Gardening Mysteries

Volume 20, No. 3, Fall 2004

Gardening Mysteries
Buy this back issue! Available as a downloadable PDF.


  • “Evil Began in a Garden”: The Gardening Mysteries of Sheila Pim by Tom & Enid Schantz
  • Miss Marple & Mr. Wolfe: Classic Gardeners by C.A. Accardi
  • Weeds in the Borders by Carol Harper
  • Where the Wild Things Are by Meredith Phillips
  • Drug Decalogue by Jim Doherty


  • Ruth’s Secret Garden by Nancy Means Wright
  • All the Dirt on Heather Webber
  • The Joe Portugal Guide to The Joe Portugal Guides by Nathan Walpow
  • Rosemary and Thyme by Rebecca Tope
  • The Secret Garden by M.J. Rose
  • The Exploding Compost Heap by Cynthia Riggs
  • Dirt Under Fingernails by Gillian Linscott
  • Snake in the Garden by Kathleen Gregory Klein
  • Cotton Mather’s Garden by M.E. Kemp
  • Slugs, Roses and Murder by Norma Tadlock Johnson
  • Monet, Murder and Mystery by Jane Jakeman
  • Confessions of a Gardener’s Murderous Daughter by Naomi Hirahara
  • Weeding and Writing by Julie Wray Herman
  • Everything’s Coming Up Roses by Karen Harper
  • I Wouldn’t Leave My Little Wooden Hut by Ann Granger
  • Imaginary Gardens by Carol Goodman
  • Gardening Can Be Murder by R. Barri Flowers
  • Face Down in the Garden by Kathy Lynn Emerson
  • The Long Journey to a Blue Rose by Anthony Eglin
  • Death of an Azalea by Carola Dunn
  • Stalked by Flora (and Occasionally Fauna) by Claire Daniels (Jaqueline Girdner)
  • Saga of a Frustrated Garden Writer by Laura Crum
  • An Allotment of Murder by Mat Coward
  • Pushing Up Daisies by Kate Collins
  • It’s Wild Outside the Garden by Meredith Blevins
  • Angel in the Winds by Mignon F. Ballard
  • Gardening in Cyberspace by Donna Andrews
  • Lifescapes by Susan Wittig Albert
  • Murder in a Pot by Peter Abresch


  • Murder in Retrospect: Reviews by Carol Harper, Aubrey Hamilton, Kathryn Lively, Sandy Faust, Mary Helen Becker
  • Gardens and Gardening in British Crime Fiction by Philip Scowcroft
  • In Short: Gardens of Evil by Marvin Lachman
  • The Children’s Hour: Gardens by Gay Toltl Kinman
  • MRI MAYHEM by Janet A. Rudolph
  • Letters to the Editor
  • From the Editor’s Desk by Janet A. Rudolph

Everything’s Coming Up Roses
by Karen Harper (Columbus, Ohio)

Perhaps not everything’s coming up roses, but this fabulous flower has given me inspiration for settings, story and characters in two of my books. To be specific, I have focused on antique roses, especially apothecary and gallica roses, because those two breeds were grown by the Shaker communities of America.
My novel Circle of Gold (Penguin, 1992) took a historic look at the Shaker sect, and my very recent suspense novel Shaker Run (Mira, May 2004) took a contemporary look at the Shakers through a reenactment village. But let me give some background on both the roses and the Shakers.

Ever since I first visited the restored Shaker village called Pleasant Hill, outside Lexington, Kentucky, over ten years ago, I’ve been fascinated by that group of people commonly called the Shakers. They were down-to-earth practical when it came to inventions (washing machine, circular saw) but otherworldly when it came to spirit visitations. Their name came from the fact that, when they were in religious ecstasy, they danced and literally shook.

The Shakers were a unique religious group best remembered today for their simple but graceful (and today outrageously expensive, if you get the real deal) furniture. Some know the Shakers for their wooden oval boxes—and for the fact that they were celibate.

Granted, the latter is not a good practice to increase numbers in a closed society, but they grew their population by the allure of their healthy, prosperous life style, the adoption of orphans, and absolute equality for women and blacks in a pre- and post-Civil War era when such practices were rare.

They were also very talented in crafts and creative art, such as unique music. The well-known song, “‘Tis a Gift To Be Simple,” is theirs, and the term “simple” here hardly means dull or dumb. They strove hard to do all things well, guided by their belief we should accomplish even daily tasks as if they would last for all eternity.

The Shakers were also know for their exacting and very fruitful gardening procedures. Agrarian reformers once came from Europe to see how their fields and gardens were so productive. Many of their practices from the 19th century are still considered modern. Yet there was a spiritual aspect to their gardening. One Shaker adage says, “If you would have a lovely garden, you must live a lovely life,” for they believed, “The garden is an annex of the owner’s mind.”

But one of their other strict credos was that everything needed to be useful, so they grew roses only for sale or medicinal purposes. Roses were never to be used for pleasure or adornment, so they were always clipped off without stem or leaves to keep them from being displayed.

The Shakers had two bestselling garden products during the 1800s and early 1900s. One was herbal remedies and potions, such as henbane for deep sleep and lettuce seeds to cure coughs and even nymphomania! The other was their famous double-distilled rosewater, which in 19th century America was a food flavoring equal in popularity to vanilla today.

But back to books and roses. My husband has always been a great rose gardener; we currently have about thirty bushes in the back yard, and I’ve learned a lot about them over the years. We also live within five minutes of a huge public rose garden, once run by the American Rose Society, which displays hundreds of bushes, including the so-called “antiques.” These roses usually have a once-a-year June bloom and include not only apothecary and gallicas but bourbons, chinas, and the fragrant damasks. How could I not use roses in a mystery book?

In both of my “rose books,” I began sections of text with a few lines from literature that highlight roses and enhance the story and characters. To judge by the huge selection of such quotes I had to choose from, previous writers from Shakespeare to T. S. Eliot must have loved roses.

In both my Shaker rose books, the heroine/amateur sleuth makes her living from roses, breeding them and using them for rosewater. The original recipe for double-distilled rosewater includes the following: Pick rose petals and pluck the small, bitter, white part off the petals. Mix batches of one peck of salted petals with one quart of fresh water and boil (they used distilling equipment). This will give you sweet-smelling rosewater because it extracts the oil. For a double-distillation, run the batch through the boiling again.

In Circle of Gold, set in Victorian America and England, the heroine is an Appalachian girl who grows up Shaker and tends the roses. But she rebels against the restrictive life style—and the celibacy—and goes on to another life.

In Shaker Run, Kate Marburn, the rose grower/amateur sleuth, is hired to tend the gardens at a restored Shaker village where all seems to be sweetness and light. But (of course!) the village and its re-enactors are hiding dark secrets, including murder. A secondary character, an African American herbalist, may be either Kate’s best friend or the villain. Is she the one using Shaker herbs such as foxglove, aconite, belladonna, and Angel’s Trumpet (a form of opium) as hallucinogens and poisons? After all, the thorns of roses may leave a scratch, but herbs, improperly used, may leave you dead.

The Shakers have left America a fascinating legacy and have left me two books, with perhaps more ideas from Shakerabilia still worth growing.

Karen Harper writes contemporary suspense novels set in unusual societies such as the Amish (Dark Road Home; Dark Harvest) and a historical mystery series featuring Queen Elizabeth I as the amateur sleuth (The Thorn Maze, The Fire Mirror). Besides assisting with the family roses, she grows African violets, but hasn’t figured out a mystery plot featuring them yet.

Face Down in the Garden
by Kathy Lynn Emerson (Wilton, Maine)

I must confess up front that I am not handy in the garden. I touch a plant and it dies. Fortunately, I’m terrific at research, which is why Susanna, Lady Appleton, 16th-century gentlewoman, herbalist, and sleuth, the protagonist of the “Face Down” series of novels and short stories, can be an expert on poisonous herbs. She knows a lot about other plants, too.

In those days, every young gentlewoman was trained in the stillroom. When she married, it would be her responsibility to keep everyone in her husband’s household healthy. That meant that she also took an interest in medicinal herbs grown in the “physic garden.”

Some gentlewomen never got their hands dirty, relying entirely upon the efforts of gardeners. There are several gardeners on staff at Leigh Abbey, Susanna’s home in Kent, but when she must spend several months in London (in Face Down Among the Winchester Geese) and discovers that the garden at the house her husband has leased is overgrown and in need of rescue, she shows no hesitation in putting on three-fingered gloves to protect her hands and taking up a digging tool.

I first described the gardens at Leigh Abbey in a short story, “Lady Appleton and the London Man.” The gardens, on the south side of the manor house, cover nearly an acre. From a stone bench, situated beneath an ancient oak planted on a little knoll, Susanna can look out over the long rows of parallel beds in her vegetable garden to the physic garden closer to the house. There, each herb is planted in its own square in open beds raised above the level of the path on oak boards. Closer to the knoll is the ornamental garden, a semi-circular space planted with shrubs, flowers, and a few fruit trees.

This arrangement is fairly typical for an Elizabethan manor house. Gardens were considered part of the architectural design and the usual pattern was to have a kitchen garden, an orchard with apple and pear trees, and an ornamental garden. The chief rooms of the house overlooked the latter and, depending upon the wealth and imagination of the owner, it might feature knots, mounts, topiary work, fountains, sundials, gravel paths, and other decorative elements.

I hadn’t spent a great deal of time thinking about the Leigh Abbey gardens until I began work on the eighth book in the series, Face Down Below the Banqueting House (Perseverance Press, April 2005). In this one, several key scenes take place in the gardens, including a murder. The banqueting house of the title has been built in the branches of Susanna’s oak tree in anticipation of a visit from Queen Elizabeth. Banqueting houses, in spite of the name, were not used for banquets, but rather as a place to gather, after a meal, for what we would call dessert.

Susanna has a stillroom at Leigh Abbey, a separate building where she makes home remedies. More complex medicines would be acquired from apothecaries, but “simples” were customarily made by the women of the house and most gentlewomen had some skill at distilling. At the least, most of them made their own perfumes. The first glimpse of Susanna’s stillroom comes in Face Down Upon an Herbal, but not the last. In other books and stories, I reveal that she has acquired some rare herbs (some poisonous) from foreign locales thanks to the generosity of her merchant friend Nick Baldwin.

Sixteenth-century gardens typically contained the following plants: borage, camomile, clary, comfrey, cowslip, daffodil, fennel, foxglove, garlic, henbane, hepatica, hollyhock, honeysuckle, lavender, leek, lettuce, Madonna lily, mint, onion, orache, orpine, parsley, periwinkle, primrose, radish, rose, rue, sage, savory, scabious, southernwood, spinach, thyme, and turnip. Foxglove and henbane are deadly poisons, but they also had medicinal uses.

The humble onion was one of the most vital plants grown. Onions are edible, of course, and used for flavoring, and the skins were used to dye Easter eggs, but even more importantly, the onion was effective against disease. If three or four onions were peeled and left for ten days on the floor of a house, they absorbed infection from the air. Simply hanging onions over doorways guarded against infections, too. Roasted onions filled with treacle and pepper were used to ward off plague. In a variation of that recipe, the onion was hollowed out and filled with fig, rue, and Venice treacle. If these preventives failed, onions were used in a poultice applied directly to plague swellings.

Everyone was superstitious in the 16th century. It was generally believed that if one gathered certain plants at certain times, their potency would be greater. This belief gave me a reason to send two characters into the woods at midnight at the start of Face Down Under the Wych Elm. They are collecting leaves of vervain at the full of the moon and there is a ritual involved—the herb has to be “crossed and blessed” when it is gathered and certain words spoken. From the herbalist’s point of view, these are prayers. Others take them as proof of witchcraft, which plays into my plot. In the minds of most people in the 16th century, there was a very fine line between making medicinal potions and casting spells.

Illiterate village “cunning women,” to whom remedies had been passed down by word of mouth through the generations, were the equivalent of a good family practitioner. Many of the cures they provided were effective. Some herbal supplements used successfully today, such as St. John’s wort, garlic, and soothing brews made with camomile, were well known in the 16th century. There was also, however, a great potential for disaster. It was far too easy to mistake a poisonous leaf or berry for an edible one and end up dead. Or to take too much of an herbal medicine. Susanna Appleton has made herself an expert on poisonous herbs because her only sister died from such a mistake.

In the first book in the series, Face Down in the Marrow-Bone Pie, Susanna is compiling what she calls “A Cautionary Herbal, a compendium of herbs harmful to the health.” Later in the series, after it is published, she belatedly realizes that her book can also be used as a manual for murder. There were a number of herbals available in English and other languages by the middle of the 16th century. Among the herbals with which Susanna is familiar (and which I have consulted to find out what her contemporaries thought about various plants) are works by Andrew Boorde (1490-1549), Pier Andrea Mattioli (1500-1577), Leonardus Fuchs (1501-1566), William Turner (1508-1568), Rombert Dodoens (1517-1585), Charles de l’Ecluse (1526-1609), and Mathias de L’Obel (1538-1616). William Turner’s Herbal was published in 1568. Turner was a botanist and a religious non-conformist who had been exiled and had his works banned in England during the reign of Mary Tudor. His was the first herbal written in English by an Englishman.

The first botanical gardens of the modern age were established in Padua (about 1543), Pisa (1545) and Bologna (1567). By 1570, there were several collections of rare plants in England, notably in the gardens of Lord Burghley and Lord Hunsdon. Both de l’Ecluse and L’Obel visited England at this time, and it was L’Obel who made the first attempt at classification of plants by similarities in leaf form.

One of the most famous 16th-century herbals was that of John Gerard in 1597. Gerard was Lord Burghley’s gardener, but he made numerous errors in plant identification, Latin names, and illustrations. His main sources were foreign herbals and he was careless about translating them. One of his most glaring errors concerned the potato, which was unknown in England before it was imported from Spanish lands in America. I had a bit of fun with this in Face Down Across the Western Sea, which calls on Susanna’s knowledge of herbs, herbals, and herbalists, as well as her ability to solve a murder.

Susanna herself makes a mistake in talking about a poisonous herb in Face Down Before Rebel Hooves. She—and I—got it sorted out in “Death by Devil’s Turnips,” in which she points out that it is difficult to be sure about poisons, since studying them can be deadly it itself.

Given that even 16th-century “experts” didn’t always know what they were talking about, I’ve developed a system for using herbal poisons in my novels. First, I try to use a local or folk name for the plant, so that I can be a bit more vague about its properties without setting off alarm bells in readers who know their herbs. Bryony thus becomes “the Devil’s Turnips.” Then I research all the superstitious beliefs about the plant. One excellent resource is Mrs. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, which includes a great deal of folklore along with more practical information. Finally, I consult Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons by Serita Stevens, and the Internet, to get more current scientific information about and photographs of the plant in question. In particular, I need to know what parts of the plant are poisonous, whether cooking affects how poisonous they are, what the effects and symptoms and reaction times are likely to be, and if there is any antidote. I’m not concerned with the chemical makeup of the poison, since Susanna wouldn’t be aware of that, but I need to know enough of the “science” to keep from making stupid mistakes in describing what happens to the victim.

As I said at the beginning, I’m no gardener. Nor am I an herbalist, but I’ll pass on a tip from Lady Appleton’s Cautionary Herbal. If you ever think you’re at risk of being poisoned with aconite, keep the following ingredients on hand to concoct the antidote: two ounces of terralemnia, two ounces of bayberries, two ounces of mithridate, and twenty-four flies that have taken their repast upon wolfsbane, honey, and olive oil. To quote Lady Appleton: “Those who are treated and survive are almost fully recovered twenty-four hours later.”

Kathy Lynn Emerson is the author of twenty-nine published novels and numerous short stories. The most recent book featuring Lady Appleton is a collection of short stories, Murders and Other Confusions (2004). Kathy also writes the Diana Spaulding mysteries, starting with Deadlier Than the Pen (2004).

Gardening in Cyberspace
by Donna Andrews (Reston, Virginia)

Gardening has played a role in my Meg Langslow series from the start. Meg’s father, like my own, is a gardener. And I suspect Meg will take up gardening eventually, now that I’ve discovered it’s less a hobby than an inherited trait, like hazel eyes or absentmindedness, both of which I’ve also received from one parent or the other. At least I assume that’s why, after more than twenty years of living in a high rise condominium three blocks from a Metro station, I succumbed in the fall of 2002 to the temptation of a house with a yard where I could garden.

To my surprise, when my own gardening experiences first began to influence my writing, it wasn’t in Meg’s world but in that of Turing Hopper, my artificial intelligence personality (AIP), who lives inside a computer network, and thus would seem the least likely candidate for a gardening sleuth. But in the fall of 2003, when I began digesting the experiences of my first full summer as a gardener, I was writing a Turing book rather than a Meg book. And Turing needed a new hobby. In You’ve Got Murder, she’d taken up cooking, but I suspected that after they’d sampled such creations as pickled bananas with mustard sauce or pomegranates in chocolate sauce with cilantro, Turing’s human friends would probably have lost their enthusiasm for trying her recipes. Yes, a new hobby was in order. Why not gardening?

“I’ve been taking an interest in gardening,” Turing announces to one of her fellow AIPs in Access Denied (Berkley Prime Crime, December 2004). In the garden belonging to her human friend Maude, of course. “I research plant care for her… Find plants suitable for the growing conditions in her yard. And often I mail-order them for her, because she doesn’t have time to go to garden centers. I had Casey, our hardware guy, set up a camera system in her garden, so I can enjoy it. Although that has proven useful, too; I can keep an eye on things—tell her when various plants need watering or weeding. I almost think of it as our garden.”

Though it quickly becomes apparent—to the reader, at least—that Turing’s enthusiasm for gardening far exceeds Maude’s. Maude is, in fact, trying very hard to make Turing understand that she doesn’t want any more plants delivered from mail order catalogues, doesn’t want to be nagged about watering and weeding, and most especially doesn’t want to be awakened in the middle of the night to chase deer out of the yard.

Writing the scenes in which Maude and Turing argue over gardening came easily. All I had to do was tap into two conflicting sides of my own personality. There’s the Donna who runs amuck in a garden store like a child in the toy department, and the Donna who, an hour later, finds herself in her yard surrounded by a small forest of new plants and suddenly realizes how much work it will take just to get the darned things into the ground, much less keep them healthy and well-watered till they settle in. The Donna who celebrates completion of a book by sending off an advance order to a mail order plant catalogue and the Donna who is slightly taken aback when several months later, in the middle of a new deadline, a package arrives containing a dozen shrubs that need planting before they wilt, or several hundred daffodil bulbs that must go into the ground before frost if they’re to blossom in the spring.

Turing is the idealistic gardener, the theoretical gardener—the gardener in winter, poring over catalogues and planning seed orders, devising fantastic new jungles of vegetation, and vowing that this spring will be different. Starting this spring we will never get behind with the weeding, mowing, pruning, fertilizing, deadheading, or any one of the million chores a garden produces. This year, nothing will shrivel and die, there will be enough but not too much rain, and a beautiful succession of spring and summer blooms and autumn color will fill the yard. Maude is the realistic gardener who emerges after the ground has finally warmed and we quickly realize once again that we will never have time for all the chores we’d like to do, or even the ones we really ought to do. And we settle for what we can do, when other, more clamorous responsibilities allow, knowing that there is always next year, and the garden will forgive.

As my garden did this year, when the combination of deadlines and family responsibilities threw several curves in the gardening ambitions I nursed through the subzero winter days. Tasks I thought essential fell by the wayside without the garden caring that much. Some of the things I planted flourished and some didn’t. And if the weeds flourished more than anything, at least the garden was green whenever I turned away from my keyboard to contemplate it, and there was never a shortage of small useful tasks awaiting me when I felt the need to get up and do something physical instead of mental.

Perhaps that’s one thing Turing likes about gardening. It’s a well-known stress-reliever, and thanks to the various murders and hack attacks I throw at her in each book, Turing has a lot of stress. Though in Access Denied, when she attempts, though her cameras, to contemplate the garden to improve her mood during a stressful period of waiting, she runs into a snag.

Today, I kept seeing frustrating reminders of the randomness of nature. Maude planted a row of three dwarf holly plants to form a low border at the edge of a flower bed. The hollies on the left and right appear thriving, but the middle one is dying. It has lost most of its leaves, and when the wind blows through the garden, its stick-like branches move in a dry, brittle way; quite different from the graceful, elastic movements of the other two plants.

What happened to the middle plant? They all three have the same soil conditions, were planted on the same day in the same method—I watched Maude do it. If she did anything wrong that day, or since, I couldn’t detect it, and I assume any mistakes she did make would affect all three alike.

This inconsistency doesn’t bother Maude. When I pointed it out, she shrugged, and said maybe the middle bush would pull through, and if it didn’t, we could plant another one.

Well, I know that. But I want to know why it died. And I may never know, and that’s hard for me to deal with.

Humans have grown used to the idea that they can’t possibly know everything.
AIPs haven’t. I haven’t. I tend to think that if I can just find the right data and analyze it correctly, I can solve any problem.

And it bothers me that I might never find the right data about this problem.

Which suggests why I think Turing would take up gardening in the first place. It’s a uniquely human activity—and that would appeal strongly to Turing, who like Pinocchio and Star Trek’s Data, longs to be fully human. Appeal to her, and yet baffle her, at the same time. Turing likes things logical and organized; she believes that through her unparalleled access to data she is always in control of the situation; and in cyberspace, her home, things happen in the fraction of a second. Though Turing continues to grow and to deepen her understanding of what it means to be human, the kind of lessons we humans learn from our gardens are things she will always find difficult. Things like knowing when to stand aside and let nature take its course, accepting that not everything can be controlled, letting go of failures, and waiting patiently for the right season to try again. Though I’m not sure her human friends find those lessons easy either.

Including the human friend who writes about her. So before returning to the current draft in progress, I think I’ll go outside for a little of the clarity you can get from a well weeded flower bed and a freshly mowed lawn.

Donna Andrews writes the Meg Langslow mystery series for St. Martin’s/Minotaur and the Turing Hopper mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. More info at

Buy this back issue! Available as a downloadable PDF.