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Man has turned to plants for healing and relief of pain and discomfort since prehistoric times. During the Roman era plants were prevalent, and a huge collection of plant lore has survived from that ancient time. This collection called the Natural History, by Gaius Plinius Secundus, or Pliny, as known to modern readers, is a monumental 37 volume compilation.

A lawyer and administrator by profession, Pliny had a lifelong interest in the natural world. Supplementing his own observations, Pliny drew on more than 100 previous authors to extract from their work some “20,000 noteworthy facts,” according to Pliny in his preface.

However, many so called facts are also not much more than legends, embroideries and superstitions. But it was an age that believed in witchcraft, and superstitions prevailed.

An example is Pliny’s discussion of amber, the fossil resin prized by the ancients as a gem. Although he identified amber correctly as an exhudation from trees, he also added properties that amber doesn’t have. For example, he wrote that wearing amber at the neck, it wards off tonsillitis and goiter. Babies were to benefit from amber amulets, and people of all ages wearing the amulet were protected from “attacks of wild distraction. And again, although Pliny’s account of the source of amber is accurate, but he also has much misinformation mixed with scientific fact.

Some of the amazing, if not correct facts, in Pliny’s Natural History are based on the superstitions of the era. Like about spiked loosetrife. He said when it was woven into a garland and hung around oxen’s neck, it will make the oxen team pull together as a team. He writes that thunder causes truffles to grow. And Silphinum, a member of the composite family that he describes as a purge, was supposed to have sprang up after the ground had been soaked with rain “the color of pitch.”

On the medicinal uses of trees, herbs and flowers, there is much that is genuinely scientific, but also includes curious practices based on superstitions. For example: to aid conception, a woman was to bind to her body a cucumber seed preserved and later wrapped in ram’s wool and tied to the woman’s loins before delivery. This practice was said to ease her labor pains.

To protect herself from wrinkles, a woman was to take leaves of maidenhair fern, steep it in the urine of a young boy, pound it with saltpeter, and place it to her abdomen. A man afflicted with a boil, was to take nine grains of barley, trace a circle around the boil, trace a circle around the boil three times with each of the nine grains, then throw the barley in the fire with his left hand. This would result in an instant cure of the boil!

On eating mushrooms, he warned that many were poisonous, but also added that even the nonpoisonous mushrooms could prove toxic if breathed upon by a venomous snake. To stop venomous creatures from biting one, Pliny recommended rubbing radishes on the skin. He also had plants listed as recommendations if one was bitten anyway by a scorpion, spider, snake, or mad dog.

Today, Pliny’s plant sorceries and applications are looked upon with amazement. Even the carrot was to have aphrodisiac properties! But it was an age when even educated Roman’s believed in sorcery and witchcraft and plant lore and magic ruled.