Tag Archive | book review

Agatha Christie, Zombies, and Deadly Nightshade

“Belladonna is a poisonous plant with a long history of use by humans as a beauty aid, as a medicine and as a murder weapon.” So begins the second chapter (Chapter B) in the book A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup.

As gardeners, it’s fun when our passion for plants intersects with other areas of our daily life. In my case, that means books and reading. This particular little volume got my attention because, as an admirer of Dame Agatha Christie and her many novels, I’m always intrigued by the inspiration and ideas of great writers. The book contains a chapter on each of 14 poisons that are used extensively in the Agatha Christie novels — nine of which come directly from the garden. The other five are chemical compounds.

Each chapter describes the poison in question, how it’s obtained, the effects on the human body, and medical applications. There are also descriptions of real-life cases of murder using the poison and, of course, instances when the poison has been used in the Agatha Christie books. It’s particularly fascinating to read about people using many of these poisons as dietary supplements and for cosmetic purposes.

Belladonna

Belladonna

Belladonna is a member of the family Solanaceae, which also includes mandrake and datura. All of these plants are well-known in the world of witchcraft, but their gentle family members (potatoes and tomatoes) are more well-known to the rest of us. The mandrake may be the most famous of the evil side of the family, mentioned in the Bible and, more recently, in the Harry Potter books.

Datura’s poisons are found primarily in the flowers and seeds, and has a variety of common names like thorn apple (because of appearance of the fruit) and moonflower (because it’s flowers open at night). The datura strammonium, known as jimsonweed, was responsible for a mass poisoning of soldiers in Jamestown, Virginia. In Haiti, datura is known as the zombie cucumber, and the book takes some time to describe the two-step process in creating a zombie.

Some of the other plant-based poisons in the book:  hemlock, opium, digitalis, monkshood, and ricin. It’s a fun read and will give you a greater respect when handling those lovely plants you find in your garden and nature.

Jimson Weed flower

Jimson Weed flower

Jimson Weed seed pod

Jimson Weed seed pod

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“The Forgotten Garden” (book review)

imagesBook Review by Master Gardener Karen DesJarlais

It’s hammock season and this book will make you forget that you wanted to thin those perennials or move that shrub. If it’s horticultural enlightenment that you seek, this is not the book for you. It was published in 2008 so if you missed it, it’s worth going back to pick up. The story crosses three generations beginning with a four year old girl named Nell on a ship traveling from London to Brisbane, Australia. Curious thing is, she is alone. Near the very end we find out why. Over the time span of almost a century, we search for her roots along with her granddaughter Cassandra who travels to London to investigate the family tree. Growing metaphors aside, you’ll want to keep track of the year noted at the beginning of each chapter. Mystery abounds in many directions as we follow the back and forth of Nell. The unintended sting of finding out that she was left on the dock, brought home and raised by a kindly dock worker and his wife, her eccentricities, and the distance that she feels not knowing her origins weave a secretive and gripping tale. Cassandra learns more about the origins of her grandmother Nell after her death when she realizes that she has inherited Nell’s cottage in London. It takes a while for her to discover the garden. It is truly forgotten and the estate which housed it has plenty of its own secrets which are chilling and heartbreaking at the same time. Certainly our gardens have history, but hopefully none like this one. You’ll like the characters Morton has created, well most of them anyway. Sweetness, bitterness, selfishness and love make these 550 pages fly. Make sure your hammock cradles you for The Forgotten Garden.