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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 18th June 2011

“The first thing to learn is that plants WANT to grow. All a gardener has to do is not put obstacles in their way.” Those were the opening remarks of the tutor on the one-day gardening course my wife and I attended shortly after moving to Scotland, ten years ago.

At the time, that seemed like a revelation. Gardening wasn’t about learning lots of stuff to do to get plants to grow; it was just a matter of learning a few things about what stops plants growing so you don’t create those obstacles.

If only it were that simple.

The problem with not putting obstacles in the way of plants that want to grow comes if you don’t know what those obstacles are. If a plant in the garden isn’t growing large and lush then something is stopping it but how do you work out what that something is?

I never was a gardener and, I suspect, it’s too late for me to become one now but, ten years ago, I thought I should give it a try. I wasn’t brought up to have any particular interest in gardening. My father worked for a Sunday newspaper so he worked long and late on a Saturday then had Monday & Tuesday off. Sundays, as I recall, were taken at a leisurely pace after dad’s 12 hour Saturday and most of the gardening was done on Mondays and Tuesdays i.e. when I was at school.

When we first got married we went to live in Zambia and had, for the first three years, a fairly bare patch of ground around the house tended by a young boy who did little more than keep it swept. Then we moved into a house with a mature garden and a pool so I could leave the garden to take care of itself and concentrate on enjoying having a swimming pool.

Fritillaria imperialis, crown imperial

Returning from Zambia we moved into a flat with no garden, before moving to a semi-detached with a very small garden. By that time, I was busy enough, and earning enough, to need, and be able to afford, to have someone come in once a week to deal with everything to do with the garden. My wife took more of an interest but, as her health grew worse, that interest was more reading about gardening than actively doing anything. By the time the 21st century started and we began to plan another move our standing joke was that, if I had to do something related to plants, my wife would have to describe the plant concerned as either like a daffodil or like a pansy since those were the only two plants I could reliably identify.

So, when, in 2001, we ‘retired’ to a large detached house with plenty of garden all round it became necessary for me to do quite a bit of catching up. That’s why we booked onto the adult education one day gardening course. It was described as ‘gardening for beginners’ and it did provide a very useful starting point. Then, as a way of learning about how to garden in this part of the UK, we started visiting The Alnwick Garden and that led to my interest in poisonous plants and, so, here we are. Except that, not one of the many thousands of hours I’ve spent studying poisonous plants has made any difference to my practical gardening skills. I’ve already written (4th June) about my failure to keep two Strychnos nux vomica seedlings alive and now my Aconitum napellus, monkshood, is dying.

Fritillaria imperialis, crown imperial

Actually, it is not the first of my perennials to die and it’s not the first year it has happened. It started with the Fritillaria imperialis, crown imperial. Three years ago, I planted two of these and they came up and flowered. The Fritillaria genus is one of those where, although it is theoretically toxic, you are hard pressed to find any actual stories of harm. It is not on the HTA list of potentially harmful plants and doesn’t get a mention in the ‘International Poisonous Plants Checklist’, the reference book giving details of just about every scientific paper ever written about plant poisonings.

I still feature it for two reasons; it is a stunningly beautiful flower that, because it points downwards, hides it beauty from us and it has some interesting folklore attached to it.

The downward pointing flowers are supposed to be the result of the plant witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and being so ashamed and grief-stricken that it hung its head in sorrow and has never lifted it since. I like that story because, for me, it indicates that the human race has always sought of make sense of the world around us and, also, that, in the same way we now see the theory of the Fritillaria as nonsense, our descendants will almost certainly see some of our current theories of how the universe works as equally nonsensical. But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to understand and improve our theories as we go.

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

Anyway, in 2009, both plants grew and flowered and, with the help of the timed exposure on the camera, I was able to get photos of them. Then, in 2010, both plants grew well and were about to start forming flower buds when the foliage died off from the bottom up. I decided to see if that were a one-off and left them for this year. There was a complication, in 2011, which was that I placed a bird-feeding station too close to the plants and one of them got stomped to death by the larger birds who rely on eating seeds dropped from the feeders by the smaller ones. Though unfortunate for the plant, it did enable me to get some interesting video of how persistent a hedgehog can be in pursuit of food. You can view it on YouTube if you like.

The second plant came up really well but then, as before, just as the buds started to form it died off. I’m going to have to dig up the bulbs and move them somewhere else and not just to get them away from the birds.

So, back to the Aconitum napellus, monkshood. This is slightly different because I’ve got three plants that did very well in 2009 but I decided they were too crowded together so I moved them apart that autumn. In 2010, they came up and, just like the crown imperial, died from the bottom up just as the flower buds were forming. And this year, they are doing the same again.

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

What confuses a simple non-gardener like me is that further along in the same bed I have a white-flowering variety of monkshood that is perfectly healthy and happy and flowers reliably every year. So, my challenge is to try and work out what obstacle I am creating within the close proximity of the blue monkshood. It’s particularly galling because the blue flowers are a very strong attraction for bees and, as well as liking to provide flowers for all the insects that feed on them and pollinate them as they feed, my new digital camera has a gizmo for taking slow motion video and I wanted to try and see if I could get video to match the still pictures I’ve taken in the past.

There is a place near here where Aconitum napellus grows in the roadside verge so I can always go there and see if the bees are paying it close attention. I’m sure they will be on a warm sunny day. All that means is waiting for a warm sunny day. Perhaps I can read ‘Teach Yourself Gardening’ while I wait.