Wednesday Weed – Laburnum

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides)

Dear Readers, following last week’s investigation of one of the most delicious of plants, I am turning my attention to laburnum (sometimes known as golden chain) which has a reputation as one of the most poisonous. This small tree originally came from southern and central Europe, but was introduced to the UK by 1596. This particular tree was found in the scrubby woodland between the builders’ merchant and Highgate Wood, where it seemed to be doing very well.

Laburnum seeds

Firstly, let’s talk about that dangerous reputation. All parts of the laburnum contain a poisonous alkaloid called cystisine, which is dangerous to humans, horses and cattle. The tree belongs to the Fabaceae, or pea family, and many of the incidents of poisoning occur when children mistake the fresh seedpods for peas. However, on The Poison Garden website, the author can find no accounts of child fatalities from ingesting the seeds during the last century. A 1979 study found 3000 hospital admissions, but this was an estimate extrapolated from cases in the north west of the UK, and the author thought that many of the admissions were because the plant was thought to be dangerous, rather than because of symptoms. There are many cases of children eating the plant, but it seems that generally they recover without medical intervention. One documented fatality, in 2009, involved a 20 year-old man who drank tea made with laburnum leaves and died as a result of cytisine poisoning. However, as John Robertson points out, this rather beautiful tree has suffered out of all proportion to documented cases of poisoning, with parents and grandparents cutting down laburnum trees in their gardens and ignoring much more dangerous plants.

It should be noted that hares and rabbits reputedly find the bark to be a delicacy.

The wood of laburnum has been used for making musical instruments and furniture, and was once used for making bows. The wood from old laburnum trees was known as ‘false ebony’ because it was so dark. These days, it is sometimes used to make garden furniture and barrel hoops. Below, however, is a rather more interesting use of laburnum wood: two spray cans, presumably for creating a higher class of graffiti. The grain of the wood is very beautiful. However, do not use the wood for scratching posts for your cats, as the filings may be ingested during grooming, with unfortunate results, and there is some evidence that exposure to the sawdust can cause ‘constitutional symptoms’ (feeling generally under the weather).

Two spray cans made from laburnum wood (Photo One – see credit below)

There are Laburnum Avenues and Laburnum Roads all over the western world, and indeed even some Laburnum Medical Centres, and in spite of its poisonous nature, it has been used in medications for asthma and whooping cough. Cytisine is also the active ingredient in a smoking cessation drug called Tabex, developed in Bulgaria, and found to be three times more effective than a placebo in helping people to give up. The website for the drug emphasises that cytisine is very close, structurally, to nicotine, but is much weaker, and cites this as the reason for its ‘success’. However, as John Robertson points out on The Poison Garden, this still means that only 31 out of the 370 trial subjects managed to give up, so maybe the best thing to do is not to start smoking in the first place (if you have a Tardis so you can go back in time and knock that Woodbine out of your own mouth).

Dreaming of a laburnum in bloom is said to mean that adversity can be overcome with intelligent effort (if you can muster up such a thing), and in the language of flowers it means forgotten,  pensive beauty. It is the birthday flower for 8th January, though I have no idea how someone decides these things, as any self-respecting laburnum would be sound asleep at this point of the year.

The tree is said to be the influence for Laurelin, the golden tree of J.R.R. Tolkein’s late-published work ‘The Silmarillion’. Although I have read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, I would direct the eager reader to the much less read Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, which I personally much preferred. This has nothing at all to do with laburnum, and everything to do with my wanting to suggest an interesting read for those of you inclined towards Gothic fantasy (which I realise may be a small subset of my readership) .

For all its beauty the laburnum is a little tree, on a domestic scale, one that fits into many back gardens. I rather like this poem by Thomas Hood (1799-1845), sentimental as it is: ‘my spirit flew in feathers then’ is a lovely line, and there is, of course, a laburnum.

I Remember, I Remember

I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day,
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away!
I remember, I remember,
The roses, red and white,
The vi’lets, and the lily-cups,
Those flowers made of light!
The lilacs where the robin built,
And where my brother set
The laburnum on his birthday,—
The tree is living yet!
I remember, I remember,
Where I was used to swing,
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing;
My spirit flew in feathers then,
That is so heavy now,
And summer pools could hardly cool
The fever on my brow!
I remember, I remember,
The fir trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now ’tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from heav’n
Than when I was a boy.


Photo Credits

Photo One (Laburnum spray cans)  –

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14 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Laburnum

  1. Veronica Cooke

    I read Gormenghast a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I haven’t read either the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings.

    I can see a Laburnham tree in my neighbours garden and it always brings a smile to my face.

    Those spray cans made of Laburnham wood are exquisite!

    1. Bug Woman

      I’m glad to find another Gormenghast fan, Veronica – I particularly like the Queen with her ocean of white cats. And yes, I loved the spray cans too….

  2. gertloveday

    There’s a suburb on Melbourne called Laburnum O’m not sure how may laburnums it has, but it’s a lovely leafy place. Beautiful word too.

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Gert, it is a great word isn’t it…the plant world is full of them. For some reason, ‘paeony’ always makes me smile, and so does ‘columbine’…

  3. Andrea Stephenson

    I always knew laburnum by its poisonous reputation – you don’t hear so much about it now but when I was growing up it seemed much more in the consciousness – maybe there were more of them about then. There is a lovely laburnum near my favourite island on the coast – a small tree but quite beautiful in all its phases.

  4. Aline Reed

    I seem to remember that laburnum has an important role in Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel which was a fantastic page turner to read as a teenager – was Rachel a poisoner? Or was Phillip, the narrator, going mad?

    1. Bug Woman

      You’re right, Aline…. I think that laburnum seeds were found by Philip in Rachel’s drawer after Ambrose’s death? I had a period of reading everything that Daphne du Maurier wrote – you’ve made me want to go back for another look….

      1. Sarah Ann Bronkhorst

        A film of the novel is coming out in June: can we expect a rash of copycat poisonings?

      2. Bug Woman

        Well, as it doesn’t seem to be as poisonous as its reputation, I’d be going for Hemlock or Monkshood personally :-).

  5. paulitzer

    A tree that needs reappraisal I think, as you rightly point out, it has a reputation for being poisonous (which it undoubtedly is), but this reputation seems to have stopped people planting it in recent years. There are so many other poisonous, yet anonymous, plants out there, to single the attractive Laburnum out seems somewhat overblown!

    1. Bug Woman

      I couldn’t agree more, Paul. Our assessment of risk is often out of whack. We worry about airplane crashes when the most dangerous part of the trip is usually the taxi ride to the airport, for example….

  6. Toffeeapple

    There was a Laburnum tree in the garden of my very first home and I always looked forward to seeing the flowers in bloom. Gosh, that was a very long time ago.


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