Mattioli’s Dioscorides illustrated by Cibo (Discorsi by Mattioli and Cibo)

Cólquico (Colchicum autumnale), ff. 20v-21r

Meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale), ff. 20v-21r

The meadow saffron, which some call autumn crocus and others wild bulbs, bears its whitish flower, similar to that of saffron, at the end of autumn and after the flower its leaves, similar to those of the comestible bulbs but fatter. The stem grows a hand-span high and in it is grown a red seed; the root has an exterior skin of a reddish-black colour, but if peeled it is white, soft, sweet and full of sap. This bulbous root has a fissure in the middle from which the flower grows. The plant grows in great abundance in Messenia and Colchis. The root, if eaten, kills by choking, as mushrooms do. This is why we wanted to describe it, to warn those who, without much thought, might eat it, mistaking it for the comestible bulbs, given that its pleasant taste will incite many of the unknowing to feed upon it. As an antidote to this the same remedies are valuable as are given for poisonous mushrooms, that is, drinking cows’ milk; in which case, having this available, no other remedies are necessary. (f. 20v)

This plant grows in the meadows of northern Italy, France, Great Britain, northeastern Spain, and central and southern Europe. It is depicted first bearing fruit (f. 21r) and then in bloom (f. 22r). The bulb of this Liliaceae contains colchicine, an alkaloid that is good for gout, a common disease in ancient times when too much meat, particularly game, was eaten, causing an overproduction of uric acid which was not metabolized properly. It is also good for rheumatoid arthritis and herpes zoster and is anti-inflammatory. Diarrhoea is a possible side effect. Certain doses can be mortal and no more than 3 mg should be taken a day. Colchicine is used in laboratories as an antimitotic agent to inhibit cell division: when administered at the right time, it enables the form and quantity of chromosomes to be studied and observed. 

Ramón Morales Valverde
Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid
(Extract from the commentary volume of Mattioli's Dioscorides illustrated by Cibo)

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