13 November 2013

Plants and Their Properties: Three Poisons

Years ago, I saw an amusing thing on an insecticide bottle: “made from plants.” As if that is supposed to make me feel safer. Long before modern chemistry, humans derived poisons from plants – to kill larger beings than bugs.

Here are three plants used for evil purposes that I found in researching my novels set in eighth century Francia.


The word hemlock can apply to several plants and bring on different sets of symptoms. A type that resembles parsley is believed to be the key ingredient in that famous cocktail Socrates drank to carry out his death sentence. In small doses, hemlock had medicinal uses such as inducing sleep. In larger doses, as Plato recounts, the poison slowly paralyzes its victim until the person stops breathing hours later.

Two 19th century poisonings – one a guy experimenting on himself, another whose family thought they were using parsley in a sandwich – are consistent with Plato’s descriptions.

Deadly Nightshade

Often called the devil’s plant, as few as three of deadly nightshade’s dark purple berries can kill a child, and adults have been poisoned after consuming rabbits and birds that ate the berries. Its hallucinogenic properties, including a feeling of being able to fly, are said to make it a favorite of witches’ rituals. Other symptoms: sweating, a flush face, and dilated pupils.

That last symptom may have led women to use this plant in eyedrops to give them a doe-eyed look, hence the name belladonna.


With leaves mistaken for wild parsley and roots resembling horseradish, aconite has several names, including queen of poisons, wolf’s bane, and monk’s hood. It’s called bane for a reason. The folk used it to kill what they considered undesirable animals such as wolves and rats. And it’s had its share of human victims. Once it takes effect – about 20 minutes – it produced the classic symptoms of poisoning, vomiting and diarrhea. Death usually occurred within hours.

With these and other poisons ready to slip in food and drink, medieval aristocrats took precautions such as employing tasters. Why would anyone want such a risky job? In a time of scarcity, it ensured enough to eat.

All images via Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain or used under the terms of GNU Free Documentation License

“Hemlock Poisoning and the Death of Socrates: Did Plato Tell the Truth?” [https://www3.nd.edu/~plato/bloch.htm] Enid Bloch, Journal of the International Plato Society, 2001

Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

Poisons make an appearance in both of Kim Rendfeld’s novels, The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (forthcoming, Fireship Press). For more about Kim and her fiction, visit her website, http://kimrendfeld.com, or her blog Outtakes, http://kimrendfeld.wordpress.com.


Yves Fey said...

Always fascinating. Oleander is another interesting one. And Anne Perry used lily of the valley in a murder mystery once. I didn't know of that one.

Denise said...

Aconite is a handsome garden plant. Deadly nightshade stinks. Peach pits, nutmeg in a large quantity and nicotine in dissolved tobacco will also kill.Rhubarb leaves will cause you to bleed to death in the lungs. One of our teachers in Culinary management told us, that during WWII resistance fighters would rub garlic on old steel knives and let it dry. When they stabbed the enemy in the stomach,they would then twist the blade. This would cause the victim to get septic poisoning, which will cause a slow painful death. The things you learn in culinary school! How to kill a person!