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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 2nd March 2012

I wrote on Monday that I’d been talking to someone about Narcissus, daffodil, poisoning. What I didn’t explain was that it was a freelance journalist who was trying to run down rumours of an outbreak of poisoning and wanted some background for the piece he hoped to write if the rumours turned out to be true.

I don’t know how he was getting on with his investigative journalism but he could save himself a lot of time now because this story appeared on the BBC website today.

Narcissus, daffodil

Narcissus, daffodil

The discussion I had with him centred on the usual cause of daffodil poisoning, mistaking the bulbs for onions but the story actually turns out to be rather different because ten people had eaten leaves and stalks from the plant and suffered severe vomiting as a result.

The suggestion in the BBC story is that shoppers in Chinese supermarkets in Bristol had bought daffodils and thought they were edible. The Health Protection Agency says it has been in contact with any Chinese supermarket known to be selling bunches of daffodils and they have agreed to place multilingual signs stating that they are not edible.

There seem to be similarities with the story of the Chinese chef on a visit to Australia who died after he cooked toxic mushrooms apparently because he wasn’t familiar with the area and didn’t know that the fungus he picked was not an edible one found in his home area of China.

The confusion here, according to the BBC, is between a type of Chinese chive and daffodils. Though not explicit in the story, it seems that the people poisoned had shopped in different supermarkets and all made the same mistake.

Narcissus, daffodil

Narcissus, daffodil

The natural question to ask first when there is a poisoning or an outbreak of incidents is ‘How has this happened?’ but, I think the more useful question is ‘How hasn’t this happened before?’ Because Bristol is a port city it has had Chinese residents for hundreds of years and bunches of daffodils being sold in supermarkets in the spring goes back to the birth of the supermarket.

If all this year’s poisonings are unrelated, why have such incidents not happened before? Have Chinese supermarkets not stocked daffodils before this year so their customers didn’t know what they were being offered? Are all the victims recent arrivals in the UK who were not here last spring? Or, has there been an error at the wholesale level so that a number of supermarkets have been supplied with daffodils when they ordered Allium tuberosum, Chinese chives?

It is important to try and understand exactly what happened because that is the only way to work out how to stop it happening again. Though the journalist I was speaking to seems to have missed out on breaking the story, I hope he’ll keep looking into it because there could be an interesting explanation.

For me, it means a further addition to the stories I tell about the Narcissus genus and, with a talk coming up next Wednesday, I’m going to have to think about what gets dropped so that I don’t add to the time the talk takes.