What would you do?

Janice Wells
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So, are autumn crocus toxic or not?

This week I received two emails about toxic plants. One pleased me no end; the other was a bit frustrating and sent me back to the Internet second-guessing my previous research.

In truth, I’m not a whole lot wiser.

Let me share the pleasing one first.

Last week’s column stirred memories in one reader and provided him with a name for flowers from his childhood.

He wrote:

Your beautiful photo caught my eye and I just finished reading your article: “Monkshood: a deadly beauty.”

I was born in Merasheen, Placentia Bay over 70 years ago and from my very early days I remember this big stand of monkshood in our neighbour’s garden, in summer time always full of bumblebees.

I think we were told they were poisonous and for us as children not to touch them. I get back to Merasheen a few times in the summer or winter. August I was home and this stand of Monkshood is still standing and doing quite well. I will have to check further now as I believe there may be another stand growing in the community of Merasheen??

 I have taken photos in the past, with the intention of having someone tell me their name, but alas, to date, I had not taken that further step. Even in August, I thought to myself, this is the time, I'm going to make the effort. I am thrilled and charmed with your article and finally having the name of this monkshood flower. I guess that maybe in the past someone may have called or mentioned it as such, but I don't remember.

Please take solace in that, when you decide that your two beautiful stands of monkshood have to go, their ancestors’ roots are firmly planted and doing well in the harbour at Merasheen.

P.S. The bumblebees are pretty well all destroyed.

Thanks again,

Ernie Walsh


How sad about the bumblebees, but Ernie’s letter is certainly testimony of the wonderful independence of this very old plant. (Monkshood was written about in ancient Rome.)

I do love the mental image of purple spires of monkshood keeping watch, decades after livyers were persuaded to leave Merasheen.

I haven’t had the good fortune to visit this resettled island, but whenever I hear Simani’s words about resettled people “they moved without leaving and never arrived” that still loved island in Placentia Bay comes to my mind.

I admire monkshood so much that I hate to remove it from my garden, and can’t help but think of the thousands of Newfoundland gardens that have been home to this plant for generations with never a problem.

As Ernie said, children may have been told not to touch them, but my new fear is that that very warning might be like “don’t ever stick your tongue on a frozen post.”

We all knew someone who just couldn’t resist.

Now to the other email, from the nursery the autumn crocus bulbs came from:

Thanks for your message. Autumn flowering crocus aren't toxic. They are often confused with autumn flowering colchicum which are. Our website clearly states this.


Well, it’s still iffy in my mind, Dugald Cameron of Gardenimport.com.

The only thing clear about this family of plants is that nothing is clear.

Your website does indeed clearly state that colchicum are toxic, but Drugs.com clearly states that the scientific name for autumn crocus is Colchicum autumnale and, while it encouragingly says that, “The plant and its extracts are used to treat gout and related inflammatory disorders, … may ameliorate hepatitis and cirrhosis, and may have potential in chemotherapeutic regimens,” it also clearly states “all parts are highly toxic. It may produce severe gastric distress, shock, and inhibit normal cell growth.”

There’s a lot more, on this and other websites, about the pharmaceutical uses and the toxicology of autumn crocus, including intentional and unintentional poisoning.

Clearly it’s not so clear to us ordinary mortals, and clearly, I can’t expect Connor Cat to listen when I tell him autumn crocus might make him sick.

Clearly, we all have to make up our own minds.

Janice Wells lives in St. John’s. Her latest book, “Newfoundland and Labrador Book of Musts,” was published October 2010 by MacIntyre Purcell Publishing Inc. You can reach her at janicew@nf.sympatico.ca. Note to readers: please do not send thumbnail-size photographs, as they are too small to publish.

Organizations: MacIntyre Purcell Publishing

Geographic location: Merasheen, Placentia Bay, Rome Newfoundland

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