Monday, July 25, 2005

Poison in the Garden

It is July 2005. The middle of a beautiful balmy British summer.

The book I'm currently working on – The Sirens of Surrentum – has a lot about poison. Luckily I live in one of the greatest cities in the world – London – so last week I left a phone message with the curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden to ask if they had anybody who could tell me more about poisonous plants known to the Romans. I know all the names but I don't know what they look like. Or smell like. Or taste like. (Actually that last one might not be strictly necessary!)

The curator, Rosie Atkins, returned my call and was very charming and helpful. After a short chat about hemlock, rhubarb (leaves extremely poisonous, stems completely edible) and the trade route from China to Rome via India, she encouraged me to come round and have a look for myself.

St Mary's Battersea
So I do. It's a half hour walk along the river via Albert Bridge and the Boy on a Dolphin sculpture. I love walking in London, especially beside the river. When the sun is shining Londoners are so cheerful and you see amazing snapshots of life. Yesterday I saw a just-married couple spilling out of St Mary's Battersea and – on my way back two hours later – an ambulance taking someone away from one of the houseboats moored beside it. Today I see two beer-bellied men fishing beside the river, assorted joggers, dog-walkers, bike-riders, and four boys cheerfully molesting a stuffed-toy rabbit before tossing it in the Thames. I also see a young dad crouched down beside a pushchair. For more than a minute he remained absolutely still, staring at his little boy's sleeping face as if he wanted to imprint it on his memory forever.

ancient Yew tree
The Chelsea Physic Garden is the second oldest botanical garden in England, after Oxford. It was established by the Society of Apothecaries who have a funky image of Apollo on their crest. It's a bit like a secret garden in the heart of Chelsea between the Thames and the Royal Hospital.

I am just in time for the 4.00pm tour. Christine, our guide, is a volunteer, like almost everyone who works here. She takes us around and makes a special effort to point out poisonous plants the Romans would have known.

We see acanthus, tansy, rhubarb, agapanthus, oleander, and a magnificent yew tree with its fatal red berries.

"Deadly Nightshade"
Deadly nightshade has fatal dark-blue berries. If you eat them or their juice you will die, but opticians used to use its juice to dilate the pupils of the eye. It's also known as belladonna ('beautiful woman') because Italian women use this juice to make their eyes look big and dark and liquid.

After the tour has ended, Christine helps me find some hemlock. The specimen in the garden isn't very healthy but I get a good sense of it's height and the hollow nature of its stem, and the little spray of white blossoms.

Everyone at the Chelsea Physic Garden is so helpful and erudite. Christine herself mentions two books which feature poison (Hartley's The Go-Between and Dorothy Sayer's Strong Poison) and she also quotes from two poems: one by Auden called Roman Wall Blues, and one by Houseman that ends like this:

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up;
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
-I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

Curiously enough, I mention old Mithridates in The Sirens of Surrentum...

[The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. The BBC TV series is available on Amazon Prime in Europe and the UK.]

1 comment:

  1. Such an interesting post. Isn't the garden wonderful? I discovered it only about a year ago, despite having lived in London for a long time previously. It is indeed like a secret garden and should be much better known.