Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Plants as abortifacients – 1

Vickery’s Folk Flora (2019) lists houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum), juniper (Juniperus communis), pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) as being used to produce abortion in Britain and Ireland.

David Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield in their Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition – An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland (2004) add broom (Cytisus scoparius),  hemlock (Conium maculatum), ivy (Hedera helix), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), raspberry (Rubus idaeus), sea wormwood (Seriphidium maritimum), spignel (Meum athamanticum) and yew (Taxus baccata).

An additional two species are mentioned by Donald Watts in his Dictionary of Plant Lore (2007):  horse-radish (Armoracia rusticana) and parsley (Petroselinum crispum).

Both Allen & Hatfield and Watts take their information from Enid Porter’s Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore (1969), where she also mentions hemp (Cannabis sativa).

As we can assume that people were reluctant to record their knowledge of such matters, it is perhaps surprising that 15 species are known to be used as abortifacients.

Broom.  Allen & Hatfield mention broom as being used ‘to procure an abortion’ on the Isle of Man, their source being D.C. Fargher, The Manx Have a Word for It. 5. Manx Gaelic Names of Flora (1969).

Hemlock.  According to Allen & Hatfield, referring to Porter (1969), records that at one time in the Cambridgeshire Fens hemlock, pennyroyal and rue (Ruta graveolens) were combined in a pill given ‘for the purpose of inducing abortions’.  See Rue, under Material Collected on this website, for a record of rue being used as an abortifacient in France.

Hemp.  Porter records that ‘old handywomen [village midwives] … recommended the chewing of hemp leaves … this caused severe vomiting, resulting often in a miscarriage’.

Horse-radish.  Referring to Porter (1969) Watts mentions that eating the green leaves of horse-radish three times a day would produce an abortion.

Houseleek.  Roy Vickery in a note ‘Sempervivum tectorum as an abortifacient’, in Folklore 96, p.253 (1985), records houseleek being remembered as being used to produce abortion in Co. Mayo; this record is also given in his Folk Flora.

Ivy. Allen & Hatfield mention a solitary record of ‘a preparation of the leaves drunk as an abortifacient’, a practice ‘well known at one time to women in a village in (?) Wiltshire; their source being Steve Humphries & Beverley Hopwood, Green & Pleasant Land (2001).

Juniper.  According to Allen & Hatfield:  ‘In the guise of the drink distilled from the berries (though an infusion made from the whole plant is an alternative and has its followers), members of the genus Juniperus have long enjoyed a reputation as abortifacients.’  Furthermore they believed this use of  J. communis is doubtless as ancient as it has been widespread – though much under-reported by folklorists.’  Information can be found in Vickery’s Folk Flora:  in a Child ballad, Mary Hamilton, a lady-in-waiting of Mary Queen of Scots (1542-87) resorted, unsuccessfully, to using juniper to produce an abortion; a sample of ‘saffron’ in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, used in 1914 by a women who had missed a period has been identified as juniper, and Juno juniper pills for women who were ‘late’ and ‘worried’ were still available in 1993.  The Pitt Rivers sample can be seen on their Collections Online, object 1914.58.1.

Mugwort.  Allen & Hatfield note that the genus Artemisia is named after the Greek goddess Artemis, the patron of maternity and childbirth.  They suspect that it was widely used as an abortifacient, but the only records they have of this are from Northamptonshire (collected by Hatfield), the Highlands (information from Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.6, 1971) and Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides (from Allan MacDonald, Gaelic Words & Expressions from South Uist & Eriskay, 1958).

Parsley. According to Watts, like tansy, parsley ‘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 [his source is not given], but the belief is actually widespread (Waring [A Dictionary of Omens & Superstitions, 1978]).  On 1 December 1989 the Daily Mirror reported that a pregnant Sicilian woman died after becoming addicted to parsley, she had eaten up to 30 bunches a day in order to abort her baby.

Pennyroyal.  Allen & Hatfield note that pennyroyal had a ‘widespread reputation as an abortifacient.  Porter mentions that in the mid-nineteenth century women living in the Littleport area of Cambridgeshire who wanted to induce a miscarriage would obtain pills which a local woman prepared from hemlock, pennyroyal and rue.  Vickery records pennyroyal being used to produce abortion in Salford, now part of Greater Manchester, before the First World War; in London in the 1940s; in Halifax in the mid-1950s, and mentions organ (pennyroyal) tea being drunk at ‘tea treats and lady’s meetings’ in Cornwall in the nineteenth century, ‘were these modestly held gatherings to drink tea really a way of trying to control the size of one’s family?’

Raspberry. Infusions of raspberry leaves were widely drunk during pregnancy to ‘allay labour pains’,  and Allen & Hatfield provide a record, collected by Hatfield in Cambridgeshire, that raspberry was used for inducing abortion during early pregnancy.

Sea wormwood.  Allen & Hatfield mention that according to Andrew Allen’s Dictionary of Sussex Folk Medicine (1995), that sea wormwood was collected along the Sussex coast for commercial sale, under the name of ‘savin’, a name by which juniper was known, particularly when used as an abortifacient.  Thus it seems likely that sea wormwood was similarly used.

Spignel.  Also known as baldmoney, which Allen & Hatfield suggest the same plant as that known as ‘baudminnnie’ which was used as an abortifacient in Galloway.

Tansy. Vickery quotes from Porter (1969):  ‘many unmarried Fenland girls who became pregnant chewed tansy leaves to procure a miscarriage’.  Allen & Hatfield note that this use was also known in Gloucestershire (information from Roy Palmer, The Folklore of Gloucestershire, 1994) and Wiltshire (from Ralph Whitlock, Wiltshire Folklore & Legends, 1992).

Yew. Allen & Hatfield note that ‘in unstated areas an infusion [of yew] was given as an abortifacient by midwives – with at least one death to its discredit’, their source being Alfred S. Taylor, On Poisons, in Relation to Medical Jurisprudence and Medicine, 1848.

Additional information and comments would be much appreciated, please send them to roy@plant-lore.com

Images:  main,  houseleek, Uppertown, Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, November 2015; upper inset, juniper, planted, Summerhill Glen, Douglas, Isle of Man, September 2023; middle inset, mugwort, Hampstead Heath, London Borough of Camden, September 2023; lowest inset, yew, cultivated in garden of the Almonry Museum, Evesham, Worcestershire, all September 2023.

Revised 5 December 2023.