Poisonous Herbs

Natural remedies from plants, herbs and otherwise, are not necessarily safe.  Some of the herbs used by the Shakers had to be used with care and, in fact, were outright dangerous. I mentioned foxglove in a previous post. Anyone read Agatha Christie mysteries? Foxglove played a starring role as a poison in at least one.

Mandrake is another. A mild narcotic and a powerful cathartic, it is also called May apple or wild lemon.

Belladonna is another example. It is a member of the deadly nightshade family and is a narcotic. Although it has been used for centuries (the name itself is Italian for beautiful woman. It dilates the pupils and women used it to make their eyes look large and mysterious). It is very dangerous to use as an amateur.

Rhubarb, yes, the same plant in which the stalks are eaten, has poisonous leaves. They are full of oxalic acid. Poke berry is another plant with which care must be taken. Although the young leaves were eaten in a ‘sallet’, the leaves become poisonous as the summer wears on.

Hellebore is a powerful poison. It was used for epilepsy, dropsy, and apoplexy. In areas where deer are a problem, hellebore can be planted for spots of color. The deer are too smart to eat them. Daffodils, used as an emetic and cathartic, is also poisonous. Another good choice for a flower if deer are a problem.

Liquorice has been used for centuries as an aid to digestion. But it is also an abortifacient and should not be eaten by women in the first three months of pregnancy.

No discussion of herbs would be complete without mention of opium. The opium poppy has been known in the Middle and Far East for millennia. The Crusaders brought it back to Europe. During the late 1700s, it was imported into the United States, primarily from Turkey and India. Because it was considered a medicine, it was not taxed. It was sold over the counter in apothecary shops with no control whatsoever. During that time, opium was used in a solution of alcohol (laudanum) or as a tea. The opium pipe had not been invented yet so, unless it was mixed with tobacco, it was not smoked. When we think of the opiates, we usually think of their pain killing properties. And in an age where there were few other choices, that is important. However, another important use was to control diarrhea in infants in children. Diarrhea killed many many children so they were dosed with opium. Babies and children were also dosed with opium to make them sleep or to control their hunger so I suspect there were more than a few accidental addicts.


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