Wild Gardening: Learning From Something Toxic

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Photo by Cynthia Zanti Jabs
The author’s beautiful, but deadly, Poison Hemlock. Photo by Cynthia Zanti Jabs

When I leave my gardens behind for summer adventures, I try not to think too much about what I’ll find when I get back. This year that’s going to be hard to do. Because I never planned to grow what grew in my garden last year. Really.

That spring when I was clearing weeds to make way for this year’s vegetables, there was one I couldn’t bring myself to yank out. It was a neat little tuft of parsley shaped leaves. Very different from all the familiar vines I was pulling. I thought it might be from one of last year’s carrots. I decided to let it grow and find out.

There are lots of weeds that look like carrots, my elder sister warned. I didn’t care. I always have loved wildflowers. I started learning their names before I could read.

This one kept on growing and so did my attachment to it. I loved the symmetrical whorl of its stems, the vivid green its leaves held onto through weeks of drought. I started to imagine I might harvest some kind of lovage or ligusticum for an herbal decoction. Or, at least, some salad greens.

Then, in late spring, we got one of those phone calls that rearranges the landscape. My wonderful father-in-law had just died. A massive heart attack. Totally unexpected. Doctor told him his heart was just fine the day before it happened.

We were away most of the next two weeks. And when we were home we weren’t paying attention to the garden.

When I finally got round to it, the little plant I’d spared had shot up eight feet and blossomed. Bunches of little white flowers hovered over a massive clump of feathery leaves. It was just stunning and I loved it.

It wasn’t til I peered deep into the thick of it that I noticed blood colored blotches on its stems. That’s when I knew this had to be Poison Hemlock. The stuff Socrates was famously sentenced to drink for “corrupting the youth” with his mind-bending questions. My favorite part of that story was how he supposedly kept conversing with his students while the toxins slowly killed him. I couldn’t stop staring at those spots, as if staring might make them disappear.

As far as I know, ending life is the only use anyone’s ever found for any part of this plant. I shudder to think how this was discovered. I knew I had to get it out of there.

But months later my Poison Hemlock was still standing tall. Much as I cringed every time I saw it, I couldn’t bring myself to kill it. I justified my reluctance telling myself I might learn something from its odd presence in my garden.

One lesson: Be very cautious with wild herbs. As an acupuncturist, I often recommend herbal supplements for my patients. They usually come dried and pressed into pill-sized pellets. I love telling patients about the plants that go into these. Sometimes I’m asked if they can be found fresh and local. Many can and some are great additions to a pot of soup. But there’s much to learn before you can safely fill a stock pot from a walk in the woods. Or even, as it turns out, the garden.

So, lesson learned, time to pull the damned thing out by the roots. I’d grab a shovel from the shed and march out full of resolve. Every time I lost it when I stepped into the shade of its elegant branches. I just couldn’t do it.

This plant was simply magnificent. And entirely toxic. No telling where the seed came from. Somewhere, somehow, all on its own, it took a cue to start growing. Like crazy. It completely enveloped a butterfly bush. One day, after a heavy rain, we found its boughs overshadowed our blueberries. I still didn’t pull it, much as I love those blueberries.

I’m pretty sheepish about getting so involved with something so deadly. Not the first time, mind you. But it’s a long time since those romances I regretted.

What strikes me is how little we sometimes know about what grows in our  gardens. Did I mention our nest recently emptied? I never dreamed one of my kids would now live halfway round the world. Any more than my dad could have imagined I’d grow up to be an acupuncturist. Or someone who deliberately grows wild things in her garden.

I always thought I’d plant seeds in straight lines and pick predictable vegetables like my dad’s. His life also ended with a massive heart attack. That was years ago, before I knew how much I’d love gardening. I often think of him when I do. He was an organic gardener long before it was fashionable. I always wish, when I plant tomatoes, that I had fish heads like the ones he buried under every little ‘Big Boy.’

But I don’t. My gardens don’t look at all like his. He could walk down neatly mulched rows to pick huge tomatoes from vines tied to stakes with strips of old bed sheets. I rummage thru a jungle to claim whatever tomatoes haven’t rotted on the ground or met with slugs. Some years we’re busy with other things and the slugs eat more than we do.

I’ll keep growing my little gardens, though. And harbor the occasional wild thing.

In case you’re wondering, I never did kill that Poison Hemlock. Someone who knows me well kindly dug it out one weekend when I was out of town. I was bereft but I knew it had to go. I didn’t want it seeding that bed for another year. I can’t stop wondering what did. One more thing to wonder about while I’m off visiting my son on the other side of the planet.

 

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