My grandfather was born in the 1870’s. His father was a diplomat in Buenos Aeries. One of seven sons, he was brought up in an age when terrifying stories were used to teach children important facts.
This is the story he told my mum as a young girl:
“One day we were invited to a tennis party. It was a very good day, with many families and young children enjoying themselves. Back then, nobody worried about the children. They were always safe in our houses.
We were watching a long and riveting match. The players were so good that we were totally absorbed. Not a single person there could tear themselves away. The match went to five sets and, eventually, we all stood up to go.
We found the little girl lying dead in the grass beneath a beautiful Laburnum tree. She must have eaten the laburnum flowers. They are deadly poisonous, you know.”
When I was a child my mother told me the same story. I imagined the limp and lifeless child being carried away, wrapped in a blazer, along with the tennis rackets, trophies and balls.
I avoided laburnum trees.
In fact the laburnum horror was so deeply imprinted that when I read Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel in my teens, the description of the laburnum tree in her villa courtyard indicated that Rachel was probably up to no good.
Shortly after I moved to the cottage I was pottering in the woodland side of the garden, admiring the bluebells, when something made me look up. I was standing beneath a small laburnum tree. The combination of sulphur yellow flowers and sky blue bells was stunning but I immediately began to fret.
What if Fly, my treasured dog, ate the flowers or seeds (all parts of the tree are deadly poisonous). Then I discovered that I had two trees. One was close enough to an old apple tree to sling a hammock between the two. I forgot about the dangers of laburnum and enjoyed swinging in my cushioned day bed.
A couple of years later three young boys visited from London, discovered the hammock and spent a happy afternoon swinging higher and higher in the sturdy bed. That winter the laburnum tree blew down in the gales. I had no idea that laburnums are shallow rooted.
So enjoy your laburnum. It is a perfect tree to plant near a house as it probably will not muck up your foundations. Just remember to warn children that it’s poisonous. Wash your hands if you touch it and never attach a hammock to its branches.
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