What does the word ‘natural’ mean to you, or the word ‘chemical’?
Natural has come to mean anything connected to nature, summoning up a picture of a young girl skipping through meadow, stopping momentarily to pick a buttercup, and then continuing her journey towards a perfectly appointed elysian landscape, where birds sing, sun shines and everything is happy, joyous and slightly nauseating.
Chemicals, on the other hand, are bad, they kill, they upset the balance of nature, they are generally to be avoided. Picture the landscape which has been ravaged by chemicals, it is permanently cloudy, it is bleak, there is no life, the trees are leafless and gnarled, they sit amongst ponds of poisoned brown water. Paul Nash paints a picture of it.
Hang on, let us just scrub those two extremes. In point of fact everything in the whole world is made of chemicals, that flower, those birds, my computer, anything and everything. And what is more, as any self-respecting witch will tell you, if you want some really deadly poisons, look no further than your garden. Here are some of my favourites:-
Digitalis, common name Foxglove, beautiful but deadly. It contains glycosides such as digitoxin that are used in cardiac medicine. Common effects of its ingestion are diarrhoea, vomiting and irregular heartbeat. One interesting symptom of its use is that people see things in yellows and oranges, Vincent Van Gogh’s yellow period may have been influenced by digitalis therapy which was used at that time to treat seizures.
Taxus baccata, or Yew. This is a tree of contradictions, it is surrounded by legend, it was once a symbol of everlasting life because of its capacity for longevity, despite being deadly. It is poisonous in all parts except the small fleshy red aril, seen in Autumn, which tastes sweet and is eaten by birds in order to spread the highly poisonous seed within. Yew is poisonous due to the presence of several chemicals known as alkaloids peculiar to yew, one of which is called taxine.
Yews are often found in churchyards and, if the tree is over a thousand years old, it is likely that they are marking a site of Celtic worship. Because they represent everlasting life they were buried as sprigs with the dead. Yew is an Anglo-Saxon word, meaning simply tree.
The alkaloid taxine is now used in the treatment of ovarian and uterine cancer.
Mandragora officinarum or Mandrake. Few herbs can rival mandrake in terms of magic and mystery. It contains narcotic alkaloids that have a pain-killing effect and cause unconsciousness. It was used, not without risk, in the early days of surgery. Its divided roots resemble a human form and, according to legend, shriek when uprooted. It grows easily in a sunny spot. Again, it is now used to treat cancer.
Donaldsii trumpiana. This is an invasive species that is deadly in all parts. It attacks the nervous system and renders the victim incapable of any reasonable thought. It is particularly dangerous to Mexicans and women of reproductive age, although curiously some females in Eastern Europe have developed a tolerance of it and use it to dye their hair blond. As yet there is not a known antidote to its consumption.