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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 4th June 2011 

I’ve got this mole. Anyone who recognises that line is showing their age. It’s the start of what used to be a very funny routine from Jaspar Carrott back in the days before he was more famous as a TV mogul and father of ‘that blond off of the Office’. I say it used to be funny not because, like a lot of comedy, it seems dated and quaint looking back at a distance of a two or three decades.
It’s one of those routines that has lost nothing over time and it was still extremely funny.
Until I got a mole.
I first noticed small piles of sand next to a couple of paving stones. When a couple became half a dozen at various points around the paths and patio slabs, I lifted one up to find something had dug a tunnel through the layer of sand the slabs sit on. Then piles of fine earth started appearing in the flower beds around the garden. I don’t have any grass so I was spared the problem of molehills appearing in the middle of a pristine lawn but I was annoyed because I read that moles can lead to plants dying if the tunnel network exposes plant roots.
I tried putting the hose down to try and flood the tunnels but that didn’t work so I just hoped that maybe they would go away in the winter. The appearance of new mounds in the spring coincided with me reading that rats also produce tunnels so I called in the local authority pest controller who confirmed that it was a mole. He said it will just be one because they are solitary and territorial and I didn’t like to ask how they get more moles if that is true.
Finally, today, I bought a couple of traps. They are live capture traps and I think the idea is that you catch your mole and transport him far away to release him. But, as Mrs Beeton might have said, ‘First, catch your mole’. I’ve started by putting the traps under a couple of paving stones but I don’t know if the mole will walk in or if he’ll register something different and dig a new tunnel around the obstacle. I might have to start digging up the beds to find a deeper tunnel through harder ground.
It would all have been so much easier if I weren’t a rubbish gardener.
Strychnine is the poison found in Strychnos nux vomica, the poison nut tree. It was first isolated in the early 19th century but I don’t know when it was first used as a pest control poison. There is anecdotal evidence that rat poison containing strychnine was widely available in the later 19th century and it is reputed to have saved many a poor woman from an abusive husband, though whether that is true outside the penny fiction of the time is unclear.
By the mid-20th century, its use by the public had been restricted but it was still available under control. Professional mole catchers are still able to use it though they are fighting an EU wide banning order.
In 2007, I nearly grew a Strychnos nux vomica tree, in fact I nearly grew two.

Young Strychnos plant 

I’d first tried to get seeds to germinate in 2005. The seeds are very large, very hard skinned and can take over three months to germinate. Unless you are meticulous with watering, you tend to either let the seeds dry out or over-water leading to rotting.  The first batch of 50 seeds I bought all failed in spite of me passing some along to two experienced gardeners who, I thought, would have a better chance than me.

So, in 2007, I tried again and this time two seeds successfully produced plants. These plants reached about 100mm high and produced two true leaves as well as the seed leaves that are the first to emerge. I was unsure what to do with them and followed the advice of someone who said they would not need repotting for a time. That was a mistake.
Being a tree, they have a large taproot that heads straight down into the ground. Except that, in the case of my two plants, the taproots merely twisted themselves around as they reached the bottoms of their pots and got under the crocks so that they were exposed to the air and died.
Since then, I’ve tried two more batches of seed and had absolutely no success. I’ve just got four seeds left which I’ve planted in wallpaper paste in the hope that this will keep the seed moist without rotting.
But, even if something comes of these last few seeds, it would be some years before I had a tree producing its own fruit. I’ll have to hope the traps work. My mole has outstayed his welcome.