I’m delighted to be the last stop on the the Random Things Blog Tour for Fez Inkwright’s new book, Botanical Curses and Poisons: The Shadow Lives of Plants, just published by Liminal 11.
I’ve always had a fascination for ‘poisonous’ plants – not that I want to cultivate them for any nefarious purpose – if anything they scare me! For I know there are plenty lurking in my own garden – and probably yours too – ivy and laurel for instance. A visit to the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle, seeing lots more up close – no touching mind – strengthened that fascination which is dual-fold for me. Firstly the medical aspects – many of these toxic plants are the precursors to many pharmaceuticals, known and used through history by herbalists and wise women, and secondly there’s all the history and folk magic which makes this such an interesting subject to read about.
Fez Inkwright is an artist, author and illustrator. Her first book, Folk Magic and Healing: An unusual history of everyday plants was first published in 2019, and I was super-delighted to receive a copy of this book as well as the new one to review. The bulk of the book is an A-Z of plants – some of which are poisonous, many not. Naturally she urges us to consider the book as an entertainment, and that any plants should only be used with medical advice after correct identification. Each featured plant’s entry begins with a quotation or poem, then a discussion of said plant’s role in folklore and its medicinal uses, accompanied by Fez’s lovely line drawings. It is absolutely full of fascinating facts. I learned that in folklore, Feverfew is known as ‘housewive’s aspirin’ it was considered so versatile – and its use in easing migraines is well-known still. I didn’t know that the drinking of Garlic tea (yummy!!!) is said to ease transition to the astral plane. Then we have the Mandrake – whose shriek on being unearthed is said to kill – so what did folk of old do? They tied a rope to a dog and got the dog to unearth the root, so it would be the dog that would die! There is no record of dogs being harmed by this.
There are so many fascinating facts in these pages, and in the general sections at the beginning of the book, Inwright discusses the ‘magic’ of plants, charms and spells and so on. A short section on trees reminded me of the Norse Yggdrasil, the World Tree which connects, earth sea and sky, and the twelve trees and shrubs of the Ogham calendar – which took me back to Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, which I read decades ago and has a section on Ogham, the early medieval Irish alphabet.
Fez’s new book, Botanical Curses and Poisons: The Shadow-Lives of Plants follows a similar format, with even more of everything inside its glorious embossed cover with coppered highlights. (Both books have lovely endpapers too.)
We begin with an introduction to the history of poisoning, taking in the Roman’s love of it and the death of Socrates, to Romeo & Juliet, and Henry VIII declaring it a capital crime, the punishment being boiling alive! The author discusses wise women and witches and the surrounding folklore, before moving on to discuss the development of many healing drugs being derived from poisonous plants, as anaesthetics and sedatives for instance when given in the correct dose. Again, she reminds us that the book is not to be considered in any way as giving medical advice.
As in her previous book, we then move onto the A-Z of poisonous plants, again with quotations at the top of each entry. Some of the plants here also appeared in the first volume, including the Apple and Deadly Nightshade, but Inkwright writes longer pieces on each plant with a different, more medicinal emphasis this time, while still including folkloric, biblical, mythological and literary references. In this book, she is able to cite many examples from history – for instance, in 2018 the drug atropine, originally derived from Belladonna/Deadly Nightshade, was used on the Skripals who were poisoned with nerve agent to slow their heart rates.
When I was young and rather gullible, living in Cambridge where my hay fever was the worst it has ever been due to the different blend of grass seeds grown there and the abundant trees, I used homeopathic belladonna eyedrops – and they worked – but now I am an old skeptic, and have read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, I know it was the placebo effect in action (at 30C dilution there is not any belladonna left in the liquid).
I went through quite a hippy (but not druggy hippy) phase in my twenties (in the 1980s). I was very into tarot and astrology (yes, me, a scientist!) which came from my addiction to reading fantasy. I also read the Beats and cult authors such as (the discredited) Von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, Robert Shea/Robert Anton Wilson’s totally bonkers Illuminatus! trilogy, and Carlos Castenada’s series of books about his training as a shaman in Mexico. In Castenda’s 1968 The Teachings of Don Juan, he writes of his experiences with Datura, a powerful psychoactive, also known as Thornapple and Jimsonweed. For years, I have laboured under the delusion that Brugmansia, or Angel’s Trumpet, was Datura. On holiday in Tangiers one year, I’d seen loads of what I now know are Brugmansia bushes in the English cemetery there with their pendulous white trumpets, thought they were datura and hence evil, evil, evil, and just associated them with death thereafter. When coloured cultivars started to become popular as garden plants, I steered well clear.
Datura’s flowers point upwards, and I discover that although related and both poisonous, Datura is way more toxic than Brugmansia – both get entries in Inkwright’s book. Datura was also used by the Thugs, devotees of Kali to stupefy their victims before strangulation. Before reading this, I hadn’t known that Jimsonweed was the same plant, (I’d wrongly assumed that Georgia O’Keefe’s ‘Jimson weed’ paintings were Bindweed). Datura is also used in zombification in Haiti. But enough about these evil plants!
It’s also terrible when people get it wrong, and Inkwright tells us another more recent story under Rhubarb, whose leaves contain oxalic acid, and were the cause of eighteen deaths during WWI & WWII, due to a prominent botanist from the early 1900s classifying them as a vegetable in a pamphlet, and thereafter being eaten by some of those ‘digging for victory’. The case of a bracelet being made from the extremely toxic Rosary Pea or Jequirity Bean, causing a UK buyer to be sectioned due to the symptoms caused by its wearing, caused a nationwide campaign to recall them in 2011 – this poison is listed under the UK Terrorism act. Botanical Curses and Poisons is full of these kinds of stories and although not surprised by those poisonings from antiquity, I was somewhat aghast to read all these modern cautionary tales.
I’ve largely concentrated on examples from this super book that had a personal resonance for me, but it was totally fascinating from cover to cover. The author has concentrated on those plants with a particular story to tell, but I was slightly surprised by the omission of the castor oil plant, from which ricin is derived, implicated in the assassination of Georgi Markov in 1978 via a poison-tipped umbrella. I was pleased to see a decent index and a comprehensive bibliography/further reading list which I’ve already consulted, the latter missing from the first book.
Both of these books are beautifully produced editions from specialist indie press Liminal 11: illustrated hardbacks, printed on thick, smooth, white paper stock and very affordable. I expect to be consulting them regularly as I come across poisons, herbalism and related folklore in my reading, and anyone interested in plant folklore, herbalism and its darker side will find much to enjoy in these two books.
Source: Publisher via Random Tours – thank you!
Folk Magic and Healing, (2019) hdbk, 120 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s (affiliate link)
Botanical Curses and Poisons, (2021) hdbk, 224 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s (affiliate link)