by Linda S Lange
It all began innocently enough, I suppose.
I mean, it’s not as if I sat down with my garden journal one morning and said, “I believe I’ll plant a poison garden over there…with some foxglove, say, and a bit of aconite for that lovely blue color.” Truly, I don’t remember how it started. But Agatha Christie may be to blame. Miss Marple, probably.
I’ve been a mystery reader for as long as I’ve been a gardener: Nancy Drew under the Christmas tree and puddling in the tomato plants with my grandmother. The two just grew up together, mysteries and gardens—organically, as it were. But it wasn’t until I had my own garden in Denver that I began to notice that some of the poisons in those mystery stories—especially those with a gardening connection—came from plants that I was growing in my backyard! Innocently enough, I probably chose them for the lovely flowers, or perhaps because I subconsciously recognized the name from a story.
After awhile, however, it became more deliberate—choosing and cultivating those specimens that carried a sinister back story, and studying the properties of seed or leaf or root, often with my fellow Rocky Mountain Unit members. Reading Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles mysteries and, of course, Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants. More recently, with the HSA’s Herbal Fiction Book Clubs, Sarah Penner’s Lost Apothecary and A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup. It’s such a delight to learn that something I’ve been growing for years has a dark side!
Eventually, it became a point of mischievous pride. “Did you know those morning glories are poisonous?…Or those lovely lilies of the valley?” Amusing to watch the innocent garden visitor step back and look around carefully.
“Of course you want to wait until the elderberries (Sambucus) are fully ripe, and even then…Take care if you brush against the rue (Ruta graveolens), it’s sometimes an irritant. Rhubarb (Rheum) leaves, of course, but did you know about Caladium and elephant ear (Colocasia)?…The yew trees (Taxus spp.) are actually my neighbor’s.”
“Let me show you the fall crocus! No saffron from this one. Colchicum autumnale is a whole different family and very bad news in the kitchen!”
The thing is, so many of our common garden plants can be “irritating, obnoxious, or downright deadly,” to borrow a phrase from Amy Stewart. What’s been the most fun about deliberately cultivating known sources of poison is learning about them myself and sharing the message that our gardens are not always as innocent as we might think. Often it’s just a matter of the dose or preparation that differentiates a health benefit from something more deadly – like the heart medicine digitalis from foxglove or cancer treatment, Taxol, from the yew.
Sound plant identification is critical, of course. My initial source is usually Thomas J. Elpel’s Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification, An Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families of North America (2013). And it’s fair to say – again – that I’m a gardener. I’m growing these things for fun and not for use! I drink coffee from the supermarket, and rarely – if ever – tea from my garden.
Photo Credits: 1) Larkspur (Delphinium sp.) in the foreground as a stand-in for wolf’s bane (Aconitum sp.); 2) Datura sp. and Ipomoea sp.; 3) Black elderberry (Sambucus sp.), elephant ears (Colocasia sp.), and lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis); 4) Down the garden path; 5) Author with morning glories. All photos courtesy of the author.
Yes, Marlene, there are three herbal fiction book clubs! And a 4th, sponsored by the West District that focuses on non-fiction most of the time but also reads occasional fiction choices. Check the HSA website (members only section) for more info.
Enjoyed your article, Lin!
May I suggest the Alan Bradley mystery series about Flavia de Luce? Start with his first award winning novel “Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” from 2010. Art Tucker recommended this to me & I’ve enjoyed reading them all. Flavia is an 11 year old chemistry prodigy living in small village of 1950’s England whose special interest is . . . you guessed it – poisons.
Is there still a Poison Garden in Lansing, MI, as part of the college gardens there? It was not widely advertised, for some reason 🤔.
And Lima Beans? Cook veerry well or risk cyanide!
Flavia is another of my favorites. Why wasn’t chemistry this much fun in school?
A thought-provoking article. thanks!
I really enjoyed reading your article re toxin herb plants and their aftermath! Reminded me of a friend who tried to show off her beautiful blooming oleander – my reaction was less than enthusiastic 🤣!
I can’t grow oleander in Denver, or I’d include it. 😉 Another fine example of beauty’s dark side.
I loved this article! I happen to be reading The Lost Apothecary right now…it’s wonderful. I’ve read most of China Bayles’ mysteries and appreciate the other mentions in the article. Don’t forget Brother Cadfael’s mysteries! And my own book, though it doesn’t have too much of a dark side, Imagination Prymm of Ipswich: A Year and a Day, about a 70-year-old healer in 1678 Ipswich, Massachusetts…all kinds of plant “magick” and lore in there!
Thanks for the new book suggestion Nancy. I haven’t seen this one.
Is there really an Herbal Fiction Book club in the HSA? I would love to be in that!