By: Jennifer C. Sarrett, PhD
Ethnobotany is the study of how humans have and do interact with plants for everything from food and medicine to crafts and shelter. It is, as Dr. Quave put it, “the science of survival.” This field has been deeply embedded in historical scientific inquiries and is proving critical to a range of contemporary issues including climate change, food security, and drug discovery. Dr. Quave has traveled to Italy, Peru, Albania and, most recently, Kosovo to explore traditional uses of plants and herbs for gastrointestinal, nutritional, and dermatological purposes.
What is perhaps more interesting are infamous moments in history involving poisonous plants. Socrates was famously killed with European hemlock (Conium maculatum L., Apiaceae), which acts on the central nervous system, leading to a gradual loss of sensations of the body starting with the limbs and moving inwards until it the respiratory system fails. Cleopatra had a persistent and intimate relationship with poisonous plants, as she tested several of them on her slaves in order to determine the best suicidal death for herself. Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger L., Solanaceae), belladonna/deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna L., Solanceae), and poison nut (Strychnos nux-vomica L., Loganiaceae) were all determined too violent of deaths due to intense convulsions or unpleasant hallucinations. She famously gave up on poisonous plants to eventually rely on the venomous bite of a serpent.
And there is reason to believe that even Cyclops have a herbal source. False hellebore (Veratrum album L., Melanthiaceae) was possibly mistaken for Hellebore (Helleborus spp., Ranunculaceae), which was used for nausea and gastrointestinal complaints in ancient Greek medicine. However, false hellebore is quite toxic, containing the teratogen cyclopamine, and can lead to the condition of cylcopia if consumed in early pregnancy, resulting in babies being born with a single eye and a missing nose. These babies rarely survived very long, but those that did may have inspired Cyclops myths that persist today!
The key, Dr. Quave reminded us, is dose and intent. If you are familiar with these plants you can learn to use them for health. Ethnobotanists such as Dr. Quave are attempting to gather the critical oral histories used to ensure these plants are used safely and beneficially. It is also important to be aware of the potentially harmful plants in our environments. There are poisonous houseplants (Philodendron, Dumbcane, Caladium), craft seeds (Rosary pea, jequirity bean), and, of course, the rhus dermatitis plants: poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, mango, lacquer tree, cashew nut, and Indian marking nut. But there is no need to rid your home of plants, just make sure your children, pets, and roommates don’t chew on their leaves!