Wednesday Weed – Enchanter’s Nightshade

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

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Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) (Photo by Shona Mackintosh)

Dear Readers, sometimes there’s a strange synchronicity about the Wednesday Weed. When I had lunch with my friend S earlier this week, she mentioned a plant with tiny white flowers that was taking over her garden. She sent me the photo above, and I was very puzzled. Then, on my way to teaching an English class in Wood Green, I saw a huge patch of exactly the same plant, mixed in with some black medick.

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Thanks to some help from some botanists on the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland Facebook page, it was identified as Enchanter’s Nightshade. And a very confusing plant it is too. For a start, it isn’t a nightshade at all, but yet another willowherb. It is a native plant but, as my friend has noticed, it can be a very persistent garden weed. However, Richard Mabey finds a subtle beauty in this modest plant, and notes how the flowers are ‘mounted like butterflies on pins’. He describes how many parts of the plant, from the leaves to the stamen to the petals, grow in pairs.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=256430

Enchanter’s Nightshade flowers (Photo One – see credit below)

By Willow (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Enchanter’s Nightshade demonstrating its ‘persistent weed’ characteristic (Photo Two – see credit below)

The Latin name for this plant, Circaea lutetiana, links it to Circe, the sorceress of Greek mythology who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs so that he wouldn’t leave her island. According to Virgil, she could turn men into lions and wolves as well. This humble little plant was thought to be her ‘charm’. When I was a child, I longed to be able to talk to the animals, but turning the people who bullied me into pigs and cows would have been just as gratifying. There is much wish-fulfillment in some myths, and a great fear of the secret powers of women. Even today, I can think of a few men who would be able to do much less harm if they were four-legged animals without opposable thumbs, but then I wouldn’t wish their company on the rest of the creatures.

The species name ‘lutetiana’ comes from the Latin name for Paris, which was sometimes known as the ‘Witch City’, according to Wikipedia. However, Witchipedia thinks that the name refers to the character of Paris from the Iliad. Curiouser and curiouser.

In the painting below, Circe seems to have transformed a woman into an animal as well, judging by the lionesses. Also, her jumper seems to have fallen off.

Circe_by_Wright_Barker_(1889)

Circe by Wright Barker (1889) (Public Domain)

Strangely, though, in spite of its fascinating name, enchanter’s nightshade does not appear to have a wide variety of medicinal uses. It is used to make herbal tea in Austria (which figures, as the plant has a high concentration of tannins). Where it is mentioned as a cure, the active part appears to be the berries of the plant but, not being a true nightshade, the plant has burrs rather than berries. A case of mistaken identity, I fear.

However, it was used in an aphrodisiac potion in the Highlands of Scotland, which would be slipped into the unsuspecting chap’s evening tipple. I am sure that much merriment ensued.

By Kristian Peters -- Fabelfroh 14:54, 10 November 2005 (UTC) (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The burrs of enchanter’s nightshade (Photo Three – credit below)

I can find no edible uses for enchanter’s nightshade, although when I was identifying the plant, one of the botanists mentioned that it had a pronounced peppery taste.

To return to Circe and her ability to transform men into animals: I wonder if there is a deeper suggestion here that, rather than taking the tale literally, we are meant to question if all men are animals under the skin, with just the merest skim of ‘civilisation’ on top? How easy it is in these troubled times to see the more ‘bestial’ of our instincts coming to the fore. There is more than a hint of this in Louise Gluck’s poem ‘Circe’s Power’.

I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
Look like pigs.

I’m sick of your world
That lets the outside disguise the inside. Your men weren’t bad men;
Undisciplined life
Did that to them. As pigs,

Under the care of
Me and my ladies, they
Sweetened right up.

Then I reversed the spell, showing you my goodness
As well as my power. I saw

We could be happy here,
As men and women are
When their needs are simple. In the same breath,

I foresaw your departure,
Your men with my help braving
The crying and pounding sea. You think

A few tears upset me? My friend,
Every sorceress is
A pragmatist at heart; nobody sees essence who can’t
Face limitation. If I wanted only to hold you

I could hold you prisoner.

However, if we are going to claim that our aggression and violence came from animals, we have to acknowledge that so did our capacity for love and compassion. There are many scientists now looking at the altruistic behaviour of animals, the development of culture and the lengths that non-human animals will go to to look after one another. We can’t have it both ways, as if our ability to make war came from our primate ancestors while our ability to sacrifice ourselves was sprinkled on us by angels. We are part of a continuum, remarkable as our species is, and we can’t disown our heritage. The gap between us and the intelligent, resourceful, affectionate pig is not as big as we  think.
Character_sketches_of_romance,_fiction_and_the_drama_(1892)_(14785118515)

Circe and her swine (Briton Riviere, 1896) (Public Domain)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Flower close-up) – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=256430

Photo Two (Patch of enchanter’s nightshade) – By Willow (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three (enchanter’s nightshade burrs) – By Kristian Peters — Fabelfroh 14:54, 10 November 2005 (UTC) (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Enchanter’s Nightshade

  1. Sarah Ann Bronkhorst

    Love that final painting with such truly piggy pigs. And, for different reasons, the rather sardonic poem.

    Reply

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