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A heap load of garden stories.

Crimes behind the Compost Heap was the rather unusual title of Dr Stan da Prato's talk to members of the Barony Gardening Club on May 2. More than 40 members and visitors were in attendance to discover how to look beyond the familiar goings-on in their gardens and perhaps take home a few "dos and don'ts".

With headings like: Crime and Punishment; Money, Theft and Greed; the Poison Garden; Alien Invaders; Kill or Cure; Plagues and Pestilence; and, of course, Sex, there was bound to be scope for amusement and shocks.

The castor oil plant (Ricinus communis) was the first to be exposed. It may be grown as an attractive greenhouse plant in Britain but it has a notorious history.

Its seeds contain the very poisonous component ricin, a suspected Cold War weapon. But processing can eliminate the ricin and yield castor oil, a very effective laxative - so much so that it had been widely administered in some countries during WW2 as a degrading form of punishment. The British Castrol company adopted this name through the castor oil it had at one time added to its lubricants.

And then a tentative airing was given to the saying: "A wife, a dog and a walnut tree; the more they're beaten the better they be".

The beating of the walnut tree may have been practised, though perhaps out of frustration as much as horticulture. Members were advised that the beating of the others had never been advocated - although the "rule of thumb" had been attributed (incorrectly) to a severe 18th century judge who suggested a man should not beat his wife with a stick thicker than his thumb.

Stan illustrated the greed section of his talk by visiting 17th century Holland when the Tulip mania grew and collapsed.

It seems that, at the time, one of the newly-introduced tulip bulbs might be bought for the price of a Dutch family's house, so valuable had the plants become.

Inevitably the bubble burst and many people were left bankrupt. But Stan thought it appropriate to mention the present-day urge felt by "Galanthophiles" to acquire rare varieties of snowdrops (Galanthus).

In 2012 one bulb of the Green Tear variety sold over the internet for PS360. And, more recently, Thompson and Morgan paid PS725 at auction for one bulb of G woronowii "Elizabeth Harrison".

In 1876 Henry Wickham smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of Amazonia; and with these the Victorian British developed a mighty rubber industry throughout their tropical colonies.

It was entrepreneurial, greedy, successful and theft.

The story is told in the book The Thief at the End of the World by Joe Jackson. And the British rubber industry flourished while the Brazilian's own collapsed.

In the middle 19th century China was a closed country but this did not stop Robert Fortune, a Berwickshire horticulturalist, stealing the coveted tea bushes Camellia sinensis and establishing them in the British colony of India in 1848.

He achieved this, in part, by attempting to pass himself off as a Chinese man.

The absurdity of his disguise was revealed in one of Stan's photographs; so it seemed Fortune's Chinese accomplices were happy to be convinced.

In his Poison Garden section Stan reminded his audience of the death of Socrates from hemlock poisoning. All parts of this plant (Conium maculatum) are very poisonous and it can be easily confused with others of the Umbelliferae such as the wild carrot (Daucus carota).

There are many other familiar, and similar, plants in this family, such as celery, dill, fennel, parsnip, coriander and chervil. Stan's advice was not to sample any umbellifer without expert guidance.

The hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) is thought to be the most poisonous green plant in Britain and another of the Umbelliferae.

Both the ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) and the giant hogweed (Heracleum montegazzianum) are known to cause severe irritation (rashes and blistering) of the skin and the former is known to poison livestock, most likely ingested with hay and silage. Stan had some graphic images of these effects.

And he had quite a few more stories in his poison cupboard.

But there remain many plants whose toxins can be put to medical use as long as their doses are controlled. The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is a good example and a common garden annual whose dried seeds are often used in baking. But the sap from its immature seed capsule is the source of morphine, codeine and heroin.

Digoxin is extracted from the leaves of foxglove (Digitalis lanata) and used to control certain heart conditions; deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) can be used to treat gastro-intestinal conditions. Both are, otherwise, very poisonous.

Stan mentioned the Doctrine of Signatures, the ancient notion that the appearance of a plant part gave a clue to its usefulness. And so walnuts were useful for brain ailments; St John's wort (Hypericum) for wounds (because the perforations in the leaves resemble the pores of the skin); lungwort (Pulmonaria) for respiratory problems, because their grey-mottled leaves resembled diseased lungs.

Sphagnum has fewer dubious properties than these.

This moss has been used for its water-holding ability and for its antiseptic properties. It was an important component in the treatment of wounds to soldiers in WW1. Indeed, the neighbouring Craigielands (then a country estate near Beattock) provided large quantities of sphagnum to be sent to hospitals at that time.

The audience was well informed and greatly amused by Stan's tales.

The next meeting will conclude the season with a social evening and plant sale.

This will take place at 6.45pm on Thursday, June 6. Everyone is welcome. Telephone 01387 830257 for details.


Bright buds The Pulmonaria flowers

Green power A castor oil plant
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Publication:Dumfries and Galloway Standard (Dumfriesshire, Scotland)
Date:May 14, 2019
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