We lack broadleaves, I said.
I never noticed, he said.
How can you not have noticed? Everything here has these little glassy tiny shiny leaves. It all looks like thyme or boxwood. Bay laurels are the biggest leaves we have in the yard. We need cannas.
Absolutely nothing called fat anything.
Okay then, how about castor bean.
I don’t know what that is.
It’s great. And it’s red. You’ll love it.
Two years later, the castor bean crop has perhaps run amock. We have to cull the volunteers which have reseeded themselves liberally in turns, because last year, starved as I had been for broadleaves and binging on their manifold glories, I could not bear to part with any. They clobbered hedgerows and sprang up in gutters, and even briefly late in the season blotted out the view of the chemin.
Consequently not only are we overrun with castor beans, but M really wants that cull on the front end of the season this time. He’s come to hate them as “invasive.”
What is invasive about a castor bean in the land of tiny leaves?, I say. We need them.
But this year I fold. It’s true, they are out of hand. We had no winter to speak of, and they didn’t even die back. I am on dutiful patrol with a hoe.
The thing about poisonous plants is that if you grow up in a place where everything is out to get you – a Louisiana swamp, for example, or the Florida Everglades, or anywhere more tropical than that – you just assume that you should not roll in, eat, touch, stroke or even smell things too closely before you know exactly what they are. You develop an instinctive defensiveness against the unknown, and for good reason.
In the Everglades you can head out through a tranquil prairie of swaying grasses and find your legs slashed open in bleeding stripes. Or put your nose in a big white flower for a sniff and find your face melting off from a toxic burn like a horror film. Still water is the worst, as your lunch, your dog, or your child, can disappear in a set of jaws without further notice.
Rashes are routine. Cookouts can turn deadly, if the wrong twigs are used. Sharks, malaria, spiders, snakes, relentless sun, chiggers, ticks and toxic plants: It’s not a friendly world over there.
The safest tack is to assume danger as the default, and only to relax when verified otherwise. Preferably on a raised platform with a mosquito net, lots of Benedryl and a gun.
But here in France the human creature has lost those defensive suspicions. It’s been 2000 years since there was anything so menacing as a lion or bear. Nothing nasty lurks under the water. There’s no poison ivy. No wolves. Not even any possums or raccoons to play annoying pranks. There’s nothing poisonous except the classically pedigreed Socratean hemlock, nothing that causes rashes worse than wild parsnips, and one very tiny serpent, the viper, which is on the endangered species list and so rare that if you do find one, you are supposed to call the government to help save it. There’s just nothing outside to hurt you.
It’s all tra-la-la, rolling on the lawn and frolicking through the underbrush, and plucking berries straight from the vine for breakfast.
In this defenseless, and dare I say naive, environment, planting imported daturas and oleanders and castor beans, or even letting your poke sallet come to maturity, can have disastrous consequences. People are just not conditioned to think defensively before they pop a juicy berry in their mouths or make their hot dog campfire roasting skewers out of the nearest straight sticks. They let their dogs gnaw on leafy stems. They let their kids run free and roll in the grass. How pastoral, they think. How in touch with the land. Even the sheep are stupid, apt to eat just about anything, absently munching some poison cud while their big ruminant eyes glaze over. Sheep did not evolve in Florida.
Castor beans remind me of another place I hold dear. They also lend broadleaf and that favorite deep glabrous maroon color to the garden. The blooms are unlike anything else around here. And the growth in one season can tower over a man’s head, so it’s like having a temporary tropical tree on the premises. Or 1000 of them.
This year I will dutifully cull the plantation we have made of toxic plants. Especially since this September we will be hosting a crowd onsite, including many children.
But it pains me to hoe each seedling. They are a precious reflection of my past – poisonous, rugged, and deeply red.