When we bought our first house, several years ago, we bought mostly a garden. The house was cute but small, the garden was huge and impressive. We’d never owned a garden before, but husband and I fell in love with the magnolia just as much as with the turquoise 1950’s tiles in the bathroom.
At the time, the house was approximately forty years old, and all those years our house had spent with its first owners. It was a kind house, a warm house. The kind of house where you don’t need to bake cinnamon buns to make it feel like home, the house does that perfectly well on its own. My theory is that the house was a nice house because the people who built it and lived in it for the first four decades were nice people. (How else describe people who left us a pantry full of preserves – and a mangle!)
These very nice people were like most people were in the 1940’s – hard working. Not so much around of that these days. These days, people feel themselves entitled to a lot of stuff without quite seeing the correlation between hard work and getting it. Dangerous development, IMO, but not at all the subject for this post.
Anyway, in the 1940’s, stuff was pretty much preordained. He worked, she stayed at home, took care of the kids and tried to earn a bit on the side by doing laundry (hence the mangle, one suspects). In this case, the man in the house was a gardener. Which is why, of course, the garden we bought some decades back was an absolutely marvellous place.
Mr Gardener – whom we never met, he had predeceased his sweet wife – was not a man to stint himself when it came to plants. Our garden had cherry trees and plum trees, and pear trees, and apple trees, and roses and flowering shrubs, and a magnolia, a beautiful chestnut. It had tulips and snowdrops, there were anemones and rambling roses that clambered up the lilacs to take over the flowering once the lilacs were done. There were raspberry canes, and peonies and hollyhocks and currant bushes. A little slice of horticultural paradise, in many ways.
In one corner, Mr Gardener had concentrated his deadly beauties. A laburnum tree. A huge stand of monk’s hood. Foxgloves. A tangle of datura stramomium (“can’t get rid of it”, Mrs Seller muttered). And, in pride of place, a deadly nightshade shrub. Our own little poison factory, neatly separated from the rest of the garden by a narrow stone path. Not the best of combo’s with a growing family, even if at the time the family was restricted to the soon-to-come baby. (Surprisingly, there was no hemlock. Maybe Mr Gardener found hemlock to be a far too common plant to make it to his selected few)
Plant poison has been used to kill people for thousands of years. Socrates overdosed on hemlock – not voluntarily, but still. Hemlock also killed Hamlet’s father. Emperor Augustus’ wife, Livia, had fondness for the deadly nightshade. Not as a decorative element in her garden, but rather as a most effective way of getting rid of her enemies – such as her dear husband. (Not a woman to rile, our Livia) Both datura and foxgloves have medicinal uses – but the difference between a potion to help you or a poison to kill you is very small. (“Oops,” said the healer, looking down at the twitching man, “I really do need to review my weight calculations.”)
There’s this idea about poison being a woman’s weapon. Tell that to Macbeth, who supposedly poisoned Harold Harefoot’s entire army by spiking their liquor with deadly nightshade. Okay, so the Danes had no business attempting to invade Scotland, but still… And then there’s poor Mark Anthony – or rather his troops – that also seem to have ingested deadly nightshade.
The thing with poisonous plants is that very often they look very nice.
“Come hither,” they whisper, “come hither and taste me, come taste me and DIE.” Laburnum trees drip with yellow blossom, and then come the pods, perfect ingredients when the kids are playing at cooking in the garden. Err… no! The datura sports spiky clubs that just beg to be picked by. And deadly nightshade comes with berries that look perfectly edible. Well, they are of course – it’s just that they will kill you once you’ve swallowed them.
In our case, we had no choice. The foxgloves, the monk’s hood, the deadly nightshade and the tree – all of them went. The Jimson weed took us some years of constant battling before it gave up and crawled away to germinate elsewhere. Not that our kids ever ate much of the foliage – well, with the exception of eldest son, who one day ate his way through every single tulip I had – but just the thought that they’d mistakenly pop something poisonous in their mouth was sufficient to have us de-poisoning the whole garden. For some years. These days, I have plenty of monk’s hood, and there are stands of foxgloves and a pretty little laburnum tree. But I’ve decided never to grow deadly nightshade, because as Nicholas Culpeper put it already back in the 17th century, “this plant should not be suffered to grow in any places where children have been killed by eating the berries.” Umm… seems to me it’s best not to plant them BEFORE that happens.