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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 14th June 2011

It’s a continuing source of frustration to me that my book isn’t being stocked by garden centres. Don’t get me wrong. This is not the arrogance of saying ‘My book is wonderful’ so it should widely on sale. It’s bigger than that.

(Of course, my book IS wonderful but, if you’re interested enough in poisonous plants to be reading this blog, I would hope you’ve already bought your copy.)

No, the point here is about garden centres and poisonous plants in general. There’s still a reluctance to admit that some plants have the potential to cause harm and we see this in the way plants are sold and in the HTA list of poisonous plants as well as on the bookshelves. So, it’s not just ‘Is That Cat Dead? – and other questions about poison plants’, it’s all books that are to do with poisonous plants.

Now, I accept that quite a lot of the books about poisonous plants that get published aren’t that good. There’s a tendency to write what the author thinks the public wants to read, i.e. that these plants are in some way evil or wicked and that there is huge danger in just stepping out of the door. And then there are the ones that are written in A to Z order and become intensely repetitive. The tenth time you read that ‘ingestion causes gastrointestinal upset with vomiting and diarrhoea’ you cease to differentiate between plants and just get generally paranoid.

But, the example that, I think, makes my case is a well-written book that happens to also bring up the wider topic of garden centres’ general approach to ‘difficult’ plants. 'Poisonous Plants: a guide for parents and childcare providers' by Dr. Elizabeth Dauncey is published by Kew Gardens and sets out the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) list of potentially harmful plants (plus 17 others we’ll come to later). The purpose of the list is to give garden centres an agreed way of categorising plants that some people might be concerned about having in their garden. In the past, centres have argued that they couldn’t flag up a toxic plant because their competitor down the road wouldn’t.

It is worth pointing out that the most important thing to learn from 'Poisonous Plants: a guide for parents and childcare providers' is that incidents of any harm are few and far between and incidents of serious harm are extremely rare.

Liz Dauncey spent a long time working with the HTA to develop the list but, it seems to me, compromises had to be made to keep the HTA onside. So, although Conium maculatum, for example, is not listed at all on the basis that it is never sold in garden centres, the only plant in the highest risk category ‘A’ is Rhus radicans, poison ivy, a plant that would never be offered to the public because of the severe skin irritation it causes. This means that any poisonous plant being offered for sale can only be category ‘B’ at worst so people might be comforted by thinking it is not that bad. Category ‘B’ includes Datura, Mandragora, Hyoscyamus, Ricinus communis and Atropa belladonna, amongst others.

Mention of Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant, brings us to an area where plant retailers may actually make matters worse by their reluctance to acknowledge that some plants are possibly harmful. The Fatsia japonica looks so much like Ricinus communis that it is known as the false castor oil plant. Offering something for sale labelled ‘false’ is anathema to any retailer so garden centres tend to either describe Fatsia japonica as ‘castor oil plant’ or they use only the botanical name making it about the only plant in their stock that does not have a common name on it. I know, from talking to many people, that this causes concern and confusion and results in some people growing Ricinus communis thinking it is Fatsia japonica.

Blisters caused by Pastinaca sativa

There is a whole group of plants omitted from the HTA list: vegetables. I haven’t seen any attempt to explain this omission so can only assume that it is the HTA’s reluctance to admit that edible vegetables can have a downside. Happily, Liz Dauncey additional 17 plants includes things like Pastinaca sativa (parsnip), Solanum tuberosum (potato) and Rheum x hybridum (rhubarb). (People are usually surprised to see this picture of the harm that Pastinaca sativa can cause if handled wrongly in the wrong conditions.) So, at least, anyone really concerned about what harm they could come to in the garden can buy Liz’s book and get all that they need to know.

There’s just one drawback; Dr. Dauncey’s book is not stocked by garden centres. So, even though this is a book created with the co-operation of their trade association and with the Kew Gardens’ endorsement to say it is reliable horticultural information, garden centres cannot bring themselves to risk having an informed customer base.

I would really love to be proved completely wrong about all this but until I see ‘Is That Cat Dead?’ on the bookshelves or until I get invited to give a talk to some garden centre’s customer loyalty club, I’ll be forced to conclude that I am correct.