Prime Thyme Mysteries 1

– Posted in: Book reviews, Plant info
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Many thanks to Kathy for hosting me today! I’m delighted to be a guest at Cold Climate Gardening, to celebrate the launch of Nightshade, the sixteenth China Bayles mystery. China (for those who haven’t yet met her) is a former criminal defense attorney who has opted for a quieter life as the owner of an herb shop in Pecan Springs TX. Fortunately (for those of us who enjoy mysteries), life in the slow lane isn’t nearly as peaceful as she expected. In this post, we’ll be looking at the herbs in China’s first three adventures. Check the tour calendar for posts about the other books in the series.

Thyme of Death

When I wrote Thyme of Death (published in 1992), I’d been studying and growing herbs for years. When I decided to try my hand at writing a mystery series, I wanted to give my protagonist, China Bayles, a distinctive occupation. I also wanted her to reflect my own interests in gardening, crafting, and cooking with herbs. So I created Thyme & Seasons, China’s herb shop, in the Texas Hill Country—a wonderful place to live and garden (as long as you and your plants can tolerate a bit of summer-time heat!)

While the title features thyme (the name of the shop), the “signature” herb is garlic, a must-grow in every garden, a must-have for every cook. Throughout the book, China plants it, cooks with it, recommends it, and loves to tell us all about the plant’s healing qualities—until a friend dies and a customer turns up dead, reeking of garlic. It’s that garlicky smell that gives China the clue she’s looking for to solve the crime.

For all you’ll ever need to know about garlic, check out The Herb Society of America’s Garlic Guide.

Witches’ Bane

Image of monkshoodThe second book involves China’s sidekick, Ruby Wilcox (the owner of The Crystal Cave, Pecan Springs’ only New Age shop), in a plot based on rumors of devil worship and witchcraft. The victim: Sybil, who collects poisonous plants. In her garden are oleander, lantana, mountain laurel, mistletoe, castor plants, water hemlock, jimsonweed, foxglove, death camus, delphinium, belladonna, and tansy. All are dangerous (you knew that, didn’t you?) but the most deadly of all is aconite. Commonly known as wolf’s bane or monkshood, aconite was said to be the creation of Hecate, goddess of the underworld. Its thick root has occasionally (and fatally) been mistaken for horseradish.

Acute aconite poisoning mimics a heart attack, so this herb was a popular means of murder—until the 1880s, when a clever autopsy surgeon figured out how to test a corpse for the plant’s cardiac glycosides. I don’t like to use herbs to kill people, so the killer in Witches’ Bane chose another murder weapon. But there’s enough information about deadly plants in the book to give you a good idea of what can happen when you use plant medicines carelessly.

For lots more about aconite, read the entry in Henriette’s Herbal Homepage.

Hangman’s Root

In Hangman’s Root, I had fun with a plot involving stray cats—hence the signature herb, catnip, a member of the mint family. Researching the plant, I discovered that catnip root was once thought to “raise the bile,” or make people angry. In Colonial times, hangmen drank a tea brewed of catnip root before they did their work. The plant earned the folk name, Hangman’s root.

Image of catnip in bloomI built this bit of herbal history into a plot that involved an animal researcher, an eccentric “cat lady,” and death by hanging. There’s also some interesting information about catnip, the leaves of which have been traditionally used as a sedative tea. And of course, catnip is a favorite of cats. The active chemical, nepetalactone, is an inebriant. Some two-thirds of cats have a gene that’s turned on by this chemical, producing their interesting behavior. Recently, scientists have discovered that this same chemical is a useful mosquito repellent.

For some interesting lore about catnip, read Mrs. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal. The book was published in 1931, so it’s no longer very “modern,” but its collection of lore is fascinating, even today.

That’s it for this post. Thanks again, Kathy, for hosting me here at Cold Climate Gardening. And thanks to all you blog readers for visiting! I’ll drop in during the day today and also on Friday to reply to your questions and comments.

2009 Link for Wormwood

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you’ll visit here again. To enter the drawing, go here.

About the book drawing and Susan’s blog tour 2008

If you’d like to enter the drawing for a copy of Nightshade go here to register. But you’d better hurry. The drawing for Cold Climate Gardening closes at noon on March 29, 2008.

Want to read the other posts in Susan’s blog tour? You’ll find a calendar and links here. To go to the next stop after this one, click here.

About the Author

Susan Wittig Albert is the author of Nightshade, (April, 2008, hardcover)Spanish Dagger, (April, 2008, paperback), and the China Bayles’ Book of Days. She has written fifteen other China Bayles novels, and more than a dozen short stories. Her newest mystery series features Beatrix Potter (The Tale of Hawthorn House). She is also the author of two non-fiction books: Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story and Work of Her Own: A Woman’s Guide to Success off the Career Track. A former English professor and university administrator, Ms. Albert has been writing full-time since 1985. She and her husband Bill Albert have written over 60 novels for children and young adults, including books in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series. Writing under the pseudonym of Robin Paige, the Alberts are also the co-authors of twelve Victorian mysteries, the latest of which is titled Death on the Lizard. They live in rural Texas with a varying assortment of dogs, cats, ducks, geese, cows, and sheep. Ms. Albert is a founder and past president of the Story Circle Network, a non-profit organization created to help women explore their life stories.

In its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Char April 7, 2008, 10:50 am

I am way late in joining Susan on her blog tour, but am still enjoying the ‘ride’. This is FUN!!!

Susan Albert March 28, 2008, 12:04 pm

Mary mentioned lovage. That’s another cool-weather herb that doesn’t do well in Texas. In its place, I dry (in my oven/pilot light only) the leaves from the celery I buy in the grocery. Or use fresh, chopped fine. Not quite the same, but very similar–to my taste, anyway.

Susan Albert March 28, 2008, 12:01 pm

Re: garlic in Texas. There’s a great garlic farm just the other side of Brownwood: http://www.gourmetgarlicgardens.com/ They grow/sell quite a few varieties. Rocambole was probably not a good variety for me to use in Rueful Death, because it does better in cooler weather. Lots of good information on this site.

Susan Albert March 28, 2008, 11:53 am

Carol, the explanation for the different actions of catnip (root vs. aerial parts) is traditional, and not verified by contemporary science. My source for this was Michael Castleman’s HEALING HERBS. I read once that there were other herbs that were once thought to work this way, but I’ve lost the reference. If anyone recognizes this, I’d love to have the citation.

Mary March 27, 2008, 10:13 pm

I frequently add new herbs to my garden inorder to have them on hand for the recipes in the books. Fresh borage and lovage are just wonderful. My catnip never gets a chance to grow very big but the neighborhood cats love it.
I like Carol’s idea of a list of herbs that can do different things depending on which part of the plant used.
Mary in Central NY

Crafty Gardener March 27, 2008, 6:51 pm

I really enjoy the character Ruby in the books. And I love the facts about all the different herbs.

kate March 27, 2008, 5:31 pm

This post brought back many good memories of when I read my first China Bayles mystery. I remember going out and buying two Monkshood after reading ‘Witches’ Bane’. The garden centre staff told me to wear gloves when handling the roots. I love the flowers.

I’m glad this mystery series is still going strong!

mss @ Zanthan Gardens March 27, 2008, 9:02 am

But does garlic grow well in Central Texas? I’ve managed to grow some magnificently large plants of it but the garlic itself was bitter and unusable–I thought from our heat and dry weather. I need to learn China’s secret.

Pam/Digging March 27, 2008, 3:52 am

I’ve never grown garlic, but now I feel as if I should.

Velma March 26, 2008, 7:23 pm

I love how Ruby’s character develops in Witch’s Bane, and how we see some powerful women overcoming prejudice and religious fervor–you are a brave mystery writer. Herbs? Yeah, they’re fascinating, too!

Carol, May Dreams Gardens March 26, 2008, 6:09 pm

I found it interesting that a tea made from the root of catnip supposedly made people angry, whereas a tea made from the leaves calmed people down.

First the hangman drinks the root tea to get up the anger to kill, then he can drink the leaf tea to calm down afterwards.

It would be interesting to make a list of other plants like that, which can serve a dual purpose.

And Susan, I definitely like that you don’t like to use herbs to kill people in your mysteries. That’s a good clue to remember when trying to figure out who dunnit and how!

Susan Albert March 26, 2008, 8:33 am

Kathy, catnip and catmint are common names used to refer to plants in the genus Nepeta. The largest (grandiflora) is usually called catmint. Modern gardeners often lump everything together and call it catnip. The older term (catmint) reflects the common use of catmint as a tea herb–before tea came from China and took Europe by storm , it was a common beverage. There’s more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catnip .

Ben, thanks for the compliment. I used to be a teacher–I guess you can take the woman out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the woman.

our friend Ben March 26, 2008, 7:52 am

Great post, Susan! Like you, I’ve been obsessed with herbs for forever–even wrote one master’s thesis on the development of botany and horticulture from the herbals. (That was one fun research project!!!) Love the way you educate people about herbs while they’re enjoying your mysteries–surely the most painless way to learn!

Kathy Purdy March 26, 2008, 7:12 am

Mrs. Grieve doesn’t seem to make a distinction between Catmint and Catnip. I thought catnip was but one species of the catmint genus. And as best as I can tell, ground ivy is still called Glechoma hederacea, but I’m no taxonomist. (Ground ivy is a lawn weed, but the variegated form is sold as a “spiller” for container plantings.) I have plenty of ground ivy in my yard, and have decided to call it a ground cover and let it have its way in my lilac hedge. Thank you, Susan, for including Cold Climate Gardening on your blog tour. I am especially looking forward to the guest posts that focus on the writing side of the series.

Frances March 26, 2008, 6:58 am

Susan, I started with your first book in 1992 and was smitten with the setting, China and the mystery murder. I still grow garlic as a result of reading about it in your book. The way you weave gardening and herbal lore into the stories is what makes these stories so enjoyable. Thanks for giving us such readable works.