Pontifications on Poison
Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.
Monday 19th September 2011
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
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
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
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
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.