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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 12th August 2011

Thursday evening is aquarobics. I put my car keys down on my sports bag while I put my shoes on, pick up the car keys, drove four of the six miles to the pool and then turned round and came back to get my sports bag.

That, to me, goes beyond forgetfulness and all the way into stupidity. So, maybe having a sniff of rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, wouldn’t have helped.

Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary

It’s hard to decide where the notion of rosemary as being good for the memory may have originated. It isn’t mentioned in the ancient works like Pliny, Dioscorides or Theophrastus and the ‘herbals’ give it little attention. John Gerard refers to its use to ‘provoke the desired sickness’, which is his euphemism for starting menstruation but that is about all.

It did, however, have this reputation before Shakespeare wrote ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’. 'Rosemary, that's for remembrance', one of Ophelia’s lines during her madness speech is, quite possibly, the second best known line from that play. It is quite interesting that Shakespeare names the rosemary because most of his plant references are not specific and have given scholars many happy hours arguing over which plant he really meant.

Shakespeare must have known that his audience would recognise the reputation of this herb and there is evidence that, in ancient times, rosemary was thrown into a grave as a sign that the deceased would not be forgotten.

In modern times, Rosemary's association with remembrance remains in Australasia. On ANZAC day, commemorating the dead from Australia and New Zealand during the First World War, rather than the poppy worn in the UK, a sprig of rosemary is worn to show that the contribution of the fallen will never be forgotten.

As explained on the plant page and in more detail in ‘Is That Cat Dead?’, the idea of including rosemary with poisonous plants is because, theoretically, the virtue attributed to it by Gerard could result in a miscarriage so, though the plant itself is unlikely to ever cause harm, once humans produce an essential oil from it, it could be a danger. So, the point is that it is humans who make these plants harmful in the overwhelming majority of cases.

You could choose just about any plant to make that point and prove Paracelsus’ notion that the poison lay in the dose but Rosmarinus officinalis has some very good stories attached to it. It is said that Mary gave it its blue colour after draping her cape over it during the flight from Herod’s army. By tradition, Mary’s cape is always coloured blue as you will see in these paintings by Pier Francesco MolaNicolas Poussin and an unknown artist.

There is, also, another story about rosemary that always provokes a reaction. This is that rosemary growing in the garden is a sign that the woman of the house is in charge.

When HRH Prince Charles officially opened the second phase of the Alnwick Garden, he was given a short tour of the Poison Garden with guides stationed by certain plants and told to talk about the plant for no more than a minute. After hearing the guide discuss the Cannabis sativa, HRH couldn’t resist asking about the rosemary planted immediately next to it. (That was one of my interventions in the planting scheme. I wanted to make the point that cannabis is like rosemary; it is people who make it harmful.)

The guide very briefly explained about rosemary and finished by saying that it shows the woman rules. ‘Oh’ said Prince Charles, ‘We’ve got a lot of it at Highgrove’.