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Get Growing: Monkshood surrounded with intrigue

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For the Gazette
Friday, October 26, 2018

A couple of days ago, I liberated a robust stand of monkshood (Aconitum) that had been engulfed by a couple of butterfly bushes in the perennial bed behind our house. I can’t remember where the monkshood, also called “devil’s helmet,” came from originally, whether I bought it at a nursery or some kind fellow gardener shared it with me. But I know that I transplanted it from our previous house ten years ago. A member of the buttercup family of Ranunculaceae, it’s always been one of my favorite late bloomers. Its sturdy three-foot stalks crowned by clusters of vivid purple-blue hooded flowers outlast even the hardiest black-eyed Susans and asters.

I always knew that monkshood was poisonous, but I’ve never been tempted to eat the flowers or brew its leaves into a tea, so I never gave it much thought. There are lots of poisonous plants out there that we enjoy even as we give them a wide berth. Mountain laurel, rhododendrons and azaleas are poisonous, as are foxgloves. When my children were younger, I refrained from decorating the Thanksgiving table with bittersweet, since its berries are poisonous. I learned from unhappy experience that the orange-red berries of lily of the valley that mimic cherry tomatoes in the early fall are highly toxic (a trip to the ER for two-year-old Tommy!).

But when I went online to find out more about monkshood, I was stunned to find a gruesome story worthy of Edgar Allan Poe published this week in a British tabloid called the Telegraph. The paper reported that a 33-year-old man who worked as a gardener at a posh estate in the southeast of England died of multiple organ failure, apparently within hours after “brushing against the deadly flower.” Wow, I thought. That’s seriously poisonous. Why is monkshood even for sale at plant nurseries? How is it that I am still alive?

I read further. It turns out there’s been no definitive cause of death reported. The father of the deceased offered up the monkshood explanation. It seems there may have been tampering with the victim’s blood samples. The local coroner concluded it “more likely than not” that monkshood was the cause of death. But while monkshood may or may not have been the culprit in this case, the Telegraph explained that the plant is well known for its poisonous properties. According to the tabloid, it’s also known as wolfsbane, because its poison was used to kill wolves. A Canadian actor named Andre Noble died on a camping trip in 2004 after accidentally consuming the plant. And in 2009 Brit Lakhvir Singh, dubbed the “Curry Killer,” poisoned her lover with a curry dish laced with Indian aconite, from the same plant family.

The Telegraph piece was as much a feature about fancy real estate as a cautionary tale about monkshood, as if to suggest a connection between the wealth of the property owners and the gardener’s mysterious death. Millcourt House, where the alleged poisoning occurred, belongs to a South African-born retired venture capitalist named Christopher Ogilvie Thompson and his wife, Katherine. The Telegraph reported that property includes extensive “manicured” flower gardens, a “vast vegetable patch” and a “sprawling complex of outbuildings and staff cottages for its army of staff, a chauffeur's cottage and even its own cavernous barn complete with ornate weather vane.” At the front of the handsome Georgian house is an “elaborate colonnaded porch,” where Mrs. Ogilvie Thompson politely but firmly turned away inquisitive reporters after the death. At the back of the house is “a veranda with seating room for at least a dozen guests, overlooking a manicured square lawn featuring two black sculptures of sheep.” Perhaps Mrs. Ogilvie Thompson retreated to the veranda after her encounter with the press!

I’m not sure what these details have to do with death by monkshood, but I suspect there’s a monetary settlement in the works. But back to my original subject! Is it safe to have monkshood in your garden?

Tracy DiSabato-Aust, author of The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, doesn’t suggest banning the plant, but urges caution when handling it: “When pruning or handling do not get juice from the plant into your mouth or into open wounds, and be certain to wash your hands immediately after cutting back plants.” I’d add that you should keep young children and pets away from it. Since it’s tall and blooms late, it can be placed at the back of the garden, where it’s less likely to come into contact with curious kids and rooting dogs. I have not come across other information indicating that merely touching the plant can cause death, but stranger things have happened…. Happy Halloween!

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.

Upcoming garden events Bonsai workshop

 As the cold weather arrives, it’s a wonderful time to learn the art of Bonsai. At Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, on Nov. 3, from 2 to 4 p.m., Bonsai expert Joel Mullen, will teach an introductory workshop using one of the most versatile plants, the portulacaria. Mullen has practiced, trained and apprenticed with many of the Northeast's finestBonsai artists. You'll learn the basics of designing a tree and the horticultural knowledge to keep it healthy and happy. Students will repot, wire, and style their trees before taking them home. Cost: Members: $75/nonmembers: $90. 

Heroes of horticulture: Americans who transformed the landscape

There is much we can learn from reading the stories of institution builders, plant explorers and garden creators who have had a major impact on the American landscape. On Nov. 11 from 1 to 2 p.m. at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, author Barbara Paul Robinson will give a talk and book signing of her recent book, Heroes of Horticulture: Americans Who Transformed the Landscape. The bookexplores the lives of 18 such figures, including three who established The Garden Conservancy. Over the course of their careers, as Robinson explains, these people have worked to preserve and enhance our public spaces, setting new standards for aesthetics and encouraging wider public participation. Robinson herself has had an interesting career. During a sabbatical from the leading international law firm, Debevoise & Plimpton where she was the first woman partner, she worked as a gardener for the legendary British gardener Rosemary Verey. She and her husband have created their own gardens at Brush Hill in northwestern Connecticut, featured in articles, books and television. Her first book was Rosemary Verey: The Life and Lessons of a Legendary Gardener (Godine 2012). A frequent speaker, she has published articles in the New York Times, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Hortus; she has also written a chapter in Rosemary Verey's The Secret Garden. Cost: Members: $10/nonmembers $20.

Pruning basics workshop

On Nov. 15 from 10 a.m. to noon, Tower Hill will host a workshop on pruning basics with Derek Lirange, Community Forester of the Worcester Tree Initiative. He will cover the fundamentals of pruning woody plants, including what should be cut out of trees and shrubs and how to make cuts for both health and appearance. He will also address common pruning mistakes and misconceptions and simple tool maintenance so you can make sure you're making the best cut every time. Lirange has worked at Worcester Tree Initiative since 2013, when he received his Bachelor's Degree, from UMass-Amherst in Urban and Community Forestry. As WTI's Community Forester, his primary role is to work with WTI's partners coordinating tree plantings, education programs and workdays. Cost: Members: $15/nonmembers: $25.