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 [249] 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.

[250] 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 [251] 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

[252] 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 [253] 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 [254] 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

rheumatic pains.

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.

[255] 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.