By William Mills
The medieval garden contained many herbs used in cooking and for medicines, but one group attained notoriety down the ages, the witches’ herbs, which to celebrate Halloween we will take a closer look at.
The herbs traditionally associated with witchcraft contained varying amounts of narcotics, poisons or both and although revered and demonised in past times gradually fell into disuse with the onslaught on modern chemistry in the 20th century. Today these herbs are visually stunning when in flower and it’s fun to research their association with folklore. However they are poisonous so it really is the case of look but don’t touch.
Aconitum Napellus also known as wolfsbane is a highly poisonous but beautiful plant growing up to five foot high. It has petiolate, deeply divided, dark green leaves and many violet-blue blossoms clustered at the top of the stalk.
Robert Graves’ I, Claudius
The poison is fast acting and deadly and poison arrows have been recorded as far back as Stone Age times. In ancient Rome in 54 A.D. Emperor Claudius, immortalised in Robert Graves’ book I, Claudius, was poisoned with aconite by his wife so her son Nero can succeed to the Imperial Throne. It’s last recorded use as a medicine was during the First World War by the Central Powers of Germany and Austro-Hungary as a substitute for dwindling stocks of heart tonics.
A plant increasingly rare in the wild, but making a comeback as a curiosity in some garden centres. It’s an annual, recognisable by its white funnel shaped flowers, and walnut like seed pods covered in prickly green spikes. Its pungent odour is believed to be stupefying, although this may apply to a field full of them rather than a solitary house plant.
Legend tells us that although very poisonous Thornapple was used in love potions. One writer described it as ‘a tool of brothel keepers, depraved courtesans and shameless lechers.’ The plant gained the name ‘love-will’. It was also called the ‘sorcerer’s herb’ because it was rumoured to have been used by witches in their flying ointments.
Today it is an easy growing, attractive houseplant. However due to its reputation for being poisonous it must be handled with due care. On a long winter’s evening with the rain rattling the window outside one wonders what occurred in days gone by.