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The Dual History of Poisonous Flowers

By Ligaya Mishan

Anthony CotsifasClockwise from top left: angel’s trumpet, castor-oil plant, devil’s tobacco, opium poppy, flowering tobacco, spark’s variety, naranjilla, porcupine tomato, giant nightshade, Kniola’s black purple morning glory, castor bean, sago palm, woolly morning glory, rhubarb, Kniola’s black purple morning glory and horn of plenty, all grown by the horticulturist Dennis Schrader of Landcraft Environments.

The flowers point straight down, a chandelier’s worth, turned ostentatiously away from the sun. They are Brugmansia by genus and angel’s trumpet in parlance, with elongated buds that open into blaring mouths. In South America, the tree that bears them is called el borrachero, or “the drunk-maker,” in part because of the blooms’ dizzying night perfume of fermented lemons, said to induce crazed dreams. And more: Parts of the plant, when crushed, yield scopolamine, a.k.a. burundanga, a.k.a. devil’s breath — a psychoactive alkaloid deployed by criminals, via a spiked drink or a puff in the face, to disable free will. It is said to transform victims into dutiful servants who revive hours later, bereft of all their belongings and any memory of what they’ve done.

The more distanced we become from the natural world, the more we forget that plants, too, have tooth and claw. What we so often treat as merely decorative has agency apart from our desires. “A plant that is so tender, immobile, typically considered just fodder for livestock — it has its own power, its own goals,” the New York City floral designer Emily Thompson says. The ancients knew this, among them the second-century-B.C. ruler Attalus III of Pergamum (now the modern-day Turkish city of Bergama), who in his palace garden grew the likes of henbane, or stinking nightshade, with its purple-hearted yellow bells and gift of hallucinations and a rattling heart; delicate hellebore, which can sting the skin and twist the guts; and airy sprays of poison hemlock, a dupe for harmless Queen Anne’s lace that can bring the central nervous system to a halt. Attalus, who had a reputation for paranoia, tested extracts of these plants on convicts as a rehearsal for disposing of political rivals. (He is remembered as the Mad King.)

But these poisons were also balms, historically used as medicines, sickness and health coming from the same source, as with a virus weakened to create a vaccine. Hellebore was prescribed in ancient Greece and the Middle Ages alike for its purgative effects, to rid the body of excess “black bile,” the imagined cause of melancholy. Henbane — theorised to be the fuel of the Norse berserkers of the ninth through 12th centuries, who might have drunk it as a tea before battle and then torn off their chain mail and, naked and howling, slaughtered anyone in their path in an enraged trance — was paradoxically a sedative in smaller doses. The first botanical gardens, founded in the Italian cities of Pisa, Padua and Florence in the 16th century, included plots of toxic plants used by apothecaries as tools for preserving life or perhaps, clandestinely, inducing death.

Today, we imagine ourselves less reliant on these potent plants, but we’re actually just less aware of our debt to them: Around 25 percent of pharmaceuticals are derived from botanical sources, like the Pacific yew, lethal from berry to bark, whose alkaloids are in a common chemotherapy drug.

The poison gardens of our time are more self-consciously macabre. At the Alnwick Garden in northeastern England, one intentionally toxic patch is seeded with belladonna (deadly nightshade), its berries black and shining, bearing delirium; laburnum with dangling chains of golden flowers, whose seedpods can induce deep drowsiness and even comas; and castor-oil plants, whose spiky reddish fruit is full of ricin, a poison fatal at a single milligram and infamously injected via the tip of an umbrella to dispatch the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in 1978. A bench by the henbane awaits visitors who faint. Fear is the lure, amplified by a barricade of black iron gates posted with signs of skulls and crossbones. The French architecture firm New-Territories/R&Sie(n) went further with its 2008 proposal for the restoration of a medieval Franciscan monastery on the Croatian island of Lopud. Titled “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” the design featured plants like purple-spired foxglove (which can slow the heart), hooked up to distilling machines to create drinks for intrepid visitors as “a digestive physiological experiment” — akin to diners eating fugu, a puffer fish whose organs are loaded with poison but which is harmless when properly prepared, save for a stealthy numbing at the lips. A local politician nixed the plan.

Perhaps the attraction of poisonous plants is how they subvert our anthropocentric view of the world. We believe we hold dominion over all, and yet these delicate growths have the power to transform, even control us. Silka Rittson-Thomas, an art curator and the creative director of the TukTuk Flower Studio in London, notes that angel’s trumpet, native to the tropics, was coveted in Victorian England, where ladies of the leisure class cultivated it in conservatories, catching drops of the flowers’ nectar in their teacups for a rebellious buzz. Part of the thrill is the proximity of beauty to danger, fragility to force; Rittson-Thomas likewise covers the ground of her orchard in the Cotswolds with blood-red common poppies, cousins to the powerful opium poppy, which carry their own soporific tinge. En masse, they appear “resilient and moody,” she says, “flaunting their uncountable heads.”

For florists, the danger isn’t metaphorical; Thompson recalls a colleague who was momentarily blinded when handling a castor-oil plant. Nevertheless, she’s drawn to the ominous plant — “I like to be cowed” — with its high spikes and leaves like lopsided stars. A bigger risk, she argues, is exposure to the ubiquitous pesticides borne by commercially grown flowers, which are easily absorbed through the skin. Florists today need their own personal protective equipment of gloves and lab coats, and, as she says with a sigh: “I much prefer the natural threat.”

Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas
Flower design by Emily Thompson
Production by Silka Rittson-Thomas
Set design by Haidee Findlay-Levin

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