|The Story Book of Science|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|The wonders of plant and animal life told with rare literary charm by Uncle Paul in conversations with three children. Besides such stories as the ants' subterranean city, the spider's suspension bridge, and the caterpillars' processing, he unlocks the mystery behind thunder and lightning, clouds and rain, the year and its seasons, and volcanoes and earthquakes. Ages 9-12 |
HE death of poor Joseph had spread consternation through
the village. If children left the house and went off into
the fields, there was constant anxiety until they returned.
They might find poisonous plants that would tempt them with
their flowers or their berries, and poison them. Many said,
with reason, that the best way to prevent these terrible
accidents was to know the dangerous plants and teach the
children to beware of them. They went and found
Maître Paul, whose great knowledge was appreciated
by all, and asked him to teach them the poisonous plants of
the neighborhood. So Sunday evening there was a numerous
gathering at Uncle Paul's. Besides his two nephews and his
niece, Jacques and Mother Ambroisine, there were Simon, who
had come upon the two unfortunate children on his way home
from the mill, Jean the miller, André the plowman,
Philippe the vine-dresser, Antoine, Mathieu, and many
others. The day before, Uncle Paul had taken a walk in the
country to gather the plants he was to talk about. A large
bunch of the principal poisonous plants, some in blossom,
others with berries, were in a pitcher of water on the
"There are people, my friends," he began, "who
 shut their
eyes so as not to see danger, and think themselves safe
because they wilfully ignore peril.
There are others who
inform themselves about what may be a menace to them,
persuaded that one warned person may be worth two unwarned.
You belong to this latter class, and I congratulate you.
Countless ills lie in wait for us; let us try to diminish
their number by our vigilance, instead of giving ourselves
up to lazy carelessness. Now that a frightful misfortune has
overtaken one of our families, who does not realize the
extreme importance of our all knowing, so as to avoid them,
these terrible plants that claim victims every year? If this
knowledge were more extended, the poor little fellow whose
loss we now lament would still be his mother's consolation.
Ah! unfortunate child!"
Uncle Paul, whom thunder never caused even to knit his
brows, had tears in his eyes and his voice trembled. The
good Simon, who had seen the two children in each other's
arms under the hedge, felt more moved than the others at
this recollection. He pulled down the broad rim of his hat
to hide the big tears that were rolling down his rough
cheeks bronzed by the sun. After a few moments of silence
Uncle Paul continued:
"The death of the unfortunate little boy was caused by
belladonna. It is a rather large weed with reddish
bell-shaped flowers. The berries are
 round, purplish-black,
and resemble cherries. The leaves are oval and pointed at
the end. The whole plant has a nauseous odor and a somber
appearance, as if to announce the poison it conceals. The
berries particularly are dangerous because they may tempt
children by their resemblance to cherries and their sweetish
taste. Enlargement of the pupil of the eye and a dull, fixed
stare are the characteristics of belladonna poisoning."
Paul took from the bouquet in the pitcher a sprig of
belladonna, and passed it around in the audience so that
each one could examine the plant closely.
"What do you say that is called?" asked Jean.
"Belladonna; good. I know that weed. I have often found it
near the mill, in shady places. Who would believe those
pretty cherries held such a frightful poison."
Here André asked: "What does the word belladonna
"It is an Italian word meaning fine lady. Formerly, it
seems, ladies used the juice of this plant to keep their
"That is a property that does not concern our brown skin.
What concerns us is this confounded berry which may tempt
"Are not our herds in danger when this weed grows in
pastures?" Antoine next inquired.
"It is very seldom that animals touch poisonous plants; they
avoid browsing what might harm them, warned by the odor, and
above all by instinct.
"This other plant with large leaves, whose
flow-  ers, red on
the outside and spotted on the inside with white and purple,
are arranged in a long and magnificent cluster almost as
high as a man, is called digitalis. The flowers have the form
of long, tun-bellied bells, or rather of glove-fingers;
therefore it is called by different names, all referring to
"If I am not mistaken," said Jean, "it is what we call
fox-glove. It is common on the edges of woods."
"We call it fox-glove on account of its resemblance to the
thumb of a glove. For the same reason it has elsewhere the
name of gloves of Notre-Dame, gloves of the Virgin, and
finger-stall. The name digitalis, borrowed from the Latin,
also refers to the finger-shaped flower."
"It is a great pity that fine plant is poisonous," commented
Simon; "it would be a pleasure to see it in our gardens."
"It is, indeed, cultivated as an ornamental plant, but in
gardens under stricter vigilance than ours. As for us, my
friends, who hardly have time to watch over flowers, we
shall do well not to put digitalis within reach of children
by introducing it in our gardens. The whole plant is
poisonous. It has the singular property of slowing up the
beating of the heart and finally stopping it. It is
 to tell you that when the heart no longer beats,
all is over.
"Hemlock is still more dangerous. Its finely-divided leaves
resemble those of chervil and parsley.
This resemblance has
often occasioned fatal mistakes, all the easier, because the
formidable plant grows in the hedges of enclosures and even
in our gardens. A plain enough characteristic, however,
enables us to distinguish the poisonous weed from the two
pot-herbs that resemble it: that is the odor. Rub that tuft
of hemlock in your hands, Simon, and smell."
"Ouf!" said Simon, that smells very bad; parsley and chervil
have not that horrid odor. When one is warned, no mistake
can be made, in my opinion."
"Yes, when one is warned; but those who are not take no
account of the smell and mistake hemlock for parsley or
chervil. It is in order to be warned that you are listening
to me this evening."
"You are doing us a great service, Maître Paul,"
said Jean, "by putting us on our guard
 against these
dangerous plants. Every one at home ought to know what you
have just taught us, so as not to gather a salad of hemlock
instead of chervil."
"There are two kinds of hemlock. One, called the great
hemlock, is found in damp and uncultivated places. It is
very like chervil. Its stems are marked with black or
reddish spots. The other, called the little hemlock,
resembles parsley. It grows in cultivated fields, hedges,
and gardens. Both have a nauseating odor.
"Now here is a poisonous plant very easy to recognize.
the arum, or, as it is commonly called, cuckoopint or
The arum is common in hedges. The leaves are
very broad and shaped like a large lance-head. The blossom
is shaped like a donkey's ear. It is a large yellowish
trumpet, from the bottom of which rises a fleshy rod that
might be taken for a little finger of butter. This strange
flower is succeeded by a bunch of berries as large as peas
and of a splendid red color. The whole plant has an
unbearable burning taste."
"Let me tell you, Maître Paul," put in Mathieu,
"what happened one day to my little Lucien. Coming home from
school, he saw in the hedge those large flowers you are
speaking of, like donkey's ears; the fleshy rod in the
middle looked to him
 like something good to eat. You have
just compared it to a little finger of butter. The
thoughtless creature was taken with its looks. He bit into
the deceitful finger of butter. What had he done! In a
moment his tongue began to burn as if he had bitten a
red-hot coal. I saw him come home spitting and making faces.
He won't be taken in again, you may be sure. Luckily he
hadn't swallowed the piece. The next morning he was all
"A similar burning flavor is found in the white milk-like
juice that runs from the euphorbia when cut. The
euphorbia are plants of mean appearance, very common
everywhere. Their flowers, small and yellowish, grow in a
head, the even branches of which radiate at the top of the
stem. These plants are easily recognized by their white
juice, their milk, which runs in abundance from the cut
stems. This juice is dangerous, even on the skin alone, if
it is tender; its acrid, burning taste is its sufficient
"The aconites, like digitalis, are fine plants which for
their beauty have been introduced in gardens,
notwithstanding the violence of their poison. They are found
in hilly countries. Their blossoms are blue or yellow,
helmet-shaped, and grow in an
ele-  gant terminal bunch of the
finest effect. Their leaves, of a lustrous green, are cut
out in radiating sprays. The aconites are very poisonous.
The violence of their poison has given them the name of
dog's-bane and wolf's-bane. History tells us that formerly
arrow-heads and lance-heads were soaked in the juice of the
aconites, to poison the wounds made in war and to make them
"There is sometimes cultivated in our gardens a shrub with
large shiny leaves, which do not fall in winter, and with
black, oval berries as large as acorns. It is the
cherry-bay. All its parts, leaves, flowers, and berries,
have the odor of bitter almonds and peach kernels. The
leaves of the cherry-bay are sometimes used to give their
perfume to cream and milk products. They should be used only
with great prudence, for the cherry-bay is extremely
poisonous. They even say one has only to remain some time in
its shade to become indisposed from its exhalations of a
"In autumn there is seen in abundance, in damp fields, a
large and beautiful flower, rose or lilac in color, that
rises from the ground alone, without stem or leaves. It is
the colchicum, called also meadow saffron, or veillotte,
also veilleuse, because it blossoms on the eve of the cold
season. If you dig a little way down, you will find that
this flower starts from a rather large bulb, covered with a
brown skin. Colchicum is poisonous; so cows never touch it.
Its bulb is still more poisonous.
"But we have talked enough about harmful plants
 for to-day.
I should be afraid of befogging your memories were I to
enter into more details. Next Sunday I will expect you
again, my friends, and will talk to you about mushrooms."
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