Guarding the gates to a garden behind
a castle in Northumberland, is a skull
and crossbones on an ornate fence,
with a sign that reads: These Plants Can Kill.
The Medici’s grew such a garden behind
their palazzo, discreetly tucked between
the medicinal plants and the herbarium.
Kill not heal could have been their motto.
No one cares that aspirin comes
from tree bark, but tell them that
Angel’s Trumpet is an aphrodisiac
with deadly consequences and
they’ll line up to look at the long white
blossoms that Victorian ladies kept
in their nightstands because just a pinch
in their evening tea was enough to
send them on a hot, wild trip.
In medieval Scotland, soporific sponges
soaked in henbane were used
to heal wounds, and hemlock
to anesthetize patients before amputations.
Sometimes, poison is the best medicine.
If you crave sleep in the middle
of the night, ingest Datura and you’ll
sleep forever, or lie in a pile
of fresh-pruned laurel leaves
and you’ll silently drift into death.
A British woman in the 1890’s
was told that the scent of too many lilies
could kill. Feeling suicidal but
craving beauty, she arranged
for her bedroom to be filled
with hundreds of lilies, then retired
for the night. When she woke
the next morning, she knew all
about quackery. The most common
are usually the killers, innocuous
weeds, pale things growing
under a canopy of trees,
those green things we mindlessly
step on, pull up, and throw away.
William Reichard is a writer, editor, and educator. He’s published five poetry collections, most recently, Two Men Rowing Madly Toward Infinity (Broadstone Books, 2016).