The care and use of toxic plants

First an important announcement:


That’s the legal stuff taken care of, so now I’d like to explain what this post is about and why I’m writing it. It’s not about herbal medicine in the conventional sense. Most reputable herbalists wouldn’t touch most of these plants with a proverbial barge pole because they’re too toxic and/or illegal. I suspect that a lot of mainstream herbal medicine works by a combination of counselling and aromatherapy, and before I get a lot of angry emails from herbalists, I want to make it clear that I’m not being disparaging. Many of my patients in my family medical practice come to me because they are stressed, anxious or depressed. The best thing for them would probably be a sympathetic ear and a harmless but nice smelling herbal concoction. However, I am afraid I am terribly bad at this sort of thing. (“Wife left you, you got fired from your job and you’re having a midlife crisis? Pull yourself together, man. Have some antidepressants.”).

But in a societal collapse scenario, what if you need a gangrenous leg or appendix removed, and something powerful to knock you out for the surgery? During the Napoleonic Wars, most unpleasant operations such as amputations were performed without any anaesthetic or pain relief, other than a swig of brandy if you were lucky. The use of morphine, ether and chloroform for anaesthesia and pain relief only became widespread during and after the American Civil War. The ability to provide pain relief for surgery is one of the hallmarks of a civilised society. Toxic plants may not be as good as modern anaesthetics, but they are better than nothing, and certainly better than jasmine or lavender. The toxins are probably a defence mechanism, evolved to discourage animals from eating them, but if they are used in carefully controlled conditions they can be beneficial. I’ve been prescribing toxic chemicals for people all my working life (for example, twenty Paracetamol / Acetaminophen can be a fatal dose) so I feel quite at home working with toxic plants.

A particular problem with toxic plants is the narrow “therapeutic ratio”; that is, the difference between a therapeutic dose and a toxic or fatal dose. Calculating the correct dose is made all the more difficult by the fact that the same amount of herbal material may contain different amounts of active ingredient depending on the strain of plant, the climatic conditions, the time of harvest and the method of preparation. These plants should only be used medicinally by experienced people, only a small dose given at a time, the patient should be closely monitored, and resuscitation equipment should be available including cardiac and respiratory support.

All the plants you see here were photographed by me in the Isle of Man, in my garden, allotment or in public places.

Henbane flower

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)

Grows very easily from seed. Key component of “witches flying ointment” as used by European witches from the 1400s onwards. Other common ingredients of the ointment included jimsonweed (see below), wolfbane, mandrake and opium poppy. Some of these ingredients may act in a synergistic way, but the exact recipe and the proportions of the ingredients were probably handed down by word of mouth and have been lost. As this is a family blog and I don’t want to scare the children, I’m not going to go into details of how the witches used their flying ointment. You can look it up on Wikipedia if you want. It sounds like those old witches knew how to have fun. Anyway, I digress. The point is that it put them into a trance-like state; an effect which could possibly be modified for use as a general anaesthetic.

Its toxicity is due to a mixture of toxic alkaloids including hyoscyamine, atropine, tropane and scopolamine. Anecdotally, ingestion of henbane is said to have caused some fatalities but I was unable to find any definite documented case where this has occurred. The lethal dose is not known.

Jimsonweed flower
Jimsonweed fruit

Jimsonweed / Thornapple (Datura stramonium)

A key ingredient of “witches flying ointment”, see above. Jimsonweed is not native to the United Kingdom, although specimens appear here sporadically, probably due to imported birdseed. That is probably why I found one such specimen (photographed above) growing wild on my allotment. It is native to Central and North America, and its common name “jimsonweed” is an abbreviation of “Jamestown Weed”. Apparently some English soldiers consumed it while suppressing a rebellion in Jamestown, Virginia in 1676 and spent several days in a trance, remembering nothing when they awoke.

I saved its seed and tried to cultivate it the following year, but this proved surprisingly difficult. I planted at least 100 seeds, but only six of them germinated, and the seedlings were sickly and never reached maturity. This may be because in the wild, the seed is spread by birds and carried in their droppings, and the acids and enzymes in the birds’ digestive tracts probably help to activate the seed and promote germination. Next year I will try some pre-treatment of the seed before planting, for example soaking in lemon juice, or scarification (scraping away some of the outer coating of the seed). I’ll let you know what happens.

Its toxicity is due to a similar combination of alkaloids found in henbane (above). Numerous non-fatal poisonings and at least two fatalities have been documented. The two fatalities were in adolescents age 16 and 17 who drank jimsonweed tea and alcohol in the Texas desert in 1994 and were found dead the next day. It is unclear whether the deaths were due primarily to the jimsonweed, alcohol, exposure or a combination of all three.

American mandrake flower

American mandrake / Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

I already mentioned this in my last post, so I’m only going to mention this briefly here. It is not a true mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) which is a plant native to the Mediterranean region and to which it bears a superficial resemblance. The American mandrake contains podophyllotoxin, an effective treatment for warts and verrucae, which is used today in commercial preparations.

I grow most of my toxic and medicinal plants on my allotment, but this specimen is shown growing by my garden wall. This is because, in October 2018, I sent off for some mandrake root from a specialist nursery. When it arrived, I hadn’t yet prepared a permanent planting site for it, so I dug it in beside my garden wall for safekeeping, intending to transplant it the next spring.

When spring 2019 arrived, I spent twenty minutes grovelling around elbow deep in dirt, but I could not find that damned piece of mandrake root. Eventually I gave it up for lost, assuming that it had rotted away over the winter. However, when spring 2020 rolled around, I found growing beside my garden wall…an American mandrake, in the exact same spot where I had lost my piece of mandrake root 18 months previously. So now I have carefully marked the spot and I will transplant it into the mandrake bed in spring 2021. Moral: gardeners need a lot of patience.

White bryony vine and flowers

White bryony / English mandrake (Bryonia alba)

This is another “mandrake” which is not really a mandrake. Unlike the Mediterranean mandrake ( Mandragora officinarum) it is native to the British Isles. Its turnip-like roots contain a similar cocktail of toxic chemicals to the Mediterranean mandrake but it is much cheaper and easier to obtain in Britain, and in medieval times the roots of white bryony were often passed off as Mediterranean mandrake by fairground charlatans. All parts of the plant contain the tropane alkaloids atropine, scopolamine, hyoscyamine and bryonin, similar to jimsonweed and henbane. Forty berries is said to be a fatal dose in humans. It used to be a key ingredient of “witches flying ointment”, and potentially could be used as a component of an anaesthetic.

White bryony, like asparagus, grows as separate male and female plants. The herbally knowledgeable among you will see immediately that the plant pictured above is a female plant because it is forming berries under the flowers (the male plant would produce flowers and pollen but no berries). I will try to get a male plant to keep it company.

Woody nightshade flowers

Woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)

A perennial woody vine which grows in woodland margins. The juice of the berries was rubbed on warts, to cure them. Whether this treatment is effective is hard to say. The berries are moderately toxic: the active principle is solanine which can cause convulsions and death if taken in large doses. Anecdotally it is said to have caused a number of fatalities in children from eating the berries, but I have been unable to find a confirmed report of a child who died in this way, or how many berries are a fatal dose. It is distantly related to the potato, which is why you should never eat green potatoes: they form solanine in their skins.

I collected some berries from a wild specimen growing on the island but I was unable to germinate any of the seeds from the berries, probably due to the same difficulty I had with jimsonweed (above). However, cuttings taken from the plant rooted well and grew vigorously.

Opium poppy seed capsules on Douglas promenade

Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum)

This is the last of the “witches flying ointment” ingredients which I am going to discuss today, and the most illegal. The addictive and overdose potential of opioids is well known, particularly in the light of the opioid crisis in North America; however, most of these adverse effects result from the use of concentrated and/or synthetic opioids such as oxycodone, heroin and fentanyl, rather than raw opium. In some countries (such as the UK) it is legal to grow opium poppies but illegal to extract opium from them. In others (such as Canada) it is illegal even to grow the poppies. Make sure you know what the law is in your area. I would like to leave you with this photograph of opium poppies planted by Douglas Borough Council in the Marine Gardens on Douglas Promenade. They have grown opium poppies there every year since I came to the island. Is there something the Council is not telling us?

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin

2 thoughts on “The care and use of toxic plants

  1. Thank you for a most interesting article. A person might be tempted to concoct a few potions for pain, which is what I’m going to write about. My family has a genetic anomaly. I cannot have any anesthesia. Nothing at the dentist office, nothing for stitches. This also includes opiods. It affects my heart. I’ll be dead.

    I was fortunate that before I had my first tooth extracted I discussed it with my doctor. He was a recent immigrant from a poor country in Asia. His comment was nonchalant; it will only hurt a moment. But, when I mentioned it to other people, they were absolutely horrified. I trusted my doctor, and he was right. The discomfort was so brief, I wouldn’t classify it as pain. Since then I’ve had a root canal, a complicated dental procedure, and a stereotactic breast biopsy. My doctor said that if they needed to remove a lump and even some lymph nodes, as long as they didn’t cut into the chest wall I would be fine. His sterling confidence was part of the reason I knew I could easily tolerate these procedures. The medical professionals all wrote I did very well in their reports.

    Except that I have an ion channel myopathy that doesn’t like anesthesia, I’m normal. I feel when I touch something hot or cut my fingers. I’m not some big tough guy who can bench pressure 300 pounds. I’m a frail 71 year old lady. So, how do I do it? I’ve learned our society has an abnormal fear of pain. Fear of pain amplifies pain. Want to make it worse? Be terrified of it. I actually psychologically move toward the pain when I have a procedure. Instead of rounding my shoulders forward. hunching my body in muscle tension, and moving backward, I open my shoulders and lean forward. I’ve learned as soon as I have tension in my body, it makes it worse.

    I have a close friend who now does her dental procedures without anesthesia since she knows I do. She says it’s much better without the anesthesia after effects. I wouldn’t recommend someone start their first go without anesthesia for a root canal, but please consider that physical pain is a natural part of our human existence. We’ve gotten very soft in our western culture, so much that we can no longer tolerate the least discomfort. As a consequence, we’ve developed a paranoia about pain other cultures would find ridiculous.

    Growing up with a father as I did, watching what he tolerated as matter of fact, certainly expanded my awareness and confidence of dealing with pain. I am careful to teach my daughter and granddaughter the same attitude. That’s my closing message. Our society is in the midst of a pandemic. But, things won’t get back to normal afterward, because we have the immense challenges of climate change. We need to have new attitudes, new ways to look our lives through adversity and pain. We need to learn.

  2. I think you’re right about our society having a low tolerance of pain Jo, or indeed, to any physical or psychological discomfort at all. That’s probably an important factor driving the opioid epidemic (must eliminate all pain), the obesity epidemic (must never feel hungry), the political correctness epidemic (must never feel any psychological discomfort) and the political response to the Coronavirus epidemic (extraordinary measures must be taken to ensure that people do not die, despite the fact that everyone dies eventually). Probably also why I spend 25% of every working day treating people for stress, anxiety or depression.

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