The Henbane in my garden varies greatly in size depending on its original growing conditions. In general it has large, thick woolly leaves, which according to Culpeper are ‘much cut in, or torn on the edges, of a dark, ill greyish green colour;’ I like the colour, I wouldn’t call it ‘ill’ at all, but it does appear he is trying to set the stage for what will follow. He follows by saying; ‘among which arise up diverse thick and short stalks, two or three feet high.’ My henbane's stalks are shorter, perhaps due to the lack of rain. The flowers; he states are a ‘deadish yellowish colour, somewhat paler toward the edges, with many purplish veins therein.’ Ooh; sounds just great to me, I love them. He likens the root to a parsnip, but not so white, ‘so that it has deceived others.’he adds ‘The whole plant more than the root, has a very heavy ill, soporiferous smell, somewhat offensive.’
Hyoscyamus niger is a member of the Solonaceæ family, whose brothers and sisters include the potato, tomato, tobacco and belladonna. Said by Mrs Grieve to have been named ‘Belene’ in old Anglo Saxon then ‘’Hen-bell’ and finally Henbane as the seeds were known to be fatal to poultry. Or, as indicated by Donald Law, ‘bane=poison’. Yet it has also been called ‘Hog’s-bean’ stemming from the Greek ‘hyos’ ‘cyamos’ or ‘the bean of the hog. It is said that this ‘animal can eat it with impunity.’ (Mrs Grieve) It is also amazing how many pests love henbane, something is munching very happily upon some of my young plants, yet others are left alone, so that’s ok, I don’t mind sharing. It even appears that ‘Potato pests are fond of the prickly leaves, and will leave the potato patch to feed on the Henbane plant.’(Mrs Grieve)
The henbane’s seeds develop in a round apple shaped pod, and it was said by Josephus that the headdress of the Jewish high priest was modelled on the fruit of the henbane.
Mrs Grieve points to its use by the ‘Ancients’ to ‘allay pains’, as recommended by Dioscorides and Celsus in the first century A.D, among others. She adds Pliny’s point of view; that it produces a condition that is ‘of the nature of wine and therefore offensive to the understanding.’ Henbane appears to have fallen ‘into disuse’ for a period of time, and is missing from the London Pharmacopœia of 1746 and 1788 returning in 1809.
Culpeper states of its ‘Government and Virtues’ ‘I wonder how astrologers could take on them to make this herb of Jupiter; and yet Mizaldus, a man of a penetrating brain, was of that opinion as well as the rest; the herb is indeed under the dominium of Saturn, and I prove it by this argument: All the herbs which delight to most to grow in saturnine places, are saturnine herbs. But Henbane delights most to grow in saturnine places, and whole cart loads can be found where they empty the common Jakes, and scarce a ditch to be found without it growing in it.’
Cunningham places henbane as a plant of Saturn, of feminine gender, and of the element water as he does with most poisonous plants. Law on the other hand suggests that some ‘ascribe it to Uranus, others to Saturn. Manfred M. Junius places it as under the dominium of three planets Saturn with Jupiter and Neptune. I must agree with Culpeper, I do not get the Jupiter liaison; but Neptune; now that’s an interesting link which warrants further pondering.
Culpeper finishes with a warning, ‘Take notice, that this herb must never be taken inwardly; outwardly, an ointment, or plaister of it, is most admirable for the gout, to cool the venereal reigns if the French pox; to stop the tooth-ache, being applied to the aching side: to allay all inflammations, and to help the diseases before premised.’ These diseases include, ‘gout’, ‘sciatica’, ‘worms in the ears’ ‘lice in man and beasts’ and adds that ‘The fume of the dried herb, stalk and seed, burned, quickly heals swellings, chilblains or kibes of the hands or feet.’ Mrs Grieve appears to also like his words as she quotes ‘The leaves or roots eaten produce maniacal delirium, if nothing worse.’
She also quotes another ‘old writer’ who says ‘If it is used in either sallet or in pottage, then doth it bring frenzie, and whoso useth more than four leaves shall be in danger to sleepe without waking.’ Sound advice there by whoever penned those words.
Cunningham suggests that to ‘bring love’ ‘a man should gather henbane naked, early in the morning, whilst standing on one foot.’ Then; when ‘worn it will bring love.’ Hmm, shan’t comment on that.
There does appear to be some confusion as to henbane in literature, as Shakespeare points in Hamlet to the nature of ‘the juice of the cursed hebenon’ and Marlow writes that the ‘juice of the hebon’ is a deadly poison. Yet ‘Hebenus according to Gower is a “sleepy tree.” It also appears that Spencer makes “heben” a tree and speaks of “the deadly heben bow’. (Mrs Grieve) So it appears that there may be confusion between the yew tree and henbane, or are the writers perhaps clear about the differences but pay tribute to both plants deadly nature.
According to Mrs Grieve; ‘In mythology, we read that the dead in Hades were crowned with it as they wandered hopelessly beside the Styx.’ This adornment, is linked by many with the process of forgetting.
So whether one views the henbane as a plant of the ‘sleep without waking’ or as a plant of great beauty, it is still worth taking a closer look, but perhaps not too close.