The relationship between plants and humans is often one of sustaining life for the latter, although with the rise of the “green movement” and being more environmentally conscious, the relationship is becoming more mutually beneficial. However, there are instances when the world of plants can become dark in our perceptions, even life-threatening.
Sometimes, plants can leave a great imprint on human awareness, filtering into society’s memories and the stories passed to future generations for centuries. Roses are instantly associated with feelings of love or friendship, while orchids can evoke the sensual. And then there are other plants that remind us that life isn’t always so pleasant.
Think of Socrates and you may also think of his well-documented death by drinking a cup of poison hemlock. Recorded in great detail by his pupils Xenophon and Plato, they describe the brew’s effects, how Socrates encouraged it to work quickly through his body by walking until his legs grew numb, forcing him to his bed. There, the hemlock seeped into his heart, paralyzing its rhythm.
His death has been dramatized in plays and films, in the artwork of Jacques-Louis David, re-told in schools throughout the world over the course of history until the mention of poison hemlock has become a recognizable source of danger. Not only is this plant hazardous to humans, it has caused the death of much livestock since it prefers to grow in pastures as well as along roadsides and waste places.
Many gardeners are familiar with the attractive blooms of the oleander plant. However, its leaves are more notorious for their deadly effects, since children are more apt to put them in their mouths. However, ingesting any parts of this evergreen shrub can prove fatal. Urban legend has it, going all the way back to a published reference in 1844, that:
In 1809, when French troops were lying before Madrid, some of the soldiers went a marauding, every one bringing back such provisions as could be found. One soldier formed the unfortunate idea of cutting the branches of the Oleander for spits and skewers for the meat when roasting. This tree, it may be observed, is very common in Spain, where it attains considerable dimensions. The wood having been stripped of its bark, and brought in contact with the meat, was productive of most direful consequences, for twelve soldiers who ate of the roast, seven died and the other five were dangerously ill.
For such a lovely plant accompanied by a lyrical name like belladonna to have deadly consequences, is quite ironic to say the least. There are even stories that describe how Italian women once used the berries as a cosmetic, dropping the juice into their eyes to give them a brighter appearance. In fact, belladonna translates to “beautiful lady” in Italian. Even more ironically, modern doctors administer atropine, a poison in deadly nightshade, directly into their patient’s eyes in order to dilate them.
Sometimes, the smallest of things can have an enormous effect on large amount of people. Remember the Salem Witch Trials, in which twenty people were tried and executed? There has been evidence presented that points to the real cause of the bizarre behavior that was thought, by the citizens of Salem, to be rooted in witchcraft. The real culprit appears to be nothing more than ergot poisoning.
Ergot is a toxic fungus most commonly found in cereal grasses such as wheat and rye, usually in very damp conditions. The symptoms of ergot poisoning can be hallucinations, burning sensations, seizures, peeling skin, gangrenous blisters and death. Sometimes, an entire village was effected by the deadly fungus. It wasn’t until 1670 that ergot was discovered to be the cause of up to 50,000 deaths during the Middle Ages, when people would succumb to St Anthony’s Fire, dancing and contorting in the streets until collapse or death.