Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Death in the Garden

Michael Brown, Death in the Garden: Poisonous Plants & their Use throughout History, Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books Ltd., 2018. £16.99.

The author of this book ‘gives talks and demonstrations on historical gardening’, and, indeed, his work rather resembles a talk, consisting of a series of images  of plants each with some interesting facts and anecdotes about those plants.  This probably works well as a lecture, but requires greater work to transform it into a worthwhile book.

After a number of introductory essays the book includes  articles on 55 flowering plants, one gymnosperm (yew, Taxus baccata), one pteridophyte (horsetail, Equisetum arvense) and one fungus (fly agaric, Amanita muscaria), followed by a separate section which deals with three insectivorous plants, none of which are posionous, and concluding with sections on growing poisonous plants and ‘poison gardens to visit’.  Each of the articles on poisonous (and insectivorous) plants is accompanied by a good-quality photograph (though that of sundew, Drosera rotundifolia) shows oblong leaves, and thus is obviously not rotundifolia).

Probably the most useful part of the book is the introductory essay on ‘The writers about poisonous plants’, which gives a worthwhile overview of writers on herbalism from Hippocrates (here for some reason written as ‘Hippocras’) in Ancient Greece to Maud Grieve’s Modern Herbal of 1931.  The accounts of poisonous plants are of varied value, and while some of the plants, such as hemlock (Conium maculatum) and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), are undoubtedly poisonous, others such as nettle (Urtica dioica) and soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), would of little, or no, value to would-be poisoners. The latter is described as having ‘usually white’ petals; surely they are usually pink, as depicted in the accompanying photograph?

The book is probably of little value to anyone with any knowedge of the subject, but might be appreciated by the less knowledgeable members of local horticultural societies.

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