Our relationship with plants is as age-old as humanity itself. Both historically and today they fill a powerful purpose in our lives – as food, medicine, shelter, clothing – and our ongoing fascination with them shows no sign of abating.
Having already written about the folklore and history of medicinal plants in Folk Magic and Healing, it’s only natural that next my attention should have turned to the other side of the mirror… those of toxic nature and ill-repute. From the cyanide in apple pips to the guardianship of yew trees over our dead, Botanical Curses and Poisons: The Shadow-Lives of Plants looks at the toxins, black magic, and hexes of the plants that we share our lives with. It also includes a history of the art of poisoning, a study into wise women and early European witchcraft, and a discussion of the ill-designed Doctrine of Signatures.
Containing the profiles of 70 plants from across the globe, you won’t just find poisonous plants but also the ill-mannered of their kin, from the flammable – such as grasses that create purpose-made wildfires and bushes with incendiary atmospheres – to the cannibalistic and the murderous. Curses and sorcery abound also, with old folk methods for undoing baptisms and creating clay poppets, or grass that can bestow ravenous hunger and flowers that may doom someone to never marry. One tree even has a reputation for stripping the paint from cars that have parked beneath it.
A particular favourite of mine is the asphodel, a plant that is not only famous for blanketing the Asphodel Meadows of the Greek Underworld, but is used by Corsican dream-walkers to do battle in the realm of sleep, and sever the soul from the bodies of those fated to die that year. I also love the various varieties of ‘bleeding’ trees that can be found along the equatorial belt, and the stories that explain their bloody sap: in Yemen they are thought to have sprung from the blood spilled in a battle between a great dragon and an elephant, whereas a South American tale supposes that a greedy prince was beheaded and buried beneath one such tree, and his malice continues to bleed from it even today.
Botanical Curses and Poisons also features plants that we’re more familiar with in our homes, such as the herb basil, which features in a famous tale of a grisly murder and a severed head; rhubarb, which was responsible for killing 15 people during the World Wars; buttercups, which came into this world when a frustrated nymph turned a lovesick prince into the first flower; and even dieffenbachia, a popular houseplant which was once used by plantation owners to punish their slaves.
The world of plants is rich and varied, and there’s more to a flower than just pretty petals and a pleasing scent. Take a journey with me to discover some of the most notorious of them, and some that you may have never even heard of!
Botanical Curses and Poisons: The Shadow Lives of Plants by Fez Inkwright is out 11th February for Liminal 11
(9781912634224, p/b, £12.99)
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