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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 7th January 2012

The two pandas currently on an extended visit to Edinburgh Zoo don’t seem to have been the success the Scottish Nationalist government hoped for, so far. From rows about the total cost to the exposure of the cost to taxpayers for the welcome party that politicians said would be fully sponsored to the contrived Twitter spat after the female was named on a shortlist for the title ‘Woman of the Year’, bringing these two animals from China to show that Scotland is a proper country capable of having international relations doesn’t seem to be working.

I almost feel sorry for these poor animals that, probably, shouldn’t be alive if nature had been allowed to take its course. It is impossible to separate the impact of the human race on other species from what would have happened if we weren’t around but I’m pretty sure that pandas are an evolutionary cul de sac.

I find it ironic that in order to try and redress the harm the human race has done by interfering in the lives of numerous other species and their evolutionary development, we’re interfering in the evolutionary development of the panda, a species that is so unsuccessful it should have vanished by now.

Instead, a whole spectrum of people and organisations exploit the panda for their own purposes. So, I thought I might as well join in.

Because the panda turns out to be an excellent example of what Paracelsus said about poisons. Paracelsus, a Swiss doctor and philosopher from the early 16th century is frequently quoted on the subject of poisons. There are a number of ways of presenting Paracelsus’s core point about poisons but this comes from Arthur Edward Waite’s late 19th century translation;

[Other animals and fruits] are not in themselves either food or poisons, but, as regards themselves, and inasmuch as they are creatures, they share their perfection equally with us. When they are taken by us as food they are thus poison to us. Thus a thing becomes poison to us which in itself is by no means a poison.

That last sentence is the key to his ideas and it gets rendered as everything from ‘poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison’ to ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’.

It is central to understanding how the world of what we call poisonous plants works. In Paracelsus’s time, the notion was that the human race was at the core of creation and everything had to have some relation to us. That led to the notion that plants were, in some way, trying to get us.

What Paracelsus’s words have come to mean, though I’m not sure it is what he meant, is that there is no necessary reason for a plant to be poisonous to us and you cannot be absolute about what is and is not a poison.

And that brings us back to pandas. Everyone knows three things about pandas. They have cute ‘Aaaah!’ faces that have raised millions for animal charities. They are absolutely rubbish as reproducing. They eat bamboo. A lot of bamboo.

What many people won’t know is that bamboo is, to us, a highly toxic plant capable of causing death. Bamboo covers quite a large number of evergreen grasses in the family Poaceae and many of them contain cyanogenic glycosides named taxiphyllin capable of producing cyanide when ingested.

To date, ingestion was assumed to be the sole means of poisoning but a recent paper gives details of two deaths from eight people who suffered poisoning after cyanide gas was given off during the pickling of bamboo shoots in a confined space.