Have you ever wondered what deadly nightshade tastes like, and how long it would take to kill you? Or why did they decide to call it mistletoe? Or why violets are so commonly displayed at funerals?
Botanical Curses and Poisons: The Shadow-Lives of Plants
Fez Inkwright (author/illustrator)
February 11, 2021
All this is discussed, and more, in Botanical Curses and Poisons, the latest book by author/illustrator Fez Inkwright and a pretty direct followup to her charming 2019 publication Folk Magic and Healing. Inkwright cites botany, nature, early religions and folklore as her greatest passions, and all of these topics are seen in equal measure in both her books. Botanical Curses and Poisons makes a great companion piece, not just because the two books would look great on a shelf together, but also because it’s structured very similarly to its predecessor. With the exception of a few interesting short articles at the beginning, most of the book is set up like an encyclopedia of botanicals. Each entry starts with an excerpt from poetry or literature that references the plant, and most also include a beautiful and delicate ink drawing of what it looks like.
I’ll be honest, at first a book about just poisons didn’t seem as wide of a topic as a book about herbal medicine in general, and so I was surprised to see that Botanical Curses and Poisons is actually quite a bit longer than Folk Magic and Healing. But describing it as a book about poisons is selling it short. Lots of plants can be poisonous but only in specific ways—maybe only a certain part of the plant is toxic or it’s dangerous only if prepared in a certain way. (Inky cap mushrooms, for instance, are safe to eat unless consumed with alcohol, at which point they become poisonous.) Plus, in addition to poisonous plants, it covers all sorts of plants with sinister history, ranging from uses in dark magic to mythological associations with death. The latter is actually a huge category, as there are all sorts of fascinating reasons a plant would become associated with death—perhaps it’s the favored flower of a goddess of death, or it might grow in graveyards, or it smells like rotting flesh, or maybe it just has a pale and spectral look that made people think of ghosts. Beans were associated with death in the British Isles because people noticed that more accidents happened in the mines during the season when bean plants flower, which was definitely caused by the beans and not the fact that mines were more dangerous during the rainy season! Other plants have built-in abilities that can feel sinister or malevolent. Cogon grass is very flammable and burns hotter than regular flames, an ability it uses to burn down the other plants around it to make room for cogon shoots to sprout in the newly barren earth.
The facts presented about the plants are as varied as the range of plants covered. Each entry might span many different cultures and touch on information like how plants got their name, how they were used during different time periods, what superstitions people had about them and why. (And if you’re an academic nerd like me, rest assured that it’s all very well cited!) The broad nature of the knowledge conveyed is cool because it gives a more thorough picture of what life is like in these different cultures. Names, in particular, have a lot to say about the societal values of a time. One of my favorite examples of that is Devil’s Bit, named because the highly medicinal roots were also abnormally short, leading people to believe that the devil “bit” off the rest of the roots so less medicine could be made from them. The different utilities people found for plants that are toxic are interesting too—for example, bug collectors used to place live specimens in a jar with crushed laurel leaves so the toxic fumes from the laurel would kill the insect without damaging it.
The history of poisoning as an act of violence is also fascinating, and that’s mainly what’s covered in the introductory chapters. There’s a lot of interesting cultural context around poison and why it was so much more common in times when less was known about medicine and disease, making it harder to differentiate between intentional poisoning and accidental sickness. Poison is a weapon that’s best wielded by the powerless against the powerful, making it popular for political intrigue and assassinations. It also gained a reputation as a tool that women employed against men who they might otherwise not be able to physically overpower, which also ties in with the historical association between women and witchcraft, which circles back around to much of the connotations of dark magic that are also discussed throughout the book. I love the way Inkwright ties all this together and makes it feel like a history, rather than an assortment of interesting but disparate facts.
And it’s not just insects and enemies that people have used poisons on. Humans also have a fascinating tendency to willingly poison ourselves in order to enjoy the various side effects. The primary example here, of course, is intoxication. It is truly wild how much people love drugs, which are essentially just ways to poison yourself recreationally, and there are lots of examples of that tendency throughout history. Poor folks have historically played a dangerous game of spiking their own beer with poisonous substances like henbane or foxglove in order to get drunker, cheaper. Certain kinds of hallucinogenic mushrooms are a similarly dangerous game, but some people used to get around that by consuming it via the urine of reindeer who were also drawn to amanita mushrooms for their psychotropic qualities. (No, I’m not kidding!) Beauty products have a similar vibe, with stories of medieval women using eyedrops made of deadly nightshade to dilate their pupils because it was considered more beautiful. And honestly, people’s tendencies don’t change that much over time, because I myself have been known to consume drinks spiked with mild poisons, like bison grass vodka or wormwood absinthe. I love that innate human-ness, and it makes me feel more connected to the folks of yore represented in this book.
But my absolute favorite thing about both of Inkwright’s books is the way they connect what people used to believe about plants with the way those beliefs came to be. Inkwright discusses magic mainly through a context of mundanity, hearkening back to a time when magic was a more integrated part of people’s everyday lives, often in the form of superstition, simply because they didn’t know as much about the world around them as we do now. The contrast between the sorcery of concoctions like flying ointments and everyday folk magic like kissing someone with a butterwort root in your mouth to make them obedient to you is constantly present in this book.
Yet many of their magical observations are surprisingly insightful, often for reasons that wouldn’t become clear until centuries later when science finally caught up enough to explain what people had already noticed. Like how bluebells were associated with sleep and magic that causes sleep in multiple cultures, probably because they contain scillaren, a chemical that lowers the pulse and causes heartbeat irregularities. Elder trees were believed to be a sign of a cursed placed, which also makes sense because they’re quick to grow in cleared ground, so it was common to see them growing in an otherwise barren (or cursed) area. Bog asphodel was called “bone breaker” because it was thought to make cattle’s bones brittle, a condition caused by low calcium, which happened naturally in the same environments where bog asphodel thrived. Myths and superstitions normally don’t come from nowhere, and it’s fun to be able to trace back the line of where these stories came from.
If you’re interested in the historical context of magic and superstition, then you’ve definitely come to the right place with this book. But even if that’s not normally a topic you’re passionate about, there are enough amusing and intriguing facts in Botanical Curses and Poisons to please a crowd. Here’s one last story to pull out at your next dinner party: people used to think that spirits of the dead lived inside beanstalks and slept in the beans, but even so, they were still safe to eat because beans make you fart and that’s the ghosts naturally escaping your body. (Again, no, I’m not kidding.) And if you want more facts like that to impress your friends, you’ll just have to pick up Botanical Curses and Poisons!