Years ago, I saw an amusing thing on an insecticide bottle: “made from plants.” As if that is supposed to make me feel safer. Long before modern chemistry, humans derived poisons from plants – to kill larger beings than bugs.
Here are three plants used for evil purposes that I found in researching my novels set in eighth century Francia, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar.
The word hemlock can apply to several plants and bring on different sets of symptoms. A type that resembles parsley is believed to be the key ingredient in that famous cocktail Socrates drank to carry out his death sentence. In small doses, hemlock had medicinal uses such as inducing sleep. In larger doses, as Plato recounts, the poison slowly paralyzes its victim until the person stops breathing hours later.
Two 19th century poisonings – one a guy experimenting on himself, another whose family thought they were using parsley in a sandwich – are consistent with Plato’s descriptions.
Often called the devil’s plant, as few as three of deadly nightshade’s dark purple berries can kill a child, and adults have been poisoned after consuming rabbits and birds that ate the berries. Its hallucinogenic properties, including a feeling of being able to fly, are said to make it a favorite of witches’ rituals. Other symptoms: sweating, a flush face, and dilated pupils.
That last symptom may have led women to use this plant in eyedrops to give them a doe-eyed look, hence the name belladonna.
With leaves mistaken for wild parsley and roots resembling horseradish, aconite has several names, including queen of poisons, wolf’s bane, and monk’s hood. It’s called bane for a reason. The folk used it to kill what they considered undesirable animals such as wolves and rats. And it’s had its share of human victims. Once it takes effect – about 20 minutes – it produced the classic symptoms of poisoning, vomiting and diarrhea. Death usually occurred within hours.
With these and other poisons ready to slip in food and drink, medieval aristocrats took precautions such as employing tasters. Why would anyone want such a risky job? In a time of scarcity, it ensured enough to eat.
All images via Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain or used under the terms of GNU Free Documentation License.
This post was originally published Nov. 13, 2013 on Unusual Historicals.
“Hemlock Poisoning and the Death of Socrates: Did Plato Tell the Truth?” Enid Bloch, Journal of the International Plato Society, 2001
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs