Bitter Gourd

(Colocynthus vulgaris) Colocynth means "bitter gourd" - it is exceedingly bitter (indeed it is "of an intolerable bitterness" (Pomet) ). The gall of the Bible often refers to this (Moldenke). In minimal doses it is a violent purgative; in larger doses it is lethal, which makes the practice of rubbing it on the nipples to wean a child surprising, to say the least (Van Andel). A piece of root set in a gold or silver case, was hung round a baby's neck as a teething amulet, a practice recommended by a Roman physician, Actius of Amida, in the 6th century AD. Wasson, in a footnote, says that colocynth was the base for "general issue" purgative pills in the British army in the first World War. Pomet mentions the practice of confectioners who "cover these Seeds with Sugar, and sell them to catch or delude Children with, and People of Quality upon extraordinary Occasions ."

It was known in Britain as early as the 11th century (Thompson. 1897), and was certainly known to Shakespeare - Iago, in Othello, says "the food that to him now is as luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquinrida". Topsell, writing in 1697, seemed to know about it, too - "it is said that he who will go safely through the mountains or places of [the hyena's] abode must carry in his hand a root of coloquintida".

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