At the same time as being an aid to conception, TANSY leaves were chewed by unmarried pregnant girls to procure an abortion. Indeed, the poisonous oil of tansy has long been taken to induce abortion. Exactly the same ambivalence is shown in beliefs concerning PARSLEY. It is an aid to conception on the one hand, and a contraceptive as well as an abortifacient on the other. Cambridgeshire girls would eat it three times a day to get an abortion, but the belief is actually widespread. Eating HORSERADISH leaves three times a day was a valued means in the Fen country of causing abortion, knowledge apparently not confined to East Anglia, for Whitlock mentions it as a Wiltshire remedy, if that is the right word to use.
LADY LAUREL (Daphne mezereum) is a poisonous plant, dangerously violent in its action. Presumably that is the reason for its inclusion in a list of abortifacients used in Dutch folk medicine. According to Dodonaeus, it is so strong that it had only to be applied on the belly to kill the child. OLEANDER, too, is extremely poisonous, and has been used for abortions in India. Hungarian gypsies recommended oleander leaves in wine, together with those of peony, as well as ergot, for abortions. A certain Granny Gray, of Littleport, in Cambridgeshire, used to make up pills from the very poisonous HEMLOCK, pennyroyal and rue. They were famous in the Fen country for abortions in the mid-19th century. SAVIN, probably the most notorious of the poisonous abortifacients, had been in use, as a matter of common knowledge, since ancient times, and was certainly well known in the 16th and 17th centuries, for instance, the scurrilous lines in Middleton’s play, A game of chess, act 1; sc.2:
To gather fruit, find nothing but the savin-tree,
Too frequent in nuns’ orchards, and there planted
By all conjecture, to destroy fruit rather.
Some of the common names for the tree bear witness to this usage, names like Cover-shame and Bastard Killer. And its contraceptive properties were well-known, too. It was said that a stallion would never cover a mare if there was any savin in the stable. Even ARNICA, dangerous as it is, has been used in folk medicine. MARSH ROSEMARY (Ledum palustre) is another traditional abortifacient, and even the dried flowers of FEVERFEW have been used in Europe. A volatile oil made from the wood of VIRGINIAN JUNIPER, a close relative of Savin, has been used for abortions; if this is the substance known as Red Cedar Wood Oil, then it must have been a thoroughly dangerous process. It is claimed that the Blackfoot Indians used the rhizome of SWEET FLAG to cause abortions. That sounds highly unlikely, considering the plant’s universal usage as a mild carminative.
RUE should never be taken if the patient is pregnant — with good reason, for it has often been used for abortions. French folklore insists that there was a law forbidding its cultivation in ordinary gardens. It was said that the specimen in the Paris Botanical Garden had to be enclosed to prevent pregnant girls from stealing it. In the Deux-Savres region of France it was believed that it caused any woman who merely touched it with the hem of her dress to miscarry. HEMP leaves were recommended in Cambridgeshire, the aim being to cause severe vomiting, often enough to result in a miscarriage. In the Scottish Highlands, it seems that the MOUNTAIN CLUBMOSS was used for the purpose. James Robertson, who toured the West Highlands and Islands in 1768, noted that “the Lycopodium selago is said to be such a strong purge that it will bring on an abortion” (quoted in Beith).
NUTMEGS were used at one time — the women in London who were the practitioners were actually known as “nutmeg ladies”. BITING STONECROP is traditionally known as abortive. ‘A Middle English Rimed Medical Treatise’ has:
She that drynkes fumiter and the stoncrope
Schal neuere yong childe in cradell roke.
In other words, they caused sterility or abortion. A surprising report involves HOUSELEEK. Some of the plants would be boiled, and the water given to the girl to drink. Later on, she would be told to climb a high wall and jump down, and that would do the trick. One assumes that the second part of the treatment would have been the only operative one, yet the plant appears in a list of abortifacients used in Dutch folk medicine. The dried flowers of SAFFLOWER have been used in Chinese medicine as a “blood invigorator”, whatever that means, though one meaning is certainly to promote menstruation, which is presumably why the flowers have the reputation in China of causing abortion. PENNYROYAL, too, is a known abortifacient, surprising, perhaps, for a plant that is almost a panacea. But it is also an emmenagogue, which would explain the usage.
It is said that a root decoction of the African tree CATCHTHORN (Zizyphus abyssinica) will cause abortion. BUSY LIZZIE was an African plant originally, and some groups used its root as an abortifacient. SCARLET LEADWORT (Plumbago indica) is a well known abortifacient in India and Malaysia, but it is a thoroughly dangerous practice, and could be lethal.. It is the root that is used, apparently by introduction into the vagina, and that would cause violent local inflammation. Its close relative, CEYLON LEADWORT (Plumbago zeylanica) is used in the same way in the Philippines, and in Guyana, where it is called Gully-root, the leaf decoction of GUINEA-HEN WEED (Petiveria alliacea) is used.