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Jean Henri Fabre

Poisonous Plants

T HE death of poor Joseph had spread consternation through the village. If children left the house and went off into the fields, there was constant anxiety until they returned. They might find poisonous plants that would tempt them with their flowers or their berries, and poison them. Many said, with reason, that the best way to prevent these terrible accidents was to know the dangerous plants and teach the children to beware of them. They went and found Maître Paul, whose great knowledge was appreciated by all, and asked him to teach them the poisonous plants of the neighborhood. So Sunday evening there was a numerous gathering at Uncle Paul's. Besides his two nephews and his niece, Jacques and Mother Ambroisine, there were Simon, who had come upon the two unfortunate children on his way home from the mill, Jean the miller, André the plowman, Philippe the vine-dresser, Antoine, Mathieu, and many others. The day before, Uncle Paul had taken a walk in the country to gather the plants he was to talk about. A large bunch of the principal poisonous plants, some in blossom, others with berries, were in a pitcher of water on the table.

"There are people, my friends," he began, "who shut their eyes so as not to see danger, and think themselves safe because they wilfully ignore peril. There are others who inform themselves about what may be a menace to them, persuaded that one warned person may be worth two unwarned. You belong to this latter class, and I congratulate you. Countless ills lie in wait for us; let us try to diminish their number by our vigilance, instead of giving ourselves up to lazy carelessness. Now that a frightful misfortune has overtaken one of our families, who does not realize the extreme importance of our all knowing, so as to avoid them, these terrible plants that claim victims every year? If this knowledge were more extended, the poor little fellow whose loss we now lament would still be his mother's consolation. Ah! unfortunate child!"



Uncle Paul, whom thunder never caused even to knit his brows, had tears in his eyes and his voice trembled. The good Simon, who had seen the two children in each other's arms under the hedge, felt more moved than the others at this recollection. He pulled down the broad rim of his hat to hide the big tears that were rolling down his rough cheeks bronzed by the sun. After a few moments of silence Uncle Paul continued:

"The death of the unfortunate little boy was caused by belladonna. It is a rather large weed with reddish bell-shaped flowers. The berries are round, purplish-black, and resemble cherries. The leaves are oval and pointed at the end. The whole plant has a nauseous odor and a somber appearance, as if to announce the poison it conceals. The berries particularly are dangerous because they may tempt children by their resemblance to cherries and their sweetish taste. Enlargement of the pupil of the eye and a dull, fixed stare are the characteristics of belladonna poisoning."

Paul took from the bouquet in the pitcher a sprig of belladonna, and passed it around in the audience so that each one could examine the plant closely.

"What do you say that is called?" asked Jean.


"Belladonna; good. I know that weed. I have often found it near the mill, in shady places. Who would believe those pretty cherries held such a frightful poison."

Here André asked: "What does the word belladonna mean?"

"It is an Italian word meaning fine lady. Formerly, it seems, ladies used the juice of this plant to keep their complexion white."

"That is a property that does not concern our brown skin. What concerns us is this confounded berry which may tempt our children."

"Are not our herds in danger when this weed grows in pastures?" Antoine next inquired.

"It is very seldom that animals touch poisonous plants; they avoid browsing what might harm them, warned by the odor, and above all by instinct.

"This other plant with large leaves, whose flowers, red on the outside and spotted on the inside with white and purple, are arranged in a long and magnificent cluster almost as high as a man, is called digitalis. The flowers have the form of long, tun-bellied bells, or rather of glove-fingers; therefore it is called by different names, all referring to this peculiarity."



"If I am not mistaken," said Jean, "it is what we call fox-glove. It is common on the edges of woods."

"We call it fox-glove on account of its resemblance to the thumb of a glove. For the same reason it has elsewhere the name of gloves of Notre-Dame, gloves of the Virgin, and finger-stall. The name digitalis, borrowed from the Latin, also refers to the finger-shaped flower."

"It is a great pity that fine plant is poisonous," commented Simon; "it would be a pleasure to see it in our gardens."

"It is, indeed, cultivated as an ornamental plant, but in gardens under stricter vigilance than ours. As for us, my friends, who hardly have time to watch over flowers, we shall do well not to put digitalis within reach of children by introducing it in our gardens. The whole plant is poisonous. It has the singular property of slowing up the beating of the heart and finally stopping it. It is unnecessary to tell you that when the heart no longer beats, all is over.

"Hemlock is still more dangerous. Its finely-divided leaves resemble those of chervil and parsley. This resemblance has often occasioned fatal mistakes, all the easier, because the formidable plant grows in the hedges of enclosures and even in our gardens. A plain enough characteristic, however, enables us to distinguish the poisonous weed from the two pot-herbs that resemble it: that is the odor. Rub that tuft of hemlock in your hands, Simon, and smell."



"Ouf!" said Simon, that smells very bad; parsley and chervil have not that horrid odor. When one is warned, no mistake can be made, in my opinion."

"Yes, when one is warned; but those who are not take no account of the smell and mistake hemlock for parsley or chervil. It is in order to be warned that you are listening to me this evening."

"You are doing us a great service, Maître Paul," said Jean, "by putting us on our guard against these dangerous plants. Every one at home ought to know what you have just taught us, so as not to gather a salad of hemlock instead of chervil."

"There are two kinds of hemlock. One, called the great hemlock, is found in damp and uncultivated places. It is very like chervil. Its stems are marked with black or reddish spots. The other, called the little hemlock, resembles parsley. It grows in cultivated fields, hedges, and gardens. Both have a nauseating odor.

"Now here is a poisonous plant very easy to recognize. It is the arum, or, as it is commonly called, cuckoopint or calves'-foot. The arum is common in hedges. The leaves are very broad and shaped like a large lance-head. The blossom is shaped like a donkey's ear. It is a large yellowish trumpet, from the bottom of which rises a fleshy rod that might be taken for a little finger of butter. This strange flower is succeeded by a bunch of berries as large as peas and of a splendid red color. The whole plant has an unbearable burning taste."



"Let me tell you, Maître Paul," put in Mathieu, "what happened one day to my little Lucien. Coming home from school, he saw in the hedge those large flowers you are speaking of, like donkey's ears; the fleshy rod in the middle looked to him like something good to eat. You have just compared it to a little finger of butter. The thoughtless creature was taken with its looks. He bit into the deceitful finger of butter. What had he done! In a moment his tongue began to burn as if he had bitten a red-hot coal. I saw him come home spitting and making faces. He won't be taken in again, you may be sure. Luckily he hadn't swallowed the piece. The next morning he was all right."

"A similar burning flavor is found in the white milk-like juice that runs from the euphorbia when cut. The euphorbia are plants of mean appearance, very common everywhere. Their flowers, small and yellowish, grow in a head, the even branches of which radiate at the top of the stem. These plants are easily recognized by their white juice, their milk, which runs in abundance from the cut stems. This juice is dangerous, even on the skin alone, if it is tender; its acrid, burning taste is its sufficient characteristic.

"The aconites, like digitalis, are fine plants which for their beauty have been introduced in gardens, notwithstanding the violence of their poison. They are found in hilly countries. Their blossoms are blue or yellow, helmet-shaped, and grow in an elegant terminal bunch of the finest effect. Their leaves, of a lustrous green, are cut out in radiating sprays. The aconites are very poisonous. The violence of their poison has given them the name of dog's-bane and wolf's-bane. History tells us that formerly arrow-heads and lance-heads were soaked in the juice of the aconites, to poison the wounds made in war and to make them mortal.



"There is sometimes cultivated in our gardens a shrub with large shiny leaves, which do not fall in winter, and with black, oval berries as large as acorns. It is the cherry-bay. All its parts, leaves, flowers, and berries, have the odor of bitter almonds and peach kernels. The leaves of the cherry-bay are sometimes used to give their perfume to cream and milk products. They should be used only with great prudence, for the cherry-bay is extremely poisonous. They even say one has only to remain some time in its shade to become indisposed from its exhalations of a bitter-almond odor.

"In autumn there is seen in abundance, in damp fields, a large and beautiful flower, rose or lilac in color, that rises from the ground alone, without stem or leaves. It is the colchicum, called also meadow saffron, or veillotte,  also veilleuse,  because it blossoms on the eve of the cold season. If you dig a little way down, you will find that this flower starts from a rather large bulb, covered with a brown skin. Colchicum is poisonous; so cows never touch it. Its bulb is still more poisonous.

"But we have talked enough about harmful plants for to-day. I should be afraid of befogging your memories were I to enter into more details. Next Sunday I will expect you again, my friends, and will talk to you about mushrooms."