Death in the Garden – Book Review

Poisonous Plants & Their Use Throughout History

Michael Brown

Pen and Sword Books. Paperback £16.99

ISBN 1526708388

I once turned up at a client’s garden to find foxgloves growing amongst the cut-and- come-again lettuce. Horrified, I carefully weeded them out, but decided I couldn’t be sure I’d found them all. The whole plot had to be dug up and replanted. Growing flowers in the veg plot has become fashionable. But mixing flowers with salads and veg can be deadly. We know foxgloves or digitalis has links with modern medicine to treat heart disorders. All parts of the plant are, however, highly poisonous. Michael Brown, in his book Death in the Garden, says on a toxicity scale of 1 to 20, with 1 being the most lethal, foxgloves are at number 3. The difference between a beneficial and lethal dose being minute.

Foxgloves are just one of the plants listed in Brown’s fascinating book. I’ve grown up knowing about the dangers of deadly and woody nightshade, and giant hogweed. But who knew that aquilegia could be poisonous.

Brown describes how powdered aquilegia seeds were used historically as medicine for jaundice and liver problems right up until the early nineteenth century. The plant, apparently high in vitamin C, was also rather dubiously used to treat scurvy. Luckily, modern medicine has moved on and the plant has reverted back to being used just to decorate our gardens.

Other plants I’ll look at in a different light in future include autumn crocus, bindweed, broom, cherry laurel, daffodils, morning glory and celandine, to name but a few.

And as for basil, I’ll not be able to eat it again without thinking of Brown’s rather bizarre and gory murder story involving a severed head and a pot of herbs! His book is a mixture of fact and fiction – all revolving around plants and poisons. Highly entertaining as well as informative. But you might not be able to sleep at night after reading it.

The book cover says :” Mankind has always had a morbid fascination with poisonous plants; how their poisonous properties were discovered and developed will most likely be left unknown. Over the centuries poisonous plants have been used to remove garden pests, unwanted rivals, and deceitful partners. They have also been used for their medicinal qualities, as rather dangerous cosmetics, even to help seduce a lover, when perceived as an aphrodisiac.

“Death in the Garden is based on Michael Brown’s most popular talk, popular as this subject holds a strange interest, for many will enjoy learning about these treacherous and peculiar plants, their defensive and deadly traits as well as the folklore that has grown around them. ”

Michael Brown has been a head gardener, a college lecturer and designed the medieval gardens at Prebendal Manor, Nassington. He now gives talks and demonstrations on historical gardening .

The publishers have one copy to give away. Please leave a comment below to be included. Comments without wishing to be in the draw are also fine.

Please do not try any of the “recipes” or remedies mentioned in the book.

DISCLAIMER: All the plants mentioned in this blog piece and the above book can cause death or injury. The contents of the review and book are for interest only and the author and publisher accept no liability for any injury caused by the use of the plants.

Links : kindle https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Death-in-the-Garden-Kindle/p/14944

Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/Death-Garden-Poisonous-Throughout-History/dp/1526708388

33 thoughts on “Death in the Garden – Book Review

    • I’d love to visit the poison garden. Alnwick is on my must-visit list with my Mum. Thanks for reading the blog. There’s a james Wong cookbook next up for review on here. All the best. Karen

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  1. Wow, Aquilegia poisonous?! Another thing learned today. Very lovely post. The title of the book was a bit scary for me, haha. Thank you for sharing!

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    • Thank you Jon. It’s a fascinating book because you think you know all about poisonous plants. I’ve got complacent. I’ve got wild garlic growing near my winter flowering crocus. The leaves are virtually the same, with deadly consequences if I get them mixed up. I’ve spent the last two days digging out foxgloves from the veg garden- just in case my children mistake them for salad leaves. I know the difference, but maybe they don’t and having them on the veg plot makes people less cautious. They had self seeded and I thought they might look pretty. Now moved to the woodland. Other plants I won’t grow there again include narcissi which I have in rows. Very easy to mix them up with shallots. I’ve marked out which beds will have flowers and which will have veg and I’ll be more careful in future.

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  2. Karen, thank you very much for telling us about this book. I did not know that the Aquilegia were poisonous and I have three! I do not grow or buy plants that I know are poisonous. But with the amount of wild plants that grow, surely there are some poisonous! Because in reality until 15 years ago I did not have a country house and I did not know anything about gardens except the terrace of my house in Madrid that was always full of flowers all year round. Then I do not know poisonous weeds. When I went to buy four books that came to me more than the knee of the amount of pages they had to read while fixing the country house, were of green gardens, plants, garden design … but none of poisonous plants. Karen I loved your blog about the book. And he has alerted me to what is in the garden. Thank you very much for the links, they are magnificent. Karen love, health, strength and happiness for your whole family and for you. Take care and rest. Be careful with poisonous plants! Loving greetings from Margarita.

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    • Thank you Margarita. Today I dug up my aquilegia and foxgloves from the veg garden. They can go in the woodland. I’m being super careful now what I mix in with my vegetables. Loving greetings, karen xx

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  3. It sounds like an interesting book. It is amazing how many of the plants we grow are poisonous. Fortunately we don’t usually eat our flowers unless they are ones that go well in a salad. The plants that I don’t feel comfortable touching are aconite and ricinus. Oh and euphorbia can be nasty.

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    • I thought I knew all the poisonous ones. To be honest, this has been a good reminder for me to take care what and where I’m growing plants. I’m throwing out the monks hood, and I decided last year not to grow caster oil plan again. I’ve gone right off the idea of foraging.

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    • Hi there. Well, neither did I. It isn’t unless you accidentally eat the seeds. They ping all over the place in my garden. Just make sure they don’t ping into the salad leaves! I’m still avidly reading it, and making notes to separate my veg from my flowers in future. I’ve always grown them together.

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    • Thank you Lou. You would really love this book. It makes you stop and think about everything we are growing. So much of it could kill us! There’s detailed accounts of accidental and criminal poisonings through history, and then bizarrely there’s some myths and stories which make you laugh out loud. Just don’t mention basil! Good luck in the draw. The publishers will put names in a hat. Karen x

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  4. Sounds very interesting Karen. I knew about autumn crocus because although it flowers in autumn the leaves appear at the same time as wild garlic and are very very similar. Apparently several people in Germany die each year from making the mistake when gathering wild garlic. I am always very careful but claim to recognize the difference. And after recently finding out just how poisonous Ricinus can be I decided not to grow them any longer! I would love to be entered into the draw and could give you an English address if Germany is not eligible. Thanks for the review Karen. 🙂

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    • Thank you Cathy. Oh heck! I hadn’t thought of that. I have wild garlic AND autumn crocus in my woodland, and I use the garlic for pesto sauce etc. Actually. My garlic is mixed with snowdrops too, and I haven’t harvested it this spring because I can’t tell the difference between the two. I’ve decided to grow the garlic in a container so I won’t make any mistakes. I never realised people had died in Germany. I’ve heard of people mistaking daffodil bulbs for onions. I decided a few years ago not to grow caster oil plants and datura because they are so poisonous. I’m re-evaluating my veg and cut flower plot as I have both mixed alongside each other and after reading this book it’s made me nervous. It’s so easy to make a mistake.

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  5. I’m aghast at the thought of foxgloves growing amongst lettuce 😱 There was a most interesting and informative garden exhibit at the Tatton Flower Show last year Karen called ‘the Poisonous Garden’. It’s amazing what danger can lie beneath seemingly innocent beauty. Thanks for the review Karen – please do not enter me for the draw.

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    • I was quite horrified when I saw the foxgloves. They were self seeded from a nearby bed. The owner had simply not realised the danger, thinking how useful they would be for cut flowers. I heard about the flower show garden. I would have loved to have visited, but by late summer I’m all show-gardened out. Good luck in the draw.

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  6. Pingback: Death in the Garden – Book Review — Bramble Garden

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