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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 6th March 2012

All bar one of my talks are edited down from having too much material to fit the required time slot so it is quite a change to deliver, as I did this evening, the one that had to be grown from something smaller.

When I was asked to give a twenty minute after dinner talk, a couple of years ago, I decided to focus on plants found in the local area as a way of confining the potential length. The initial working title of ‘Poisonous Plants in Berwickshire’ became ‘Some Poisonous plants in Berwickshire’ when I realised that trying to cover all of them would take much longer than twenty minutes.

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

When I decided to use the opportunity to include Amanita muscaria, fly agaric, since I had found some growing not many miles from here I added ‘plus’ to the title because, of course, the Amanita is a fungus not a plant.

I stayed within the twenty minute constraint on that occasion but soon started getting requests to cover the same subject but in a forty-five minute format and that gave me the rare chance to add material to a talk rather than keep having to cut things out.

‘Some Poisonous Plants in Berwickshire Plus’ is, as a result, quite a relaxed talk where I can add extra stories if the audience seems to be interested in a particular plant and include new stories to keep it fresh.

This evening, for example, when talking about Taxus baccata, yew, I mentioned the reference to it on Sunday’s BBC1 programme, ‘Countryfile’, that I might blog about on another occasion, and, also, the Bristol daffodil poisonings that I have already blogged about.

As always, there was general surprise at the stories of people eating daffodil bulbs instead of onions but, as has happened before, after the talk I heard a new story of just such an event. The incident occurred to the husband of the organiser of the group when he was a young boy. His wife explained that her future in-laws ran a butcher’s shop and, because they were both busy for long hours in the shop, employed a woman to keep the house clean for them.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

One day, both were suffering from flu and asked the cleaning lady if she would cook for them. As so often with these sorts of incidents, she went down to the shed to get some onions and took daffodil bulbs instead resulting in the misery of the flu being augmented by severe stomach upsets.

The woman continued to work for the family for many years but was never asked to prepare any food again and the story of her error entered the family folklore.

As well as the more relaxed structure of this talk I like it because I allow myself to include an anecdote that I have never been able to substantiate but that is said to have occurred in Berwickshire.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane, is a relative of Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, but with greater hallucinogenic properties. Like many of the plants containing tropane alkaloids, it is sometimes said to impart a red colour to the vision. This colour distortion is credited with making some of the hallucinations experienced gory with the red colour becoming blood.

The story I’d love to track down but doubt if I ever will concerns four women who travelled into the country to collect flowers to decorate their church. They found a patch of Hyoscyamus niger and, not recognising the plant, all handled it extensively as they cut its uniquely beautiful flowers.

On the drive back to town, the story goes, they were all seeing red but it was the driver who saw a red elephant step out into the road in front of them. Swerving to avoid it, she drove into a ditch and all four, though only slightly hurt, ended up at A & E trying to explain the circumstances.