Theophrastus on Picking Plants

1 Introduction

In Enquiry into Plants 9.8.5–8, Theophrastus opines about the practices of druggists and root-cutters (on whose writings and oral communications much of his botanical work was based) in picking plants. Those rejected by him (and with him, by modern botany) are particularly interesting.

2 Translation

The druggists and root-cutters say many more things, some appropriate, others fantastical. For they direct us to stand facing downwind while cutting certain herbs, like thapsia and some others, and to anoint oneself with oil, because if one faces the other direction, the body will swell up. The fruit of wild rose (kynospastos; cf. Poem On Herbs 11) must also be gathered facing downwind to avoid danger for the eyes.

Some must be gathered at night or during the day, some just before the Sun strikes them, as with the plant called honeysuckle (klymenon).

Some of these instructions and others like them may seem to be not inappropriate, because the powers of some plants are harmful, and they say that they burn like fire; also, hellebore quickly makes people drowsy, and they cannot keep digging for long. Hence, they eat garlic and drink unmixed wine before digging.

But other things of the sort are superfluous and contrived, as when they instruct that peony, which they call glykysidē, must be dug up at night because, if it is done during the day and one is seen by a woodpecker while picking up the fruit, there is danger to the eyes; and if it sees someone cutting the root, they will suffer rectal prolapse. One must also look out for a buzzardhawk while cutting feverwort (kentauris), if one wishes to leave unharmed.

And there are certain other reasons (for caution). That one should be praying when one cuts may not be inappropriate, except where they add something else to it, as with the kind of all-heal called the Asclepian (panakes to Asklēpieion); for one is supposed to put into the earth in its place an offering of all kinds of fruits (pankarpia) and a honey-cake (mellitouta).

And when one gathers gladwyn (xiris), one must put honey-cakes from spring-sown wheat in its place as a compensation. One must cut it with a two-edged sword after drawing (a circle) around it three times; and they say that the first piece that has been cut must be held up in the air while one cuts the rest.

And there are many more things of this sort. One should draw a circle around mandrake with a sword three times and cut it while looking towards the west. Another must dance around* in a circle and talk a great deal about sex. This seems like what is said about cumin, that one must
speak abuse while sowing it.

One should draw a circle around black hellebore and cut it standing towards the east and praying. One should look out for an eagle, whether from the right or left sight, for there is a danger to cutters that, if the eagle should come near, they will die within a year.

Now, these things seem to be superfluous, as has been said.


“Another must dance around”: Or ‘one must dance around the rest’ or while making the second cut.