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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 11th November 2011

War and remembrance
Given the date, I thought I would have a brief look at the way some of the plants featured on this website have some connection to soldiers and war. In each case, there’s a link to the full plant page if you want to read more about the plant concerned.

With one or two exceptions there is an element of following a timeline from ancient history to the present day but it is not, by any means, a perfect trail.

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

Aconitum napellus, monkshood, is reported to have been used two ways in warfare. Especially in Asia and in lands bordering the northern Pacific Ocean, extracts from the plant are said to have been smeared onto arrows to increase the chance of inflicting death. As well as putting the poison on the arrow head it is said that the shaft would be smeared so that anyone going to the assistance of a wounded comrade might also be poisoned.

Its other use was to poison sources of water. It is, sometimes, said that this would be done to force the surrender of a besieged castle but it seems more likely that its use was by a retreating army being pursued. The distinctive taste of monkshood would be likely to result in it being recognised so that the pursuers would conclude there was no drinkable water available if they continued the pursuit.

Veratrum album, white hellebore

Veratrum album, white hellebore is said, by some, to have been the cause of Alexander the Great’s death. I wrote about that in detail on 24th October so, today, I just want to speculate that, if this plant did kill Alexander, it may have saved many, many lives by bringing his plan to conquer the whole world to a premature end.

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric, is frequently said to have been used by part of a Viking army because its hallucinogenic effects would make these men fearless, terrible opponents. This is not universally accepted but what isn’t in doubt is that the name given to these warriors – Berserkers – is still part of our language.

Datura stramonium

Datura stramonium gets one of its common names, jimsonweed, from an incident in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1679 when soldiers used the leaves to make salad because they were short of food but it is also the plant believed to have caused mass hallucinations in 38 A.D. when Antony’s Roman troops were in retreat from the Parthians.

Taxus baccata, yew

Taxus baccata, yew, is famous as the wood used to make the English longbow that is credited with giving England the upper hand against opponents using crossbows. But it wasn’t the good fortune of having yew trees available that resulted in this different weapon choice. English yew does not grow straight enough and the yew wood from which longbows were fashioned was imported from Europe.

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy, makes its first appearance in our timeline in the 19th century when it was responsible for the wars between Britain and China. Camellia sinensis, tea, is also key to those wars. The British appetite for tea exploded in the early part of the 19th century and huge amounts of silver were paid to the Chinese to satisfy the demand. The UK realised it could create a more balanced trade by encouraging the Chinese demand for opium. Opium was almost the only medication available to a population that had around one doctor for every 100,000 people so it was quite easy to tap into that and build addiction upon it. It is fairly generally agreed that Britain has much to regret from that period.

The opium poppy is, of course, still an important component of the ten years (so far and still going) war in Afghanistan. Those who say the war is not about eradicating opium growing may well be right but there is no doubt that opium has financed many of the insurgents activities and has, therefore, caused the deaths of many British servicemen as well as those from other nations and Afghanistan itself.

Erythroxylum coca, cocaine

Erythroxylum coca, cocaine, appears not because the eradication efforts in Central and South America have a distinctly warlike character but because of one story, that I haven’t been able to confirm or disprove. This is the story that, at the start of the first world war, the German high command considered providing a daily ration of cocaine to the German army both to stimulate their fighting and to suppress appetite easing supply difficulties. Only when it was realised that an adequate supply could not be guaranteed was Turkish tobacco substituted as having similar depressant effects on appetite even if it was not such a useful stimulant as cocaine.

Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco

Mention of Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco, brings us to the Second World War. Though tobacco had to be imported, it was never rationed in the UK or for British forces fighting abroad. It is said that Churchill determined that the detrimental effect on morale would be too great if people could not smoke when they wished but, it could be, that, as with the Germans in WWI, the appetite suppressant effects were considered desirable.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, brings us right up to date with its repeated, though unjustified, inclusion in the ‘War on Terror’.

Urtica dioica, stinging nettle

But I’ll finish by going back to Roman times and Urtica dioica, stinging nettle. It is frequently claimed that the Romans introduced this plant to Britain because they knew the climate was cold and wanted to use it to beat themselves and generate warmth. It is impossible to know if they deliberately brought the plant or it just came along with them as a result of seeds being in their kit. What is known is that stinging nettles were known in northern Europe long before the Romans arrived so there was no need to bring it.

But, if the soldiers did intentionally bring a plant intended to provide a rather unpleasant solution to an expected discomfort, it just reinforces the truth about armies and soldiers. They always go to places they know little about to face dangers they cannot imagine and they do it because they wish to serve their country and community by fighting those who would seek to destroy what they value.

And that is why they deserved to be remembered and not just on this one day.