When I started writing my Maybridge Mysteries series, the opening scene for the first book had been in my “ideas” file for years. And I already knew that my main character, Abby Finch, was going to be a gardener.
I had a title in my head – A Rose for the Dead. Since I envisaged a series, it seemed like a really good idea to have a plant name in all the titles.
However, since it appears to be the convention for cozy crime is to have either murder, or death in the title, my publisher, Joffe Books, changed it to Murder Among the Roses.
Having spent thirty years having my working titles changed by my publisher, this didn’t come as a huge surprise. I still prefer mine but whatever sells the book. And I had my flower.
Since the use of plants was going to be part of the branding of the series (next up this autumn, Murder With Mistletoe), I fell down the research rabbit hole looking for plant life that can kill.
You know how, when you look for anything online, from a washing machine to hi-top sneakers, you start getting adverts for them all over social media?
I started getting “poisonous plant” prompts on Facebook. My search history might raise a few eyebrows!
I discovered some very disturbing facts about plants we all love and have in our gardens. Did you know, for instance, that you should wear gloves when handling foxgloves, (Digitalis purpurea)?
Here are some in my last garden in Wiltshire. So lovely.
Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) is one of the UK’s most poisonous plants. It grows in damp woodlands, meadows and along ditches in the southern half of the country, but its attractive blue hooded flowers have made it a popular garden plant. It has cultivars in a variety of colours.
Monkshood myths and facts
A more creative technique for poisoning with Monkshood was carried out by Calpurnius Bestia. He would smear his finger with an extract made from the roots and touch the genitalia of his wives. Once absorbed, it led to their deaths.
And the Roman emperor Claudius fell to aconite poisoning. Needless to say, this is another plant to be handled wearing gloves!
However, Victorian ladies cultivated it in their conservatories and caught drops of the nectar in their teacups for an illicit buzz.
Not everything is what it seems
You’re not likely to want to grow hemlock (Conium maculatum) in your garden as the leaves have an unpleasant smell when crushed. But it is easily confused with cow parsley which has migrated from a hedgerow plant to a garden favourite.
Every single part of hemlock is poisonous. It was the plant that was given to the famous Greek philosopher, Socrates, for his execution.
The toxins in hemlock are alkaloids which cause muscular paralysis, and bring the central nervous system to a halt. So useful for the crime writer!
Have you ever taken castor oil?
Its attractive leaves and spiky seed heads make it an attractive addition to the garden. But the seeds are full of ricin – famous for the killing the Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov in 1978. I once saw a fine specimen in the garden of Wells Cathedral.
And this is a photograph of the magnificent laburnum archway at Bodnant.
It’s stunning. You once saw these trees in nearly every front garden.
They fell out of favour once it became common knowledge that the seeds – so attractive to children – are poisonous, as is every part of the tree. (Or maybe it was when employing a gardener or maid to sweep up the seeds became a thing of the past!)
It’s another of those that cause respiratory paralysis.
The Poison Garden
On my bucket list is a visit to Alnwick and its famous poison garden guarded by iron gates with its skull and crossbones warning. A must for all crime writers!
Are you scared yet?
The first of my Maybridge Mystery series is Murder Among the Roses, available in paperback and eBook.