Organic gardening: Atropa Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade.

Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers "Grow grow." The Talmud.

Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers “Grow grow.” The Talmud.

May Bank Holiday weekend; perfect for a spot of gardening!

My garden is probably what some may call unconventional; weeds are widespread and have been happily allowed to colonise all four corners of the garden. There are plants that have crept in from next door’s –ST839086

and there are numerous troughs and containers showcasing bones and stones –ST839098 and other pot-bound specimens but rarely intentionally cultivated plants or flowers! ST838971Clover - Something about DartmoorIn a particularly green corner beneath an ear-less rabbit – there are some bones ‘cooking’ – left undisturbed for Nature to work her magic. ST838994They are three ‘Shamanic Massagers’ in the making – I found the deer leg at the side of the road while babysitting the ‘Whippets’.ST838913The jointed part will be ‘unrecognisable’ – once cured, separated and whitened later in the year – and because the deer was killed accidentally rather than by intent – they’ll feel better.

At this time of year – there are so many fascinating ‘weeds’ to marvel and one of my all time favourites is ‘Jack in the Pulpit’… 


and I’m always blown away by that other childhood perennial – the Dandelion Clock…Dandelion Clock - Something about DartmoorI love trumpet and bell-like flowers like Foxgloves and Bindweed – ST835915Boscastle Convolvulus

and common or garden varieties like nasturtiums and petunias.

I bought this ‘Black Beauty’ last year; when opened – the flowers look like floppy upturned velvet hats. black petuniaI was attracted by its darkly good looks – although not poisonous it was certainly powerful enough to make me unusually buy a number of them!  Other than long established shrubs and trees – most of the spring flowers in my garden have naturalised themselves; they’re just windblown weeds – like Celandine, Herb Robert and a carpet of pretty Daisies! Daisy Lawn Something about DartmoorThe Hellebores are past their best now but their faded, bespeckled blooms still add coolness to my unruly beds. ST839076

I like withered flowers and leaves because there is something rather beautiful about the slow process of decay; although it’s a conviction I fail to see in myself when I catch my own moldering reflection these days! ST836053

The plants that fascinate me the most of are poisonous ones of course – like cowled Monkshood – and Deadly Nightshade – or Atropa belladonna.Poisonous plants - Something about Dartmoor

Ever since discovering the descriptive genius of L.P. Hartley’s novel – ‘The Go-Between’ – when Leo discovers Deadly Nightshade growing in a roofless outhouse at Brandham Hall – I too have been beguiled by this potentially baleful beauty – longing to grow a specimen of my own. 

As the best and most powerful description of Deadly Nightshade ever written – the passage reads –

“It wasn’t a plant, in my sense of the word, it was a shrub, almost a tree, and as tall as I was. It looked the picture of evil and also the picture of health, it was so glossy and strong and juicy-looking: I could almost see the sap rising to nourish it. It seemed to have found the place in all the world that suited it best.

I knew that every part of it was poisonous, I knew too that it was beautiful, for did not my mother’s botany book say so?

I stood on the threshold not daring to go in, staring at the button-bright berries and the dull, purplish, hairy bell-shaped flowers reaching out towards me.  I felt that the plant could poison me, even if I didn’t touch it, and that if I didn’t eat it, it would eat me, it looked so hungry, in spite of all the nourishment it was getting. 

As if I had been caught out looking at something I wasn’t meant to see I tiptoed away, wondering whether Mrs. Maudsley would think me interfering if I told her about it.  But I didn’t tell her, I couldn’t bear to think of those lusty limbs withering on a rubbish heap or crackling in a fire; all that beauty destroyed.  Besides I wanted to look at it again.  

Atropa belladonna.” 

The Go-Between - Something About Datmoor

Like the young Leo wanting to look at the Deadly Nightshade again – I have repeatedly returned to the book, the original film and soundtrack throughout my life – and recently thoroughly enjoyed the remake too.  When I first saw the original film in the seventies as an adolescent – the Go-Between sparked a life-long impression – an obsession – an inspiration!

Somewhat in defiance of Leo at the end of ‘The Go-Between’ – when he chants “Delenda est belladonna” (destroy the beautiful woman) as he rips the Deadly Nightshade from the ground – I want to bring one to life.  I have finally reached a time – when I feel safe to plant a Deadly Nightshade of my own in my enclosed garden; my boys are full-grown now – so it can do no harm.

To this end – I bought some seeds on Ebay – and followed the advisory note about immersing the black seeds in water and placing in a fridge to fool them into thinking that the winter thaw has taken place.  Everyday I changed the water and carefully placed them back in the fridge in a sealed container – until finally they were ready to plant.  Belladonna is notoriously difficult to germinate – and it is my opinion that you can’t fool this ‘beautiful lady’ by such trickery.  Out of all the seeds soaked – and planted – only one precious seed has taken root. Deadly Nightshade - Atropa Belladonna seedling - Something about DartmoorI can’t tell you how excited I was when I first noticed its tiny green shoots. Everyday I reach for my magnifier – to marvel at its tiny hairy leaves – first a pair – and now four and counting!  I have noticed she has taken a small bedfellow into her pot right beside her. It’s a spiky, minute plant – whether it is the beginnings of another Belladonna – I’m not sure?  I suspect though that it is an impostor – because the soil was taken from a mole hill rather than using compost. I shall keep my watchful eye on both seedlings! 

I water my ‘Belladonna Babe’ with saved rain water only – and bring her in at night – perversely slugs are very partial to Deadly Nightshade!  For now – while she is so small and vulnerable – she sits at our oak table while we eat are evening meals – and she’s party to all our conversations – and every night I reach for my magnifier to check on progress. She is getting ‘noticeably’ bigger by about a millimeter a week!  And it will be a whole year – before she is ready to bear her “button-bright berries” and “dull purplish, hairy bell-shaped flowers”.  

Every day I bend over her and whisper “Grow grow.” – I’m literally willing her to grow tall and strong and “lusty” – and I can’t wait to behold her when she is full-grown.  You may think I’m a bit of a dark angel for actively encouraging such a wickedly, beautiful plant into my garden but it’s just harmless fascination I assure you.  Gloves are required at all times when handling Atropa belladonna.  

Belladonna Babe - Deadly Nightshade - Something about DartmoorHere she is today 28th May 2016 on a thundery, atmospheric Go-Between-ish afternoon – and she’s listening to the 1971 masterpiece through the open french doors as we speak.  The clouds are towering, the music is climaxing – and all the while my ‘Belladonna Babe’ is quietly growing stronger – more powerful.  Deadly Nightshade - The Go-Between - Something about Dartmoor

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Growing ever stronger and lustier - Saturday - 5th August 2017.  (Year 2)

Growing ever stronger and lustier – Saturday – 5th August 2017. (Year 2)

I love the reddish tinge and hairiness of its succulent leaves.

I love her reddish tinge and hairiness.

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