Some years ago my husband and I traveled with friends to Montreal, Quebec to enjoy the annual jazz festival. On a side trip one day we headed to the Montreal Botanic Garden — definitely a place for any gardening enthusiast to visit — and found myself at one point in the Toxic Plants Garden.
Much to my surprise I realized that a plant growing next to our deck was probably hemlock. That was an eye opener for me. I knew not to taste the castor beans off the plants my mother grew, I knew that Lily of the Valley was poisonous and even though I love the look of Monkshood (aconite) I don’t grow it because I’m really cautious about plants that you have to handle carefully and that can paralyze your nerves and stop your heart.
Depending on the toxic plant you find, you can poison yourself by skin contact, inhaling the pollen or by eating the plants, which is the most common reason I’ve heard for death by hemlock. Interestingly, poison hemlock is in the plant family that includes dill, celery, fennel, parsley and anise.
It’s been a number of years since that visit in Montreal and I don’t remember all the toxic plants on display there but I did find a reference book once we returned home. This book, entitled Wicked Plants - The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities contains information on a wide variety of plants — some I knew could be poisonous like castor bean and deadly nightshade and some I was less familiar with like white snakeroot (spoiler, this is the plant that killed Lincoln’s mother.)
What I like about this book is that some chapters focus on a specific plant. Other chapters give you a lesson in several plants, their dangers and their limitations. For example; one chapter called the Forbidden Garden talks about plants that can be dangerous yet are easily found at most nurseries. Who would have thought that such beloved shrubs as azaleas and rhododendrons and hydrangeas could have some level of toxicity?
Also in this chapter is a bit on foxglove, which is a spectacular plant to be sure. Foxglove in earlier times was used in a tea that was given to treat heart disease or “dropsy.” Today we know that foxglove does produce a cardiac glycoside that is used to prepare digitalis, but since it is a skin irritant and can cause all kinds of physical problems it’s probably best to enjoy the flower (carefully) and if you need heart medicine get it at the drug store.
Not only do I recommend this book for anyone who spends a fair amount of time outdoors, but I also recommend a trip to the Montreal Botanic Garden. It’s 75 Hectares (185.3 acres) of gardening delights. A quick check of their website today and I learned that they’re planning The Great Gardening Weekend on May 24-26. I can’t make it but maybe some of you can. It’s a spectacular place for a gardener to visit and this event promises a focus on heirloom plants.
Closer to home, if you want to stay safe in the garden I encourage you to check out Amy Stewart’s book. The author, while not a botanist, is very knowledgeable and does her research. She also tends her her own poison garden in Northern California.
While you might not be planning a trip to one of the exotic locations where some poisonous plants are found, this brings it home that without careful labeling we often don’t realize that a plant we purchased in the local nursery can make us seriously ill or kill us. Check below for the Buy Now on Amazon button to purchase a copy of the book.
Photo Note: To me hemlock looks much like Queen Anne’s Lace.
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