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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 19th September 2011

Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut

Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut

Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut

For the first time in a number of weeks, the weather was pretty good and enough people were around for us to get an enjoyable Monday morning walk in. We started from Paxton House, climbed up through the village, over the Whiteadder and up to Low Cockburn before coming back to the river, along to Canty’s Brig, up the road to the border then down onto the river Tweed for the return to Paxton House and an excellent lunch in the cafeteria.

And wherever we went, the signs of autumn were already very apparent. Most of the conkers were already off the Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut, and the leaves were turning bright red. The Symphytum was looking rather forlorn and the Arum maculatum, cuckoopint, I saw was passed its best.

Though the autumn colours can be very striking it is a pretty down time of year, except for one thing. It is the time for picking blackberries. Rubus fruticosus is the blackberry and our walks at this time of year seem to take a bit longer because there’s always one more berry to try that looks that bit plumper than all the ones that have gone before.

The bramble bush is most certainly not poisonous but it was included in the initial planting of the Alnwick garden Poison Garden. This was because picking blackberries too late in the autumn can leave you with a bit of a stomach upset.

Many people remember being told not to pick blackberries after Michaelmas Day, which used to be 29th September but is now 11th October. They don’t always remember what reason they were given for leaving the berries alone on the bramble bush after this date.

Rubus fruticosus, blackberry

Rubus fruticosus, blackberry

Rubus fruticosus, blackberry

It is said that the devil was expelled from heaven on Michaelmas Day. He was already in a pretty bad mood when he fell to earth and landed in a bramble bush which did nothing to improve his temper. So cross was he that he spat on the blackberries and every year on Michaelmas Day the devil’s spit reappears. In fact, a creature called the flesh fly lands on the fruit from about mid-October and lays its eggs in a spittle like substance which makes it unpleasant to eat and can cause a mild poisoning.

I actually quite like that story because, like foxgloves being the home of the fairies and deadly nightshade being owned by the devil, it is an example of the ways our ancestors tried to protect their children from harm by making up stories.

Because the plant itself is not poisonous, however, the Rubus fruticosus was one of those that were removed at the end of 2005 to be replaced by more straightforwardly poisonous species.

These days, warnings about picking blackberries usually focus on two things other than the devil’s spit. Many people will warn against picking blackberries from a roadside because pollution from the traffic will have deposited all manner of nastiness on the berries. I don’t pay much attention to that one myself. If I’ve picking blackberries to take home they’ll get washed anyway and, if I’m picking them to eat, I usually only have a dozen or so.

The other modern day warning, however, is one I am more inclined to pay attention to. This is the advice to only pick blackberries from heights above the highest level that a dog could cock its leg.