Growing Nux vomica- The Strychnine Tree


I need a photograph of a Nux vomica plant, the strychnine tree for the book that I am writing about poisonous plants, ‘Death in the Garden.’

Gerard the herbalist wrote about the medical use of the seeds; the name Nux vomica gives the game away. The vomiting nut. The seeds were used for purging to balance the humour.

The other main use of the seeds was to poison vermin, or people.

As far as I can tell, the only  establishment that grows it in England is the Chelsea Physic Garden. I will try to  photograph their plant later, but meanwhile I have decided to attempt to grow my own.

I bought the seeds online. I have no idea of how old they are or even if they are viable.


The seeds have a nipple

The seeds are easily identified, being flat with a distinctive a nipple in the centre.

Today I finally thought it was time to have a go. Having pondered my options,  I decided that I would treat the seeds  in a similar manner to Sweet {Peas.

I have first soaked them in water for a few hours.


The seeds were soaked in water

I then thinned the coating of the seed.

The seeds were put into a clear plastic bag with compost. I then tied the top of the bag to keep the compost moist.


The seeds were mixed with compost and put in a plastic bag

The bag has been placed in the dark.

I now have to wait – and hope.

Looking on the bright side; I have grown numerous avacado plants using a similar method.

Fingers crossed….

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Posted in Historic Gardener. Gardening-Horticulture, historic gardening, Michael Brown, Uncategorized

Valentine’s Day

There is possibly more to Valentine’s Day than roses.

I have come to realise this as I continue to research for my book about poisonous plants.

Love brings out the best – and worse in people, and plants have always been there if you needed some help. You may need an aphrodisiac to help things to get moving.  The most famous magical plant of all is the mandrake, and that has been also recommended as an aphrodisiac and it was included in love potions, and yet again it will send you to sleep if you take too much; so maybe it could be counter-productive.

One method of harvesting mandrake root suggests its connection with love;

‘Thus it is  said,  that one should draw there circles round mandrake with a sword, and cut it with one’s face towards the west and at the cutting of the second piece one should dance around the plant and say as many things as possible about the mysteries of love’

My plant isn’t even above ground yet, so not a lot of use for this year.

Mandrake 2

Mandrake – Mandragore officinarum

The painting of Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli was thought to be fairly innocent until David Bellingham noticed that the devilish satyr at the bottom right has his left hand resting on the seed case of a Datura, usually known as Thorn Apple.  It may have initially have acted as a stimulant, but then has the usual effect of inducing sleep. Poor Venus does seem to have a rather fed up expression…


Venus and Mars. The National Gallery

Maybe Mars should have eaten some chervil; it was said to be good for sexual over indulgence and for revitalising sexual virility. Some early sources suggest that Bindweed has similar properties; a good excuse to get outside and to start weeding.

Mars may have also have found it helpful to take some Butchers’ Broom, Ruscus aculeatus, which was said to be good for ‘men’s problems’; pound the roots in water or the stems in vinegar- and presumably drink the mix as the herbal doesn’t say what to do with it.

During the Elizabethan period tomatoes were only recently introduced into England. Nobody was at all sure what to do with them, but they knew they were of the solanum family, many members of which are poisonous. Tomatoes became known as ‘Love Apples’, an aphrodisiac, and were not to be commonly grown for food until the late 1800’s.

If you wanted to be left in peace to a good night’s sleep, there were anti- aphrodisiacs available too. Pliny mentions the ‘Eunuch’s Lettuce’ named because of its potency in reducing ardour.

If the having indulged, you found you had the problem of an unwanted pregnancy, most herbals included plants that could induce abortions, one of the most commonly used being Juniperus sabina. Gin was known as ‘Mothers’ ruin’ for a good reason. The problem with the abortifacients that genuinely worked was that the remedies were all very poisonous, and thus it was a very risky enterprise to use them.


Birthwort – Astrologia clematitis

And your problems may not have been over, even if you married.

Strabo wrote that if you suspected your Mother-in-Law of trying to poison you with Aconitum, you should take horehound as an antidote. I suspect that this is one that he didn’t try himself, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it.


Monkshood – Aconitum napellus

And on that cheerful note –


……. But you can’t leave without the public safety notice.

All of the above plants are poisonous. Do not use them for medicinal or any other uses.

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Posted in Historic Gardener. Gardening-Horticulture

The Georgian Garden

The Georgian period was one of great advances in gardening, but also one of changing fashions and taste. The formality of the grand parterres in the French Style were soon to fall out of favour and be grubbed up as the English style of landscape gardens slowly evolved and then blossomed.


Parterres, similar to these as Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, were common in the gardens of the larger estates.


There had always been areas of wilderness in many of the formal gardens, although it was not as wild as we may expect it to be;  many of the pathways and ridings being cut in straight lines with the formally cut hedges cut to just above head-height lining the more informal planting within. Sometimes the lower growth of the trees was trimmed before being allowed to grow more naturally.


The wilderness at Ham House is a very formal design.

Some say that the ‘French style’ parterres were expensive to maintain, but having looked after small ones the maintenance is not such a problem – and acres of grass needs even more maintenance to look its best; even more so in the days before lawn mowers.

One major problem with scything a lawn to keep the grass short is that the mowing must be carried out when the grass is wet, either from dew or rain. Once the grass dries the scythe blade glides over the grass, rather than cutting it. This reduces the hours per day that the grass can be cut, especially in hot, dry weather. It also means that the men mowing the grass have to get up very early in the morning and cut as much as possible before the sun dries the grass.


At Berrington Court the grass goes right up to the house.

Another task was to roll the grass to keep it flat so that the scythe blades would not scuff raised parts. The rollers were usually made of wood or stone and depending on the size could be pulled by men or horses. One side effect of the regular use of rollers is the compaction of the top soil, reducing the speed of the grass growth, although this is not mentioned in the books of the period.

One small estate in Buckinghamshire had six scythes, three stone rollers with iron frames, one iron horse-roller and two large wooden horse-rollers. The man-power needed to maintain the large areas of grass was quite high.

Paths were often made of sand or fine gravel and made with a cambered profile over a hard-core base so that they would drain quickly. The paths would be dug up in late winter, when they were not being used very often, to remove weeds and to relay the surface. Worms were a problem as they leave casts of soil on the path surface, which encourages weeds to grow. Weeds were also controlled with hoes or by salting the gravel. Regular rolling of the paths compacted the surface, giving weeds little chance to germinate.

Most of the gardeners’ equipment was similar to that used today, although there were no secateurs for pruning and few digging forks. Many of the spades were made of wood with only a metal shoe to edge the blade. Most of the tools would be made by the estate blacksmith until factories became more common.

Regardless of whether the garden was formal or in the new landscape style, every estate needed a walled Garden to grow the fruit and vegetables needed by the family for the whole year. This required careful planning and a large labour force to not only grow, but to protect the crops.

Pest control could be simply driving the birds away with various noisy bird scaring tools, such as what most of us know as the Football Rattle – work for children and the apprentices.

There were also many poisons and ingenious traps to kill vermin and birds- if the birds, rats and mice eat the food, people cannot and food would have to be brought in from elsewhere. Early gardening books are as much about killing things as they are about growing plants.

People were also treated as pests. It was not only the internal walls of walled gardens that were trained with fruit trees, the external one were too. To deter children and adults from the temptation of scrumping the ripe fruit, mantraps were often set near the walls. The threat alone would probably have deterred most people.

William Cobbett, famous for his, Rural Rides, wrote a book about Gardening where he said it was better to plant hedges to stop people reaching the walls, ‘than ruining a man’s life by the use of traps.’


People were considered as much of a pest as animals.

Sadly, traps were cheaper than planting and maintaining hedges and the use of mantraps was not banned until 1827.

To grow the out-of-season early and late crops required heat and protection.

The making of Hot Beds was one of the most important tasks. Gardeners would barrow manure to the store areas next to the walled garden to keep it hot and then barrow it into the walled garden when it was needed it. They made large flat piles of hot dung by sifting the manure and straw with forks to open it. It was left for three or so days to get hot and then the pile was moved again by sifting once more with the forks. They checked the temperature for several days until and if it was not too hot they put soil over the pile and set the frames on it. For several days, the gardeners checked the temperature with their hands to make sure that it was not too hot, before eventually sowing their seeds.

If the weather was cold the frames were covered with straw mats to keep the plants warm.

Sometimes the dung was put into pits and the frames placed on top, which made looking after the frames much easier.

Hot beds were easier and cheaper than using stoves to heat the glass areas.


The hotbed was a frame set on a pile of manure. Later tanners bark was also used.

The fumes from the stoves would often kill the plants rather than preserve them.

John Evelyn designed a stove house that used a through- draught to keep the Stove House warm, but the prevented the air inside becoming stale.

Melons and cucumbers were grown in hot frames, but also later in the period, the much prized pineapples

Bell Jars, or cloches, from the French word for a bell, had been used since the late 1600’s cloches, the bell-like glass jars that were placed over individual plants to protect them from pests but that also kept them warm.

Life was not easy, nor very well paid for most gardeners. They would leave school at about eleven years old and become apprentices. The Worshipful Company of Gardeners had been granted their first Charter of Letters Patent in1605, with a second revised Charter was drawn up in 1616. The company suggested that apprentice gardeners should learn,

“The trade, crafte or misterie of gardening, planting, grafting, setting, sowing, cutting, arboring, rocking, mounting, covering, fencing and removing of plants, herbes, seedes, fruites, trees, stocks, setts, and of contryving the conveyances to the same belonging…”

After completion of a seven year apprenticeship the newly trained gardener could become a journeyman and leave his place of training to work in other gardens to widen his experience and knowledge. At about the age of 25 he would hope to become a foreman of an area within a large garden or the Under-Gardener to a Head Gardener, with the hope of eventually becoming a Head Gardener himself. The Head Gardener no longer worked physically in the garden himself, but supervised, managed and planned the crops.

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown earned £26 a year plus some £6 expenses and was given one of the lodges as his home.

Apprentice and Journeyman gardeners lived in a bothy and were not allowed to marry if they wanted to carry on living in the bothy.

The bothy was often a dark, damp single storey building on the north side of the north wall, where not much would grow. They could employ an old woman, sometimes a widow, to tidy and cook for them- at their own expense, of course. Loudon, writing at a later date, suggested that she should be elderly and unattractive so as not to excite the young men.


The Bothy at Audley End.

After Lancelot Brown died the fashions in garden design began to change once more. People grew tired of the grass that grew to the base of the walls of the house. It may look lovely on a fine day, but it could look very depressing under a wet and grey English sky.

Humphry Repton began the task of pushing the grass away from the house and reintroducing terraces and balustrades.  He added themed gardens, such as the American Garden, the Rose Garden or the Chinese Garden.

It was more pleasant to sit on the terrace sipping tea and nibbling your dainty morsels surrounded by surrounded by brightly coloured or scented flowers; the more exotic the better, especially if they neighbours couldn’t grow them; and you could still view the Landscaped parkland beyond the balustrade.

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Being Lancelot Brown

2016 has been varied and busy for me thanks to it being Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s 300th anniversary. I have pretended to be Brown, I have been photographed with different images of Brown, given talks about his work and given displays on Georgian Gardening. I even went to Ireland to give a talk in Armagh, one up on Lancelot Brown, who refused to work in Ireland, having said, ‘I have yet to finish England.’

It has certainly been an interesting and eventful year.

Here are some of the highlights of my year as Mr Lancelot Brown.

The year began with a photo-shoot at the West Yorkshire Showground, Harrogate. The photo was to be taken with a landscape student who had won a competition to redesign part of the showground in the style of Brown. Unfortunately snow began to fall gently, and then a blizzard soon developed. The photos were all taken in the snow which was cold work but the results were certainly more dramatic.


Where on earth is that? Too much landscape detail lost in the snow.

The Spring show at Harrogate soon came round and I spent three days at the show as Mr Brown with my display of Georgian gardening and surveying equipment set up next to a temporary room , designed to look like a garden temple, although the cold temperatures meant that the glue wouldn’t set properly and parts fell off during the event. Inside the temple were information boards about Brown and his gardens in the north of England. I gave a talk every morning in the large Floral Marquee.

It was at Harrogate where I got to drink some ‘Incapability Brown Ale’ brewed by Great Newsome Brewery, and very tasty it was too, but best after work, not during.

Haddonstone, a company that is local to me in Northamptonshire, commissioned a bust of Brown, using the same painting that I based my clothing on. I met the bust again later in the year.


The Haddonstone bust of Brown









I went to Studley Park Royal Gardens, a landscape Garden that includes the genuine ruins of Fountains Abbey. I had the whole gardens to myself before  and after opening times. There was a very hard frost one morning which made the garden look magical.



A cold and frosty morning.

I spent two weekends at Blenheim Palace, where there was an excellent display that included many paintings that are not usually on show.12717611_1243376049010729_2750167390206429219_n-copy

They had a cardboard cut-out of Mr Brown made for the

Later I was back to Woodstock to give a talk at the Oxfordshire Museum’s ‘Tokens of Love’ display, my theme being ‘Sacred and Secular Love in the Medieval Garden’- it hasn’t been just Brown this year!



Compton Verney held a Georgian Weekend that followed the vote to leave Europe. I featured in the national evening news- scything into an unknown future, but my favourite part was collapsing into a comfy seat Sunday evening when we finished.


A relaxing way to finish the day. where’s the wine?


Chichele College at Higham Ferrers held a Plant Fair. As a part of Northamptonshire
Gardens Trust I helped to make a table top Brown landscape based on the  Knuckle Bone Arbour part of the gardens at Castle Ashby.

There was a scarecrow competition.

First place was taken by a certain Ginger Spice.

Capability Brown came last…


Northamptonshire Gardens Trust also invited school children and others who would not normally be able to see a Brown garden to Castle Ashby House. I organised one group of children into a team to pretend to scythe a lawn. Thank goodness it was only pretend or Northampton Hospital A and E would have been very over-worked.

Madingley Hall is one of Brown’s smaller gardens. I spent q very long day there. In the morning Richard the Head Gardener and I went to visit a local school to tell them about the hall gardens and Brown. We had an amazing reception. Later in eh afternoon the teacher brought us a pile of pictures drawn by the children.


Somehow I acquired a sword.

After lunch I displayed Georgian gardening and surveying equipment and helped visitors to understand the garden.

I spent three weekends in August at Wimpole Hall. I had a silhouette made, a  very Georgian thing to do.


The evening was spent at a reception and presentation my several other people and myself.


My most challenging event was to speak to some visiting Chinese students at one of the cambridge colleges. My presentation pictures had to be sent off to have the captions translated into chinese


Brand ‘Brown!’ 布朗 品牌效应!



In November I went to Armagh in Northern Ireland to give a talk at the Archbishop’s Palace. The talk was held in a lovely room with chandeliers and Christmas decorations.


They even bought me a birthday cake!

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On the Monday after my weekend in Ireland I was out again with Northamptonshire Gardens Trust to plant trees at the sites of all the people we had invited to Castle Ashby.img_0094-2


Posted in CB 300, Historic Gardener. Gardening-Horticulture

Illegal Mandrake Collecting

I have just read about an online petition that has been set up by the RSPCA to ban the illegal use of dogs to harvest mandrake roots.  Mandrake, Madragora officinarum, has been harvested for millennia for its medicinal properties.

Mandrake 2


The problem is that the plant screams on being torn from the soil and anybody hearing the screams will die. EU Health and Safety Regulations now require all mandrake harvesters to be properly trained in order to gain a licence to collect the roots. They must also wear the correct protective clothing, including a special ear protector that is tested to above the usual regulatory limits.

An RSPCA spokesman said that although EU countries comply with the correct safety measures, because of the cost involved, illegal harvesters are using the traditional method of tying a starving dog to the plant, and then standing a safe distance away, waving a bowl of food at the dog. The hungry animal rushes towards the food, pulling up the plant as it does so and promptly dies.

Mandrake 1

A dog being used to pull a mandrake from the ground.

Protestors have complained of the cruelty involved, even before the dog is sacrificed in order to harvest he much prized root. Although the risks are great small fortunes have been made by the illegal harvesting of the roots.

Mandrake 3

A Mandrake Root

The EU are holding an emergency meeting to discuss this matter today.

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William Cowper- A critic of Lancelot Brown

Although we are celebrating Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown this year, he was not without his critics. One was the poet William Cowper who lived in Olney – famous for the Pancake Race- and later Weston Underwood, a short distance away.

Cowper is known for his love of the countryside, so you would expect him to enjoy an English Landscape Garden, not a formal one. Yet this is not the case. In a letter to Lady Hesketh he mentions the recent pruning of the Lime Avenue. This was part of the  park garden of the Throckmorton’s of Weston Underwood and ran from the outside of the Wilderness Garden towards the Alcove which Cowper would often visit on his walks.


The Alcove


28 July 1788. To Lady Hesketh.

‘We also, as you know, have scenes at Weston worthy of description, but because you know them so well, I will only say that one of them has, within these few days, been much improved; I mean the Lime Walk. By the help of the axe and the woodbill, which of late have been constantly employed in cutting out all straggling branches that intercepted the arch, Mr Throckmorton has now defined it with such exactness, that no cathedral in the world can show one of more magnificence or beauty. I bless myself that I live so near it; for were it distant several miles, it would be well worth while to visit it, merely as an object of taste; not to mention the refreshment of such a gloom both to the eyes and the spirits. And these are the things which our modern improvers of parks and pleasure grounds have displaced without mercy, because, forsooth, they are rectilinear! It is a wonder they do not quarrel with the sunbeams for the same reason.’



Some of the surviving trees from the Lime Walk.

Cowper is equally forthright in his poem, ‘The Task‘ where he calls Brown the ‘Omnipotent Magician’ who waves his wand to alter the courses of streams and causes valleys to rise. In this case, although he criticises Brown, he also is more intent on ridiculing the vanity of the owners of estates who squander their money and bankrupt themselves to follow the latest trends in gardens and for the sake of being at the height of fashion, they bankrupt themselves, and somebody else gets to enjoy the fruits of their spending.


Storer, who later wrote a book about Cowper’s walks around Olney, claimed that Weston Underwood Park had in fact been designed by Brown, but he was mistaking his Westons; Brown designed Weston in Shropshire. Weston Underwood seems to have been created by the Throckmorton’s themselves and even a cursory visit shows a landscape completely at odds  to brown’s design preferences.

I have been trying to discover more about the gardens at Weston Underwood, but there are very few records concerning the. One document is an agreement to build walls around the garden; the other is an agreement for iron railings to be made at Bedford, which were probably intended for Weston as the surviving pictures do show such railings in front of the house.




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A Valentine’s Day Rose


Rose BudWho Saint Valentine was is not at all certain. He may be a conglomeration of more than one saint, and although no churches in England are dedicated to him, his popularity is now virtually un-rivalled across the world.

Chaucer wrote in his, ‘Parlement of Foules‘ that the birds seek their mates on Valentine’s Day, which is not so erroneous if the weather is warmer than it usually is lately.

                         or this was on seynt Volantynys day

                        Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

As ever, it was the Victorians who were responsible for popularising and, as ever, profiting from the saint with their use of Valentine cards.

The Rose

Roses were sacred to many goddesses in ancient times, including Venus and Aphrodite. The Romans were very fond of roses and the wealthy would shower them from the ceilings at banquets; some reports say people suffocated under the petals. When they could no longer supply enough roses from Rome the petals were imported from Egypt.

The church was very aware of the rose’s association with profane love and initially the rose was frowned upon; but you can’t suppress flowers in the same way as you might books and creeds. The church, with its usual method of adopting pagan customs and then Christianising them, relented, and the rose came to take on Christian symbolism.

According to one medieval myth, roses were originally white. The story tells how the Crown of Thorns was in fact a rose briar with white flowers. As Christ bled, the petals were stained red with his blood. Red roses thus represent Christ and martyrdom. The white rose represents the purity of the Virgin Mary.

The rose bud may also represent Christ, or in the secular world, the object of the lovers affection and devotion; the lover of course, always being a man.

The monk may seek and praise Christ as the rosebud in the heavenly realms , whilst the courtly lover would search for her in a physical form, here on earth.

The most popular book during the medieval period was the ‘Romaunce of the Rose.’ The book was begun by Guillaume de Lorris c. 1230, and it is generally accepted that he failed to finish it. Jean de Meun completed the book c. 1275. Although written in French, educated knights would have had no problem reading the book. Later, when the 100 years’ war with France made it more politically correct to speak English, Chaucer made his own translation.

The story is set within a garden and tells of the trials and tribulations of the lover to achieve his heart’s desire – the rose bud.

Nowadays we are unlikely to chase our desire in a garden, as many people are glued to their various electronic devices. Ordering your roses online is very easy – and paying is even easier.

The sale of roses for mid-February is huge, with the price often trebling its usual level. No self-respecting lover will accept anything other than red roses.

The more cost-aware lover may well buy his roses considerably cheaper after February 14th, but I suspect the object of his affection would be most unlikely to appreciate his financial acumen.

The modern Valentine Day rose is usually in bud; for the manufacturer’s advantage not ours, as they are less likely to be damaged.

The recipient, meanwhile, can try as she may, but the rose buds rarely open, and even more rarely bear any scent.

How may well Shakespeare lament,

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’

when sadly, these roses do not smell at all.

Maybe today it is enough that you send a text and tag a heart to it. Not very romantic, but that is the modern world.

‘Amor vincit omnia,’

‘Love conquers all,’

as the bracelet of Chaucer’s prioress proclaimed.

Happy Valentine’s Day.



To see a fine collection of old Valentine’s cards, visit the Oxfordshire Mueum at Woodstock:

Where I shall giving my talk

‘A Garden Enclosed – Sacred and Secular Love in The Medieval Garden’

on March 5th 2016 at 2.30 pm.

See the museum web site for more details.


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