Herbs to Kill or Heal? Was this 17th Century Faux-Book for a Poisoner or Apothecary?

Secret Stash of Lethal Poisons Hidden in 17th Century Book. Was This Really an Assassin's Cabinet?

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Hyoscyamus niger L.

Hyoscyamus niger L. ( Public Domain )

Second is Papaver Somniferum , the opium poppy today widely known as the source of heroin and codeine. Its Latin name means ‘sleep-giving’ (think the field of poppies in The Wizard of Oz ) and it has long been given to reduce pain. That being said, a large dose could also be lethal.

Papaver Somniferum.

Papaver Somniferum. ( Public Domain )

Third is Aconitum Napellus , commonly called Monk’s Blood or Wolfsbane. This has been a popular poison for thousands of years, so powerful are its effects. Ancient warriors would coat the tips of their spears before battle and Rome eventually had to outlaw the growing of the plant because it was so widely used in murder plots. It is quite strange to see this deadly flower in a cabinet as its toxicity is enough to kill a person just through contact with the skin. It grows throughout Europe and in 2014 killed the groundskeeper of a millionaire’s estate who accidently touched a wild plant (BBC News, 2014).

Aconitum napellus is an extremely toxic plant.

Aconitum napellus is an extremely toxic plant. (Wattewyl/ CC BY 3.0 )

Fourth is Cicuta Virosa , also called Cowbane or Water hemlock. The whole plant is highly toxic but the poison is especially concentrated in the roots. It disrupts the central nervous system and causes seizures and organ failure so quickly that treatment is often unsuccessful.

Cowbane or Northern Water Hemlock (Cicuta virosa) is growing by Keravanjoki river in Kerava, Finland.

Cowbane or Northern Water Hemlock (Cicuta virosa) is growing by Keravanjoki river in Kerava, Finland. (Anneli Salo/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Fifth is Bryonia Alba , the Devil’s Turnip or Mandrake.  Mostly, it is known for being an invasive weed (similar to kudzu) but all parts of the plant contain the poisonous bryonin. If an animal eats the flowers and leaves, it could die. For a human, the lethal dose is 40 berries, making it a rather ineffective poison. On the other hand, a doctor who knows what he/she is doing can use bryonin to treat stomach pain, diseases, and even poisoning because the plant will cause vomiting and/or diarrhea.

Bryonia alba.

Bryonia alba. ( Public Domain )

Contents of the Last Six Drawers

Sixth is Datura Stramonium , also known as Devil’s Snare or Jimson Weed. This plant is also part of the nightshade family. This Old World plant quickly caught on in Europe as a painkiller and a means to relieve asthma. In a slightly higher dose, it is a powerful hallucinogenic. Slightly higher still and it is deadly.

Datura stramonium.

Datura stramonium . (Isidre blanc/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Seventh is Valeriana Officinalis , usually just called Valerian. This pretty pink flower was commonly used in 16th-century perfumes. The ancient Greeks used it to treat insomnia and the medieval Swedes used to ward off evil elves. Today, it is sold in supplement form to relieve anxiety, stress, and restless leg syndrome. There is no scientific evidence that Valerian relieves any of these symptoms. There is some evidence, however, which suggests that it could be used as a safe alternative to catnip.

Valeriana officinalis.

Valeriana officinalis. ( Public Domain )

Eighth is Daphne Mezereum, also known as Spurge Laurel. Its name derives from two highly toxic compounds, daphnin and mezerein. If ingested, it causes a choking sensation; skin exposure causes a rash.

Daphne mezereum L.

Daphne mezereum L. ( Public Domain )

Ninth is Ricinus Communis or the Castor Oil Plant. It is also sometimes called the Palm of Christ because of its supposed ability to heal wounds. It is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties and is still being tested to this day. In small doses, scientists have found that it can protect the livers of lab mice from certain poisons; in higher doses it causes death. 

Ricinus communis.

Ricinus communis. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The tenth is Colchicum Autumnale , also known as Meadow Saffron and Naked Lady. The first half of the plant’s name comes from the colchicine it contains. A traditional remedy dating back to at least the 16th century, colchicine is approved by the FDA to treat gout and certain inflammatory disorders. However, colchicine is toxic and the wrong dosage can yield similar results as arsenic. 

Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) growing at Gföhlberg, Lower Austria.

Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) growing at Gföhlberg, Lower Austria. ( Public Domain )

Finally, the eleventh compound is Atropa Bella , widely known as Deadly Nightshade or Bella Donna. It is one of the most toxic plants in the Eastern Hemisphere. Since ancient times, Atropa Bella was used to create poison-tipped arrows. The wife of Roman Emperor Augustus allegedly used it to murder rivals and possibly the Emperor himself (this was never proven).

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