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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 17th March 2012

The Internet is, of course, an indispensable resource when it comes to finding out what’s new and it is becoming an increasingly useful tool for researching history as more and more archive material is digitised. But I was a little taken aback when an article that I expected to be something new turned out to be nearly forty years old.

But I was delighted when I realised that it might provide the answer to a riddle that has troubled me about the Laburnum tree for some time.



On 25th October 2011, in a blog entry about deciding what is a real risk and what is just over-reaction to risk, I wrote;

‘On the Laburnum page in the A to Z section, I write ‘in a 1979 contribution to ‘The Lancet’ entitled ‘Have you Eaten Laburnum?’, R M Forrester says that there are around 3,000 hospital admissions due to Laburnum poisoning each year’. Yet, there are no reported incidents of serious harm being done to any of those children.

‘My belief is that press coverage, probably, created a heightened expectation of the danger posed by Laburnum and resulted in those very high figures.’

It seems I may have been wrong and the press are not, directly, to be blamed for the surfeit of alleged Laburnum poisonings in the late ‘70s.

The Internet piece I came across was an edited reprint of an article in ‘Look and Learn’ from 28th September 1974. The piece was entitled ‘Beautiful but deadly – poisonous plants in gardens and allotments’.

‘Look and Learn’ was a weekly educational magazine for children, first published in 1962. Though circulation tailed off and it closed down in 1982, at the height of its popularity it sold around 300,000 copies a week. Its combination of educational articles and comic strips made it an interesting read for the children of the time.

Laburnum seedpods

Laburnum seedpods

The article covers a number of plants some of them the ‘usual suspects’ like rhubarb leaves from Rheum x hybridum, Convallaria majalis (lily of the valley), Arum maculatum (lords and ladies), and Helleborus niger (Christmas rose), and others a little more surprising like potato, tomato and privet hedge.

Unfortunately, it does include errors; for example, it includes Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite), rather than Aconitum napellus (monkshood).

But, it begins with Laburnum and, also, gets that wrong. It claims that Laburnum has ‘been found to be’ the cause of more plant poisonings in the UK than any other plant. I find ‘has been found to be’ an interesting choice of words. It suggests that the author of the piece wants to be able to deny responsibility if anyone questions that statement.

It also says that ‘nobody should ever touch’ the bark or the seeds before saying, in the same sentence, that ingestion can lead to death. I think it is quite plausible that a reader could come away with the idea that contact could cause death and it must be remembered that, in the ‘70s, parents would be quite likely to read what their children were reading.

It seems to me that this article might have contributed to the bad reputation enjoyed by Laburnum even though evidence of actual poisonings is not easy to find. I’m not claiming a complete answer but I am hoping that, in time, more publications from the ‘70s will be available online and it will be possible to see if ‘Look and Learn’s’ exaggerated view of the threat posed by Laburnum was picked up by others so that it did become the cause of more suspected plant poisonings than any other plant in the UK.