Hemlock And Henbane
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
ot 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 therefrom is more reliably
medicinal than the tincture made with spirit of wine, from the whole
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 neutralising 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 vapour 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 flavour. 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 nervine sedative.
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 odour 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
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
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 colour, streaked and spotted
with purple. It  is one of the Night-shade tribe, having a heavy,
oppressive, sub-fetid odour, 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
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 cleane 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 horsedealers 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.