I Promise Not To Kill You

My thirteen-year-old child is not as enthusiastic about my new hobby as I thought he would be. My son generally is into the wackadoodle, too, and he loves adventure books in which the young hero possesses special knowledge that enables him to slay the dragon or save the village or whatever. I totally thought herbalism would be his thing. But it’s not.

Instead, he thinks I might kill him.

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He’s not going to pass up the opportunity to climb a tree.

It started with the mulberries. We have a nice sized mulberry tree in our backyard, and this year the berries were abundant. When my sister-in-law and brother-in-law were visiting, we decided to pick as many as we could reach and make all sorts of delicious treats. We also ate plenty of them raw.

My son, already a picky eater, was suprisingly adamant about not eating the juicy berries. And he didn’t want us to eat them either. “How do you know they won’t give you hallucinations?,” he demanded to know. We didn’t know how to respond, since all we had was the certainty of our own past experiences with mulberries. That was not enough to satisfy him. We rolled our eyes and shoved more berries into our mouths.

A few days later, we learned he was right: mulberries can cause hallucinations.

Homemade mulberry cobbler.

The white, unripened berries are the culprit, though, and most folks probably aren’t going to find them at all appetizing in the first place. The plump, juicy, sweet, ripe berries are full of all sorts of nutrients and health benefits. Nevertheless, I had to admit to my son that he was, sort of, right.

Giddy with triumph, he gestured towards the yard. “I bet there are all sorts of poisonous things out there, and you don’t even know it.” I just rolled my eyes and ate another handful of mulberries.

The thing is, he’s right. Sort of. Most backyard plants are, if not helpful, then benign. In my early attempts at plant identification, however, I quickly learned that there also are a whole bunch of nasty plants that can do a lot of harm. Botanical writer Amy Stewart has written a charming little book about them.

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2009) is a delightful volume that offers biographical sketches of various “plants that kill, maim, intoxicate, and otherwise offend” as well as part amusing, part horrific accounts of humanity’s misfortunate encounters with them. I was surprised by how many of the plants were familiar to me. The mulberry tree was just the start. There was the philodendron in my dining room. Outside, there was nearly an entire flowerbed full of wicked plants: foxglove, hellebore, hydrangea, delphinium, lily-of-the-valley, tulips, hyacinth, and daffodil. Each brought some danger, ranging from mild allergic reactions to death.

My favorite discovery thus far has been the presence of Solanum dulcamara — Bitter Sweet — in my sideyard. Bitter Sweet was surprisingly easy to identify. Most plants challenged my haven’t-taken-biology-since-tenth-grade skills. But this delicate flower looked identical to the drawing in Culpeper.

Although a climbing plant, the Bitter Sweet in my yard was rambling over a rock bed. The charming plant is a narcotic that has the potential to paralyze the central nervous system. Interestingly, David Potterton’s modern editorial update to Culpeper indicates that until 1907, Bitter Sweet was used as an official medicine to treat skin diseases and rheumatism. Potterton even provides a dosage!

Culpeper’s Bitter Sweet and mine.

My curiosity about the use of Bitter Sweet has lead me to a variety of sites. It seems that several European Union countries still permit some regulated use of Bitter Sweet for certain conditions, particularly the topical use for eczema and other skin problems. Current clinical research is scant, however, so there is limited information on how Bitter Sweet affects various body systems.

Solanum Dulcamara is also known as Woody Nightshade, and it is, indeed, a member of the nightshade family. Most of us are now confident in the non-poisonous nature of Solanum lycopersicum, the tomato plant, as well as the definitely poisonous qualities of other members of the Solanaceae family.

In the 1931 volume, A Modern Herbal, author Mrs. Grieve notes that Woody Nightshade (Bitter Sweet), common throughout the English countryside, is often mistaken for its more rare and dangerous relative, Belladonna, or Deadly Nightshade. Belladonna infamously was used by women at least since Roman times to dilate their eyes, giving them a supposedly more seductive, alluring appearance. Meanwhile, the men they were trying to seduce were using the same plant to create poison arrows. Assassins, too, turned to Belladonna to make their mark. More recently, Belladonna has given rise to a chemical derivative that made a significant impact on the history of childbirth in the United States and Europe: scopolamine.In the early to mid-20th century, obstetricians administered scopolamine to laboring women. Much like the anesthetic we receive today for various procedures, such as a colonoscopy, scopolamine induces conscious sedation. Women remained sufficiently conscious that they could follow doctor’s instructions, but they would not remember the pain, which is not the same as not experiencing the pain. In fact, women often became frenzied, as they were experiencing intense pain and often scopolamine-induced hallucinations without any means of coping with it. As a result, they were restrained in their beds. By the mid-1960s, women were demanding more dignified birthing experiences.

Bitter Sweet might be lesser known than Belladonna, but it has an equally lengthy history of use. Multiple authors repeat the assertion that Galen recommended using Woody Nightshade to treat tumors and warts in the 2nd Century, CE. In 1597, John Gerard recommended Woody Nightshade to bring relief and “heale the hurt places” after a beating. Bitter Sweet is an invasive species in the Americas, imported by Europeans who found the plant both attractive and useful. Many people believed that hanging a wreath of it around their neck — or that of their animals or children– would offer protection against the evil eye and witchcraft. Given the unknowns they faced moving to a new continent, they surely wouldn’t want to leave this protection behind! According to an article in the Journal of Experimental Botany, Woody Nightshade has long symbolized fidelity, which seems rather odd (or perhaps appropriate?) for a plant also known as Bitter Sweet.

Our sweet Mollie NingMeng and the wicked tulips.

In my own household, the presence of Bitter Sweet in the side yard has inspired a now long-running joke about my nefarious intentions as an herbalist. As I was writing this post, my son thanked me for the piece of chocolate I had slipped into his school lunch. He said he was so surprised to find it, he told his friends that if his central nervous system later shut down, they should know it was the candy I gave him. “I have already alerted my friends about your deadly herbs,” he promised me.

All joking aside, finding Bitter Sweet, or Woody Nightshade, growing wild in our yard is an important reminder that not all plants are safe. Herbalism is not a matter of simply using plants. Herbalism requires knowledge and caution and patience. And it relies on our individual commitment to moral intentions and ethical behaviors. Just because I have access to a deadly narcotic does not mean that I should or will use it. I promise.

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