‘Yes, I did. Menacing. As if it could decide to go for a walk in somebody’s direction.’
‘It looks like a potato field.’
She isn't seeing potatoes, she's seeing Triffids.
We have neither of us met this plant before. It's a speciality of the sandy coastal habitat of South Walney but I haven't been here before in mid-June. I had a mental picture of the flower but I was unprepared for the bulk and sprawl of the plant.
Henbane is an archaeophyte, introduced and naturalised in early Neolithic times And by early farmers in the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Henbane has medicinal uses, with anaesthetic potential. It’s also associated with priestly rites in ancient Greece, and with witchcraft, causing hallucinatory effects. It contains atropine, hyoscyamine and hyoscine. Its flowers are pale yellow, with dark purple veining. An unhealthy colour. And, like the yellow horned poppy its flowers look as if they are quickly spent, quick to droop and pine. So to find henbane hideous is an instinctive response, perhaps with something of ancestral memory.
Henbane was once more widespread so it would have been more familiar to our ancestors. It's embedded in our literature and in Herbals.
Here in coastal sands at South Walney there is something weird about it. Not a potato field.
In Marjorie Blamey's Illustrated Flora of Britain I've often looked up plants of the potato family, Solanaceae: Deadly Nightshade, Henbane, Bittersweet, potato, tomato, tobacco.
Picture Sir Walter Raleigh's first encounter with unfamiliar plants. And the Elizabethan courtiers' revulsion at the thought of eating a potato! All that knowledge and folk lore accumulated over the centuries, and lost as we become city-dwellers. Our dissociation with the wild. We are not the Cunning Women of Elizabethan England, cunning- with skill and knowledge about the medicinal properties of plants.
Toxins in every part of Henbane and Deadly Nightshade, Something about these plants should set alarm bells ringing. Their bell-like flowers, like a tocsin, an alarm bell. Tocsin is of 16th century French origin.
What pollinates henbane, a friend asks? I searched and have not yet found the answer but I discover this
Sleeping within my 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 my ears did pour
The leperous distilment;
ACT 1 secne V Hamlet. William Shakespeare
Apparently there has long been dispute over the poison used to kill Hamlet but henbane is a strong contender.