Bad-Natured Botany

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Poisonous plants have long played the villain in both fiction and non-fiction over the centuries. Perhaps you’ve read about Socrates being forced to drink poison hemlock while his acolytes watched. There’s also that most badass of botanists, Locusta, who became such a well-known expert in her field that the Romans essentially had her on speed dial to off one another when reasonable discourse failed them, which happened frequently. She was prolific in knowledge and talent, utilizing such classics as nightshade and arsenic, and, when it came time to take out that most Noblest of Romans, Augustus, she added mushrooms—the Deathcap variety.

Agatha Christie is perhaps fiction’s most profuse poisoner, utilizing digitalis (Appointment with Death), opium (Sad Cypress), monkshood (4.50 to Paddington) and hemlock (Five Little Pigs) and many others. One might wonder why so many of her books revolve around poison. She developed an interest while working in a medical dispensary and sealed her fate once she took her exam for the Society of Apothecaries. She often spoke of her admiration of poisons as the ideal murder weapon because of the many ways they can be delivered to the intended victim and the amount of time certain poisons take to manifest in murder. Guns shoot, ropes strangle, but poisons, ah poisons. They stalk, pounce, and paralyze in ways that guarantee surprising and unnerving story lines for readers.

Here in the twenty-first century the happenstance of hemlock or opium is too out of place for reasonable minds to accept as a likely murder weapon. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t dozens of other potential perps lurking around your back door or local Lowe’s. I have a dedicated area in the backyard that’s my poison garden, which includes several plants that were already growing here when I moved in. The aforementioned monkshood and digitalis (foxglove) are present, as are hellebore (Lenten rose) and yew. I’ve added castor bean, poppies, larkspur, and Angel’s Trumpet.

Angel’s Trumpet, also known as Brugmansia, is my favorite and it has a lead role in my manuscript The Poison Season. It’s a member of the nightshade family which also includes jimson weed, bindweed and moonflower. In the summer evenings I can sit and watch the blooms of my peach and cream plants spiral open. The scent is, quite literally, swoon-worthy. While researching the flower for my story I spent a little too long sniffing blooms and became a bit nauseated. It passed after a few minutes, and I’ve learned to be more cautious when I’m hanging out with these clever killers.

Another favorite, Moonflower, is a close relative of Angel’s Trumpet. Whereas the Angel’s Trumpet blooms hang down and sway like the skirt of a southern belle, the moonflower faces upward, a beacon for evening moths to come and get their pollen on. Moonflowers open rather quickly, in about seven minutes, right at dusk. It’s a lovely show and guaranteed to provide great photo opportunities.

As a writer I am, by definition, curious. I could spend all of my time researching poisonous plants and like the rest of you authorial assassins, my browser history is ridiculously suspicious. By having a poison garden in my back yard, I can tear myself away from the computer, go outside for a breath of fresh air (not too close to the Angel’s Trumpet), and still be researching my work. I highly recommend investing in a few felonious flowers for your research and relaxation. Plus, a garden gives you a good place to dump the bodies.

If you’re into Mother Nature’s murder mob, check out these sources for more information:

Amy Stewart’s fantastic book WICKED PLANTS.

Kathryn Harkup’s book on Agatha Christie’s poison A IS FOR ARSENIC.

The Potent Plants garden at Torre Abbey.

The Alnwick Poison Garden.

Holly A. Chaille is an advanced master gardener and writer plotting gardens and murders in northern Indiana. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime and knows more ways to use poisonous plants than her husband would like. Chaille is querying her first novel, The Poison Season, a suspense about sisters, the thin tendril between love and betrayal, and of course, poisonous plants.