Friday, August 07, 2020

Enchanter's nighshade

Enchanter's nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) is once again flowering here and there in our garden and local woods.  It is a small and modest plant with delicate pink and white flowers followed by  small burrs, each containing a seed, which cling to one's trouser legs.

It appears to have very few virtues as an edible or medicinal plant but most people wonder how it came by its mysterious English name.  This has been much discussed in various online places but generally it seems to have originated in the 16th and 17th century when many of the great European herbalists were writing about the medicinal and magical properties of plants.  Among other things they explored the works of classical authors like Dioscorides (De materia medica, AD 50 -70).  He wrote of a plant called 'kirkaia' in Greek which becomes 'Circaea' in Latin and can be translated as Circe's (plant).  Quite what this was seems uncertain but enchanter's nightshade is one candidate.

The French name for Enchanter's nightshade was, at the time of the 16th and 17th C herbalists, 'circée' and this is still current in France, Italy and French-speaking Switzerland.  The herbalists assumed this associated the plant with Circe, the enchantress of Homer's Odyssey who attracted Ulysses's men with her siren song then used a magic potion to turn them into pigs.  The derivation of circée as a plant name may be correct but I have not seen any direct evidence that this was so.  There are, however, some accounts of the plant being used by women to arouse men, though this may not pre-date the 16th century.

When the French herbalists were writing they often called Enchanter's nightshade 'circée de Paris'.  This was not only because the plant grew commonly in the Paris area (and elsewhere in most of France) but to distinguish it from upland enchanter's nightshade (Circaea alpina) known in French as 'circée des Alpes'.  Circée de Paris was written in Latin as 'circaea lutetiana', the second word deriving from 'lutetia' a Roman name for Paris, and Linnaeus used this when formally describing the plant in his Species Plantarum.

All that more or less explains the enchanter's part of the name, but why 'nightshade'?  This is quite simply because the plant was thought to be a nightshade due to the shape of its leaves resembling woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara).  Gaspard Bauhin the 17th C Swiss botanist  called it Solanifolia Circaea (nightshade-leaved circée) for example.