NPR logo Henbane Vs. Fat Hen: Pick Your Poison

Plants and Health

Henbane Vs. Fat Hen: Pick Your Poison

So have you heard about the feature in the British magazine where a certain deadly plant is recommended as a salad green?

Mistakes happen and a British chef made a doozy when he confused the truly spooky nightshade family plant, henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), with the not-entirely-innocent weed, fat hen (Chenopodium album).

Yet neither are quite as horrible or wonderful as the headlines about the chef's gaffe would lead us to believe.

Fat hen, according to one source, is an acceptable if bland substitute for spinach with leaves that are best not eaten raw, at least not in large quantities. Evidentally, many of the species contain saponins, particularly toxic to cold-blooded animals (it was a favorite tribal way to stun fish). Fat hen is also contraindicated for arthritis.

Of course I also enjoyed reading that when eaten with beans, fat hen can prevent gas.

Henbane, as any readers of Shakespeare know, kills — or at least disturbs the nervous system, "as if some diabolical force took possession of the brain and prevented its functions."
On the other hand, the Egyptians smoked it to dull toothaches and if you've ever had one (a toothache, that is) you can imagine how grateful they were to have it.

Henbane was also used in the Middle Ages to to flavor and enhance the effects of beer (Pilsen=Bilson=German word for henbane. Check out this overview.

I picked up fabulous salad greens at the farmer's market yesterday with lots of spicy weeds. Alas, no altered states...