plinytheelder

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Sometimes, you need a poison plant for your lapel.

As with a lot of poisonous flowers, most people don’t know how to recognize it out and about. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present helleborous niger, black hellebore, hellebore, Christmas rose, winter rose or nisewort. Known as one of the four classical poisons (hellebore, nightshade, hemlock, and aconite) this winter flowering shade perennial is a prime example of beauty disguising danger. Low growing, this plant produces dark green foliage with 5-petaled blossoms in shades of pale green, white, pink, red and maroon (other cultivated species include flowers of black, brown, spotted and combinations of white with red tips and the like). Blooming in winter or early spring, all parts of the plant are poisonous. With irritation of the skin from contact with the sap to symptoms of vomiting, dizziness, nervous system depression, and convulsions from ingestion, the history of this plant is varied.

In Greek mythology, the seer Melampus used hellebore to cure King Proetus’s daughters of madness. Pliny the Elder gave specific instructions on harvesting the black roots of this flower for medicine or malintent. It’s theorized that Alexander the Great died after being given a medicinal dose of hellebore, while the First Sacred War (595-585BCE) was believed to have been won after the Greek military alliance poisoned the water supply of Kirrha with hellebore.

A key ingredient in classic flying ointments, it’s associated with Mars and Saturn with correspondences to water. Used in spells of banishment, exorcisms, protection and invisibility, it was also used to change the nature or other plants. Grafted onto other plants, or used as a fertilizer for fruit trees to make them unpleasant or unhealthy.

Look for helleborous niger, or helleborous officiales if you’re buying seeds. White hellebore or false hellebore looks the same, but is not the classic witch’s flower.

Happy planting everyone

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Yes, I took some Pliny the Elder to China…

Just before our trip to China, it occurred to me that my checked baggage was well under the weight limit. And, I just happened to have 4 remaining bottles from my last case of Pliny. 

They were rationed throughout my trip, with the last one cracked after hiking just beyond the 5th tower south of our entrance to The Great Wall, beyond where any other tourist had visited (so far) that morning.

Totally worth it.

The Stag

Medievalist: Pliny the Elder (1st century CE) in his Natural History, Book 8, 50, says this about the stag:

“The stag is a gentle animal. Stags are very lustful; the mating season begins after the rising of the star Arcturus. When deer hear hounds, they run down wind to avoid giving themselves away with their scent. Deer are simple animals, surprised at everything; they can be charmed by song and by a shepherd’s pipe. To cross seas they swim in a line with each deer’s head on the back of the one in front of it, and they take turns moving to the back of the line. A stag’s age can be told by its horns or its teeth. Stags lose their horns every year, and retire to secret places to do so; their right horn, which is never found, is said to contain a healing drug. The smell of stag horns burning stops an attack of epilepsy and drives away snakes. Stags are at war with snakes, drawing them out of their holes with the breath of their nostrils. Stags live a long time; the ones that Alexander the Great had put gold necklaces on were caught a hundred years later, and the necklaces were found to be covered with folds of fat. Stags are not subject to feverish diseases, and eating venison is said to prevent fevers in people.” 


In this miniature two stags with a doe and fawns from an English Bestiary created in circa 1225-1250. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Bodley 764, fol. 20r.