Throughout history, plants have been used for various purposes, including medicine, divination and … warfare.
In ancient times, armies would often use toxic plants as a weapon to poison their enemies. In this article, we will discuss three examples of toxic plants used for military warfare from antiquity to the late middle ages.
- Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum)
Poison hemlock was a popular plant used for military purposes in ancient Greece. The plant contains a toxic alkaloid called coniine, which can cause paralysis and death. It was often used to poison enemies’ food and water supplies or smeared on weapons, causing the enemy to suffer from convulsions and paralysis.
One of the most famous uses of poison hemlock was the execution of the Greek philosopher Socrates. He was forced to drink a cup of hemlock as a punishment for his philosophical beliefs. However, hemlock was also used in much smaller doses as a regular additive to wine among Greeks. Karl. A.P Ruck lists many other narcotics used in everyday wines: serpent and salamander venoms, hemlock, jimsonweed, aconite, cannabis, wormwood, ergot, and probably dimethyltriptamine (DMT) from acacia and similar plants, as well as psychoative resins and incenses.
Knowledge of poison hemlock seems to have endured. In the 14th century, during a war between Florence and Verona, a drinking water source was reportedly poisoned with hemlock (Conium maculatum), as chronicled by Florence’s Giovanni Villani in his work, the Nuova Cronica. This is just one example of a long history of similar events occurring over centuries. However, it is likely that the virulently poisonous hemlock used by Socrates had by then gone extinct. It is unclear which variety would have would been used by Villani.
- Belladonna (Atropa belladonna)
Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, is a highly toxic plant native to Europe and Asia. It contains tropane alkaloids, which can cause hallucinations, paralysis, and death. The active chemical in belladona is scopolamine, the exact same hallucinogen used by the U.S. police decades ago to attempt to create a sort of truth serum.
Ancient Roman armies used the plant as a weapon to poison the water supplies of their enemies. They would also coat their arrows with the plant’s juice to cause confusion, disorientation, and blurred vision. Ironically, the first documented evidence of the weaponized drug comes from Rome’s greatest enemy: Hamilcar Barca. Hamilcar was the Carthagenese general who led a giant elephant army through the Alps and came close to ravaging Rome. Apocryphal documents describe how he would have poisoned his enemies’ supplies with belladonna to confuse and sicken them.
There is also documented evidence of Scottish troops poisoning food in the encampment of the invading Norwegian army with Atropa belladonna. During the middle ages, belladonna was used by Italian assassins, who would mix it with wine and use it to poison their targets. Later in 1672, the Bishop of Munster reportedly filled grenades with belladona to disperse enemies on the battlefield.
- Manchineel (Hippomane mancinella)
Manchineel is a highly toxic tree native to the Caribbean and South America. It contains a potent toxin called phorbol, which can cause severe skin irritation and internal damage. It was often used by the Carib people to poison the water supplies of their enemies and as a defense mechanism against invading forces.
During the age of exploration, the Spanish army used manchineel to poison their enemies. They would chop down the trees and use the sap to coat their weapons, causing the enemy to suffer from severe burns and blisters. This is not unlike the Romans and Mongols before them who would often poison arrowheads to precipitate infection. The practice is one of the oldest warfare techniques.
Toxic plants have been used for military purposes throughout history. These plants have been used as weapons to poison enemies’ food and water supplies, as well as to coat weapons to cause paralysis, hallucinations, and confusion. While the use of these plants has diminished in modern warfare, they still play an important role in the development of new drugs and medicines.
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