Garden Diary - September 2023

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Gardening Can Be Murder
by Marta McDowell
a book review
Friday, 22 September 2023

The other day I was visiting my friend Janet, she with the exemplary vegetable garden. We paused by her house to admire a flower.

"My neighbor is upset that I have it." Janet said. I nodded, and replied, "Datura."
"She keeps telling me it is poisonous," Janet continued, "but why would I eat it?"
And we continued our stroll down a gentle hill to her garden of culinary delights.

It's safe to ignore the ignorant who once claimed tomatoes must be poisonous because they are members of the deadly nightshade family (as are peppers and eggplants . . .) But everything in a vegetable garden may not be suitable for consumption. Potatoes that have been exposed to sunlight and turned green, also rhubarb leaves, are both hazardous to your health.Yes, gardening can be a problem.

Gardening can indeed be murder, but this is not the usual tribulations of weeds and weather.

cover illustration sourced from Biodiversity Heritage Library/ The instructive picture book by Charlotte M. Younge

The image on the cover is from The instructive picture book, or, Lessons for the vegetable world by Charlotte M. Younge, Plate XX Deadly nightshade. Black henbane, Hyoscyamus niger, fat hen, Chenopodium albus. A careless error a few years ago, one that could have had very unfortunate results, would certainly have earned celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson a failing grade at the Orto Botanico di Padua. He recommended henbane as a "tasty addition to salads" in the August 2008 issue of Healthy and Organic Living magazine, confusing this toxic member of the Solanaceae, [the same family as tomatoes and eggplants] with fat hen, Chenopodium albus, a member of the spinach family. Though he apologized, and the magazine sent subscribers an urgent message stating that henbane is a very toxic extremely dangerous plant, causing delirium and convulsions unless used with great care and should never be eaten. It is a case in point as to why careful research and study, and thorough plant knowledge of the plants and their uses is vitally important.

Marta McDowell's newest book entices the reader indoors turning page after page. An impeccable researcher, she has a selected a plethora of mysteries. Not simply poisoning with larkspur, green potatoes, or deadly mushrooms but where plants and gardens are part of the plot.

Books such as the historical herbalist gardener-sleuth, Brother Cadfael, a series by Ellis Peters. Or Rex Stout's orchid devotee, Nero Wolfe. Not to mention Susan Wittig Albert's "retired" lawyer heroine, China Bales. Then there are stand-alone books where, instead of guns or knives, killer plants such as castor bean or poison hemlock are lethal implements.

It would be easy to fill glossy pages like a nursery catalog, with colorful images of deadly plants. Instead there are some wonderful silhouette of roses on a trellis, orchids . . . and skulls. On other pages there a small pieces that remind me of the illustrated capitals on a medieval text. Also, some black and white photographs which look "soft" given the texture of the paper.

copyright Yolanda V. Fundora.

Any day spent in a garden is better than one spent elsewhere. Gardening is both my vocation and avocation.

Of course sometimes the weather is not condusive to such activity . . . or day becomes night. Time passes. I read. A book about plants and gardens. Or something lighter, a novel. If I find a novel that includes gardening, so much the better. A mystery where plants and gardens are entwined with the plot ticks all the bases.

Gardening Can Be Murder: How Poisonous Poppies, Sinister Shovels, and Grim Gardens Have Inspired Mystery Writers
by Marta McDowell, copyright 2023
illustrations copyright Yolanda V. Fundora
published by Timber Press, ISBN 978-1-64326-112-6

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