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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 24th February 2012

Today, I feel a bit like Dirk Gently. He was the creation of Douglas Adams and described as an "holistic detective" making use of "the fundamental interconnectedness of all things". There have been several different strands to my day but they do seem to have, highly tenuous, links.

It begins with me reading about someone who is already dealing with young Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort, appearing in a paddock where horses are kept. And it ends with another shameless plug for ‘Is That Cat Dead? – and other questions about poison plants’.

I don’t know where in the UK the ragwort was seen and I know it is said that there’s about two weeks difference between the south and the north but it did make me wonder what might be starting to appear around here. So, when it turned out to be a very bright, warm day with a brisk but not unpleasant wind, I decided to take a short drive to a walk that goes down through woods and onto the banks of the River Tweed. This is a place where, in spite of repeated spraying, Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, appears each spring.

Of course, the evergreens were there and I was struck by how shiny this holly bush, Ilex aquifolium, appeared in the strong sunlight.

Ilex aquifolium, holly

But it didn’t take long before I spotted some new growth with this stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, looking bright and fresh.

stinging nettle, Urtica dioica 

Of course, where there is nettle you expect to find dock, Rumex obtusifolius, though in this particular area there is usually far more dock than stinging nettle.

dock, Rumex obtusifolius 

But it wasn’t long before I found what I was after; young Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, in quite a few places.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed 

I was quite pleased to see it wasn’t having it all its own way.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed 

I don’t know what insect finds the hogweed leaves so desirable but it is a shame there aren’t more of them.

There were also a couple of different looking fern leaved plants that may be hemlock or something completely innocent. I need to do some research before deciding.

And, of course, there were plenty of snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, in clumps all through the wood though they are starting to go past their best.

snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis 

The snowdrops interested me because, on the short drive to this walk, I’d heard part of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Gardener Question Time’. A questioner asked if snowdrops should be seen as the last flower of the winter or the first of the spring. That question never really got answered because one of the panel ‘went off on one’ about the current fad for unusual varieties of snowdrop. He talked about £360 being paid at auction for a single bulb and went on to say that he heard someone say that the highly prized flower was actually pretty ugly.

It all reminded me of Anna Pavord’s excellent account of the tulipomania that raged in Holland from 1634 to 1637 given in her book ‘The Tulip’. I’ve got the paperback that is only part one of the original hardback. Part 2, apparently, is more like an encyclopaedia of tulips giving details of every variety. The publicity for the book suggests that no other flower has attracted the fanaticism that surrounded the tulip. If the present fad for snowdrops continues and the price of single bulbs keeps rising, that claim may need to be revised.

But it was thinking about the part 2 that I don’t have that got me onto thinking about my book. For a long time, there have only been two customer reviews of ‘Is That Cat Dead?’ The first was very kind about the book itself but noted that it couldn’t be used to identify the plants. To me, a printed book is, nowadays, not the best way to try and identify plants. If the book is organized A to Z you have to flick backwards and forwards to compare similar plants and if, like Liz Dauncey’s 'Poisonous Plants: a guide for parents and childcare providers', you try and group similar looking plants together it can make finding your way around tricky.

Websites, where a variety of systems of organisation can be easily stacked together are, to me, the perfect way to go. It is, certainly, where I shall look to try and get a positive identification of the fern-like plants I mentioned, above.

Between us, my publisher and I had failed to make it apparent to the first reviewer that the book was not trying to be a reference and I’m sorry for that, especially as most of the comments were so kind.

The second review was a stinker, awarding only 2 stars, and I was quite cast down by it until I looked at all the reviews written by this particular customer and found that 2 stars was, actually, quite high praise. I had to wonder why this person continued to read books if it was so often an unpleasant experience.

But, today, a third customer review has appeared on the Amazon page for the printed version. And it’s lovely. Really, really lovely. Now, when writing about some of the articles supporting the status quo on drug policy, or even calling for stricter enforcement and penalties, the first thing I look for is cherry-picking. That is someone, choosing to cite only those things that support their case and ignoring evidence that does not.

Cherry-picking is wrong and bad. Except, of course, when it comes to reviews of my own book when, obviously, you should only pay attention to the good reviews and skip over the bad one.