Monday, January 31, 2011

Hyoscyamus niger - Henbane

Henbane seems to be a rather challenging herb to grow, I will certainly be learning alot this summer on cultivating this facinating herb.

Hyoscyamus niger- Henbane, also known as hog's-bean or black henbane, is in the family Solanaceae to which belong the Potato, Tobacco and Tomato, and Deadly Nightshade.  Its name dates at least to 1265. The origins of the word are unclear but "hen" probably originally meant death rather than referring to chickens.

Henbane is poisonous and should not be ingested. It is poisonous in all its parts, and neither drying nor boiling destroys the toxic principle. The leaves are the most powerful portion, even the odour of them when fresh will produce giddiness and stupor.

Henbane is indigenous to Great Britain and found growing wild in waste places and on rubbish heaps. It also occurs in central and southern Europe and in western Asia extending to India and Siberia, and has long been naturalized in the United States.

Applying flying ointment
As one of the legendary "witch" plants, renowned for its magical qualities and featured in recipes for witches' flying ointment. (It's psychoactive properties include visual hallucinations and a sensation of flight.)

Common effects of henbane ingestion in humans include hallucinations, dilated pupils, restlessness, and flushed skin. Less common symptoms such as tachycardia, convulsions, vomiting, hypertension, hyperpyrexia and ataxia. Nowadays, Henbane is cultivated as a source of alkaloids for the pharmaceutical industry.  Drugs based on henbane alkaloids are applied in modern medicine as painkillers and antispasmodics.

In the Middle Ages, henbane was widely used in Germany to augment the inebriating qualities of beer. The names of many German towns originate from the word Bilsen–henbane. Later on, the word was transformed to Pilsen to name the famous Pilsen beer. It took many years to prohibit the use of henbane in brewing after numerous cases of poisonings. 

The medicinal uses of Henbane date from remote ages; it was well known to the Ancients, being particularly commended by Dioscorides (first century A.D.), who used it to procure sleep and allay pains

Henbane is thought to have been the "hebenon" poured into the ear of Hamlet's father

All pretty interesting tidbits, but that's all this information is, a bunch of tidbits of more interesting facts about this plant. I know about these things because I look it up online or in books.  I don't know everything, as I may have stated before, we will be learning these things together. If anyone else is reading this.  I would expect you to be looking  up info for yourself.  If you think of something that you'd like me to think about, drop me a note.  

But remember, don't mess with something that could kill you. 

You might want to forget about messing around with something that might have you writhing in pain on the floor with hard spastic convulsions shaking your body. Imagine green, slimey foam flowing from your mouth, limbs twisting themselves backward, and your groin shriveling into a lump of coal.   Yeah, sounds like a pretty picture don't it?   Even experts make mistakes.  Don't be stupid.

I have personally seen henbane growing at the University of Washington's Medicinal Herb Garden.  I managed to collect some seeds, but honestly, not sure if they are still viable, I've had them for almost two years.  We'll see, I guess. 

If anybody is reading this, I want to give you a project.  Start searching the web for info on medicinal herb gardens, or just plain herb gardens, in your area that will allow you to visit.  When you eventually go to one, (wait till early summer), you should look at the plants carefully, see if you can identify any, touch them, smell them, look closely.  You will get a sense of elation when you realise that you can identify a plant that all others see only as some green thing. Most people can't tell one tree from another, much less a plant or herb. 

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