Little Shop of Horrors, Early Modern Style

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

I like pretty words. Old, pretty words.

The problem with old, pretty words is that they can be awfully deceptive.

While (electronically) flipping through the recipe book of a Mrs. Corlyon from 1606 (Wellcome MS. 213), I came across sundry cures for dull-sounding medical issues:  coughs, agues, and pimples. I’m enough of a historian to know that just because something sounds dull doesn’t mean it is, but nevertheless I kept flipping, looking for a recipe to spark my imagination.

And then I saw it, the perfect attention-grabber: “The making of a Rosa Solis.”

Rosa solis: How lovely! Perhaps, given the possible Latin translation of “rose of the sun,” it could even be alchemical! My heart beat fast…

sundew
Drosera tokaiensis. Photo by Denis Barthel (Wikimedia Commons)

I did a little searching. One look at the picture, and I was struck by this plant’s luminous beauty.

Not only is the plant itself lovely, the recipe from Mrs. Corlyon’s book for rosa solis corial water sounds divine:

Take halfe a peck of the herbe called Rosa Solis beynge gathered before the Sonn do aryse in the latter end of June or the beginning of Julye. Pick them and lay them upon a Bord to drye all a day. Then take a quarter of a Pounde of Reisons of the Sonn the Stones beynge taken out: Six Date as 12 Figges. Shridd all these together somewhat smale, and putt them into a great mouthed Glasse. Then take of Lycoresse and Annisseedes of each an ownze of Cynamone half an ownze a spoonefull of Cloves three Nutmegges of Coryander seeds and of caraway seedes eche half an ownze. Bruise all these, and putt them into the glasse, add thereunto your Hearbes and two pounds of the best Sugar finely beaten and a pottell of good Aquavite. Then stir them well together, and when you have this doen, stoppe the glasse, very close, then sett it in the Sonn for the space of 7 or 8 weekes often turning the glasse about in the Sonn but Lett it stand where the raine may not come unto it and shake it oftentimes together and when it hath so long so stade, straine it and putt the water upp into a doble glasse and keep it for your use. And if you please when you have strained it you may put thereto a leafe of Golde, and a grain or two of Muske.

Raisins, dates, and figs. Licorice, anise, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, and caraway. Sugar and booze. What’s not to love?

Not only is the rosa solis plant beautiful and its cordial yummy, its effects are impressive. Recorded in the Sir Thomas Osborne recipe collection at the Wellcome Collection Library is the following recommendation:

For There is not the Weakest Man nor body in the world that wantest Nature or Strength or that is falne into a Consumption but it will Restore him againe & cause him to bee Stronge and lustie and to have a good Stomacke & Shortly, hee that useth this three time together shall find great remedie & Comforte.

Ahh, I thought, an intriguing and beautiful medicinal!

Here’s the thing, though: old, pretty words can cover deadly truths.

sundew2
The leaf of a Drosera capensis “bending” in response to the trapping of an insect.
Photo by: Noah Elhardt (Wikimedia Commons)

Rosa solis is also known as sundew, or drosera, and it is actually quite treacherous and deadly . . . especially if you’re a bug. The sundew plant is carnivorous. It grows in boggy, wet, marsh-like conditions—places in which soluble nitrogen is in short supply. To make up for the deficit, the sundew attracts insects with what looks like a fresh bounty of dewdrops, but is in reality a series of mucus glands that trap the insect on the leaf.

The insect dies either from exhaustion (from trying to escape) or from asphyxiation from the mucus. The sundew then excretes enzymes that dissolve the body of the insect.

Pretty much it happens like this:

Disturbing Video No. 1
Disturbing Video No. 2

(Yes, that’s tonight’s nightmare sorted for you.)

These videos are both time-lapse; it can take a sundew hours, even up to a day, to completely digest an insect.

This raises the question of whether early modern herbalists knew about the sundew’s carnivorous ways. Was the actual process too slow to notice with the naked eye?

Early modern recipes for rosa solis cordial make clear that the plant is to be harvested during June and early July. (Jennifer Munroe has discussed the fascinating implications of the detailed intructions for the harvesting of rosa solis.) But did the women and men harvesting the plant know of its unique pattern of feeding?

In the recipes I’ve encountered for rosa solis, I’ve seen no mention of insects or of how the plant feeds. I wonder, then: would the knowledge of rosa solis’s carnivorous ways have changed how herbalists, wise women, and amateur and professional physicians used it? Would the doctrine of signatures have changed pharmaceutical usage?

Knowing that fate of the hapless bug trapped by the mucus of the sundew, would the recipe writer in Sir Thomas Osborne’s collection still have recommended the cordial for aid in growing “Strong and lustie”?

*******

Postscript: Please understand that I could not write this blog without hearing the soundtrack to “Little Shop of Horrors” in my head. Then, for fun, I Googled “Renaissance Little Shop of Horrors.” This is what I found courtesy of Mental Floss:

littleshopofhorrors
Painted by Alison Sommers for Gallery 1988’s “Crazy 4 Cult 5.” Image used with permission of the artist.

Thereby proving that one can find ANYTHING on the internet.


2 thoughts on “Little Shop of Horrors, Early Modern Style”

  1. Really interesting post! I love browsing through old herbals. I recently attempted a recreation of Mrs. Corlyon’s “Redd Oyle for healing a small cutt or a great wounde, and is available to many other purposes” which I wrote about on my blog. Fortunately or unfortunately, I haven’t been wounded since, so I haven’t had occasion to put the oil’s efficacy to the test.

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