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Fellow gardeners: Dont eat the daphne

Garden Muse

Note to readers: Beginning in May, please look for Barbara Blossom Ashmun's garden column every other week in the Portland Tribune, rather than the current weekly schedule. In May, the column will appear on May 5 and May 19, and then every two weeks thereafter.

As many of you know, I garden on a wet site, which rules out many plants that need good drainage. Especially when the daphne blooms, I feel deprived, as I can't keep one alive for long, and have finally given up after several deaths.

Ironically, my husband Tom, who is not a gardener, has not just one daphne but a mass of them blooming in his garden. Original to his landscape, they grow vigorously in raised beds close to the foundation of the house, sheltered from winter's winds. They're so big they've had to be pruned more than once to keep from overhanging the sidewalk. Is this fair?

Fortunately, every spring Tom brings me branches of daphne to enjoy in bouquets. It's a bittersweet gift, reminding me that I can't grow them, but mostly sweet as I love the intoxicating perfume. With two indoor cats who will nibble on any green matter and then upchuck it, I perch the daphne bouquet on the bedroom dresser, then shut the door. The scent inside the enclosed room is the essence of spring.

While roaming around the house one morning, I left my cup of tea on the dresser beside the vase. Later, on my way to the kitchen, I took a sip, and only afterwards did I notice a daphne flower floating in the tea. An alarm went off in my brain. Wasn't daphne poisonous? Wouldn't it be wild if it not only died in my garden, but actually got even and killed me? Wait a minute, this could be a great twist in the mystery novel I'm writing. I grabbed a pen to scribble that down.

But first, I Googled 'Is Daphne odora poisonous?' The answer that popped up confirmed that all parts of the shrub are highly toxic. I quickly dialed the number for the Poison Control Center, listed at the bottom of the page (1-800-222-1222). A friendly Oregon Health and Science University nurse with a soothing voice listened to my concern and calmed me right down with clear information.

Turns out, if I'd ingested a toxic dose of daphne, my mouth and lips would burn. Without those symptoms, I had nothing to worry about. Whew! But if anything developed later on in the day, I should call back and ask for Alice, 'as in Alice in Wonderland.' How easy would it be to remember Alice, who obeyed little notes saying 'eat me,' and 'drink me,' with interesting consequences?

Out of curiosity, I searched the OHSU Poison Control website to see which plants are considered poisonous. Some of my favorites turn out to be 'very bad' - cyclamen, elderberry, jonquil, poppy, solomon's seal, and wisteria. Who knew? Plants listed as just plain 'bad,' or 'mildly toxic' include chrysanthemum, dahlia, fern, sedum and even rose.

That same evening when I returned home, I found a voice mail from Alice checking to see if I was OK. Wow, what service. Better than most medical offices. Fortunately I was just fine, and the daphne misadventure had a happy ending.

Plants that you can eat

Sometimes I'm right in the middle of planting or weeding when hunger pangs distract me. That's when I look around for something to graze on until I'm ready to head for the house.

Even if, like me, you don't have a veggie garden to raid, plenty of ornamentals are edible. My favorite snack is nasturtiums, a combination of sweet and peppery. For a taste like honey, bite off the back of the flower and suck out the nectar; then nibble on the leaves for their spicy flavor.

This is a great time to plant some nasturtium seeds in the ground. Even though they're annuals, once you grow them, you'll always have them - the hard round seeds that develop at the end of the season pop around into the bed and sprout the following spring. Nasturtium flowers come in an array of warm colors - orange, red and creamy yellow. My favorite is 'Empress of India,' with deep red flowers and dark green leaves.

Sweet cicely, a shade-loving perennial with fern-like flowers that grows on the north side of my house, is also good to munch on, with a flavor like licorice or anise. The pretty white flowers mimic Queen Anne's lace. Similar tasting bronze fennel, with dark fluffy foliage, does well in sunny places. The new leaves are the most flavorful. Both sweet cicely and bronze fennel will self sow - if you don't want them to spread, cut off the flowers as soon as they go to seed.


Coming Events

• Cedar Mill Library Plant Sale, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., May 7, 12505 N.W. Cornell Road. Plants, books, pots and supplies for sale; proceeds support library programs. Call 503-644-0043 or visit library.cedarmill.org for more information. Admission is free.

• Portland Dahlia Society tuber sale and auction, 7:30 p.m. May 10, Rose City Park United Methodist Church, 5830 N.E. Alameda St. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.portlanddahlia.com or call 503-246-8632.