Henbane & Hart's Tongue Fern
Henbane & Hart's Tongue Fern
Hyoscyamus niger, commonly known as henbane, black henbane or stinking nightshade, is a poisonous plant in the family Solanaceae. Although a native plant, occurring widely in the British Isles, Henbane has a patchy local distribution in sandy places and disturbed ground (the latter because the seeds are believed to remain dormant for long periods). All parts of the plants are poisonous, with hyoscyamine and, hyoscine and atropine. Its effects have been known for centuries. It was used in Assyrian, Roman, Greek and Tudor times for toothache - a branch of Henbane in seed resembles a jaw with teeth. It was recommended as a narcotic in the Grete Herball of 1529 (1), and it formed one of the ingredients of the 'soporific sponge' of the Middle Ages - an early anaesthetic. In excessive doses it causes hallucinations. The monks of a monastery mistook the roots for chicory and rang the bell for matins at midnight. Professor Peuckert (2) reported from Bremen in 1959 that he and a colleague had mixed belladonna (Deadly Nightshade) and Datura (Thornapple) Henbane - part of a 17th century formula - and rubbed it on their foreheads and armpits. The result was a twenty-four-hour sleep with dreams of wild rides and frenzied dancing. The pharmacological explanation shows irregular heart action while going to sleep gives the sensation of dropping through space, and this may be why witches, who used such mixtures, thought they were flying. The Anglo-Saxon name for this plant is henbell. It is also known as Hogbean, since it is apparently harmless to pigs. This is the derivation of the botanical name Hyoscyamus. Grigson (3) reproduces a woodcut of this plant from Mattioli's (4) Commentarii of 1562.
Asplenium scolopendrium, known as hart's-tongue or hart's-tongue fern (Phyllitis scolopendrium) is a fern in the genus Asplenium, of the Northern Hemisphere. Although the Hart's Tongue Fern occurs throughout the British Isles, it is more common in wetter places. It is rare or absent from northeast Scotland. In Guernsey it is known as Christ's Hair - a name which is understandable if one breaks the stalk and pulls out the single black vascular strand which runs along its centre. Herbalists regard a decoction of the leaf as diuretic and laxative and recommend it for removing obstructions from the liver and spleen and removal of gravel from the bladder. Culpeper (5) said that the 'distilled water is good for passions of the heart, and gargled in the mouth will stay the hiccough, help the falling palate, and stop the bleeding of the gums' and added, 'it is a good remedy for the biting of serpents.'
(1) The Grete Herball (The Great Herbal) is an Early Modern encyclopaedia and the first illustrated herbal produced in English. Confirmed editions were printed between 1526 and 1561 and is considered the only known translation from French of Le Grant Herbier (1498).
(2) Will-Erich Peuckert (1895–25) German folklorist.
(3) Grigson, Geoffrey (1905-1985) anthologist and naturalist, The Englishman's Flora, London, 1955;
(4) Mattioli, Pietro Andrea Gregorio (Matthiolus) (1501–1577) Sienese physician and naturalist Commentarii, 1565;
(5) Culpeper, Nicholas (1616-1654), botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer, A Physical Directory, or a Translation of the London Directory (1649) – translation of the Pharmacopoeia Londonesis of the Royal College of Physicians.); 1649;