The Spotted Hemlock (Conium maculatum), and the Sickly-smelling Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), are plants of common wild growth throughout England, especially the former, and are well known to everyone familiar with our Herbal Simples. But each is so highly narcotic as a medicine, and yet withal so safely useful externally to allay pain, as well as to promote healing, that their outward remedial forms of application must not be overlooked among our serviceable herbs.
Nevertheless, for internal administration, these herbs lie altogether beyond the pale of domestic uses, except in the hands of a doctor.
The Hemlock is an umbelliferous plant of frequent growth in our hedges and roadsides, with tall, hollow stalks, powdered blue at the bottom, whilst smooth and splashed about with spotty streaks of a
reddish purple. It possesses foliage resembling that of the garden carrot, but feathery and more delicately divided.
The name has been got from healm, or haulm, straw, and leac, a plant, because of the dry hollow stalks which remain after flowering is done. In Kent and Essex, the Hemlock is called Kecksies, and the stalks are spoken of as Hollow Kecksies.
Keckis, or Kickes, of Humblelockis are mentioned by our oldest herbalists. In a book about herbs, of the fourteenth century, two sorts of Hemlock are specified--one being the Grete Homeloc, which is called "Kex," or "Wode Whistle," being of no use except for poor men's fuel, and children's play.
Botanically, it bears the name of Conium maculatum (spotted), the first of these words coming from the Greek, konos, a top, and having reference to the giddiness which the juice of hemlock causes toxically in the human brain. The unripe fruit of this plant possesses its peculiar medicinal properties in a greater degree than any other part, and the juice expressed there from is more reliably medicinal than the tincture made with spirit of wine, from the whole plant.
Soil, situation, and the time of year, materially affect the potency of Hemlock. Being a biennial plant, it is not poisonous in this country to cattle during the first year, if they eat its leaves.
The herb is always uncertain of action unless gathered of the true "maculatum" sort, when beginning to flower. Its juice should be thickened in a water bath, or the leaves carefully dried, and kept in a well-stoppered bottle, not exposed to the light. Cole says, "if asses chance to feed on Hemlock, they will fall so fast asleep that they seem to be dead, insomuch that some, thinking them to be dead indeed, have flayed off their skins; yet after the Hemlock had done operating
they had stirred and wakened out of their sleep."
The dried leaves of the plant, if put into a small bag, and steeped in boiling water for a few minutes, and then applied hot to a gouty part, will quickly relieve the pain; also, they will help to soften the hard concretions which form about gouty joints. If the fresh juice of the Hemlock is evaporated to a thick syrup, and mixed with lanoline (the fat of sheep's wool), to make an ointment, it will afford wonderful relief to severe itching within and around the fundament; but
it must be thoroughly applied. For a poultice some of this thickened juice may be added to linseed meal and boiling water, previously mixed well together.
Conium plasters were formerly employed to dry up the breast milk, and are now found of service to subdue palpitations of the heart.
An extract of Hemlock, blended with potash, is kept by the chemists, to be mixed with boiling water, for inhalation to ease a troublesome spasmodic cough, or an asthmatic attack. In Russia and the Crimea, this plant is so inert as to be edible; whereas in the South of Europe it is highly poisonous.
Chemically, the toxic action of Hemlock depends on its alkaloids, "coniine," and "methyl-coniine."
Vinegar has proved useful in neutralizing the poisonous effects of Hemlock, and it is said if the plant is macerated or boiled in vinegar it becomes altogether inert.
For inhalation to subdue whooping-cough, three or four grains of the extract should be mixed with a pint of boiling water in a suitable inhaler, so that the medicated vapor may be inspired through the mouth and nostrils.
To make a Hemlock poultice, when the fresh plant cannot be procured, mix an ounce of powdered hemlock leaves (from the druggist) with three ounces of linseed meal; then gradually add half a pint of boiling water whilst constantly stirring.
Herb gatherers sometimes mistake the wild Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) for the Hemlock; but this Cicely has a furrowed stem without spots, and is hairy, with a highly aromatic flavor. The bracts of Hemlock, at the base of the umbels, go only half way round the stem. The rough Chervil is also spotted, but hairy, and its stem is swollen below each joint. Under proper medical advice, the extract and the juice of Hemlock may be most beneficially given internally in cancer, and as a
The Hemlock was esteemed of old as Herba Benedicta, a blessed herb, because "where the root is in the house the devil can do no harm, and if anyone should carry the plant about on his person no venomous beast can harm him." The Eleusinian priests who were required to remain chaste all their lives, had the wisdom to rub themselves with Hemlock.
Poultices may be made exclusively with the fresh leaves (which should be gathered in June) or with the dried leaflets when powdered, for easing and healing cancerous sores. Baron Stoerck first brought the plant into repute (1760) as a medicine of extraordinary efficacy for curing inveterate scirrhus, cancer, and ulcers, such as were hitherto deemed irremediable.
Likewise the Cicuta virosa, or Water Hemlock, has proved curative to many similar glandular swellings. This is also an umbelliferous plant, which grows commonly on the margins of ditches and rivers in many parts of England. It gets its name from cicuta (a shepherd's pipe made from a reed), because of its hollow stems. Being hurtful to cows it has acquired the title of Cowbane.
The root when incised secretes from its wounded bark a yellow juice of a narcotic odor and acrid taste. This has been applied externally with benefit for scirrhous cancer, and to ease the pain
of nervous gout. But when taken internally it is dangerous, being likely to provoke convulsions, or to produce serious narcotic effects. Nevertheless, goats eat the herb with impunity:
"Nam videre licet pinguescere soepe cicutam, Barbigeras pecudes; hominique est acre venenum."
The leaves smell like celery or parsley, these being most toxical in summer, and the root in spring. The potency of the plant depends on its cicutoxin, a principle derived from the resinous constituents, and which powerfully affects the organic functions through the spinal cord. It was either this or the Spotted Hemlock, which was used as the State poison of the Greeks for causing the death of Socrates.
For a fomentation with the Water Hemlock half-a-pound of the fresh leaves, or three ounces of the dried leaves should be boiled in three pints of water down to a quart; and this will be found very helpful for soothing and healing painful cancerous, or scrofulous sores. Also the juice of the herb mixed with hot lard, and strained, will serve a like useful purpose.
For pills of the herb take of its inspissated juice half-an-ounce, and of the finely powdered plant enough when mixed together to make from forty to sixty pills. Then for curing cancer, severe scrofula, or syphilitic sores, give from one to twenty of these pills in twenty-four hours (Pharmacopeia Chirurgica, 1794).
An infusion of the plant will serve when carefully used, to relieve nervous and sick headache. If the fresh, young, tender leaves are worn under the soles of the feet, next the skin, and are renewed once during the day, they will similarly assuage the discomfort of a nervous headache. The oil with which the herb abounds is not poisonous.
The Black Henbane grew almost everywhere about England, in Gerard's day, by highways, in the borders of fields, on dunghills, and in untoiled places. But now it has become much less common as a rustic herb in this country. We find it occasionally in railway cuttings, and in rubbish on waste places, chiefly on chalky ground, and particularly near the sea. The plant is biennial, rather large, and dull of
aspect, with woolly sea-green leaves, and bearing bell-shaped flowers of a lurid, creamy color, streaked and spotted with purple. It is one of the Night-shade tribe, having a heavy, oppressive, sub-fetid odor, and being rather clammy to the touch.
This herb is also called Hogsbean, and its botanical name, Hyoscyamus, signifies "the bean of the hog," which animal eats it with impunity, though to mankind it is a poisonous plant. It has been noticed in Sherwood Forest, that directly the turf is pared Henbane springs up.
"To wash the feet," said Gerard, "in a decoction of Henbane, as also the often smelling to the flowers, causeth sleep." Similarly famous anodyne necklaces were made from the root, and were hung about the necks of children to prevent fits, and to cause an easy breeding of the teeth. From the leaves again was prepared a famous sorcerer's ointment. "These, the seeds, and the juice," says Gerard, "when taken internally, cause an unquiet sleep, like unto the sleep of drunkenness,
which continueth long, and is deadly to the patient."
The herb was known to the ancients, being described by Dioscorides and Celsus. Internally, it should only be prescribed by a physician, and is then of special service for relieving irritation of the bladder, and to allay maniacal excitement, as well as to subdue spasm.
The fresh leaves crushed, and applied as a poultice, will quickly relieve local pains, as of gout or neuralgia. In France the plant is called Jusquiame, and in Germany it is nicknamed Devil's-eye.
The chemical constituents of Henbane are "hyoscyamine," a volatile alkaloid, with a bitter principle, "hyoscypricin" (especially just before flowering), also nitrate of potash, which causes the leaves, when burnt, to sparkle with a deflagration, and other inorganic salts. The seeds contain a whitish, oily albumen.
The leaves and viscid stem are produced only in each second year. The juice when dropped into the eye will dilate the pupil.
Druggists prepare this juice of the herb, and an extract; also, they dispense a compound liniment of Henbane, which, when applied to the skin-surface on piline, is of great service for relieving obstinate rheumatic pains.
In some rural districts the cottony leaves of Henbane are smoked for toothache, like tobacco, but this practice is not free from risk of provoking convulsions, and even of causing insanity.
Gerard writes, with regard to the use of the seed of Henbane by mountebanks, for obstinate toothache: "Drawers of teeth who run about the country and pretend they cause worms to come forth from the teeth by burning the seed in a chafing dish of coals, the party holding his mouth over the fume thereof, do have some crafty companions who convey small lute strings into the water, persuading the patient that those little creepers came out of his mouth, or other parts which it was
intended to ease." Forestus says: "These pretended worms are no more than an appearance of worms which is always seen in the smoak of Henbane seed."
"Sic dentes serva; porrorum collige grana: No careas thure; cum _hyoscyamo_ ure: Sic que per embotum fumun cape dente remotum." Regimen sanitatis salernitanum (Translated 1607).
"If in your teeth you happen to be tormented, By means some little worms therein do brede, Which pain (if need be tane) may be prevented By keeping clean your teeth when as ye fead. Burn Frankonsence (a gum not evil scented), Put Henbane into this, and onyon seed, And with a tunnel to the tooth that's hollow, Convey the smoke thereof, and ease shall follow."
By older writers, the Henbane was called Henbell and Symphonica, as implying its resemblance to a ring of bells (Symphonia), which is struck with a hammer. It has also been named Faba Jovis (Jupiter's bean). Only within recent times has the suffix "bell" given place to "bane," because the seeds are fatal to poultry and fish. In some districts horse dealers mix the seed of Henbane with their oats, in order to fatten the animals.
An instance is narrated where the roots of Henbane were cooked by mistake at a monastery for the supper of its inmates, and produced most strange results. One monk would insist on ringing the large bell at midnight, to the alarm of the neighbourhood; whilst of those who came to prayers at the summons, several could not read at all, and others read anything but what was contained in their breviaries.
Some authors suppose that this is the noxious herb intended by Shakespeare, in the play of Hamlet, when the ghost of the murdered king makes plaint, that:
"Sleeping within mine orchard, My custom always of the afternoon, Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole, With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial, And in the porches of mine ear did pour The leprous distilment."
But others argue more correctly that the name used here is a varied form of that by which the yew is known in at least five of the Gothic languages, and which appears in Marlow and other Elizabethan writers, as "hebon." "This tree," says Lyte, "is altogether venomous and against man's nature; such as do but only sleepe under the shadow thereof, become sicke, and sometimes they die."
The Primitive Simplers presented here show the way of life in other generations, it is not suggested or recommended trying them yourself.
History of Herbs
Herbs for Beginners
Drying & Preserving Herbs
Indoor Herb Gardening
Hints & Tips
Oil and Vinegar
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