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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 8th August 2011

I drop into a couple of gardening forums just to see what plants people are talking about. A lot of the questions are of the ‘What is it?’ variety and it’s interesting to see people’s attitudes when in answer to a question about ‘This unknown beauty’ they find out that the plant concerned is poisonous.

In a way that is very slightly analogous to reports of the first cuckoo, I find myself, at this time of year, waiting for reports of the first Datura stramonium, jimsonweed or thornapple. And, there it was, this weekend ‘This plant is in a friend’s garden…’

Arum maculatum, cuckoopint

When I respond to threads like that I always stress how unlikely it is that anyone will get accidentally poisoned by these invaders. With the Datura stramonium, I managed to resist the temptation to say that the friend in question could get themselves five minutes of fame if they contacted the local paper.

I’ve blogged about this before, so today I thought I’d focus on the other unknown from this weekend that it also poisonous but doesn’t, for some reason, get journalists’ juices flowing in the same way.

This time the question was ‘What are these berries?’ with a good picture of the berry cluster from an Arum, of some sort. You really need to see the leaves to decide between Arum maculatum, Arum Italicum or the other species but, by the time the berries form the leaves have gone for this year.

The fact that the questioner hadn’t noticed this plant until the berries had ripened reinforces one of by beliefs about why this is a plant that causes quite a number of hospital attendances. For the avoidance of doubt, I’d better stress that, in total, there are very few cases of accidental plant poisoning in the UK each year. Very few indeed. But, within that ‘very few’ Arum maculatum is one of the ones towards the top of the list.

Arum maculatum, cuckoopint

I think this is because this plant, known as lords and ladies or cuckoopint or one of up to a hundred other common names, is native to woodlands and the slightly shimmering orange red of the cluster of berries stands out in the dark forest floor calling attention to itself. Happily, the berries are quite acrid to the taste and very quickly produce a tingling sensation in the mouth. This means that a child will not eat very many because of the unpleasant taste and will seek assistance quickly due to the tingling.

I have spoken to someone who, when a child, ate foliage from Arum maculatum. She remembered the unpleasant taste that deterred her after one leaf but said she’d had a sore mouth and face for a couple of days even from that small amount.

On the forum, the discussion, for once, wasn’t about whether a poisonous plant should always be removed but centred on whether it is a weed or a plant. That’s a discussion that always comes down to whether you like the plant or not. A weed is just a plant you wish wasn’t growing where it is.

With a number of different names being given, I contributed ‘cuckoopint’ and added a note in parentheses (rhymes with ‘mint’). Most people, when they say the name rhyme it with the amount of milk in an old-fashioned bottle but that takes away from the derivation of the name. Because of the appearance of the spadix within the spathe, it became known as cuckoo’s pintle; ‘pintle’ meaning the main sexual organ.

It is said that cuckoo’s pintle was a bowdlerisation of a previous name ‘priest’s pintle’ because the name originated from the idea that the spathe resembled the ornate pulpits keeping the priest warm in an unheated church and the spadix being associated with the priest’s overblown view of himself.

Now I like that story, because for me it humanises our ancestors who, it seems, didn’t dutifully sit in church taking heed of whatever the minister had to say but, I have got in trouble for telling it in front of people who, still today, retain Victorian attitudes to sexuality.

Incidentally, the name ‘lords and ladies’ has a sexual derivation from the male-looking spadix inside the female-looking spathe. The Victorians didn’t like that at all and tried to get the name ‘our lord and our lady’ adopted on the basis that the spathe was Mary protecting the baby Christ.

So, if you’re happy saying ‘lords and ladies’ you should have no problem saying ‘cuckoopint’ to rhyme with ‘mint’.