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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 24th November 2011

The use of pepper spray to deal with protesters at the University of California (UC) Davis campus has had extensive coverage in the media, not least because a TV crew was on hand to get clear footage of the incident and its aftermath, and demonstrated how easy it is to get in trouble for telling the truth.

The students, who were protesting to indicate their support for the various ‘Occupy’ movements around the USA and elsewhere in the world, had sat down across a campus thoroughfare and refused to move when ordered to by campus police. One officer then walked slowly along in front of them spraying the pepper into their faces. If you haven’t already seen it here's the video together with the first hand reporting of the incident.

Initially, there was a lot of coverage focussing on the incident but then the story moved on to what people thought a Fox News presenter had said about it. Megyn Kelly has been widely reviled for saying "It's a derivative of actual pepper; it's a food product, essentially." That has been taken as being dismissive of its effects and has morphed into people claiming she said it was ‘no big deal’. The Los Angeles Times has this piece setting out a fuller summary of what was actually said together with the actual video from Fox News which suggests that Ms Kelly brought the ire down upon herself by saying it might be argued that using pepper spray in this way was within the definition of ‘reasonable force’.

Ms Kelly is perfectly right about it being a food product; pepper spray is a product made from a plant that is, frequently, used as food. Peppers are plants in the Capsicum genus, such as Capsicum annum and Capsicum frutescens. Their common names, bell pepper, chili pepper, green pepper, jalapeno and many others tend to get applied to both these and many other species in the genus. Though often used in cooking by many cultures, Capsicum annum is categorised by the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) as Class ‘C’ in its list of potentially harmful plants and, in her book ‘Poisonous Plants – A guide for parents and childcare providers’, Liz Dauncey describes some pretty unpleasant symptoms that can arise from ingestion, skin contact or inhalation.

It’s a very good example of the principle that there is no such thing as a poison; there is just the dose. On 14th November, I wrote about the difficulties of providing a list of poison plants, even if you don’t make those difficulties much greater by trying to provide a ranking for your list. The question of pepper spray is a further illustration.

There are those who would call plants like Allium sativum (garlic), Allium cepa (onion) and Armoracia rusticana (horseradish) poisonous because they can cause quite severe, unpleasant effects. Certainly, grating a fresh horseradish root under the noses of the UC students would have produced quite similar symptoms to those produced by the pepper spray.  

My purpose in writing about this is not to get into the subject of whether this use was right and who, if anyone, is to blame. It is to point out that, once again, we see an example of the notion that it is the way we, the human race, use plants that makes them harmful. My answer to the frequent question ‘What’s the most dangerous thing in the garden?’ is always the same; ‘The gardener’.