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 Americaâ€™s Garlic Guide.
The 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.
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.
I 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.