King Richard III, or (as Shakespeare called him) “Thou toad, thou toad”
(Richard III, 4.4.149)

Toads have had a bad rap in the west. At least as far back as Shakespeare the toad’s ugliness had become a synonym for anything loathsome. And then there is the poisonous nature of toads. Could anything so repulsive and toxic not be evil? And let’s not forget the association of toads with witchcraft, and even Satan himself.

On the other hand, according to Robert DeGraaff (The Book of the Toad), “There is a great deal of evidence that in early Asiatic cultures and in the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas the toad was regarded as a divinity, the great primeval Earth Mother, the source and end of all life.”

Today, there is evidence that reality falls somewhere in between.

All toads have toxic substances in the skin and parotid glands. Ingestion of toads or toad cake (i.e., the dried secretions) can lead to intoxication. They secrete one or more of five compounds: bufotoxin, bufotenin, 5-MeO-DMT, bufotalin, and bufalitoxin.

Most toxic compounds of these toxin are steroids similar to digoxin. Patients who have inadvertently ingested toad toxins usually have gastrointestinal symptoms consisting of nausea, vomiting, and abdominal discomfort.

Toad secretions and cake have been used as a drug for its cardiotonic, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic (pain relief) effects since ancient times. Doctors in China have used Bufo genus toad cake dissolved in water to treat heart disease and slow the spread of cancerous cells for centuries.

The mild poison of most toads in the U.S. is not lethal to humans, but it can cause allergic reactions. It is important to wash your hands after touching a toad.

yellow dart toads
“If you bite it and you die, it’s poisonous; if it bites you and you die, it’s venomous.”
Toads are not venomous. They secrete toxins rather than injecting it.

Two Poisonous Toads in the U.S.

Cane toads

The glands of American toads secrete bufotoxin, a poisonous substance meant to make the toad unpalatable to potential predators. Although most toads in the United States are only mildly toxic, their secretions can cause serious damage when smaller pets (such as dogs or cats) eat one of these toad varieties.

I’m going into some detail here because these two species pose a real danger as opposed being a nuisance or discomfort, like most toads in this country.

FYI, the most poisonous toad in the world is the golden poison frog (Phyllobates terribilis), also known as the golden dart frog or golden poison arrow frog, is a poison dart frog endemic to the rainforests of Colombia. Think curare.

Avoiding toads is relatively easy for most of us: they are nocturnal, and they hibernate underground during cold weather.

There is no specific antidote for toad toxins, so pay attention!

Rhinella marina (Cane Toad)

Cane toads’ native stomping ground ranges from to the Amazon basin in South America all the way north to the lower Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas. They have established habitats in Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam (including Cocos Island) and Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and Republic of Palau. In Australia, where farmers originally introduced them to help control scarabs eating sugarcane, cane toads have become one of the worst invasive species in the world.

Cane toads
Adult Cane Toad

The skin-gland secretions of cane toads (bufotoxin and bufotenin) are highly toxic and can sicken or even kill animals that bite or feed on them, including native animals and domestic pets.

When swallowed, cane toad toxin can affect the heart and central nervous system. People may experience blood pressure swings, breathing problems, paralysis, seizures, salivation, twitching, vomiting, and crying. Adult cane toads can secrete enough toxin to kill a small child. In severe cases. exposure can cause death through cardiac arrest, sometimes within 15 minutes. At the least, the skin secretions irritate the skin or burn the eyes of people who handle them.

Humans can also use this toxin as a weapon. The Emberá and Wounaan people of Panama have traditionally used Cane Toad toxins on the tips of their arrows.

The prevalence of a toxin resistance gene makes it possible for some snakes of the sub-family Natricinae to consume native toads. In a 2021 article from the Journal of North American Herpetology, researchers Jordan Donini and Sean Doody said, “We documented successful consumption of the invasive cane toad by the Southern Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata) in southwest Florida, both in the wild and in the laboratory.”

Depending on where you live/travel, it can be important to know the difference between a cane toad and a native southern toad (Anaxyrus terrestris). Adult cane toads are much larger than adult southern toads, which only grow to a maximum of approximately 3 to 4 inches. Cane toads do not have ridges across the head, as seen in the southern toad.

Cane Toad Appearance:

  • Tan to reddish-brown, dark brown or gray
  • Creamy yellow belly
  • 4”-6” long (sometimes 9 inches)
  • Backs are marked with dark spots
  • Warty skin
  • Triangular parotoid glands on shoulders that secrete a milky toxin substance (native southern toads have oval glands)
  • No ridges on top of head unlike native southern toad

Incilius alvarius (Sonoran Desert Toad)

The Sonoran Desert Toad – previously known as the Colorado River Toad – is native to the United States and Northwestern Mexico. Like the Cane Toad, the Sonoran Desert Toad secretes bufotoxins that can seriously injure humans and kill smaller animals such as dogs.

colorado river toads
Sonoran Desert Toad

Their native habitat in the US includes Arizona, New Mexico (where they are a threatened species), and California (where they are a species of special concern). Because these toads are native, they cannot be legally killed in those areas. That hasn’t stopped people from trying to harvest their toxins.

Sonoran Desert Toad appearance:

  • Olive green to dark brown color
  • Belly is cream colored
  • 3”-7” long
  • Smooth and shiny skin, but warty
  • Distinctive oval glands behind each eye
  • Visible glands on their hind legs

Psychedelic Toads

In 2022, the National Park Service had to issue a blanket warning to visitors not to lick wildlife, especially toads. The toxins that some toads secrete can (under specific circumstances) cause psychedelic hallucinations.

The smoke from dried toad cake of both Cane Toads and Sonoran Desert River Toads causes hallucinations. Licking a toad will likely just cause extreme discomfort for both yourself and the toad.

Cane Toad secretions contain bufotenine, a tryptamine that can have hallucinogenic effects in large enough doses. Several religious traditions have used this toxin for ceremonial purposes. The Olmec obtained bufotenine by milking toads over hot rocks and then using the toxin as a narcotic. Chemical analysis of seven Haitian “zombie powders” found secretion glands from Cane Toads, along with puffer fish and hyla tree frogs.

Smoking dried toad toxin may cause you to see them stand up and play musical instruments.

Sonoran Desert toads secrete an enzyme known as O-methyl-transferase, which converts bufotenine into the extremely potent psychedelic 5-MeO-DMT. When a human inhales smoke from 5-MeO-DMT, they experience hallucinations many have called “religious.” Researchers are developing treatments for depression, anxiety, and addiction from the psychedelic properties of Sonoran Desert toad secretions. Dr. Alan K. Davis, a clinical psychologist at Johns Hopkins University warns, “It’s such an intense experience that, in most cases, doing it at a party isn’t safe. It’s not a recreational drug. If people get dosed too high, they can ‘white out’ and disassociate from their mind and body.”

Ingesting Sonoran Desert Toad toxin orally does not cause hallucinations, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. According to the National Poison Center, “Licking toads (typically cane toads) can be dangerous, however, and may cause muscle weakness, rapid heart rate, and vomiting.”

The Toad Pharmacy

All Bufo species of toads have parotid glands that release toxic substances when the animals are threatened. These toxic substances are biologically active compounds, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, serotonin, bufotenine, bufogenin, bufotoxins, and indolealkylamines. You might notice that the first four listed here are familiar!

In “The Development of Toad Toxins as Potential Therapeutic Agents” by Ji Qi, Abu Hasanat Zulfiker, Chun Li, David Good, and Ming Q. Wei, the authors make the following points:

  1. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), processed toad toxins have been used for treating various diseases for hundreds of years. Modern studies have revealed the molecular mechanisms that support the development of these components into medicines for the treatment of inflammatory diseases and cancers.
  2. Recently there have been studies that demonstrated the therapeutic potential of toxins from other species of toads, such as Australian cane toads.
  3. Toxins from toads have long been known to contain rich chemicals with great pharmaceutical potential. Recent studies have shown more than 100 such chemical components, including peptides, steroids, indole alkaloids, bufogargarizanines, organic acids, and others, in the parotoid and skins gland secretions from different species of toads.

Frogs or Toads?

Many people confuse frogs and toads. After all, they are biologically related and share many characteristics. Scientifically, frogs and toads belong to the same taxonomical group. Both have glandular skin and similar diets, which they swallow whole. Additionally, both are amphibians and periodically shed their skin.

Live on landLive near water
Warty-looking skinSleek, smooth skin
Dry skinMucus-covered skin looks wet even when dry
Short legsLegs longer than head and body
Get around by crawlingHop instead of crawl
Broad, flat nosePointed nose
Spawn in chainsSpawn in gooey clumps
Solid black, round shaped tadpolesGold-flecked, slim shaped tadpoles

Toad Miscellany

This is clearly not a toad; it’s a frog. Note the green skin and long legs.

Among amphibians, the anurans, or frogs and toads, are perhaps the most intelligent, and have the largest brain-to-body ratio of the amphibians.

By and large, the brighter the toad’s coloration, the more toxic it is.

American toads hibernate during the winter. They will usually dig backwards and bury themselves in the dirt of their summer home. However, they may also overwinter in another area nearby.

You can find toads in all but the coldest parts of the world.

Adult toads eat insects, snails, slugs and earthworms.

Toads do not drink water. Instead, they absorb it through their skin.

Toads in the Super Mario Brothers franchise do not have the same physical characteristics of other toads. They are staunch protectors of the Mushroom Kingdom!

Despite spending most of its life on land, a toad will return to the water during the mating season. They lay their eggs in water.

Being carnivores, toads prefer eating live meat. They do not consume dead meat or previously killed animals. Technically, they are able to consume fruits and vegetables, but it might not make them happy.

A toad will also eat its own skin after shedding it. However, they do this to hide from predators rather than for any nutritional value.

Toads live approximately 5-10 years in the wild. However, a toad in captivity can live up to 40 years.

Collective nouns for a group of toads includes a knot, nest, array, knob, knab, lump, and squiggle.

Toads can carry salmonella, which they can transfer to humans or other animals handling them.

Toads are great additions to any garden because they eat the pests that may plague the plants—and the gardeners.

Bottom Line: Better know toads!


Besides the actual labor and costs involved, “taking care of” the out-of-doors can be harmful to the environment. Creating the beautiful, healthy gardens we love can have less than ideal side effects on the planet and on our own bodies.

Take Care of the Environment

Many tasks that were formerly done by hand, now performed with the help of machinery or strong chemicals, can cause long-term damage even as they make life easier in the short run.

Noise Pollution

Gas-powered lawn mowers range from 82 to 90 decibels. Weed whackers make 96 decibels of noise. Hedge trimmers can blast away at 103 decibels. Gas-powered leaf blowers make 80 to 92 decibels of racket.

Proper ear protection is nearly as important for safe operation as being able to reach the pedals

Here’s one specific example. More than 11 million gas powered leaf blowers (GLB) operate in the US. Most are powered by inefficient 2-stroke engines. According to a study by Erica Walker and Jamie L. Banks, noise from this equipment was found to exceed WHO outdoor daytime standards (55 dB) up to 800 feet away from the source. The ability of this sound to travel over long distances (because of strong low frequency components) suggests that GLB sound has wide ranging impact on surrounding communities. The noise is intolerable to some and many communities have enacted ordinances restricting their use.

Ear protectors can help save your hearing, but also consider your neighbors!

Better alternative: A lawn mower that mulches leaves and clippings, thus using a natural fertilizer to enrich the soil

Air Pollution

Small-motor, gasoline-powered equipment is a significant contributor to climate change. According to the EPA, off-road gasoline-powered equipment, such as lawn mowers and leaf blowers, emit approximately 242 million tons of pollutants annually, just as much as cars and homes.

Chemical fertilizers also create substantial amounts of air pollution. Only about half of the ammonia used to make nitrogen fertilizer contributes to crop growth, while the remaining ammonia is returned to the atmosphere as nitrogen gas, causing an increase in greenhouse gas and the eutrophication of rivers.

Better alternative: Electric or hand powered tools are quieter and create much less air pollution

Soil and Water Pollution

Fertilizers contain high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, which can lead to oxygen depletion, overgrowth of vegetation, and fish kills.

Excess nutrients can cause harmful algal blooms in freshwater systems, which not only disrupt wildlife but can also produce toxins harmful to humans.

Fertilizers can also leach through soil into groundwater, which is very harmful to the surrounding ponds, streams, rivers, and oceans.

Better alternative: Compost kitchen scraps and yard waste to fertilize plants naturally.

Pesticides and Herbicides

Is it best to live and let live?

Chemical herbicides and pesticides can contaminate soil, water, turf, and other vegetation. In addition to killing the targeted insects or weeds, they can be toxic to a host of other organisms including pets, birds, fish, beneficial insects, and non-target plants.

Better alternative: Pulling unwanted plants, creating physical barriers with mulch, or using less harmful alternatives such as vinegar or soap

Ecosystem Disruptors

Sometimes non-native or non-adaptive species in the garden can wreak havoc on the local ecosystem.

I recently wrote about invasive species that started out as garden ornaments, including kudzu and Japanese honeysuckle. Different growth patterns and the lack of local predators allow these plants to grow out of control in their new environments, often displacing native species.

Lush green lawns actually create what scientists call “ecological deserts.” Grass monocultures wear out soil nutrients quickly and provide nothing for local insects and other wildlife to eat. The lack of flowering plants contributes further to declining pollinator populations. Grass lawns also require more water than any other type of ground cover, a growing concern in many drought-prone regions.

Better alternative: Try local plant varieties that are already adapted to regional conditions or replacing grass with “pollinator lawns

Take Care of Your Physical Well-Being

Gardening requires physical exertion, including lots of bending, stooping, digging and carrying. The repeated gardening actions put strain on your back and joints like your knees. If you already have problems with pain or limited mobility, taking care of your garden can worsen those symptoms. Distribute the work rather than having marathon days or weekends. Also, some equipment can be helpful, such as stand-up weeders and kneeling benches.

Gardening can also seriously injure your skin. Fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides can cause skin irritation and even chemical burns. Without proper sun protection, gardeners run the risk of sunburns and sun stroke. Exposure to irritants in plants like rue, celery, geraniums, and daffodils can result in reactions ranging from rashes to serious illness.

Participating in lawn mower racing also greatly increases the dangers of injury from crashes or flips. Better wear a helmet!

BOTTOM LINE: Choose your tools and products carefully and use sparingly. Despite the negative impact gardening can have on the environment, with a little thought, and perhaps a little behavior change, gardening can truly benefit the earth.


Didn’t know that artichokes are members of the daisy family? Lots of people don’t. There are many surprises in this enormous plant family. It boasts 1,911 genera and over 32,913 species! But even so, so what?

Well, it’s National Garden Month, and it turns out that the daisy family—a.k.a., the Asteraceae family and the Sunflower family—has gardeners covered for both food and beauty.

Daisy chain

Note: The lists that follow are illustrative, not exhaustive!

Delicious Daisies

Have you had your daisy today? Dandelion greens? Probably not. Perfectly edible, they were introduced into the New World by European immigrants in the 1700s as a food source.

Artichokes are surprisingly pretty in the garden

Today, not so much. But what about the following?

  • Lettuce (various varieties, cultivated for the last 5,000 years)
  • Endive
  • Chicory
  • Artichokes
  • Jerusalem artichoke (a.k.a. sunchoke, sunroot, earth apple)
  • Sunflowers
  • Safflower
  • Tarragon
  • Salsify
  • Stevia
  • Camomile
  • Sage
  • Absinthium

Medicinal Daisies

Chamomile being harvested for tea

People use daisies to make all sort of medicines: antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, diuretic, wound healing, and more. According to the World Health Organization, over 80% of the world’s population depend on traditional and folk medicine. Agata Rolnik and Beata Olas have written a fascinating study of the many ways plants in the daisy family can protect human health. Some daisies frequently used for health purposes include the following:

  • Wormwood
  • Camomile
  • Dandelion
  • Yarrow
  • Tansy
  • Milk thistle
  • Echinacea

Beautiful Daisies


Though plants in the daisy family are often also edible or medicinal, many people know them primarily for their beauty, for example daisies, dahlias, and coreopsis. But also including:

  • Gerbera daisies
  • Shasta daisy
  • Asters
  • Calendula
  • Zinnia
  • Chrysanthemum (also has insecticidal properties)
  • Marigold (a.k.a. German stinkblumen)
  • Carnation
  • Coreopsis
  • Brown/black eyed daisies

Commercially Important Daisies

French Marigold
French Marigold

A wide array of plants in the daisy family are grown for commercial use. They’re everywhere, including food crops, cooking oils, sweetening agents, coffee substitutes, and herbal teas, as well as all the members of the asteraceae family that florists rely on. One that surprised me is the French marigold, used in commercial poultry feed and produces oils used in colas and the cigarette industry.

  • Common marigolds – insect repellent
  • Chrysanthemum – produces insecticides
  • Guayule – hypoallergenic latex

Daisies for Beekeepers

Red Sunflower
Daisy Family
Red Sunflower

Colorful, fragrant daisies attract all manner o pollinators, particularly bees. Beekeepers often plant members of the asteraceae family to keep their bees happy.

  • Sunflowers
  • Knapweed
  • Some species of goldenrod (for an especially high protein pollen)

Daisy Black Sheep


Not every variety of the daisy family finds a warm welcome, for various reasons.

  • Dandelions, as a robust weed and cause of contact dermatitis
  • Ragweed causes so-called hay fever
  • Ox-eye daisy, causes both contact and inhalant allergy
  • Any-pollen heavy plant can aggravate rhinitis for allergy sufferers


Mutant Daisies
Some daisies are just weird.

Daisies are old: they were first described in 1740. But the oldest known fossils are pollen grains dated to c. 76-66 million years ago. The family is huge: 1911 genera and at least 32,913 named species. It is arguably the largest plant family, possibly rivaled by orchids. Both families are too big to count. They’re everywhere, on every continent except Antarctica. I’ve focused on flowers and herbs, but it also includes shrubs, vines, and trees.

Bottom line: Whatever the garden needs, consider the Daisy family!


April is National Garden Month, packed with garden tours and garden shows, and it’s almost all about flowers. But 35% of U.S. households grow vegetables, fruits and, “other food”—whatever other might mean. I was pleased to find these great garden statistics at Ruby Home and Cooped Up Life. (Please note: garden plants can be poison!)

Who Gardens?

  • Gardening by Gender:
    • Male 52.5%
    • Female 47.5%
  • Gardening by Age: More than half of all gardeners are under forty-five.
    • Ages 29-34 (millennials) – 29%
    • Ages 35-44 – 35%
    • Other – 36%
  • Gardening by Marital Status: Married people are by far more likely to garden.
    • Married – 71.6%
    • Single – 11.6%
    • Widowed – 6.8%
    • Divorced – 5.6%
    • Other – 4.5%
  • Gardening by Income: The 2021 national median annual income was $79.9K, but here’s the breakdown among gardeners.
    • $100K and higher – 34.1%
    • $75-$99K – 20.5%
    • $50-$74K – 2.6%
    • $25-$49K – 17.1%
    • $25K and lower – 5.8%
    • (And I don’t know why the total is less than 100%!)
  • Gardening by Education Level:
    • I was surprised that 79% of people who garden attended college or are college graduates.
Balcony Garden
  • Gardening by Dwelling:
    • 91% of people who garden live in a single-family dwelling and garden in their backyards
    • 2 million (5%) – grow food at neighbors, family or friends
    • Some homeowners as well as apartment dwellers—1 million (3%) – grow food in a community garden, aka urban farms.

Only 1% grow food at other (unknown) locations. That 1% is still significant. Condominium or apartment owners and renters often grow herbs indoors, on window sills or with the help of grow lights. Plants grown in containers or hanging pots on patio or balcony, and rooftop gardening are becoming more popular options.

Terraced Roof Garden, Fukuoka, Japan

Why Garden?

Overall, 55% of U.S. households (71.5 million households) garden. Of those who garden, 55% garden primarily to create a beautiful space, and 43% garden primarily to grow food.

Growing Activity Percent of Gardeners
Flowers 72.90%
Vegetables 51.40%
House plants 47.00%
Shrubs 43.70%
Ornamental/perennials 38.20%
Fruit trees 18.80%

Clearly, gardeners often garden in more than one way! But growing food (fruits, vegetables, berries, and others) has been the fastest-growing gardening category in the past five years.

According to the National Gardening Association, 35% of U.S. households, or 42 million households total, grew vegetables, fruits, and other foods in 2021, an increase of 6 million from five years prior. Having 1 in every 3 American households growing food is a massive 200% increase since 2008. Most of the growth came from millennials and families with children.

The average U.S. garden is 600 sq.ft. but the median garden is 96 square feet (12 feet X 8 feet). In other words, 50% of the U.S. gardens are 96 square feet or smaller.

Garden Size Hours/WeekPeople Fed/Year
100-199 sq.ft.0.5-1 hr1 person
200-399 sq.ft.1-2 hrs1-4 people
400-799 sq.ft.3-5 hrs2-6 people
800-1499 sq.ft.4-6 hrs4-8 people
1,500-2,000 sq.ft.6-8 hrs6-10 people

Community Gardens

Kaylin Mrbral grows produce with StreetScapes, an organization in South Africa that creates urban gardens as a method of creating work for those living on the streets, providing food for people facing food insecurity, and beautifying the urban landscape.

Humans have worked together as communities to grow food since our very early ancestors first started experimenting with agriculture. People in small groups grazed animals or raised food plants on communally-held land. Even when humans began to divide up land and consider property to be a privately-held commodity, groups of people still worked together to perform tasks that were very labor intensive or time-sensitive, such as harvesting crops.

Community Garden in South Beach, Miami

In the US, community gardens started to regain popularity in the 18th century. Moravians created a community garden for Bethabara, Winston-Salem, in North Carolina to encourage families to come together and grow their crops on shared land. Since 2012, the number of community gardens has increased 44%. Today there are 29,000 community gardens in the 100 largest U.S. cities.

Community gardens play an important role in addressing food insecurity and food deserts in urban areas. According to the USDA, approximately 13.5 million people in the US live in an area with little to no access to grocery story or supermarket; some researchers put the estimate as high as 19 million. In such areas, community gardens provide residents with critical access to fresh produce as well as simply having more food in general.

School Garden

Community gardens in schools or on school grounds provide even more benefits. In addition to improving students’ diets and the quality of school lunches, these gardens provide students with hands-on lessons about biology, plant life cycles, nutrition, and patience. Children who garden regularly come into contact with beneficial soil microbes that improve their immune systems. They also practice self-regulation, experimental mindsets, empathy, and observational skills. When students grow food in a school garden, research suggests that the entire neighborhood benefits from cross-generational learning, community involvement, and better health.

Why Grow Food?

Because the average garden produces $600 worth of food, and the average return on investment is enormous: it was 757% in 2021. Even a small food garden of 100-200 sq.ft. can feed one person year-round.

Within the food category, growing vegetables was the most popular trend. And what are the most popular vegetable to grower?

Vegetables by Percentage of Gardens
  • Tomatoes 86%
  • Cucumbers 47%
  • Sweet peppers 46%
  • Beans 39%
  • Carrots 34%
  • Summer squash 32%
  • Onions 32%
  • Hot peppers 31%
  • Lettuce 28%
  • Peas 24%

Food gardening is pretty evenly distributed across regions of the U.S. This somewhat even distribution per region demonstrates people’s willingness to garden no matter where they are – in Florida, where the growing season is year-round, or New York, where gardening is limited to just five months a year due to the weather conditions.

  • South 29%
  • Midwest 26%
  • West 23%
  • Northeast 22%
Sustainable Gardening Instruction at the University of Hawaii

Other Benefits of Gardening

But what if you don’t need to garden to put food on the table?

Of the entire U.S. population who grow vegetables, 25% do so because it tastes better, and they prefer their products to be as fresh as possible. A lot of produce has a higher nutrituonal content when eaten shortly after being harvested than when it sits in transit and on store shelves for days or weeks before being eaten.

And if you are fine with supermarket taste and freshness? Do it for your health and well-being! As an exercise, gardening is comparable to biking, walking, or jogging. Gardening activities, such as pulling weeds, strengthen cardiovascular health and increase muscle tone and dexterity.

Additionally, multiple scientific studies linked gardening to emotional well-being and an increased sense of accomplishment and happiness. Here are some of the key findings from research studies by UNC Health and Princeton University:

  • Gardening fosters self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment.
  • Gardening relieves stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Gardening increases the level of vitamin D, vital for the normal functioning of the immune system.
  • Gardening increases the level of serotonin, a brain chemical responsible for the feeling of happiness.
During WWII, many Americans grew food in Victory Gardens as part of the war effort.

Gardens of any sort are good for the environment! Plants act as highly effective air cleaners, absorbing carbon dioxide, plus many air pollutants, while releasing clean oxygen and fragrance. Also, a dense cover of plants and mulch holds soil in place, reducing erosion and keeping sediment out of streams, storm drains, and roads. Gardens create an ecosystem for birds and insects. Increasingly, gardeners choose plants and locations with an eye to incorporating native species, attracting pollinators, or reducing watering cost.

Bottom line: Gardening is good for what ails you—and if nothing is ailing you, it’s good for you anyway!

Claude Monet in the garden at Giverny, an inspiration for many of his paintings.

1:56 AM

And it hit me: I hadn’t written a blog! Where did the days go since Friday?


Well, I spent a lot of time birdwatching, and was rewarded with titmice, chickadees, bluebirds, goldfinches, purple finches, house finches, grackles, bluejays, cardinals, red bellied woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, mourning doves, white throat sparrows, wrens, brown thrashers, and—of course—robins. 

Today for the first time ever, I saw a pair of Eastern towhees! They’re usually very shy, but the males sing and show off their tails in flashy displays to attract mates in the spring. Remind you of any characters or real people you may have encountered?

I had a chance to enjoy the acrobatics of Stanley and Ollie at the bird feeder.  They’re better than a professional circus troupe, but without the spandex and sequins! (For more about their antics, check out an earlier blog I wrote about the behaviors and habits of squirrels in my yard and elsewhere.)

And a couple of days ago I spotted a five-foot long black racer coiled in a pussywillow tree behind my house. (Black racers are very common in the southern US, but they are not venomous or dangerous. Random fact — these snakes can vibrate their tails, making a sound very similar to a rattlesnake.)


Visiting yard plants is always interesting this time of year (sometimes a bit confusing). I found that a purple baptisia planted by the front door has migrated to a side garden near the back—clearly the work of fairies.

I have a single rose bud opening (although my neighbors’ roses are hanging heavy).

The rhododendron has its first bloom, and azaleas are going wild. Irises are so heavy-headed that they are resting on nearby azaleas. My peonies aren’t as far along as they were three years ago, but they’re showing lots of buds for the future.

The patio pots have flourishing mint, chives, oregano, thyme, sage, and—surprisingly—dill and parsley that wintered over.

I’ve walked in the park and along nature trails, finding wild rhododendron, a.k.a. early azaleas. Also spotted were Virginia bluebells, wood ferns, phlox, pink lady slippers, cinquefoil, dandelions, and creeping buttercup. 


Then, too, there were writing tasks. COG Literary Magazine is preparing to print “Pawpaw” and I had to approve the page proof. “Running on About My Mother’s Body” received a second acceptance, so I needed to respond to that and offer a replacement piece. I even wrote the first draft of “Pandemic.”

And I’m involved with two critique groups on zoom and Google hang-out, both new to me.


All of that doesn’t even touch on communications with family and friends.

I’ll try to get out of myself for Friday!

Bottom line for writers: Life happens.


“Why hellebores?” Well might you ask. Because they are my favorite! And because they can be useful for your characters and plots.

When we moved to Ashland, Virginia, we bought an 1858 Greek Revival house on a double lot with old trees and daffodils and not much else. I searched for shade-loving, blooming, evergreen, low-maintenance plants. Voila! Hellebores. They are all of that plus, as a bonus, the blooming happens in winter and early spring.

Behold Hellebore niger, aka Christmas rose, a welcome sight come December. It’s pretty and reliable! The opening picture is from this year, New Year’s Eve. The picture just above is from 12/21/18.  Hellebore niger is the earliest blooming hellebore I’ve found.

Close on the heels of the Christmas rose is the Lenten rose (aka Hellebore orientalis) and its various hybrids. Please note: despite being called Christmas rose and Lenten rose, hellebores are only distantly related to the rose family. This picture of purple and double white hellebores is from March 3, 2019.

Although the flowers and foliage of most hellebores are similar, the Stinking hellebore (Hellebore foetidae) is distinctively different. Its leaves are narrow and knife-like, and cluster at the ends of stalks. The flowers are smaller and droopy, and mostly a pale green.

Hellebores bloom throughout the spring, in a riot of colors. They bloom until the heat of June or July do them in. At that point they drop seeds, and where they are happy, they spread into lovely clumps.

Although they need water during droughts, they are low maintenance. Prune browned-off leaves and dry flowers at will. There are supposed to be a couple of insects and a fungus or so that can attack them, but I’ve never had either. Animals—deer, rabbits, etc.—usually don’t chomp on hellebores because of the (dis)taste of the leaves.

So no wonder I (as well as real gardeners) love hellebores!  But why would a writer care?

All parts of all hellebores are toxic! 

Smart rabbits eat only non-toxic plants in your garden!

Somehow, this did not come to my attention when I wrote My Poison Garden last fall. (How could that have happened?)

Although poisoning is rare, it does occur through ingestion of large quantities, and it can be fatal.

  • Symptoms can include any of the following 
    • Burning of the mouth and throat
    • Excess salivation
    • Vomiting
    • Abdominal cramping
    • Diarrhea
    • Nerve system dysfunction
    • Possibly even depression!
  • The roots contain cardiac glycosides.
  • Leaves and sap contain high levels of ranunculin and protoanemonin.

How might a character be induced to ingest large quantities of a foul tasting plant? 

All you can eat ranunculin and protoanemonin!

Dermatitis is fairly common, caused by handling the plants without protection.  Contact with leaves, stems, flowers, and sap can cause irritation and burning on the skin. Minimal exposure should cause a mild, short-lived irritation and can be treated by washing with soap and water. How might a scene be affected by a character suffering contact dermatitis?

This is a hellebore that is black, not a Black hellebore.

Although hybrids that look nearly black have been developed, historically Black hellebore is another name for Hellebore niger, the white blooming Christmas rose. Black hellebore was used by the the ancient Greeks and Romans to treat paralysis, gout, insanity, and other diseases.  Beware: it can also cause tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, difficulty breathing, vomiting, catharsis, slowing of the heart rate, including collapse and death from cardiac arrest. Not quite so serious: can cause burning of the eyes, mouth, and throat; or oral ulceration, gastroenteritis, a hematemesis. Could the toxicity of hellebores create an illusion of a chronic disease or disorder of unknown origin?

Folklore and legend vary from the sacred to the dark arts. Could your plot take elements from these?

  • According to legend, a young girl who had no gift to give the Christ child in Bethlehem wept, and her tears falling into the snow sprouted the Christmas rose.
  • Witches are reputed to use hellebores in summoning demons.
  • Heracles/ Hercules killed his children in a fit of madness but was cured by using hellebore.
  • Greek besiegers of Kirrha (585 BC) used hellebore to poison the city’s water supply, overcoming the defenders weakened by diarrhea.

Bottom line for gardeners and writers: get thee hellebores!

Poisonous flowers make lovely Christmas cards!