“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 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.