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The Cardiganshire Laburnum Mystery
 

Why is such a poisonous plant used in hedges?

In Ceredigion, as well as Carmarthenshire, many field hedges are planted with the Laburnum tree (Laburnum anagyroides). In May and June, its long bunches of pea-like yellow flowers provide an unlikely splash of colour with its showy flowers giving this tree the alternative names of 'Golden Chain Tree' and 'Golden Rain Tree'.

Some of the best displays of Laburnum can be seen bordering old fields  beside the coastal A487 between Llanarth and Cardigan.  Laburnum is also used as a hedging plant in Carmarthenshire and other parts of South Wales as well as in parts of Shropshire.

The Laburnum is indigenous to the mountains of Central and Southern Europe, but is now widely cultivated across Europe and Britain. The tree was first introduced to Britain in 1597 at which time the famous medieval herbalist Gerard appears to have grown it in his garden under the names of Anagyris, Laburnum, and Bean Trefoil. 

The mystery of Laburnum is that it was so widely planted as a hedging plant about 150 years ago in West Wales when all the parts of the plant are highly poisonous to both farm animals and Mankind.  Indeed , there are many references to the fact that Laburnum should never be planted where farm animals can reach them!

The poisonous alkaloid Cytisine was first discovered in 1863 by as one of several poisonous alkaloids present in the seeds of the Laburnum. Cytisine is a white, crystalline solid, with a bitter, caustic taste, and a very poisonous action. It has in the past been recommended as a cure for whooping cough and asthma. Symptoms of poisoning by Laburnum root or seeds are intense sleepiness, vomiting, convulsive movements, coma, slight frothing at the mouth and unequally dilated pupils. In some cases, diarrhoea is very severe.

Laburnum hedges have been coppiced and have a characteristic shape. This hedge is near Brynhoffnant on the A487. The photo was taken in the spring just as the leaves were starting to open.

 

Despite its poisonous nature, Laburnum does have some use. The heart-wood of the Laburnum was often used as an Ebony substitute as it is very hard and coloured a dark chocolate brown. The sapwood surrounding the heart-wood is in contrast a bright yellow. The wood has been used for making the handles of tools and for use in various crafts.

Certainly the Laburnum has been planted for its decorative value. There is a specimen tree planted in the lawns below Glanmor Terrace in New Quay, and many were planted in parks and gardens in the 1940's and 1950's. Maybe, farmers in Ceredigion also planted them as hedges for their colour. Whatever the reason, there remains little recorded evidence other than the trees themselves.

The Laburnum Arch at Bodnant. This 55 m Arch of Laburnum was planted in 1878