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Plant of the week: Dangerous plant used by Romans for food poisoning

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Name: Swallow-Wort (Vincetoxicum Hirundinaria)

Otherwise known as: Dog Strangler, Vinatoxin

Habitat: A perennial member of the Asclepiadaceae family growing up to 1m in Mediterranean regions. It has a thick, spreading rhizome that supports a large hollow stem with opposed lanceolate leaves. The white to yellow flowers are arranged in loose terminal cymes. All parts of the plant are poisonous.

What does it do: The plant’s Latin name gives some indication of its nature: Vinco – I conquer and Toxicum – poison. Aelius Galenus, regarded by history as the father of modern surgery and physician to the Emperors Marcus Aurelius, his vile son Commodus and Septimus Severus, probably owed his life to his ability to effectively use Swallow-Wort to combat food poisoning if caught early. The plant contains the glycocide vincetoxic, a powerful emeic. As food poisoning was a favoured method of removing rivals in Roman society, he was very popular.

Medieval herbalists used extracts from the rhizome internally to treat dropsy and topically to cure boils and pustules. In Ayurvedic medicine practiced in Asia, the white latex sap, that is present in all parts of the plant, is mixed with ghee to increase sexual potency and increase the sperm count in ageing husbands. Women use Swallow-Wort to relieve painful menstruation. Other Asian practitioners of natural medicine believe it will treat leprosy, epilepsy and engorged spleen.

European herbalists have little use for the plant considering it too dangerous.

Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants



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