The hidden killer lurking on the allotment ….. ?

If I dare make a prediction, I’d say that very shortly seed merchants will be inundated with anxious emails about courgettes. Now I know that some regular readers will think this post is going to be about one of my dreams, but this is a totally genuine, ram-stamped fact, up there with all the other googlefacts we love to share with our friends. This one arrived on our allotment facebook page having been copied there from another allotment group facebook page and possibly copied there from somewhere else. It’s a friend of a friend story if ever there was one, but it’s got all of the basic constituents of a viral folk panic. The facts are sparse, but someone, somewhere ate a meal containing allotment grown courgettes. It was, they said, desperately, unbelievably bitter and so they didn’t finish the meal but threw the remains into the bin. Later that night they felt dreadful, suffered from sickness and diarrhea and got on to the dreaded internet where they self diagnosed poisoning by courgette. Unsurprisingly the diagnosis did not impress any of the emergency doctors they consulted by phone, but the last advised them to go to A&E where the doctor also said he’d never heard of it but he’d go and look it up. Having done so he advised the patient to go home and rest.

Anyway, this story has now reached Bath and I was curious, because it’s the first I’ve ever heard about killer courgettes. A quick search revealed one (yes one) verified death in Heidelberg, Germany – five years ago, when a 79 year old man polished off a plate of courgettes that his wife wisely refused to eat. The toxin in question is called cucurbitacin and it’s a natural constituent of cucurbits (there’s a surprise) – plants like cucumbers, gourds and courgettes – and its there because its bitterness repels herbivores and insects. In fact nearly all the useful chemicals we derive from plants are there for much the same reason, and there’s plenty of evidence that these bitter components are good for us, but only in very small doses! In Mediterranean peasant communities, the gathering and eating of bitter herbs in spring is a deeply rooted ritual.

I also recall that in the past we were advised to fertilize cucurbits in the garden by transferring pollen from the male flowers to the female ones with a paint brush “to avoid bitterness”. This is an important clue, since cucurbitacin is insanely bitter, and plant breeders have gone to enormous trouble to breed the cucurbitacin out of their plants because the customers won’t buy them and certainly won’t eat them. The danger is that many of the decorative gourds have been selected for appearance alone, because they are not eaten. So – for instance – if you grow fancy gourds in the same bed as your courgettes you may well get a hybrid and very bitter courgette. If then you are a seed saver as well, then your saved seeds will be of the hybrid type and will therefor produce more bitter offspring. You could probably go for several lifetimes and not be unlucky enough to encounter an intensely bitter courgette, but the sensible advice would be

  • Never to eat anything you’ve grown if it tastes terrible.
  • Don’t mix ornamental cucurbits with ones you’re going to eat.
  • Be especially careful only to pollinate plants for saved seed under controlled conditions in a greenhouse ( or under insect netting perhaps) to avoid random pollinations from elsewhere on the site..
  • Don’t re-post alarmist rumours, you’re in more danger of being struck by lightning.

Does that sound a bit bossy? Well it’s true, I think that substituting fears and rumours for hard evidence is one of the less attractive features of the internet culture. I’m not against science; I’m against bad science. I’m not against seed merchants but I am certainly cautious about genetic modification. Neither am I against farmers – just for the record – but I am decidedly against intensive chemically driven agriculture because the scientific evidence shows us how dangerous it is.

Enough! The low pressure that has depressed us all is moving off eastwards and the sun even shone for a couple of fitful minutes today. But the temperature definitely went up and the humidity went down and that’s just what our plants need. The last thing we want is an outbreak of blight. Madame is cooking ratatouille in the kitchen – and here’s a confession – until last year I loathed the very sight of courgettes. They always seemed to turn to some kind of primal gloop, and as for aubergines and what I came to speak of as “rat”, I would rather have eaten a dish of pure cucurbitacin. So when I came to writing this piece I couldn’t find a single photo of a courgette anywhere in my bloated collection of 17,000 photos – and I had to go and take one on the allotment. But last year I suddenly discovered that it’s not the vegetable but the way you cook it. I think I had been traumatised by a ratatouille that was cooked on a campsite by a friend, and which was infusd by the rich aroma of methylated spirits and reduced to the kind of texture and consistency we see on the fire escape steps when the students are here.

Anyway, and moving on. Madame paid me a great compliment today when she compared my writing with one of our favourite writers. The compliment was diminished slightly when I realized that being compared with a totally forgotten 1930’s writer had something of an edge to it, but it cheered me up nonetheless.

And the enforced extra visit to the allotment to visit the courgettes was made golden by stumbling on the basal rosette of a guaranteed (Poland and Clement – “Vegetative key to the British Flora”) – common ragwort which perfectly demonstrates what a lyrate-pinnatifid leaf looks like. A picture is worth a thousand words, and I’ve decided to make it my weed of the day. Even more gloriously, the process of finding all that out introduced me to the entirely new world of the white tipped hydathode. I probably should get out more. Madame would agree!

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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