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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 14th October 2011

As everyone knows, Andy Warhol said “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” (though that was a 1979 restatement of the 1968 original “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes."). A visitor to the site who contacted me with details of his personal experience of Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort, in the 1970s, would, I suspect, have preferred to make his appearance in a national newspaper for a different reason.

Will (I’ll stick with his given name rather than the full name) was studying ecology at university and took a summer job, in 1976, working on a farm in Northumberland. He was staying in a cottage on the farm catering for himself and decided to experiment with living off the land.

One day, he found a group of plants growing in boggy ground and thought they were pignut, Conopodium majus. Will tells me he didn’t really know what pignut looked like but saw an umbellifer with tubers and just assumed that is what it was. He tried the root of one plant, raw, and found it pleasant to the taste so took a further two plants back to his hut and boiled and ate the roots. By his own account, he soon realised that something was awry and made it to the farmer who took him to hospital.

Conopodium majus, pignut

Conopodium majus, pignut

Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort

Oenanthe crocata,
hemlock water dropwort














The foliage of Oenanthe crocata is described as smelling like parsley and, from Will’s own account, we know the taste is pleasant making hemlock water dropwort one of the few poisonous plants that doesn’t deter ingestion by its smell or taste.

Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort

Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort

By the time he arrived at hospital, he was severely nauseated, vomiting, confused, salivating heavily, sweating profusely and feeling very weak in the legs. On arrival at hospital he collapsed into unconsciousness and had a convulsion. He recovered consciousness but suffered trismus, which is an inability to open the mouth, for two minutes, and continued to have muscle weakness. He says that dry retching continued long after he had nothing left to vomit.

He was given diazepam, a sedative, to control the convulsions. Whether because of that or just from the poison he was unconscious until the next morning but was fully recovered and released then. The A & E registrar at Ashington Hospital, Dr Malcolm Mitchell, had consulted Dr Philip Routledge at Newcastle University to confirm the suspicion that the poisoning was due to hemlock water dropwort and Will later showed Dr Routledge where he had found the plants allowing the identification to be positively confirmed.

The toxin in Oenanthe crocata, oenanthetoxin, is a poly-unsaturated alcohol and is fairly unstable. This instability may have saved Will’s life as boiling the two roots rather than eating them raw, as he had with the first, may have destroyed a lot of the poison.

Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort

Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort

Drs Mitchell and Routledge decided to write up the case, as often happens with documented poisonings, and included a warning to other foragers in their letter, published in the Lancet in February 1977. This was seen by a journalist from the Guardian, which reported the story on 21st February 1977.

The Lancet letter notes that poisonings from wild plants are usually associated with times of food shortages but says that the trend towards ‘living off the land’ could also result in more incidents with the possibility of people ‘dying off the land’. It is a pity that, due to one of the printing errors for which the Guardian is so famous, the newspaper report omits that quote and ends ‘or you may he added’.

I’m grateful to Will for supplying such a full account of his close encounter not least because the current economic climate is producing increased interest in ‘food for free’.