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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 1st September 2011

A question on a TV game show about birds of prey and the precautions taken by a farmer in northern California have set me the challenge of trying to think how other people think and see the world from their point of view.

Coriandrum sativum, coriander, cilantro

Coriandrum sativum, coriander, cilantro

Cicuta virosa, water hemlock

Cicuta virosa, water hemlock
copyright Kristian Peters

Conium maculatum, poison hemlock

Conium maculatum, poison hemlock

Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort

Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort

If you’re in the UK, you may have seen the programme ‘Pointless’. If you haven’t, then think of ‘Family Fortunes’ in reverse. In other words, the contestants don’t have to find the answers the public gave they have to find the ones they missed. Every question is put to 100 people and the contestants have to try and find the obscure, but correct, answers that no-one in the survey group thought of.

Generally, the worst answers, that is the one most people know, attract scores of 60 points and above but, sometimes, the highest result is much lower indicating that the surveyed group as a whole is pretty ignorant of the subject. This happened, recently, when the contestants were asked to identify birds of prey from a list of twelve. The highest score was for the buzzard but that only had 30 points. In other words, more than two thirds of the people did not think of the UK’s most common bird of prey when asked to name all the ones they knew.

This outcome surprised me because I was absolutely sure about nine of the twelve and I don’t consider myself to by an expert about birds. I realised that just living in the country means that you absorb knowledge about the natural world especially if you just take the trouble to ask ‘What is that?’ when you see something you don’t recognise.

And that gave me more sympathy for the action taken by Blake Richard who farms Wild rose Farm in the Blue Lake region of northern California. The local paper for the area reported that Mr Richard had recalled all his supplies of coriander leaves from local stores because he feared they might be mixed in with poison hemlock.

Actually, the paper said he had withdrawn his cilantro this being the name used for what I would call coriander that is the leaves of Coriandrum sativum. I mention that because names play quite a large part in this story.

Mr Richard says he found hemlock plants growing in the edges of his field of cilantro. The Times-Standard refers to this as ‘young poison hemlock, which looks similar to cilantro’. The farmer was concerned that one of his employees might have picked the leaves because he did not know the difference. He acknowledged that he was being excessively cautious but then said he wasn’t sure you could be too cautious when it comes to possibly poisoning people.

From the story, it looks as though Mr Richard just said hemlock and the reporter has added ‘poison’ to the name. That suggests the reporter is not familiar with the plants that get the name hemlock. Poison hemlock is the common name given to Conium maculatum and the leaves are nothing like coriander. Nor are the leaves of Cicuta virosa, water hemlock. Where there is some similarity is with Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort, though, as its name suggests this is a plant that likes a lot of moisture and when I’ve seen it in the wild it has been growing in shallow water.

So, I’m left a little confused. Was Mr Richard talking about Oenanthe crocata which could, possibly, be taken for coriander? Or, did he believe that people buying herbs from a store might have so little knowledge of plants that they would accept the fern like leaves of Conium maculatum or Cicuta virosa as being the much flatter leaves of Coraindrum sativum?

If I hadn’t watched ‘Pointless’ I would have said that the plant must have been hemlock water dropwort but, with the demonstration of how limited many people’s knowledge is of nature fresh in my mind, I have to think it could have been any of the hemlocks. Most people, I now realise, would rely on the label and if that said ‘cilantro’ then they would trust that cilantro it is.