When I attend this month’s Remembrance Day service (significant as it marks the centenary of the start of WW1) pride of place alongside my medals (awarded for conspicuously not being caught!) will be a red poppy as a sign of respect for the fallen of that war and all the conflicts since. To adopt the blood red poppy which carpeted the churned-up Flanders fields as a lasting legacy to fallen war dead was a stroke of genius but it is certainly not the only plant linked to warfare – either in memorium or as a weapon. Australians for instance will wear sprigs of Rosemary on ANZAC day and plant the Gallipoli Rose (Cistus salviiflorus) in their gardens of remembrance – plants endemic to that area of Turkey where a great many of their soldiers lives were lost.
As a weapon of war plants have been used in many different guises and I would imagine with varying degrees of success, but there are many instances of Monkshood, Aconitum napellus being used as a very effective poison – particularly when delivered on the tip of an arrow. A little bit on the shaft of the arrow also meant that you could poison anyone who tried to pull it out, thus potentially getting a double whammy! It was also used to poison drinking water but could be detected as it gave the water a distinctive ‘monkshoody’ taste – not that I would ever want to know what that is. Ironically Monkshood makes a lovely addition to the herbaceous border and I have a couple of clumps – well away from the pond just in case….
Another dastardly, but now also very choice garden plant, is the False Hellebore, Veratum album. Amongst it’s other properties Veratum makes a very good laxative – a property used (apparently) to knock off Alexander the Great before he could carry out his mission to conquer the world. It was speculated that Pliny the Elder (?!) stated that Veratum should not be given to the elderly, children or the ‘effeminate’ – and as Alexander did not want to be thought of as the latter he asked for double portions of the plant extract to control a bout of Dheli Belly. Thus the world was saved and another conspiracy theory borne!
The ‘mind altering’ effects of certain plants has also had a significant impact on both starting wars and the conduct of combatants during battle. Afghanistan and the Opium Poppy is an obvious example but as early as 38AD Roman soldiers mistakenly used leaves from Datura plants in their salads and suffered mass hallucinations when they should have been fighting the Parthians. Equally Viking warriors transmogrified into the ‘Beserkers’ after munching on Fly Agaric mushrooms and there is even a theory that in WW1 the Germans considered giving a daily ration of cocaine (Erythroxylum coca) to its troops to help them fight better and to suppress appetite! Apparently Turkish tobacco was used instead as it was easier to get hold of……
Finally a big up for our native trees. How would we have built the might Aramadas that conquered the seas and built the commonwealth without the forests of oak and pine that once covered most of our islands? And what of the most iconic weapon ever made on these shores (after the Spitfire I hasten to add!) – the English Longbow, fashioned from yew?!
So by all means wear your poppy with pride but let’s not forget the other plants that have given of their chlorophyl to help with various war efforts over the years!