One of the most unusual plant-based items that has come to my notice recently is this rather ‘quirky’ item that sheds a forensic botany light on an episode of ‘regicide à la française’ when King Louis XVI had an unfortunate appointment with Madame la Guillotine. Big issues of whether mere mortals have the right to execute divinely ordained monarchs and the politics of late 19th century Europe aside, what is the plant connection? It’s not the wood that may have been used to construct the fearsome ‘engine of despatch’ (a euphemism if ever there was…), the guillotine. That would be far too obvious for Monsieur P. Cuttings (although the role of plant products in execution and torture has been given a fascinating scholarly treatment by Simcha Lev-Yadun of the University of Haifa- Oranim, Israel, in his paper ‘The ancient and modern ecology of execution’). Rather, it concerns a gourd (the fruit of a member of the pumpkin family, the Cucurbitaceae) – which allegedly contained a handkerchief that had been stained with blood from the ill-fated monarch. (No, I don’t know why anybody might want to do this: chacun à son gout, I guess.) A fanciful tale certainly, but nevertheless one that we might like to believe. Sadly, when the DNA of the blood was subjected to various modern-day tests and analyses by Iñigo Olalde et al. this lovely story did not stand up – much like the late king himself after his sanguine appointment – to 21st century scrutiny. In a statement as beautifully crafted as the ‘pyrographically decorated’ gourd itself, the team conclude that, ‘although we cannot totally discard that the gourd’s sample belongs to Louis XVI on our genomic data alone, several lines of evidence, including the ancestry analysis and the functional interpretation of the genome fail to provide definitive support for the attribution of this specimen to the beheaded French king’. Le fin, enfin? (c’est la vie… or mort even…).
[This story is reminiscent of those concerning bottles of wine bought for vast sums of money in the belief that their contents are of immense value. In those cases (pun not intended, but duly noted…) the owners apparently never drink the contents for fear of discovering that the ‘wine’ is actually worthless. Seemingly for some things it’s simply best ‘not to know’; we seem prepared to accept that some cherished beliefs may not stand up to scrutiny so we choose not to scrutinise them. After all, if we studied everything we’d know everything. Sometimes it’s just nice to leave a few ‘mysteries’… – Ed.]