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Lithospermum officinale, gromwell


Based on no evidence other than its appearance, this hepatotoxic plant was used since Roman times to break up stones in the kidneys or gall bladder.



Meaning of the Name

From the Greek, ‘lithos’, ‘a stone’ or, more particularly, ‘small stone’ with the Latin, ‘sperm’, ‘seed’. The small seeds were thought to look like stones leading to the plant’s medicinal use to treat gall and kidney stones.
From the Latin for workshop or office and, thus, given to the species of a plant which was sold in shops or pharmacies and, by extension, a useful plant.

Sources - Pliny

Gaius Plinius Secundus, Pliny the Elder, was born in 23AD in northern Italy and followed a career in the army which took him to Germany, Gaul, Africa and Spain.

He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge including having slaves read to him during meals so that no chance was missed to acquire more knowledge. When his travels ended, he began writing.  Now, he would be read to constantly leaving him free to make notes and summarise what he was hearing as it was being read.

He wrote seven books but only his ‘Natural History’ survives which contains thirty seven volumes covering astronomy, geography, zoology, botany, medicine, pharmacy, chemistry, minerals, metals, art and architecture.

As one of the few written records to survive from Rome, the ‘Natural History’ is, obviously, of great value but it has to be said that some of the material is contradictory and a lot of it is bizarre.

He died on 24th August 79AD as a result of staying too long observing the eruption of Vesuvius which swamped Pompeii.

Lithospermum officinale, gromwell

Lithospermum officinale, gromwell

Common Names and Synonyms

gromwell, grey millet

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Contains hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids which do damage to the liver and can cause internal bleeding.

Not a harmful plant, in modern times, but its widespread use based on the Doctrine of Signatures to deal with kidney stones or gallstones may have caused liver problems from Roman times.


No reported incidents.

Folklore and Facts

According to Pliny, it looks as though the ‘jeweller’s art had arranged gleaming white pearls symmetrically among the leaves’. These stone like seeds mean it is ‘indisputable’ that it ‘breaks up and brings away stone’.

‘Among all plants nothing is more wonderful than Lithospermum’. The fruits look like ‘gleaming white pearls symmetrically among the leaves’. It clears stones and ‘its very appearance.....[means] people can become aware of this property’.

It is somewhat depressing to find that there are still sites advocating the use of gromwell as a treatment for stones though most of them do not mention that this use is based on the Doctrine of Signatures.


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Introduction to the A to Z section
Abrus precatorius, rosary pea
Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
Aconitum napellus, monkshood
Actaea racemosa, black cohosh
Actaea spicata, baneberry
Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut
Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
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Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort
Artemisia absinthium, wormwood
Arum italicum, Italian cuckoopint
Arum maculatum, cuckoopint
Aspergillus fumigatus
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade
Brugmansia suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Bryonia dioica, bryony
Buxus sempervirens, common box
Camellia sinensis, tea
Cannabis sativa, marijuana
Catha edulis, khat
Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh
Claviceps purpurea, ergot
Clematis vitalba, old man's beard
Colchicum autumnale, naked ladies
Conium maculatum, poison hemlock
Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley
Cynoglossum officinale, hound’s tongue
Daphne mezereon, spurge olive
Datura stramonium, thorn apple, jimsonweed
Datura suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Delphinium, larkspur
Digitalis spp., foxglove
Dracunculus vulgaris, dragon arum
Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss
Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite
Erythroxylum coca, cocaine
Euonymus europaeus, spindle tree
Euphorbia x martinii, red spurge
Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia
Fritillaria spp., fritillary
Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop
Hedera helix, common ivy
Helleborus spp., hellebore
Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebell
Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
Ilex aquifolium, holly
Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort
Juniperus communis, common juniper
Laburnum anagyroides, laburnum
Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce
Leucojum aestivum, snowflake
Lithospermum officinale, gromwell
Lolium temulentum, darnel
Malus 'John Downie', crab apple
Mandragora officinarum, mandrake
Mercurialis perennis, dog’s mercury
Narcissus, daffodil
Nepeta faassenii, catmint
Nerium oleander, oleander
Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco
Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort
Papaver somniferum, opium poppy
Pastinaca sativa, parsnip
Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal
Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel
Pulsatilla vulgaris, pasque flower
Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup
Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb
Rhododendron spp.
Rhus radicans, poison ivy
Ricinus communis, castor oil plant
Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary
Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock
Ruta graveolens, rue
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Salvia divinorum, sage
Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap
Senecio jacobaea, ragwort
Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade
Solanum melongena, aubergine
Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut
Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry
Symphytum spp., comfrey
Taxus baccata, yew
Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy
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Urtica dioica, stinging nettle
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Viscum album, mistletoe
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