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To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

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Herbals provide physical descriptions of plants, with particular attention to their various medicinal virtues. Thus, they were an important resource for recipes. Recipes meant to provoke sleep might require mandrake or Indian dreamer, while those that roused the sufferer from sleep-related diseases such as lethargy might call for mustard plant.

Hortus sanitatis. Strasbourg, not after Oct. 21, 1497

The fanciful illustration above is the mandrake, a plant whose root was taken to resemble the human form and which purportedly shrieked when removed from the ground. A narcotic plant, the mandrake’s effects were, in John Donne’s words, “betwixt sleep and poison.” Shakespeare references the mandrake’s soporific qualities in Othello and Antony and Cleopatra.


The Indian Dreamer, which resembles hemp, was another plant used to cause sleep but can also “grow great dreamers according to their humours and dispositions….”


But, for those who had too much of sleep, other plant cures were available. Towards the end of an entry devoted to the mustard plant, Rembert Dodoens discusses “Lethargie or drowsie evill,” a disease in which people “cannot waken themselves.” He advises using a paste of mustard and figs to create heat, thus removing the cold humors that cause excess sleep.



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