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Lithospermum officinale, gromwell

Summary

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.

Family

Boraginaceae

Meaning of the Name

Lithospermum
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.
 
officinale
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.

Incidents

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.

IMPORTANT NOTE

The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.

 

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Introduction to the A to Z section
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