My scholarly, botanical and materialistic interests intersected the other day when I came across a beautiful Arts and Crafts wallpaper print by Charles Francis Annesley Voysey named “Fool’s Parsley”, first produced in 1907. Even though it’s not really appropriate for my 1820s house, I love art nouveau and Arts and Crafts wallpapers in general, and Voysey’s designs in particular. The more I looked at the design, the more it reminded me of Sweet Cicely, one of my favorite plants in the garden, and so it was no surprise to learn that these two plants are in the same family. Though they have a very similar appearance, these herbs have very different natures: while Sweet Cicely “is so harmless you cannot use it amiss” according to the old herbalists, Fool’s Parsley is very, very poisonous. Beauty can be deceiving.
“Fool’s Parsley”, or Aethusa cynapium, in a 1907 wallpaper pattern by Charles Voysey, Victoria & Albert Museum, London and 1856 and 1542 herbals by Constantin von Ettingshausen and Leonhart Fuchs, respectively, Wellcome Library, London.
Fool’s Parsley is often called “Lesser Hemlock” in herbals from the Renaissance onwards, emphasizing its Socratic connection and toxic qualities rather than the evergreen tree. Along with Sweet Cicely, it belongs to the large Umbelliferae plant family, named for and distinguished by its lacy, umbrella-like flowers and including such beneficial vegetables and herbs as carrots, celery, dill, chervil, parsnips, and, of course, parsley. Besides the deprecating designation, there are many stories and anecdotes of poor fools who mistook the poisonous parsley for the passive one and ended up with severe nausea, headaches, and worse. But for CFA Voysey, this lethal plant was as beautiful as a rose, and by all accounts, his very best birds embellish the design.