A couple of weeks ago I was taken to task for using a curse word in this column. The reader, who objected to the use of the word repeated in the headline above, felt that she needed to express her objections and for me to reconsider the use of such language for the sake of the children. I stopped her short as she rambled on and told her that I doubted children would be reading a column about gardening. She did inspire me, however, to think about curse words and the plants that sometimes go with them.
In the garden I tend to utter many curse words as I dig up weeds, discover broken sprinkler lines, or after cutting my hand on a wayward piece of glass in the dirt. This past weekend, with each curse word I uttered, I paused to reflect on the word and the nature of good versus evil.
While ruminating on the evil part after a particularly nasty curse word had been uttered, I was sorting through my packets of last year’s seed and came across a half-used pack of castor plant seeds. A castor plant is a beautiful, tall, large leafed plant that has a somewhat tropical look to it. It’s beans can also be made in to ricin, one of the most powerful poisons around and somewhat in the news lately having been mailed in envelopes to President Obama, a senator and a judge. I sincerely hope that the federal government does not ban the castor plant from the garden. The bean does have a useful purpose after all… they are used to make castor oil.
During an afternoon water break and catching up on an episode of Psyche, I was reminded that the beautiful flower foxglove has some not so pretty side effects if accidentally ingested. While most adults will avoid the flower, children or even some animals cannot resist putting a little in their mouths. While not generally fatal among adults it can be among children who accidentally drink the water from a vase containing foxgloves or even with the plant accidentally mistaken for comfrey and brewed into a tea. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, gastrointestinal distress and even hallucinations.
I look over at my tomato plants, those kings of the summer garden, and recall that any plant from the nightshade family (including potatoes) has toxic alkaloids in the leaves. Although the concentrations are low, there has been at least one death resulting from tomato leaf tea. And, if your dog likes to eat tomatoes, you best be careful, the plant and fruit can be toxic to dogs.
In fact, as I looked around the garden I couldn’t help but utter the Lord’s name in vain as I noticed how many toxic things there were that could not only seriously make me ill, but some kill me as well. I ran inside to my well-stocked library and found my well-worn copy of a great reference book, Wicked Plants.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to interview the author, Amy Stewart. The book, a highly recommended read, is about garden plants that have a darker side and list many plants that poison, kill and maim. Damn, that book is good.