The Poison Garden


Local Farms

Late last summer, I took a little afternoon trip with a couple of girlfriends.  We drove west to Caledonia, Illinois to visit a place called Wind Ridge Herb Farm.  Wind Ridge is a lovely place.  They grow organic herbs and make their own fine products, and serve organic lunches and dinners prepared from local foods.  (You can find the link in the URL list on this page.)  Anyway I chatted with Liz, one of the farm’s owners as I perused the products in the Herb Shop.  Liz happened to mention her poison garden.  That’s right… POISON GARDEN.  The little blond hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I got excited!  Now I am not a killer, or even a poisoner.  I don’t like death and I am not attracted to the macabre.  I carry bugs outside and set them free.  I just liked the idea that someone thought to plant a death garden.  Someone took the time to think about poisonous plants, research properties and toxins, plan the garden, buy the seeds, organize the seedlings attractively and make it happen.  I have thought about the Poison Garden ever since.  It made me think I should have one of my own.  What a great conversation piece, right?

GUEST:  What a pretty purple and yellow flower bed you have along the front walk.

ME:  Why thank you.  I also have a poison garden.  Would you like to see it?

GUEST:  A poison garden?  Really?

ME:  Yes, one never knows when one will need to induce delirium or treat genital warts.  Can I get you a glass of tea?

Imagine the thoughts crashing through said guest’s head after that little exchange!  Fabulous!  I began doing a little unofficial research on plants toxic to humans.  I used Wikipedia, the brains of my fellow gardeners, the CDC website, and Cornell University’s website.  Who knew?  The world of academia has loads of research dedicated to this subject.  Even better, it turns out I already have a poison garden of my own!!  I had no idea!  This got me thinking about the fun I could have if I organized it well and showed it off.  This is just a matter of rearranging my spread out garden of horrors into labeled plots.  I think sections divided by decorative cord would be cute.  Each section could have a garden tag with the plant name and its potential purpose.  That being said, this was not formal research, so PLEASE do not test any of the theories below.  Assume all of these plants will kill you and treat them with great respect.

For example, say your ex-husband were to remarry himself to a leggy 19 year old with waist length tresses, and parade the filly in your social circle…  This would call for Lily of the Valley!  Lily of the Valley (Convallaria Majalas) has Cardiac Glycocides and Saponins that offer up an impressive list of symptoms including, but not limited to blurred vision, excessive urination during the night, seeing halos around objects, stomach pain, irregular heartbeat, hives, and disorientation.  Is that perfect or what?  Go on, smile and make the man a glass of tea!  Bless his heart.

Take your scary, political conservatives.  How about a cool little cocktail made from Bleeding Hearts?  Ha! Ha!  What better way to slow their progress and soak them in irony at the same time?  Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra) are apparently chock full of Isoquinoline Alkaloids, which cause nausea, vomiting, and nervousness.  We don’t want them dead, just distracted and too sick to go politicking before the next election.

Then you have the really, really, bad poison plants like Castor Bean (Ricinus Communis).  The Castor Bean seed contains ricin and is the most poisonous plant on earth!  Four to eight seeds consumed by an adult can result in death in 3 to 5 days left untreated.  Symptoms begin with a burning sensation in the mouth and throat within a few hours and progress to vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and finally death from respiratory distress and dehydration.  Cooking the bean renders it harmless – that’s how the kids growing up during World War II survived daily doses of Castor Oil that were to make them “regular.”  But the dust and mash left after processing is highly toxic and can kill you if you inhale or ingest it.  I read on the CDC website that some terrorists in Iraq used ricins from the Castor Bean plant to commit mass murders in 2007.  I say we reserve this special snack for serial killers and terrorists and make their last meal a bowl of raw castor beans.  Are you with me?

Did you know that White Snakeroot (Eupatorium Rugosum) killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks?  The European settlers to the Midwest were not familiar with the plant and allowed cattle to graze in fields where it grew.  The toxin Trematone (or Tremetol) contaminated milk and meat, which was then ingested by folks who contracted “milk sickness” and died.  Many decades passed before the connection was made between Snakeroot and bad beef.  I have White Snakeroot and Black Snakeroot in my garden now.  I guess it’s good you don’t raise cattle on a mental farm.

Some plants are part toxic, part good… like May Apple, Iris, Foxglove and Belladonna.  May Apple (Podophyllum Peltatum) is one of my favorite wild flowers.  It colonizes in a neat circle, and under each waxy, green, deeply lobed umbrella is a white flower that eventually becomes a sour apple-like fruit.  I know I heard of May Apple jelly during childhood.  What I read recently said the rhizhome, foliage, and roots are all poisonous.  I guess the upside is that it can be used as a tasty jelly OR a topical treatment for gential warts.  (I probably won’t put that on my garden tag even though it will be in my Poison Garden.)  And the Iris!  The Iris (Orris) rhizome will cause nausea, vomiting, and skin irritations, but the same plant bloom is used to create that pretty blue color in Bombay Sapphire Gin!  Turns out when I sit on the deck after a day of yardwork, I am drinking the very plant that has me itching!  I confess, it is worth the trade off on a hot summer evening.  The leaves, flowers, and seeds of the stately Foxglove are highly toxic, but (Digitalis Purpurea) in the right dose can improve a patient’s heartbeat as a result of the Cardiac Glycocides that induce muscle contractions.  Belladonna, of the Nightshade family (Atropa Bellodonna) is used in tiny doses to dilate the pupil during eye examinations and can be used to raise the heart rate.  In larger doses the victim will become delirius and lose the ability to sweat or urinate.   Sounds like the perfect cure for a Gym-Rat Stalker!

Celandine Poppy(Chelidonium Majus) has no redeeming feature other than the beauty of its lemony buttercup flowers.  It is poison and causes contact dermatitis, eye irritation, nausea and vomiting.  Another reason I itch like crazy after yard work.  I have this stuff growing all over the place.  Monk’s Hood, too.  Handling the Monk’s Hood plant allows toxins to be absorbed through mucus membranes and skin, causing irritation and nausea.  Ingesting the plant results in respiratory paralysis and cardiac arrest.  In times of old, Monk’s Hood (also called Wolfbane) was considered the ultimate poison, as it was untraceable in the bloodstream.  More than one Roman politician expired thanks to a dose of the poison Aconitine in wine.  It was also used to poison wolves by feeding them tainted meat, so was the bane of the wolf.  I am glad I never thought to taste a leaf myself.

Delphinium, lobelia, yew, the list goes on and on.  Why anyone can have their own Poison Garden with a little effort.  This Mental Farmer thanks Liz and the plant world for a winter’s worth of reading, research, and folly.  Drop in for a refreshing glass of tea this summer, won’t you?  I’ll be in the Garden.

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10 Comments on “The Poison Garden”

  1. Jennifer Richardson Says:

    ….maybe I should advertise
    these along with the gift gardens,
    cause a delicious stir.
    This is funny….I love your writing.



  2. Marcia Ogden Says:

    I didn’t realize how poisonous my garden is:
    Lily of the Valley (Convallaria Majalas) – I’ve got it.
    Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra) – Got it.
    Digitalis Purpurea – Got it.
    Iris – have a lot of these.
    Monks Hood (Aconitum) – these love the shade in my yard.
    Shall I make some tea?



    • mentalfarmer Says:

      Marsha I didn’t realize all those plants were so toxic either. It cracked me up to learn all of this… We’ll have to practice our “teas” this summer. But not on Laura!



  3. Laura M Says:

    Okay, I think you love me, but just in case, when I come to your house (and Marcia’s House) I will stick to vodka! That was a fun outing last year! By the way – I BOUGHT A CASTER BEAN PLANT there because it has BIG BEAUTIFUL LEAVES, but I won’t be using it in any of my recipes!



  4. Mental Farmer Says:

    Thanks, Jennifer! LP and MO, we all have poison gardens! Danger lurks all around us!



  5. EC Says:

    If you do plant a poison garden, be careful for your kitties, and/or other peoples’ pets or wildlife that may think you have planted some new snacks for them.



    • mentalfarmer Says:

      I thought about that! In my research I found that some plants toxic to a human won’t affect a dog but will make a horse quite ill. Some won’t affect a cat but would hurt a dog, and so on. Some plants are toxic, but a creature would have to eat so much, poisoning is unlikely. I did begin to realize how much work it would take to plant the completely non-toxic garden! The food news is that plant poisonings are pretty rare, mostly because animals seem to know what to stay away from. Unless you’re talking grazing animals like horses and cattle. They eat what’s in their pasture. That’s probably more response than you were looking for!



  6. Belle Says:

    Hmmm — I guess we can rename you Rappaccini’s Daughter



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