Tim Dowling: which courgette is the evil poisoner, yellow or green?


Three days after I poisoned myself and my family with homegrown toxic courgettes, I still don’t feel right. I can’t face pulling up six plants and disposing of them, partly because my stomach still pitches and rolls at the sight of courgettes.

The poison responsible, I have since learned, is naturally present in courgettes, but can rise to toxic levels if plants cross-pollinate with wild cucurbits or certain types of ornamental squash, causing a bitter taste, nausea, cramps, potential hospitalisation and occasionally death. Now I’ve experienced this poisoning first-hand, it seems weird to me that people are even allowed to grow courgettes.

“Maybe I should report it,” I say.

“To who?” my wife says.

“The authorities,” I say. “There are bad seeds out there.” But I can’t remember where I bought the seeds, and I can’t find the packets. I just know I ended up with six surviving plants – five yellow, one green. The next day, in the garden, I see the courgettes are not just surviving, but thriving. I am, it transpires, really good at growing poison veg. Perhaps I should try my hand at ricin.

As soon as I dig up the first plant, something occurs to me. Using my phone, I quickly track down an email receipt for yellow courgette seeds, from February. According to the receipt, there were only five seeds in the packet.

The oldest one, who is working in the kitchen, recoils when I dump my armful of courgettes on the table. “What are those doing in here?” he says, as if I have just set a family of snakes down in front of him.

“An experiment,” I say.

“Why do they have writing on them?” he says, moving down two seats.

“They’re coded according to bed position,” I say. “SE stands for south-east. Do you see?”

“Not interested,” he says.

“The yellow courgettes are all from the same new packet,” I say. “Whereas the green ones came from some old seed I found at the bottom of a drawer.”

The youngest one walks in, looks over my shoulder, and turns pale.

“So,” I say, slicing open the courgette marked NW, “if I can determine that the yellow courgettes are in the clear, the green one must be the culprit.” I touch the exposed courgette flesh to the tip of my tongue.

“Are you insane?” the youngest say.

“North-west is fine,” I say, marking my findings on a piece of paper.

“Have you licked a green one yet?” the oldest says.

“No, I threw that plant away already.”

“This experiment is not conclusive,” he says.

“South-west, fine,” I say. My wife walks in.

“What’s he doing with those?” she says.

“Testing them for poison content,” the youngest says.

“Why bother?” she says. “None of us will ever eat them.”

“Well, I can’t give them away,” I say, slicing the next sample. “It would be irresponsible.”

“I’ll never eat another courgette in my life,” the oldest says.

“Central, also non-poisonous,” I say. “We can move on to the cooking test.” I fry labelled samples in oil, before salting and tasting each in turn.

“South-east, delicious,” I say, although my guts churn a little. The middle one walks in and looks at me in horror.

“Is that supper?” he says.

For the next week I pick yellow courgettes and put them in a bowl. But I don’t cook with them. It’s too soon.

On Sunday, supper is assembled from various expiring ready meals, including half a crispy duck and some frozen pancakes. I find the youngest slicing spring onions at a rakish angle.

“What about cucumber?” I say.

“There isn’t any,” he says.

“What do you mean?” I say. “I’ve got shitloads outside.”

“OK, yeah,” he says.

I run into the rain and return with the largest cucumber I can find. He slices it into neat batons, one of which I pick up and eat. A familiar bitter taste fills my mouth.

“Throw that away,” I say, spitting into the sink. “And don’t use that knife for anything else.”

I think to myself: you really have a knack for this. You could give lessons to witches.