The penultimate plant in this Midsummer collection! I asked my fans on Facebook which plant they would like to see next and most said Foxglove but quite honestly I haven’t figured out how I’m gonna make that yet so I’m going for this one. Lovely, deadly stinking Black Henbane.
This one gets me excited. It is reputedly so poisonous, the smell alone can cause giddiness.
It is not considered truly indigenous to Great Britain, but occurs fairly frequently in parts of Scotland, England and Wales, and also in Ireland, and has been found wild in sixty British counties, chiefly in waste, sandy places, by road-sides, on rubbish heaps and near old buildings, having probably first escaped from the old herb gardens. It is frequently found on chalky ground and particularly near the sea. It appears to have been more common in Gerard’s time (Queen Elizabeth’s reign) than it is now.
It is poisonous in all its parts, and neither drying nor boiling destroys the toxic principle (like Belladonna the plant and seeds contain hyoscine, hyoscyamine, atropine, and scopolamine (tropane alkaloids). The leaves are the most powerful portion. Accidental cases of poisoning by Henbane are, however, not very common as the plant has too unpleasant a taste and smell to be readily mistaken for any vegetable, but its roots, which are thick and somewhat like those of salsify, have sometimes been gathered and eaten. The effects are varied but in general cause hallucinations, drowsiness, stupefaction and disorientation. In sufficient doses the plant can be very dangerous causing unconsciousness, mania, violence, seizures, trembling of limbs and in extreme cases death.
The seed heads look like a piece of jawbone complete with a row of teeth. This plant was, therefore, used in dentistry from ancient times. The hallucinogenic, soporific effects of the plant would have made people forget the toothache.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, witches reputedly narcotised themselves by a special salve containing extracts of belladonna and henbane. If it was spread onto the skin, it caused vivid hallucinations of flying in the air, wild dancing and abundant feasts – the famous ‘flying ointment’.
In mythology, we read that the dead in Hades were crowned with it as they wandered hopelessly beside the Styx. I love this idea.
From Cunningham’s Magical Herbs: ‘To bring love, a man should gather henbane naked, early in the morning, while standing, on one foot. Worn, it will bring love. Burned out of doors it attracts rain, but the fumes would be poisonous.’
Presumably when worn it attracts ‘love’ because anyone going near you would swoon in your arms?