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Hellebore, a witch's friend since ancient Greece

Helleborus x hybrida, a typical Helleborus orientalis hybrid for the late winter garden. Hellebore has been a witch’s friend since ancient Greece, where it was used as a cure for Dionysian frenzy. From Wikimedia, CCA Share-Alike 3.0.

Hellebore, aconite, mayapple . . . you shouldn’t be growing those. It’s dangerous and unethical to grow poisonous plants,” opined the Well-Known-Witch and Published Author at a convention seminar.

Well, I’d thank you to find anything nice that will survive a summer in Richmond in the shade of large trees that isn’t poisonous,” I retorted. Said author did her gardening in California, which has neither a winter nor even a summer as known in the former Confederacy. “Besides, these are traditional witch-herbs for a reason. Most poisons are simply overdoses of powerful medicines.” Perhaps I was a bit more forceful than she was used to in an audience. I wasn’t very impressed by her novels, and her attitude towards herbalism excluded well over half of the plants in just about any garden. Because the truth of the matter is that an awful lot of things are poisonous if you’re an idiot, and contestants for the Darwin Awards will always find something stupid to get into whether you help them or not.

Only qualified doctors should be using anything that powerful,” she tried again.

Doctors,” I replied, “know absolutely nothing about herbs. And very little about people, either.” Let us say that she went her way and I went mine, and I had made one more enemy among the primadonnas of fantasy and science fiction by my unwillingness to admire blatant pap presented as Great Wisdom. The greater wisdom, of course, was that such people could have been very useful to my writing career, but tact was never my strong point when dealing with Authorities who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Aconitum napellus

Aconitum napellus, or Wolfsbane, is a gorgeous ornamental that grows in shade on stony soil, but it requires excellent drainage and a good dose of lime. It is also so poisonous that it’s not really safe to handle without gloves. Courtesy of Theoi.com Greek Mythology site.

I love my herbs. And many of them are quite nasssty sweethearts if you don’t pay them proper respect (not unlike Established Writers whose work revolves around patently unscientific “science fiction” or magical systems with holes big enough to accommodate a Klingon battle fleet). Aconite, for instance. A beautiful flower which supposedly will tolerate a shady site and poor soil. Unfortunately, the kind of poor soil it likes wasn’t the kind of poor soil I had available, and I struggled for years to get the silly seeds to germinate until I learned that they almost never do – standard practice is to propagate from root divisions. But Hellebore did magnificently, and although I couldn’t get those to germinate either when I intentionally planted them, they soon began to self-sow and spread. It was so nice, to have fresh flowers in the house in February!



Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea. Foxglove is happy with ordinary garden conditions, will tolerate some shade and self-seeds prolifically. Courtesy of H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons, CCA Share-Alike 3.0

Foxgloves are another “poison” which should be more widely cultivated. Easy to grow from seed, and magnificent in bloom, they will self-sow readily and fill the garden with their offspring. Foxglove of course is the original source for several major heart medications still invaluable for congestive heart failure, which will probably be what kills me someday. Mayapple (podophyllum) and Vinca major (now re-dubbed Cantharanthus), however, provide potent cancer chemotherapy agents, and also grow well in the heat and humidity of the Southern Atlantic region. Mayapple is in fact a native to the Eastern Woodlands, but that doesn’t make it “mandrake”, no matter what someone tries to sell you. Mandragora officinalis is an entirely different plant, with entirely different chemical properties, that like Aconite likes to grow on limestone outcrops in the Balkans, not the acid loams of Eastern North America.


Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum, sometimes sold as “American Mandrake” despite the COMPLETE lack of kinship with Mandragora Officinalis. True Mandrake is a European native that doesn’t take kindly to North American conditions. (Photo courtesy of Velocicaptor via Wikimedia Commons.)

Last week I discovered that the seedling I pulled up when I left Ohio, thinking that it was a volunteer from the lilac bush, was in fact Solanum dulcamara, or Woody Nightshade. The Woody Nightshade is nowhere near as dangerous as its famous cousin, the Deadly Nightshade; although children may die (rarely) from eating the berries, the leaves can be simmered into oil and made up into a nice little ointment that numbs the skin for burns and insect bites. Or they can be mixed with some less potent plants – I’d have to dig up the recipe, which is in the mountain house, where I have no internet – to make a nice shamanic smoking mixture, perfect for a little bit of astral travel with the right meditation, or just for evening relaxation without.

Solanum dulcamara

Solanum dulcamara, or Woody Nightshade, commonly found at the woodland margins in Ohio and upstate New York, but rarer in Virginia.

Of course, not everything I grow is poisonous in ordinary doses (even water can be toxic in some circumstances, of which I have personal experience). I expect I’ll empty out the contents of my recipe-books here over time. But how terribly constrained and boring it must be, to arbitrarily cut yourself off from half the botanical world because it requires the same care in handling as a hot stove or clothes-iron or sewing-machine. Or a cat. Cats have teeth and claws, which can be painful and even deadly. Touch not the cat, says the motto of the Gaelic cat clans, without a glove. Especially when she’s been chewing nepeta cataria. That’s a good rule for Aconite as well. And Nettles. And Buttercups. And Poison Ivy, which I do not plant, but it grows anyway.