Being a country kid I was very much aware that not everything growing in garden, field or forest was good to eat. Great Aunt Mary had a fund of stories about foolish wilful children who didn’t listen to wise advice and went about stuffing glistening berries, tasty looking mushrooms and tantalising fruit into their mouths. She regaled myself, and my siblings and cousins with tales of disobedient greedy brats who died horrible deaths, shrieking and foaming at the mouth, or at the very least were left hideously deformed, sobbing in sorrow and regret. If her aim was to terrorise us into not touching anything without first checking with an adult that it was OK to handle and eat then she certainly succeeded. Obviously it also engendered in me a fascination for the subject. I spent hours making lists of forbidden items, with notes attached. For instance when the season arrived where we broke off sticks of rhubarb, running into the kitchen to raid the sugar bag, then pouring a handful into a twist of paper to use it like a sherbet lolly, I scribbled in my jotter:
“RHUBARB - sticks taste good with sugar - Do NOT eat the leaves. Theresa you will DIE!!!!”
Beside this entry I drew a skull and crossbones
I was big on skulls and crossbones and also placed these beside entries for laburnum, foxglove, deadly mushrooms etc. I made maps to show where I’d found suspect items, and in turn I terrified younger relatives by telling them that if they even wandered close to some plants they might succumb, and the rest of us would have to carry their corpses home to their weeping mothers.
While researching The Nostradamus Prophecy I discovered that it’s Catherine de’ Medici whom France has to thank for ballet, bloomers, perfume and… poison. It is said that she brought from Italy the secrets of scent, thus founding the French perfume industry, but also carried with her the dark art of poison. This is in part linked to the reputation of the famous poison garden of the Medici family situated in Padua. I regret not visiting it when writing The Medici Seal but to my amazement, after that book was finished, I discovered that Britain has its very own poison garden…
Alnwick Castle, home of the Percy family, of song and story and famous as a location for filming Harry Potter. I couldn’t resist having my photograph taken in the courtyard where the Broomstick Flying Lesson was filmed!
And the Poison Garden?
The first thing to say is that the custodians take their responsibilities very seriously indeed. The area is kept securely locked and guarded and entry is only via guided tours given by experts, who have a wide knowledge of plant history, their therapeutic use and modern medical developments.
Vital research is conducted here and there’s a huge amount of information being garnered about effects on the human body - marijuana, magic mushrooms, aphrodisiacs, poppies, and plants so dangerous that they are kept in cages.
The staff are charming, helpful, willing to share information and very interested in visitors’ anecdotes and tales of country lore.
Theresa’s latest book is Spy for the Queen of Scots
More info: http://www.theresabreslin.co.uk/
The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference debates are online with the Conference now moving to different venues around the world. In November Theresa will be with Melvin Burgess to debate themes in Krasnayarsk in Siberia. You might like to join in!
Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper will discuss research for the Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales, at the National Library of Scotland in EDINBURGH on 22nd and 24th October.
Divided City – in conjunction with the Citizens Theatre a schools production is now underway in South Lanarkshire with performances scheduled for February 2013.