Hallucinogenic Plant or Exploding Cucumber?

Over the past few weeks or so, there has been some fascinating discussion about Botticelli’s Mars and Venus (c. 1485).  I’ve tweeted about this a bit, but I wanted to write out some of the details about this discussion.

About two weeks ago, a Times article publicized a new argument that the plant located in the lower right-hand corner of Botticelli’s painting (underneath the hand of the satyr) could be datura stramonium, a plant which is known for its hallucinogenic properties.  In essence, this article suggested that Mars is swooning due to effects from this drug plant.

This news was picked up in several places in the art history community of blogs, including the Art History Newsletter (see here) and Three Pipe Problem (see original post here).  I’d encourage you to read the comments for both of these posts, so you can follow the different arguments and ideas that were presented to critique this argument for the hallucinogenic plant.  Hasan Niyazi from Three Pipe Problem researched the history of datura stramonium even further, and came to the conclusion that the plant depicted is actually quite different (see his fascinating findings here).  Instead of datura stramonium, Niyazi finds it more likely (and I agree) that the plant depicted is ecballium elaterium, commonly known as the “exploding cucumber” plant. For one thing, the plant depicted simply looks a lot more like an “exploding cucumber” than datura stramonium.  I also think the phallic shape and properties of this plant are unmistakable, which makes this plant a more appropriate fit for the Mars and Venus theme of love.

Congratulations to Niyazi on some great research!  This is a very convincing argument, especially since Niyazi can assert that the “exploding cucumber” would have been commonly found in Europe during Botticelli’s day (which cannot be confirmed for the datura stramonium).

Although it can be disappointing to realize that the painting may not contain a reference to drugs or hallucinogenics, I think it’s quite fun to know that an “exploding cucumber” could be located on the canvas instead.

  • H Niyazi says:

    cheers Monica! It has been a fun few weeks indeed. I simply loved peeling away the layers of misconception to get at the truth. To have the assistance of the Botanical community was also invaluable. Cheers to all involved, including yourself for the initial prompting that made me dig deeper 🙂


  • Rebekah says:

    Ha! Mainly I'm intrigued how Darth Vader made it into the painting.

    Won't it be sad when all the cucumbers and detritus of these ancient works have been picked to virtual pieces and there isn't a SPECK left?

  • Hazar says:

    Actually the answer is "both".
    I'm from Turkey and it's full of ecballium elaterium here. And guess what; If you boil the leaves of it and drink the water afterwards, you will see that ecballium elaterium is also hallucinogenic 😉

  • M says:

    Thanks for that comment, Hazar! I wasn't aware that any hallucinogenic effects were associated with ecballium elaterium. Perhaps those hallucinogenic effects could support some of David Bellingham's analysis (mentioned in the "Times" article) within this painting (i.e. Mars' swoon), couldn't it? How interesting!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.