Friday, June 10, 2016


For those who’re burdened by political news and the state of the world today, I recommend a “time out” with someone like E.B. White, the essayist who wrote for the New Yorker during the mid 20th century. White often turned to farm journals to “escape for a few moments the ominous headlines in the papers…” However, he claims to have found danger even in the agricultural news, and this morning I returned to one of his essays entitled “Plant the Garden Anyway,” in which he talked about his dismay after reading a farm journal article listing dangers in the flower garden.

According to White in Writings from The New Yorker 1927-1976, the journal article warned about poison in a single castor bean that would kill a person… vomiting caused by pinks… sweet pea seeds containing a poison that could keep a person bedridden for months… night blooming jimson with enough substance in the leaves to produce delirium… and daffodil bulbs that, when eaten, cause stomach cramps. Danger in the garden indeed! People “back then” must have had bizarre diets!

White didn’t mention bees, digger wasps, and poison ivy. He may have been threatened by leaves, bulbs, and flowers, but the insects and ivy I just mentioned carry their own brand of poison in the garden. To me, the answer to the dilemma of the poisonous plants highlighted in the farm journal is a simple one: don’t sample the plants! Actually, the author of this article recommended completely doing away with a garden that produced such dangerous plants as the sweet peas, daffodils, etc. and changing the seed! Seems like gardeners in White’s day were either a) hungrier than most gardeners today or b) were experimenting with plants containing exotic substances to see if they would induce some kind of mind alteration.

White also discussed the plant patent business in another essay entitled “Prohibited,” in which a man received a birthday present of an azalea, and tied around the stem of the plant (“like a chastity belt,” White says) was a tag reading “Asexual reproduction of this plant is illegal under the Plant Patent Act.” White’s friend tore off the tag and sent it to another friend with instructions to bed it down next to “an old buck hydrangea.”

Whatever dangers White passed on to those of us who have trouble gardening must be taken with a grain of dirt. We should get our plants in the ground where, for a brief period, they will reward us with their bright faces, every now and then attracting swallowtails, monarchs, skippers, perhaps even a lunar moth.

My love of gardens was inspired by my mother’s nightly readings from books like A Child’s Garden of Verses and Marigold Garden. These books had nothing to do with poisonous seeds, but readings from them actually planted the seeds for my poetry writing today. I was inspired by such poems as Stevenson’s “The Flowers:” “All the names I know from nurse/Gardener’s Garter, Shepherd’s Purse,/Bachelor’s Baths, Lady’s Smocks,/And the Lady Hollyhock…”

The straggly garden pictured above, whose seeds I never saw since I purchased seedlings for my two miniscule beds, contains mostly herbs I can eat without getting sick. The sight of this place where moles and rabbits freely graze would probably cause White to smile. The flowers on one side of the yard are deer proof, so they have a chance of surviving. This is a consideration I gave them rather than worrying about poisonous seeds; however, I didn’t count on the invasions from moles and rabbits.

P.S. I haven’t seen either the asexual azalea or old buck hydrangea in the nurseries here on The Mountain, so I can’t foster any plant coupling.

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