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Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Here is an interesting and horrifying flower!  This is henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) which also goes by the name “stinking nightshade.”  It is one of the noteworthy poisons of classical antiquity.  Henbane is a member of the Solanaceae family—the nightshades—one of the most important of all plant families to humankind.  The Solanaceae family includes eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, but also nightshade, datura, and tobacco!

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane too is rich in psychoactive alkaloids.  Small doses result in dilated pupils, restlessness, flushed skin, and hallucinations.  Other symptoms of henbane poisoning include a racing heart, vomiting, extreme body temperature fluctuations, the inability to control one’s muscles, convulsions, coma, and, uh, death, so it’s probably well to steer clear of eating (or touching or taunting) this particular plant.  The ancient Greeks and Romans did not read my blog, so they sometimes ingested henbane.  In particular, Pliny documented its use by fortunetellers. The priestesses of Apollo would take the plant in order that they might fall into a hallucinogenic trance and then pronounce auguries. It should be noted that priestesses of Apollo tended not to last too well.  Henbane also had associations with the world hereafter, and dead souls wandering the margins of the underworld were said to wear henbane laurels.

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Henbane originated in southern Europe and western Asia, but classical civilization spread it widely across all of Europe (from whence it traveled to the rest of the world). Incompetent medieval pharmacists used it as an anesthetic and for other sundry “medicinal” uses.  It was also popular with poisoners (scholars think it is the most likely candidate to be “hebenon” the poison from Hamlet) and was the means of death for many murders even into contemporary times.  It also has a sad place in the witch panics that affected Europe during the dark ages and the early modern era.  Witches were said to use it in their potions.  Domestic animals would also sometimes eat it accidentally and run wild or perish. Thus witch-hunters would look for the plant and use it as evidence in their trials (although it grows wild as a weed).  Also, because of its powerful psychoactive properties, henbane could well give a user the impression of flying and of various supernatural happenings.

Witches' Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

Witches’ Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

On a more mundane level, brewers used henbane to flavor beer until this was recognized as a bad idea (which occurred much later than you might hope) and it was universally replaced with hops.  Evidence of henbane’s use as a flavoring agent for beer goes all the way back to the Neolithic era.  There is clearly evidence that henbane does something for (to?) humans, but there is even clearer evidence that it is tremendously dangerous and toxic.  Maybe it’s best to appreciate this ancient plant through reading about it and looking at pictures of the strange weedy flowers.

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Nutmeg

Nutmeg

Yesterday I cooked a savory chicken pie using an ancient recipe and it came out really well.  Although it has carrots, cream, mushroom, potato, boiled chicken, caramelized onion, and peas, the dominant taste is a subtle flavor which is simultaneously sweet, medicinal, and delicately evocative of some eastern paradise.  The secret ingredient is one of the strangest and most important commodities in human history—nutmeg, the ground nut from the fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans.

A nutmeg fruit

A nutmeg fruit

In the middle ages, nutmeg was a rare and precious ingredient.  Only a small cadre of Muslim traders knew where the spice was actually from and, after laboriously carrying it across or around the Indian Ocean, they sold it to the Venetians for substantial sums (whereupon the Venetians sold it to everyone else for exorbitant sums).  The European age of exploration was ostensibly launched in order to find the mysterious “Spice Islands” where nutmeg was from (a pursuit which had long ranging side effects, such as the European rediscovery of the Americas and the rush towards global colonial empires).

The Banda Islands

The Banda Islands

Even though the search for nutmeg kicked off an age of exploration, it was not until 1512 that the Spanish finally discovered where all the world’s nutmeg was coming from: the Banda Islands located East of Sulawesi in the middle of the Banda Sea. The Islands were thereafter contested by traders until the Dutch gained an upper hand in the 17th century.  The Dutch used this monopoly to bolster  their brief ascendancy to global superpower.  During the height of Dutch power, nutmeg was taken to Holland and stored in a giant warehouse in order to keep the price artificially high.

17th Century Amsterdam

17th Century Amsterdam

As the English began to command mastery of the seas, they inevitably fought the Dutch for control of world trade.  The Second Dutch-English war, a battle for global maritime supremacy, was fought in the Caribbean, the North Sea, at the mouth of the Thames (and, on all the oceans of the world, via privateering).  The war was fought over the global trade in slaves, fur, tobacco, and, above all, spices.  Although English privateers scored initial successes, the war became a disaster for the English when the Dutch raided their home port of Medway at the mouth of the Thames and burned their war fleet (an event which is still regarded as the worst disaster in the history of the English navy).

The Dutch burning English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 20 June 1667 (Jan van Leyden, ca. 1667, oil on canvas)

The Dutch burning English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 20 June 1667 (Jan van Leyden, ca. 1667, oil on canvas)

In the treaty of Breda, which ended the war, the English received the colony of New Amsterdam—thereafter named New York, whereas the Dutch claimed the greatest prize: exclusive control of the Banda Islands (and the sugar plantations of Suriname).  Thereafter the Dutch crushed hints of sedition on the Banda Islands by means of brutal executions and they led war raids on nearby territories to extirpate any nutmeg trees which had been grown or transplanted elsewhere in Indonesia.

Tourists frolic beneath a nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) in Grenada

Tourists frolic beneath a nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) in Grenada

During the Napoleonic Wars, the English used their naval supremacy to take over the Banda Islands and break the Dutch monopoly.  They exported trees to numerous tropical colonies (which is why Kerala and Granada are now famous for nutmeg production).  Colonial America was hardly exempt from the nutmeg craze, but because of colonial antagonisms, nutmeg was not always available at affordable prices.  The state of Connecticut became famous for unscrupulous tradesmen who would carve nutmeg seeds out of similarly colored wood and thereby earned its nickname “The Nutmeg State” (i.e. a haven for fraud) which seems appropriate given the number of wealthy financiers who live there.

Gentlemen drinking and smoking pipes round a table in an interior, a servant bearing a bowl of punch (English School)

Gentlemen drinking and smoking pipes round a table in an interior, a servant bearing a bowl of punch (English School)

So much for the history of nutmeg production and distribution—what about the demand? What was the reason for all of this desperate search and strife? Nutmeg was popular as a spice and tonic since ancient times when it was used by Greeks and Romans (if they could get it). During the era after the crusades it became de rigueur among aristocrats and its status only grew during the age of exploration. Wealthy gentlemen would carry nutmeg grinders on them, and hand grind nutmeg into alcoholic punches and hot drinks.  Nutmeg was baked into the fanciest pastries, pies, and cakes.  The red avril covering the nutmeg seed was ground into a separate spice named mace which is used in more delicate dishes.  As well as being used in desserts and drinks, nutmeg was used in Indian curries, eastern medicine, and at the apothecary. The fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans held a druglike sway over the wealthy classes around the globe.

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It turns out that nutmeg contains myristicin, a powerful psychoactive substance which acts as a Monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI).  MAOIs prevent the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters, a mysterious class of neurotransmitters which play an unknown but critical role in emotion, arousal, and cognition (indeed pharmaceutical MAOIs are one of the more useful classes of antidepressants).  In tiny doses myristicin is harmless or tonic to humans (although even in small doses it is deadly to many animals including some of our best beloved domestic friends) yet upping the dosage quickly causes nausea, seizures, splitting headaches and powerful weird hallucinations.  Every generation, the press rediscovers nutmeg as a drug and creates a moral panic, although all but the most reckless drug users are put off by nutmeg’s bitter taste in large doses—or by the ghastly descriptions of nutmeg’s physical effects.

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Indeed, the modern world has found more potent flavors (and better psychoactive powders).  Nutmeg has been relegated to grandma’s spice rack and it really only comes out during the holidays as a critical flavor in eggnog, pumpkin pie, mulled wine, and gingerbread.  This is a shame because, in small quantities nutmeg is delicious in savory dishes (like my pot pie and my favorite lasagna).  The flavor has a strange power—an intoxicating deliciousness which invades the brain and gives nutmeg dishes an irresistible quality. Believe me, because as I finish writing this, I am also finishing off that addictive pot pie (and I believe I am also starting to feel more chipper)…

My chicken pot pie (with some portions missing)

My chicken pot pie (with some portions missing)

The Sidewalk Beneath the Mulberry Tree on Ditmas Avenue, Brooklyn

Whenever I have walked to or from the subway this last week, a particular patch of pavement stands out because it has been dyed a ghastly blackish purple.  This is where the sidewalk runs beneath a mulberry tree, a medium sized deciduous fruit tree which produces copious quantities of black multiple fruit.  Ten to sixteen species of trees are accepted by botanists as true mulberries. The three most commonly known species are black mulberries (Morus nigra) which were exported in great number from Southwest Asia to Europe, the red mulberries (Morus rubra) which grow wild in Eastern North America, and the white mulberry (Morus alba) which has been domesticated since ancient times in China as food for silkworms. The different species readily hybridize into fertile hybrids so I have no idea which sort I am walking under every day.  The Mulberry trees give their name to the Moraceae, the mulberry family, which includes figs, banyans, breadfruits, and Osage-oranges.

Mulberries

Mulberry foliage is the preferred food for silkworm larvae (although the caterpillars will also tolerate foliage of the Osage-orange and the tree of heaven).  An ancient Chinese legend relates that Lei Zu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor (himself the mythical progenitor of Chinese culture), discovered silkworm cultivation as she was drinking tea beneath a mulberry tree.  A silkworm wrapped up in a cocoon fell into her tea.  She removed the cocoon from her beverage and was amazed at how the fiber unwrapped around her fingers as a lovely thread.

Mulberries on a Tree

Mulberry leaves, sap, and unripe berries contain 1-Deoxynojirimycin, a polyhydroxylated piperidine, which acts an intoxicant and mild hallucinogen (and produces nausea).  However when mulberries ripen they turn black and become edible.  Mura nigra and Mura rubra allegedly have the tastiest fruit which is said to resemble blueberry in taste and appearance when cooked into pies and tarts.  Cooked mulberries are rich in anthocyanins, pigments which are useful as natural food colorings and may have medicinal value.

Mulberry Pie Made By Anita Marks

Mulberry also gives its name to a lovely purple pink which resembles the color of mulberry jams and pies.  The word mulberry has been used to describe that particular shade since the 1770’s.  I remember it fondly as a Crayola crayon which I always used up before the others (although apparently the color was discontinued in 2003–so today’s children will have to make do with less poetic purple pinks).

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