“Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”
An interesting article appeared in The Smithsonian Magazine some weeks ago, titled Step Inside the World’s Most Dangerous Garden (If You Dare). Said garden is part of the Alnwick Garden complex in Alnwick, Northumberland, England. The Poison Garden, a clever guise of a name to fool children into learning, contains some of the world’s most toxic, and surprisingly common, killers of the wild. Out of the 100 plus plants in the garden, I noticed a fair number are in walking distance of my apartment here in Japan. Although certainly not as compelling as the Alnwick Garden, I’ll take you along on my recent foray for foul flora of Koriyama city.
Lily of the Valley
This plant seems to have been around for a spell, as several sources suggest its origins lie in the tale of St. Leonard’s bloody battle with a dragon or perhaps even the jaded tears of Eve herself. It is also, as a favored garden plant, found throughout Koriyama and especially near the entrance to kid-friendly Ose Park, which lies roughly 10 km west of the city center. The dainty-looking plant received much attention when it appeared in a near fatality–inducing cameo in Breaking Bad. As several of the other baddies noted here, Convallaria majalis has its kinder side, too: it’s been reported to ameliorate cardiovascular problems.
Brugmansia & Datura
Canest thou hear the fifth angel that heralds the fallen star? If you can, you’ve just ingested Brugmansia – angel’s trumpet – for Heaven knows what reason. Brugmansia has a sweet, inviting scent, but the beauty is dangerous unless you’re a moth. I happened upon it in the vague boundary of a Fall afternoon and evening. A light breeze wafted their powerful fragrance from over two blocks away. Like a mirror image of Brugmansia’s pendulous flowers, the species of Datura are also poisonous, particular the seeds and flowers.
You are taking a leisurely autumnal stroll, stopping beneath a thick canopy of gnarled wood to marvel at the many slender dried pods hanging and softly rustling in the wind. Without warning, one of them fires a brown seed the size of a nickel down your throat, and you are dead.
The air battle occurring overhead is a result of dehiscence, in which a seed pod dehydrates and, in this case, shrivels and tightens, ready for the slightest impact to spring the trap and fling its seeds as far as possible. The idea here is that the seeds will not fall directly below the parent plant, thus receiving no sunlight and potentially hogging the soil nutrients used by the parent.
Ludicrous situation above notwithstanding, the seeds of Wisteria are especially poisonous. In addition to its toxic nature, the beautiful twiner is also notorious for strangling plants and ruining new patios and sidewalks.
On one of the first warm days of Spring, Koriyamans began to bring out their hardier succulents from indoor hibernation. On my morning run, I did a double-take as an elderly woman slid open her screen door and shuffled out with a truly monstrous plant. Upon closer inspection during my run-by the following day, however, I appreciated how beautifully complex Bryophyllum daigremontianum, also known as Mother of Thousands or Mexican Hat Plant, truly is. Also, it is fun to say “bulbiliferous spurs”, which is how Wikipedia describes the plant’s unusual leaf margins. According to NSW Department of Primary Industries, “toxins are present in all parts of the plant; however, flowers are five times more poisonous than the leaves and stems.”
Others I’ve possibly sighted but not confirmed include Omphalotus olearius, Entoloma rhodopolium, and Hedera rhombea. While a few of the plants mentioned in this post can sometimes be mistaken for other, more benign relatives (a perfect example being Giant Hogweed vs. Cow Parsnip, the former of which can cause severe burns), one to look out for is Mentha pulegium.
Pennyroyal, as it’s more commonly known, can very easily be mistaken for wild mint, or Mentha arvensis. Based on an unfortunate previous mishap, I can strongly advise any forager to confirm absolutely, without a doubt, the plant being picked. Plants, after all, are trying to kill us all.