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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 21st November 2011

Our walk today took us along part of the John Muir Trail form West Barns into Dunbar and back. Though the sky looked threatening, in part, and we could see a rainbow as we parked the cars, it turned into a very fine, clear day with some splendid views up and down the coast and out to sea.

Numerous plants along the shore were still in flower confirming what I blogged about on Saturday 19th. For a good part of the total you are walking right on the edge of Dunbar Golf Club and I found the contrast between carefully maintained grassland and the scrub on the edge of the beach quite striking.

Hippophae rhamnoides, sea buckthorn

Hippophae rhamnoides, sea buckthorn

But it was seeing a large clump of Hippophae rhamnoides, sea buckthorn, that sparked this blog entry. It’s hard to get an idea of scale from a small photograph even with the Torness Nuclear Power Station in the distance but the whole clump was about 5m across.

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. It was grown in the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden but I never found out why the woman who provided the original plant list had included it.   

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.

The only justification I could come up with for its presence was to tell visitors that it was an example of the perversity of nature because, though harmless, the berries had a very unpleasant taste disproving any idea that taste was a marker for toxicity.

Hippophae rhamnoides, sea buckthorn

Hippophae rhamnoides, sea buckthorn

Both though I’ve told many thousands of people about the unpleasant taste of the berries I had not, until today, eaten one. Seeing plenty of ripe berries on low growing bushes was too good a chance to miss. I tried to pick a berry but found it to be very fragile and very juicy. Even with only slight pressure, the berry collapsed leaving my fingers covered in juice.

So, I did what anyone would be most likely to do; I licked my fingers.

I’ve long credited my wife with a rare, almost unique, skill. She remembers flavours and can break them down into their components. Give her a roast lamb shank on a bed of rice and she’ll precisely described how its taste varies from the ones we had in the Persian restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel in Dubai, 17 years ago. Give her just about any home-cooked dish and she’ll separate out the ingredients and be able to work out what, if any, changes to the proportions should be made to improve the overall flavour.

Until today, I’ve been in awe of this skill because I’ve never been able to precisely reference a taste and describe how to get that exact same taste. Until today.

Here’s how to know what the berries of the Hippophae rhamnoides taste like. Go to the supermarket and buy the cheapest bottle of dry white wine they have. Take it home and remove the top. Leave it to stand for a week to ten days. Pour a small glass (you don’t want to have too much to spit out) and taste it. That is the taste of a sea buckthorn berry. It’s no wonder they say that when ancient peoples used them as a diet supplement during the winter, without knowing that they were getting a good dose of Vitamin C, they would mix the berries with copious amounts of honey.

That might, just about, make them palatable.