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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 5th January 2012

Though I understand that making numerical comparisons year on year is useful, I’m less happy about qualitative judgements made that way. How can, say, 2008 be a better year for TV than 2007? That judgement might be based on one particularly good drama series so forcing it into a year on year comparison seems a little odd to me.

I think, however, as early as it is in 2012, we can be pretty sure that this year will be a bad one for deaths from mushroom poisoning. This follows the death of two people in Australia after eating Amanita phalloides, the death cap mushroom, on New Year’s Eve. A third is said to be in urgent need of a liver transplant and a fourth suffered only mild symptoms and was treated as an outpatient.

As often happens with these sorts of incidents it is hard to get at all of the detail. Originally, the newspaper reports talked of the mushrooms being served at a party but it has now been announced that the incident occurred when a chef, visiting from China, prepared a meal for himself and other staff in a chinese restaurant kitchen after the bistro closed to the public.

The chef, it seems, collected the mushrooms himself but it is not clear whether anyone else was with him during his foraging expedition. That information may become available if the two survivors were instrumental in the mushrooms getting into the meal.

There hasn’t been a great deal of speculation about how the poisoning may have occurred other than a mention of the unusual weather in the Canberra area reportedly resulting in growths of the death cap mushrooms in the summer. It may be that whoever told the chef he could find the mushrooms didn’t consider the possibility that they might be death caps because of it being the wrong time of year.

The latest information points to a lack of knowledge being at the heart of this unfortunate incident. I’ve written before about the difficulty of learning about mushrooms from books because the books tend to say the best idea is to go with someone who knows what to look for. Most mushroom foragers do know what they are looking for and, often, have years of experience of collecting mushrooms from their local countryside.

From their local countryside.

It now looks as though the chef, who is one of those killed by the highly toxic dish he prepared, had not been in Australia long enough to have become familiar with the native fungi and simply collected mushrooms that looked like the ones he had collected many times before in China. There is still an element of speculation in writing that and we’ll have to hope more detail emerges in time.

I mentioned it, however, because of an unproven story I’ve heard a couple of times about rhubarb poisoning. I’ve written before (here & here) about the toxicity of the leaves of Rheum x hybridum, the domestic rhubarb. Though the exact mechanism of poisoning is still unclear and you sometimes hear exaggerated claims for the toxicity of a single leaf, there is no doubt that eating rhubarb leaves can be fatal. The actual number of cases is, however, extremely small to zero because the poisonous potential of the leaves is pretty well understood.

The story I’ve heard, but never been able to confirm, says that the mother of a family of immigrants recently arrived in the UK from the Indian Sub-continent saw her English neighbour cutting off the growth of a plant with large leaves and red leaf blades and taking them indoors. Assuming that this was to use the leaves as a vegetable, the woman cut some from the similar looking plant that was already present in the garden when the family moved in and poisoned her whole family.

Whether that story is true or not it illustrates the point that additional caution is required over potentially harmful plants when one is in a different country or region and not full familiar with its flora and fungi.