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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 3rd May 2012

After what seems like weeks of hiding away from the wind, rain and cold, I ventured out into the garden and found the Polygonatum, Solomon’s seal, in bud.

I didn’t plant these perennials so I can’t be sure of the species but it is likely to be either multiflorum, common Solomon’s seal, or odoratum, angular Solomon’s seal. They come up at the very edge of the garden almost under the concrete of the next door neighbour’s path and that may explain why they don’t ever seem to do very well.

That’s one reason I thought I’d get some pictures even though the buds have not, yet, opened. The leaves did look a little discoloured and I think the plants may, already, be beginning to die back.

Polygonatum, Solomon’s seal,

Polygonatum, Solomon’s seal,

Polygonatum is a genus that produces poisonous though not harmful plants. There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, the saponins and cardiac glycosides believed to be produced by the plant are in too low a concentration to cause harm. It would require ingestion of a very large quantity of plant material to achieve a toxic dose. The genus is on the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) list of potentially harmful plants but only in class ‘C’ and Liz Dauncey says there are very few reports of poisoning. The International Poisonous Plants Checklist gives only one reference to a case of poisoning in a dog.

Secondly, the plant rarely produces the black berries that might make it attractive. That results from the severe predation usually seen. The predator is named for the plant being the Solomon’s seal sawfly and the larval stage generally removes all the flowers before the plant can produce fruit.

Polygonatum, Solomon’s seal,

Polygonatum, Solomon’s seal,

It is a plant that is used in herbal remedies though there is no scientific evidence for the effects claimed and, I would argue, many of its alleged properties are based on a mistranslation. John Gerard says it has an alternative name Sigillum Salomonis meaning seal of Solomon. This name is because the root structure is said to have interlocking triangles similar to Solomon’s seal. But this is seal as in identifying mark not as in joining so the alleged ability of the plant to promote healing is ill-founded.

Gerard takes this misapplication of the name and cites its healing properties saying it ‘taketh away in one night, or two at the most, any bruise, black or blue spots gotten by falls or women’s wilfulness, in stumbling upon their hasty husbands fists, or such like’.

That quotation got a colleague of mine in trouble when he was taking a tour around the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden. He recited an abridged version of Gerard’s comment and, when asked to repeat it made a thoughtless comment about giving a wife a smack. His group contained a number of women from a shelter for battered wives who, unsurprisingly, took offence as his flippant treatment. 

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