Laburnum – a dangerous beauty


Originally a  native of Southern Europe, the Common Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides) a member of the pea family which grows to a height of around 20ft, is a common sight in gardens around Great Britain, although seen rather less the further north you go. The Victorian gardeners were very fond of its dense yellow flowers, which are held on long racemes; there are endless Laburnum Crescents, Laburnum Avenues, even Laburnum Houses scattered around suburbia and the Home Counties to attest to the popularity of the tree.

This tree has one major drawback – it is highly toxic; the bark, leaves and especially the seeds and seed pods (which unfortunately resemble those of peas) can be deadly to children. The toxic agent is cytisine, an alkaloid, which in large doses can affect respiration and be fatal. Most laburnum you will see will be a cross between the Common Laburnum (L. anagyroides) and Alpine Laburnum (L. alpinum), because this hybrid produces less seed pods (and therefore less toxic products). This cultivar is sometimes called Voss’s Laburnum (L. x vossii).
There is some good in all this, however; cytisine is a nicotinic acetylcholine receptor agonist, and as such can have some effects as an anti-smoking agent (Etter, JF, ‘Cytisine for smoking cessation: a literature review and meta-analysis’, Archives of Internal Medicine 2006; 166: 1553-9). It is possible though, that it would only prove useful as an adjuct therapeutic drug.
This particularly laburnum is in the garden in South Yorkshire – and forms a natural arch between the hedge and the side of the house.

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