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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 9th August 2011

Out in the car this lunchtime, it seemed that every radio station was determined to fill its airspace with one or another ‘expert’ giving the ‘true’ reasons for the criminal acts that have affected London and, last night, other UK cities since Saturday. In order to avoid this, I tuned to BBC Radio 3, not often my listening choice, and heard something that sparked today’s entry.

The programme was about Russian composer Anton Arensky and included a short piece he wrote entitled ‘The Upas Tree’ retelling, in music, the poem written by Alexander Pushkin. The poem is about a prince who sends a servant to collect the toxic gum from the upas tree to be used as an arrow poison. The servant completes his mission but dies from contact with the toxins on his return.

Taxus baccata, yew

Taxus baccata, yew
shares folklore with the upas tree

I’ll confess that I hadn’t heard of the upas tree before so the rest of this and the next paragraph is the result of a quick run through my library. The botanical name of the tree is Antiaris toxicaria; Antiaris from the Javanese name for the toxic juice. The local folklore surrounding the plant suggests that simply sleeping under it can be fatal. It’s interesting to note that Galen ascribed the same power to Taxus baccata though John Gerard ridicules this by saying that he has often, when a boy, slept under or even in a yew tree.

It seems probable that the folklore surrounding the upas tree is also wrong since there are only two references to it in ‘International Poisonous Plants Checklist’ the most comprehensive collection of references to poisonous plants ever published. Much of the information about this plant has more to do with fiction than fact or, even, folklore. In the 18th century a Dutch traveller claimed that he had visited a valley in Java with a large population of upas trees. He said that it was impossible to approach within fifteen miles of the tree and that the poison was collected by condemned criminals who were given the chance of freedom if they should happen to survive their foraging expedition.

The tree is a native of warm climates and is said to be found in Africa, Australia and south-east Asia so Pushkin was not retelling a Russian folk tale and may never have seen the tree. The only English translation I’ve found of his poem was one of those where maintaining a rhyming scheme had been placed above veracity to the original meaning so it’s hard to learn what was in the author’s mind from simply reading it. Arensky’s choral piece, however, does, I think, tell us about Pushkin’s purpose because it is a sombre work more like a requiem than a folksong.

Erythroxylum coca, cocaine

Erythroxylum coca, cocaine

Pushkin seems to be concerned with the lot of the subservient everywhere; forced to do harmful things for the benefit of their superiors. The premise of the story of ‘The Upas Tree’ is something I use regularly when talking about the harmful substances, legal and illegal, that can destroy the lives and families of some while enriching others.

There are numerous examples from all points in history and about almost all the substances. Whether it is ancient South American rulers who were happy to supply their messengers with unlimited supplies of Erythroxylum coca leaves in order to ensure they kept communication with their far flung domain.

Or, Cornelis Bontekoe, who, while in the pay of the Dutch East Indies Company, expressed his ‘expert’ opinion that drinking 8 to 10 cups of tea a day was the minimum recommended for good health and there was no reason not to drink 100 cups.

Or, the British government in the 19th century that promoted the use of opium by the Chinese in order to finance the purchase of tea to meet the growing demand at home and in the Empire.

Or, of course, the criminals who ‘cut’ cocaine or ecstasy or heroin with anything that will make them a higher profit.

Or, the drinks companies who design new products specifically targeted at the young and the tobacco companies seeking to grow sales in the developing world to replace the, thankfully, reducing demand in the developed.

Anyone who is offered any sort of psychoactive substance on the basis that it will help them have a good time should ask themselves why the person making the offer is so interested in their enjoyment.