Sandy’s Garden ... Mezeron Berries

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I was perusing, as is my occasional wont, my copy of that splendid little booklet The Gardeners Monthly Directions.

First published by Thomas Dring in London in 1688, I hasten to add that my copy is, alas, not original but is a facsimile of the original from the library of Traquair House in Peebles, printed by Clark Constable Limited of Edinburgh in 1980. And there, in the entry for the month of July, I encountered these mysterious words: “Sow Mezereon-Berries, and Anemones.” (The italics are in accordance with the original.) Well, anemones, yes: but Mezereon-Berries?

My A-Z of Plant Names furnishes the first clue. “Mezereon: see Daphne mezereum.” And, under Daphne mezereum, I read: “Daphne. The Greek name for Laurus nobilis. … mezereum. From mezereon, the Latin name. Europe, Siberia.” I know, now, that mezereon is the Roman name for a plant, originally from Europe and Siberia, which is a species of what we call daphne, a genus which encompasses both evergreen and deciduous shrubs. And I learn, from Wikipedia, that, “Daphne mezereum is a deciduous shrub growing to 1.5 m tall. The leaves are soft, 3–8 cm long and 1–2 cm broad, arranged spirally on the stems. The flowers are produced in early spring on the bare stems before the leaves appear. They have a four-lobed pink or light purple (rarely white) perianth 10–15 mm diameter, and are strongly scented. The fruit is a bright red berry 7–12 mm diameter; it is very poisonous for people, though fruit-eating birds like thrushes are immune and eat them, dispersing the seeds in their droppings.”

Yes, the Wikipedia entry does indeed state that, “The fruit is a bright red berry 7–12 mm diameter; it is very poisonous for people.” Why on earth did Thomas Dring of London publish, in 1688, that July is the month in which to sow ‘Mezereon-Berries’ when these are very poisonous to people? And now The Poison Garden website comes to my rescue.” John Gerard (the 16th century botanist and herbalist) notes its use against alcohol abuse since, being a violent purge, if a drunkard is given one berry to eat, the heat in his mouth and the choking in his throat will discourage him from drinking for some time.” This website also assures me that Daphne mezereum is, “A very common plant which few people realise is poisonous and which was used as a cosmetic until the damage caused by the rosy glow it produced was understood.” Ah, there we have it; Daphne mezereum was used as a cosmetic! And that splendid authoress Mrs. M. Grieve (Sophia Emma Magdalene Grieve, known as Margaret, Maude or Maud) wrote, in her splendidly-entitled A Modern Herbal in 1931, “Medicinal Action and Uses - Authorities differ as to its value in chronic rheumatism, scrofula, syphilis and skin diseases. A light infusion is said to be good in dropsies, but if too strong may cause vomiting and bloody stools. Thirty berries are used as a purgative by Russian peasants, though French writers regard fifteen as a fatal dose.” So, even into the 20th century, the plant was thought to have medicinal uses; and ‘dropsy’ was a term formerly used for what we call oedema, fluid retention leading to swelling, particularly of the lower legs.

Fortunately, mezereon berries, although attention-catching with their vivid red colour and distinct resemblance to redcurrants, have an acid, acrid taste which discourages children … and adults, for that matter … from doing more than tasting one or two; so there is but a handful of known cases of fatalities resulting from their consumption. Still, while I often advocate benefiting from the horticultural experience of our ancestors, I suggest, gentle reader, that you refrain from planting mezereon berries in your garden this month!