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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 19th February 2012

I don’t usually listen to the radio on a Sunday morning but, today, I had to go out so the car radio meant I caught an item about present day life in Russia.

It was one of those long-form pieces from the resident BBC correspondent who had replicated a train journey, from Moscow to Petushki, used in a story written in communist times to show the state of the nation.

That story, written forty years ago, had as its ‘hero’ an alcoholic cable layer who preceded his journey by drinking one and a half litres of vodka every day for five days. In the story, the train carriage is occupied by angels and Satan and a drunk ticket collector removes his trousers. The BBC correspondent stuck to real people and asked them about their everyday lives and what they think will happen in the forthcoming presidential elections.

Hippophae rhamnoides, sea buckthorn

Hippophae rhamnoides, sea buckthorn

He was invited to tea by a 73-year old woman who still travels two hours each way every day to work in Moscow because her pension isn’t enough to live on. In honour of the special occasion, she offered him a glass of sea buckthorn wine.

Sea buckthorn is Hippophae rhamnoides and is usually found as a shrub on the coast but, if protected from coastal winds, will grow into a tree. In the autumn, it produces orange berries in clusters that stay on the plant right through the winter if undisturbed. It was one of the plants included in the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden that didn’t have a clear claim to being poisonous. 

The information on Hippophae rhamnoides is often confusing.  Some sources state that it is a strong purgative though this looks to be the result of confusion with the Rhamnus cathartica, common buckthorn, which is widely recognized as toxic.  Others say it is emetic though this may be the result of the ripe berries being so acidic as to cause gagging and vomiting. 

In ‘Native Trees and Shrubs’ by Jill, Duchess of Hamilton & Christopher Humphries the berries are described as edible but the rest of the plant is said to be poisonous.  The same book, however, goes on to explain that the name Hippophae is a combination of ‘hippo’ meaning ‘horse’ and ‘phae’ meaning ‘shine’ because horses eat the foliage to improve their coats.  It is Mrs Grieve who cites Henslow as saying ‘in some parts of Europe the berries are considered poisonous’ but this is erroneous as there is clear evidence that the berries were used as a good source of vitamin C but, due to their bitter taste, they needed to be mixed with honey to be palatable.

Hippophae rhamnoides, sea buckthorn

Hippophae rhamnoides, sea buckthorn

About the only thing I found to say about this tree to justify its place in the Poison Garden was that it was evidence that nature was not to be trusted. Just as the slight sweetness of the berries of Atropa belladonna goes against the presumption that poison berries are always unpleasant to eat so the berries of the sea buckthorn go against the idea that, if a berry tastes bad, it must have a bad effect.

In the radio piece I heard this morning, the reporter made no mention of the taste of this wine. It appears to be something that has been produced in Asia and the Indian Sub-continent for some time but its claimed health benefits, resulting from the high vitamin ‘C’ level and the presence of the same chemicals said to give red wine its claimed health benefits suggest that interest in it may be increasing.

I only found one site offering it for sale online and I didn’t thoroughly check the science found here and here.

One thing is certain; the BBC reporter was better off accepting sea buckthorn wine from the old lady than he would have been accepting vodka from the electrician, another of the train passengers he met, who always carried a bottle in his pocket just like the ‘hero’ of the original story.