A COMMON and poisonous plant named here, not as a medicine but that people who gather herbs, for whatever use, may guard against it. It is common under hedges; and in the earlier part of the year makes a pretty appearance. People might very naturally be tempted to eat of it among other spring herbs, for there is nothing forbidding in its aspect; and what is much worse, the authors most likely to be consulted on such an occasion, might lead those into it, whom they ought to have guarded against it.
It is about a foot high, and has but few leaves, but they are large. The stalk is round, thick, whitish, pointed, and a little hairy; the leaves stand principally toward the top, four, five, or six, seldom more: they are long and considerably broad, sharp-pointed, notched about the edges, and a little hairy. The flowers are inconsiderable: they stand in a kind of spikes at the tops of the stalks; and the seeds are on separate plants, they are double and roundish. The herb has been from this divided into two kinds, male and female, but they have in earlier time given the distinctions of the sex wrong. Those which bear the spikes of flowers, are the male plants; the others, notwithstanding any accidental resemblance, female.
There is not a more fatal plant, native of our country, than this; many have been known to die by eating it boiled with their food; and probably many also, whom we have not heard of: yet the writers of English Herbals, say nothing of this. Gerard, an honest and plain writer, but ignorant as dirt, says, it is thought they agree with the other mercuries in nature. These other mercuries are eatable; therefore, who would scruple on this account, to eat also this. Johnson, who put forth another edition of this book, and called it Gerard Emaculated, from the amending the faults of the original author, says nothing to contradict it: but after some idle observations upon other herbs of the same name, but very different qualities, which yet he seems to suppose of the same nature, leaves his reader to suppose, that he meant equally any of the kinds of mercury, for the purposes he names; and, like his predecessor Gerard, supposed them all to be alike; those safe, and those poisonous. It is true, Mr. Ray, in his Synopsis of the British plants, gives an account of it as a poison, and must sufficiently warn all who read him, from the herb: but who reads him? His book in which this is mentioned, is written in Latin; and those who want the information, cannot read it.
This is not only the case in one or two particulars, it is so in all. To speak generally, the books which contain real knowledge, are written in Latin, through an ostentation of their authors, to shew their learning, or a pride in having them read in other nations as well as here; and those we have in English are ignorant; despised by the persons of judgment, and fit only to mislead. If they enumerate virtues, they give them at random, or give too many false among the true, that the reader knows not what to choose; or their real ignorance mingles poisons with salads, as we see in the present instance: Nor is any more regard to be paid to what they say of herbs, from certain great names they quote. Dioscorides and Galen were indeed great physicians; but men like these are not qualified to profit from their labours. The names of plants have been changed so often since their time, that we do not know what they mean by several: and it is easy for such sad proficients as these, to record of one plant, what they spoke of another: besides, even in their best writings, there is a great deal of error and folly, as may be seen in a quotation of this Johnson's from them, added to Gerard in this very chapter. Where, speaking of one of the kinds of mercury, distinguished like this poisonous kind, into male and female, he says, 'that the male kind' conduces to the generation of boys, and the female 'of girls.' Such is the matter, that a superiority in one of these authors over the other, qualified him to add to his book: such are the English books that are extant upon this subject; and such the direction offered to the charitable, confounding eatable herbs with poisons. This has been one great reason of writing the present book, that there may be one guide and direction at least, to be depended upon; and this its author has thought proper to say at large upon the immediate occasion, rather than in a preface; because there it must have been accompanied with a needless repetition, and perhaps would not have been observed by many who may have recourse to the book.