WITH ALL this talk of peaches, figs, asparagus and so forth in recent columns, the gardener must not suppose (and especially the gardeners' kids must not) that nature is all nuts and berries for any noble savage to sample.
Many plants are poisonous, and children should be taught to assume that all are, unless it is known they are safe.
I have myself sampled mistletoe berries without ill effect, yet they contain toxic substances. I have also eaten peach pits, yet the prussic acid in them can be fatal, and indeed they were used as a form of torture in Egypt. Also the yew berries (which birds eat) did me no harm, though they, as well as yew foliage (which is most dangerous) can prove fatal. The mere fact that birds or goats or some other animal may eat a plant does not mean it is safe for humans.
It is well known that the beautiful oleander is virulantly poisonous.
Armies in ancient times are said to have been decimated by roasting meat on oleander spits, as well as from eating honey collected by bees from Rhododendron ponticum .
The oleander flower positively invites chewing, as the innocent honeysuckle does, and children must be warned specifically against eating flowers of any kind.
The lovely blue monkshood is fortunately rare in American gardens (Aconitum napellus and others) since few plants are more lethal when eaten.
Older people forget sometimes that children will eat virtually anything. Modern kindergartens and children's stories may convey, quite wrongly, that plants are our dear little friends as bunnies are.
There is no need whatever to fly into an alarmed fit. We teach children not to sample gasoline, lye, furniture polish, and the restorative elixir that Aunt Emma takes when she is not feeling herself.
It is merely necessary to add plants to the things not to be nibbled on.
The mere fact that sturdy tots, myself among them, have tried out mistletoe and yew without dropping dead, means merely that I was perhaps lucky or perhaps did not eat enough.
And yet plants like oleanders and aconites, even in small quantities, may prove fatal, so let us have no nonsense that because little Bobby reportedly ate thus and so without harm, it is safe for neighborhood kids to indulge freely.
It is said that water (even pure water) can kill children if several liters are drunk; it leaches out the body salts or something of the sort. All that is necessary, since the world is quite full of danger to exploring children, is to teach them not to explore hazardously, and this means not munching on twigs or berries or flowers they know nothing about.
One of the most charming accounts of poisonous plants I have seen -- and the best for ordinary gardeners with a taste for the macabre -- is a chapter in Brendan Lehane's, "The Power of Plants" (McGraw-Hill).
Possibly the most wonderful nugget there is the news for assertion -- for surely it is not true?) that the mortality rate of the men of India dropped wonderfully once the custom began of killing the wife at her husband's death.
The ghastly implication, which I for one do not accept, is that women kill their husbands off like flies, unless they know that when Old Tom goes, they go too.
But back to the garden. All fungi should be suspected of dire possibilities. One reads from time to time of "expert" gathers of mushrooms who collected one too many. My mother was a great collector of mushrooms and had an utterly absurd test for deciding which ones were poisonous. It was only the grace of God that kept her alive. If I go to a house where they serve some wonderful mushroom-delicacy collected by the host, I do not eat it.
Apart from fungi, of which I eat only the ones at the grocery store, and examine even them to make sure there is no oddball-looking one in the lot, there are plenty of poisonous garden plants.
The lily of the valley contains heart poisons more potent, sometimes, even than those of the foxglove. The bracken (and I am deeply suspicious of all other ferns, too) contain strong poisons in all parts, especially the thick roots.
Stomach pains, convulsions, death and so on result from eating yew, and the wilted foliage is particularly dangerous. Pasture animals from time to time are killed by eating it, though I think the main danger in gardens is that kids will be tempted by the exquisite soft fleshy gray-pink-scarlet berries.
The meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale and others) is one of the finest fall-blooming corms, like a giant crocus. From it is derived colchicine, which has uses in medicine, but if chewed on in the garden may bring death from lung failure preceeded by other dismal symptoms.
Columbines are supposed to be eaten by lions, who derive their courage thereby. I do not believe lions eat columbines. All parts of the plant are suspect, and children's deaths in remote places have been blamed on it. It seems one of the most demure and unoffending of flowers, but as you know in this world, you can't tell by looking.
The petals of the purple iris, treated with alum, made that exquisite green you see in illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, but eaten plain they are said to be poisonous. I have eaten some in my day, but would not do so now. I have also chewed dried iris roots (I have heard that in Italy these roots are given to teething children) but see no need for this to become prevalent practice.
The Carolina jasmine is one of my favorite plants, being intensely fragrant unlike the winyer jasmine which has no scent. The dangerous one is the Carolina native, Gelsemium sempervirens , and I have read that bees are poisoned by its honey. In any case its roots are even more dangerous. A drug used for migraine headaches comes from this plant, but children must not sample it, though often tempted probably, since it resembles a particularly large and fine yellow honeysuckle.
There are any number of plants that look rather like parsley, carrots or Queen Anne's lace, some of them extremely poisonous, others not. They should all be avoided in the wild.
The beautiful laburnum, that elegant small tree with flowers like yellow wisteria in spring, has resulted in a number of deaths to children.
The seeds are tempting. The one we grew in gardens is usually L. wateri (L. vessii is a synonym) which has few if any seeds and is therefore not so hazardous, but children must be warned against the plant in general. Like oven cleaner, it is fine if not swallowed.
The jimson weed (Datura stramonium ) smells bad enough in its leaves that few would be tempted to eat it, but its flowers like small trumpet lilies are showy and pretty, and its seed pods are handsome. It is highly poisonous and has produced deaths.
Nero, he of the unsavory musical reputation, is believed to have killed Brittanicus with a mixture of henbane, foxglove and nightshade. Hubanes (Hyoscyamus niger ) are said to grow in waste places, like the jimson weed, though I have never seen them there. They were great favorites with witches in former centuries. The late Margery Fish, a preeminent gardener of England, had the finest collection of henbanes in the kingdom. She had a fondness for plants overlooked by others but did not, of course, practice witchcraft. I have read elsewhere that henbanes are among the numerous plants producing hallucinations, if the dose is short of lethal.
Stick therefore to lettuce, turnips, onions, collards. Friends to man.