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…..
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.
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).
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
Photo One (Laburnum spray cans) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/observatoryleak/7656772460
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