Archive for the ‘Magical Plants’ Category

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hell Flowers

Helleborus foetidus Helleborus niger Helleborus orientalis

Above, from left to right: Detail of stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, the first to bloom of the three hellebore species grown in Bonnefont garden; detail of the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, in blossom; detail of the flowers of the Lenten rose, Helleborus orientalis.

The name “hellebore” does not derive from the Anglo-Saxon word “hell,” although hellebore might well be described as hellish in some of its actions and associations. Some older sources derive the generic name of the plant from the Greek elein (to injure) and bora (food), indicating its poisonous nature. However etymologists now conjecture that hellebore is derived from ellos—a young deer—and bora, meaning “the food of fawns”. I’ve asked Alain Touwaide, a classical scholar and an authority on ancient medicinal herbs, whose work on an important medieval medical text is featured on the Science at the Smithsonian website, to comment on this derivation.

The magico-medicinal character of hellebore, a poisonous member of the Ranunculaceae, a botanical family which includes other deadly species such as aconite, was established in Greek antiquity. Read more »

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Hallowed Yew

Yew Tree in Bonnefont Garden Fruit of the Yew Tree

Above, from left to right: A large yew tree (Taxus baccata) growing near the portcullis on the lower drive of The Cloisters; a detail of the yew in fruit in mid-November. The gelatinous red flesh surrounding the seeds is as sweet as it looks, and is innocuous, but the seed itself is very toxic, as are the leaves.

There is here above the brotherhood
A bright tall glossy yew;
The melodious bell sends out a keen clear note
In St. Columba’s church.

—Fragment of an Irish poem, ca. 800–1000

Read more »

Friday, October 23, 2009

Wild Teasel

Dipsacus fullonum Detail from The Hunt of the Frail Stag Detail of Dipsacus fullonum

Above, from left: The medicinal teasel, Dipsacus fullonum, growing in Bonnefont garden; a teasel depicted in the foreground of The Hunt of the Frail Stag: Vanity Sounds the Horn, and Ignorance Unleashes the Hounds Overconfidence, Rashness, and Desire, South Netherlandish, about 1500–1525, Wool and silk, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Mary Stillman Harkness, 1950 (50.145.4); detail of the flower head, whose straight spines distinguish this species from D. sativus.

The principal medieval uses of the wild teasel, Dipsacus fullonum, were medicinal. (See last week’s post for uses of the cultivated form.) Read more »

Friday, May 29, 2009

Arum Scarum

Dragon arum in Bonnefont garden Dragon arum flower Dragon arum stems

Above, from left: dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris) growing in Bonnefont garden; detail of the spathe and spadix common to arums; detail of the reptilian markings on the stems.

Arums and other members of the botanical family Araceae are fly pollinated, and their flowers imitate both the color and the smell of rotting meat in order to attract pollinators. The little cuckoo-pint featured in last week’s post is by no means the most fetid member of the family. Cuckoo-pint’s enormous tropical cousin, Amorphophallus titanum, notorious for its overpowering stench, is native to Sumatra.  The titan arum is also cultivated in conservatories and gains worldwide attention when it blooms in botanical gardens like Kew. Read more »

Friday, May 22, 2009

Adam and Eve and Arum

Arum maculatum Detail from The Unicorn in Captivity Arum italicum in Flower

Above, from left: Cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) growing in Bonnefont Garden; Detail from The Unicorn in Captivity that shows cuckoo-pint growing within the enclosure; Italian arum, (Arum italicum) growing in Bonnefont Garden.

Of all the spring-blooming “cuckoo plants” (see “Sumer is Icumen In,” April 3, 2009) associated not only with the bird but with magic, sexuality, snakes, and death, the cuckoo-pint or wake-robin is the most famous. Read more »

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Holly and the Ivy

Detail of a holly from The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn Juvenile ivy growing in Bonnefont Garden Red-berried holly and black-fruited ivy

Above, from left to right: Detail of holly from The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn; juvenile holly growing in Bonnefont Garden; red-berried holly and black-fruited ivy.

Holy stond in the hall
Faire to behold:
Ivy stond without the dore—
She is ful sore acold.

Holy and his mery men
They daunsen and they sing;
Ivy and her maidenes
They wepen and they wring.

—Fifteenth-century carol, Reginald Thorne Davies, Medieval English Lyrics: A Critical Anthology, 1972.

A group of English carols set down in the fifteenth century preserves evidence of a ritual contest between boys bearing branches of holly and girls bearing ivy. The red-berried holly, symbolizing light, warmth, and light, was meant to prevail over the black-fruited ivy, which signified the dark and cold of winter. Thus, ivy remained outside the door while holly was carried triumphantly into the hall. Read more »

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Nightshades

Woody nightshade in fruit and flower Mandrake in fruit Henbane flower

Above, left to right: Woody nightshade in fruit and flower; Mandrake in fruit; Henbane flower.

Among the plants associated with witchcraft in antiquity and the Middle Ages are a number of poisonous and narcotic species that are chemically related to one another, including the mandrakes (Mandragora officinarum and M. autumnalis), henbane, (Hyoscyamus niger), thorn apple (Datura metel) and deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna). All are members of the nightshade family, the Solanaceae. Read more »

Friday, October 31, 2008

Plants in Medieval Magic

Flower spikes of the beneficent vervain going to seed. Seed capsules of thornapple, Datura metel in the bed devoted to Plants Used in Medieval Magic

Left: The powerful but beneficent vervain (Verbena officinalis) growing in the bed devoted to Plants Used in Medieval Magic in Bonnefont Cloister Herb Garden; Right: Seed capsules of the sinister and poisonous thornapple (Datura metel) growing nearby.

Trefoil, vervain, John’s-wort, dill,
Hinders witches of their will,
Weel is them, that weel may
Fast upon Saint Andrew’s day.

—Traditional rhyme, put into the mouth of the gypsy Meg Merrilies by Sir Walter Scott in Guy Mannering.

Medieval calendar practices, and the plants associated with them, were an amalgam of Greco-Roman and Celto-Germanic observances with Christian beliefs and traditions. Many folk rites performed at the thresholds between the seasons of the year were intended to avert storms, ward off diseases of cattle, and prevent the blighting of crops.  All these misfortunes were attributed to the activities of witches. Read more »

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bye Bye, Bryony

Red bryony vine in fruit in October Red bryony vine blooming in June A lusterware albarello or pharmacy jar patterned with stylized bryony vines

Above, from left to right: Red bryony vine in fruit in October; Red bryony vine blooming in June; a lusterware albarello or pharmacy jar patterned with stylized bryony vines

The luxuriant foliage of the bryony vine begins to yellow and fall in September. By October all that is left are the small red berries that hang from a lacy network of slender brown stems.  Although the vine dies back to the ground in early autumn, the root is perennial and will send up new shoots in the spring. Bryonia dioica is graceful even in decline; next May the vine will quickly veil a willow trellis in Bonnefont Garden with bright green leaves and show itself to be one of the prettiest plants in the collection. Read more »

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Honoring Fennel

Fennel in flower Ripening fennel fruits Umbels of dried-up fennel fruits

Above, from left to right: Fennel flourishing in Bonnefont Cloister Garden in July; green fennel fruits ripening in late summer; umbels of dry fennel fruits at the end of the season.

Let us not forget to honor fennel. It grows
On a strong stem and spreads its branches wide.
Its taste is sweet enough, sweet too its smell;
They say it is good for eyes whose sight is clouded,
That its seed, taken with milk from a pregnant goat,
Eases a swollen stomach and quickly loosens
Sluggish bowels.  What is more, your rasping cough
Will go if you take fennel-root mixed with wine.

—From Hortulus by Walahfrid Strabo. Translated from the Latin by Raef Payne. The Hunt Botanical Library, 1966.

The ninth-century Benedictine abbot Walahfrid Strabo was a gardener as well as a scholar and a poet.  He praises the stately and beautiful fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) growing in his monastery garden for its medicinal virtues, but fennel was also an ancient culinary herb, enjoyed both as a seasoning and a vegetable.

Indigenous to the Mediterranean, fennel was brought to England and Germany by the Romans, and to India and China by Arab traders.  The Roman natural historian Pliny, writing in the first century, cites fennel in more than twenty remedies.  All parts of the plant—roots, shoots, leaves, and seeds—have been used both as food and as medicine. Read more »