Henbane – a witches’ brew!

Henbane ( Hyoscyamus niger ) has long been associated with magic, ritual, murder and healing. A member of the Solanaceae family which includes daily food items such as the potato and tomato, it is highly toxic and along with other toxic members of the family including belladonna and mandrake , has a notorious reputation.

Native to Europe, Asia and Africa it is now found worldwide. Though not native to the UK it is thought that its  widespread occurrence stems from escapees from herbalists’ gardens and it is now partially naturalised though it is classed as vulnerable according to JNCC in the vascular plant  red data list for Great Britain.

It prefers sandy or chalky soils and can be found growing in waste ground and even allotments. It is thought that the seed can survive up to 600 years in the ground. Growing up to 36 inches tall, there are two forms; an annual form and a biennial form. The annual  plant flowers during July and August whilst the biennial form flowers in May and June during the second year.

Its history can be traced back as far as ancient Greece, sacred to Apollo and  known as Herba Apollinaris, it is believed to have been used as a visionary herb by the Oracle of Delphi. It has also been found in graves of Nordic shamen dating from the Neolithic period although some research points to it being used in the palaeolithic period. In Celtic regions the plant was known as  belinuntia and it is thought the Gauls used a decoction of henbane to poison the tips of their spears. Writing  in his work, De Vegetalibus (1250 AD), Albertus Magnus describes the use of Henbane by necromancers to invoke the souls of the dead as well as of demons. It was during the middle ages that henbane became associated with witchcraft and harmful practices. When applied as a salve to areas of the body where the skin is thin it is said to give vivid episodes or dreams of ‘flying’ or falling and other hallucinations. This is where images  of witches flying through the air is thought to originate.

In the late 16th century, John Gerrard mentions in his ‘Herball’;

“The leaves, the seeds and the juice, when taken internally cause an unquiet sleep, like unto the sleep of drunkenness, which continueth long and is deadly to the patient. To wash the feet in a decoction of Henbane, as also the often smelling of the flowers causeth sleep.”

Mrs Grieve, writing in her  ‘A modern Herbal’ in 1931 describes how is was thought Henbane was the toxic herb referred to in Hamlet:

‘Sleeping within mine orchard,

My custom always of the afternoon

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,

With a juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,

And in the porches of mine ear did pour

The leprous distillment.’

Though it’s now thought that this refers to Yew and not to henbane, especially as other Elizabethan writers refer to Yew as ‘hebon’. Although all parts of the plant are poisonous, it is the leaves that the most toxic and it was believed that even the smell of them when fresh could produce giddiness and stupor.

Henbane contains numerous chemicals, the main active ingredients being the tropane alkaloids hyoscyamine and scopolamine along with several minor alkaloids. Since ancient times henbane  was used  for the relief of pain, toothache and to treat nervous disorders and today it is used in modern medicine , especially ophthalmology.  Although used throughout history for murder and suicide, most cases of poisoning today are rare and  are usually associated with taking the herb as a mind-altering drug in the form of a ‘dream tea’.

 

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