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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 1st February 2013

February already. I’m not so rash as to think we have put the worst of the winter behind us but it is true that February brings clear signs that winter is slowly beginning to give way to spring. I’m hearing reports, from the south-west of England and even from the west coast of Scotland, of Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite), Galanthus nivalis (snowdrop) and Narcissus spp. (daffodil) all coming into flower, the last in only a very few locations it is true.

These reports have been enough to set me thinking about my own garden planting for this year. At this time, I should be starting to think about starting some seeds but, with no guarantee that this summer will be an improvement on the last few, I’m finding myself reluctant to put in the effort of tending seeds for the next three months in case, as last year, the plants I produce never mature once planted out in the garden.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

Hyoscyamus niger (black henbane)

There’s only really three plants that I want to have; Hyoscyamus niger (black henbane), Nicotiana sylvestris (tobacco) and Ricinus communis (castor oil plant). I still have seeds for all of them left over from last year so I could set to and prepare my seed trays.

Instead, I’ve decided to go for buying plants ready to plant out. It’s not as easy as going to the local garden centre and filling the trolley. Nicotiana sylvestris is usually quite easy to get in from late April but you have to take care to get the true variety and not one of the many that have been modified to be low growing or produce different coloured flowers.

Hyoscyamus niger is much more difficult. I know it is not readily available because, in 2008, I sent a few plants to a garden designer for a witchcraft garden at the Hampton Court Flower Show when she had left it late to grow her own from seed and could not find a source for young plants. But, starting from the Royal Horticultural Society plant finder pages,  I have found one supplier offering plants in one litre pots so I think I’ll be ordering some from there.

Ricinus communis (castor oil plant)

Ricinus communis (castor oil plant)

Ricinus communis may turn out to be the most difficult. In recent years, it does seem that fewer garden centres have stocked it. In 2005, during a weekend visit to friends in Surrey before flying on holiday from Gatwick Airport, we visited a garden centre which had a number of plants for sale. So many, in fact, that I decided to buy on our return rather than expect our friends to tend for them while we were away. Unfortunately, that was the holiday that ended with my wife in hospital so our return plans did not go smoothly.

Since then, I’ve never seen it on sale in any garden centre. I have succeeded with seeds a couple of times, or rather I should say partially succeeded because the plants never reached their full potential.

For the castor oil plant, the RHS finder led me to two nurseries that have it in their catalogues but show it as unavailable. That might just be the time of year so I’ll have to remember to look again in a month or so.

I have still got some Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut tree, seeds left from the last batch I bought and I think, in a true triumph of hope over experience, I will sow a few of those to see if my luck has finally changed.

Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut tree


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