea, most famously known for the witch Medea, who is told to have poisoned her enemies with the plant, but also restored youth with its help. In Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, Medea rubs a salve on Jason’s limbs, which may have contained Colchicum. It is said this plant grew from the blood that tormented Prometheus spilled over the land, when the eagle picked his liver. However, the very same story is also often related to the Mandrake. Either way, meadow saffron has been used medicinally for at least 3500 years. It is still a treatment for rheumatism and gout.

Due to its high toxicity it has also a long history of abuse in murder as well as suicide. The roots maintain their colchicine content for months and could be shipped around the globe as a raw medicine.

Magical attributions

The root or bulb was tied as an amulet around the neck during the times of the black death. The witch Medea allegedly used Colchicum in poison murder but also to restore youth.

Attributions: protection, death spells, healing, ruled by Saturn (or Pluto), Hecate herb, autumn messenger

Toxicity

Colchicum has been mistaken for bear’s garlic (Allium ursinum) by foragers. The corms, leaves and seeds contain the poisonous alkaloid colchicine, which is a mitotic poison (it interferes with the reduction division of the chromosomes during meiosis). It acts similar to arsenic, with no known antidote. Long latency period and lack of antidote make diagnosis and appropriate treatment difficult.

In suspected case of poisoning call emergency immediately (in Germany contact your nearest poison control center = Giftnotruf).

Symptoms of poisoning occur within 2-6 hours and consist of: burning sensation in the mouth and throat, vomiting, spasms, diarrhea (containing blood), circulatory insufficiency, lowered body temperature and blood pressure. After 1-2 days death sets in through respiratory paralysis. The patient stays conscious until the end.

Medicinal uses

Colchicine is a useful drug with a narrow therapeutic index. It is used for treating gout and familial Mediterranean fever. A synthetic compound similar to Colchicine is used in the development of a medicament for the treatment of some types of cancer.

Other uses

Colchicine’s mitose interrupting properties are made use of in plant breeding to achieve larger plants and fruits: it stops plant cells from dividing. As a result haploid cells become polyploid and larger then usual.

A garden variant of Colchicum with huge flowers
A garden variant of Colchicum with huge flowers

In the garden

The autumn crocus is native to Southern Europe and Asia. It grows on moist meadows and pastures. In the garden it likes a spot in full sun or half shade. The soil should be fertile, well-drained and hold moisture. Plant the corms in late summer or autumn, ca. 8-10 cm deep. The foliage requires space, hence plant about 20 cm apart. Autumn crocus spreads readily through its corms, to a lesser extent also through seed. The plant is hardy and takes care of itself and basically needs no care. After some years they will form dense clusters. Dig out the corms in midsummer (when the foliage has died back), separate and replant directly. This way new plants can be obtained easily. Make sure to wear gloves when handling.

Related plants

Flame lily (Gloriosa rothschildiana), Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum)

Sources, references, further reading

Wikipedia + Botanikus + Giftpflanzen + Gods and Goddesses in the Garden, by Peter Bernhardt + A note on Medea’s Plant and the Mandrake +

New Moon Sowing, Garden August ’15

Mandrake seeds, Rue seedlings Aug. '15

Today I have sown the remainder of the mandrake seeds, which had been primed months ago. They were kept in wet paper towels and placed in the fridge for weeks, then taken out and placed in fresh wet paper towels. I’ve been hoping for them to germinate but thus far no sign of life. Yesterday I took them out, cleaned them (all seeds sunk in water, which is a sign they are still viable) and placed in soil today. In addition I have sown the same amount of unprimed mandrake seeds for comparison. I have one tray on my window bench at room temperature, but may move it to the basement, where it has cooler temps. The other tray is in the green-house.

Besides Mandrake I have also sown biennial henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) from fresh ripe seeds.

Now below some impression of the flowering green and the garden, from August 13-15 ’15

Datura metel var. fastuosa

Last evening both my “black datura” as well as toloache opened their first flowers for this years. The black devil’s trumpet (Datura metel var. fastuosa) is grown from seeds from Malta and has really big, double filled flowers, which smell absolutely enchanting.

Datura inoxia

There goes the beautiful “moon flower” (Datura inoxia), flower about to open. Comes back year after year, always a sweet joy.

Atropa acuminata

A fine addition: Indian Belladonna (Atropa acuminata) has slightly smaller, more cone like and edged fruits compared to her European sister. Flowers are a touch darker, velvet brownish purple. Grown from seed. I’m happy to have this lovely sister of the native deadly nightshade.

Aconitum lamarckii

One of my favorite ‘ghost’ flowers: Yellow Monkshood (Aconitum lamarckii), returns every year and makes for a nice contrast beside the Blue Monkshood (Aconitum napellus), both of which are in bloom now.

Solanum dulcamara

The bright red berries of Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) are tempting to taste, but poisonous! They still make a beautiful contrast to the pale yellow flowers of Aconite etc. The stems contain cortisone-like substances and are used in herbal medicine. They are harvested in autumn or spring.

Red Sun, Poison Green I

Through the tunnel of the poison green, illuminated by the red sun…

Red Sun, Poison Green II

As the sun sets and bathes the poison green in red, the day in the garden ends. I started my work at noon and finished at dusk. It felt like only a second had passed.