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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 26th March 2012

The family was setting out its picnic on a bench looking over the cricket field adjacent to Bamburgh Castle as we walked up this lunchtime. When I began ‘I hope you don’t mind me saying…’ their faces all showed concern that I might be about to tell them they were committing some dreadful transgression but when I continued ‘…it is March’ they turned to smiles.

Almost every year, we get a period of unusually pleasant weather and every year we assume that it is an early summer only to find shortly after that we are very wrong, but the pleasant weather is very rarely as pleasant as it was today.

Though the morning started quite chilly, it didn’t take long before the sun burned off the mist and the temperature rose up to around 20oC. I couldn’t help wondering what impact such a temperature might have on this very bright daffodil which is adapted for dealing with much lower temperatures.

Narcissus, daffodil

The walk along the sands was magnificent with the sky completely blue and the sea gently lapping at the shore in the sort of motion you expect to see in the Mediterranean and, once in Bamburgh, the small front gardens of the houses along the main road had plenty of early colour on offer.

My Fritillaria imperialis, crown imperial, seems to have survived the harsh treatment it received last year but it is nowhere near flowering unlike this, admittedly, small Fritillaria meleagris, snake’s head fritillary.

Fritillaria meleagris, snake’s head fritillary

The same border sported this early tulip. There are so many varieties of tulip that I never try and name them.

Early flowering tulip

I wrote briefly about the tulipomania described in Anna Pavord’s excellent book ‘the Tulip’ and Charles Mackay, in ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’, has a short section about it.

Many people don’t realise that tulips are toxic, just like the other spring bulbs. This is because they have heard of them being eaten in the Netherlands during the 1944/45 ‘hunger winter’. Starving people made bread using a flour from crushed tulip bulbs. It was found that removing the centre of bulb, as well as the skin, removed enough of the toxin to enable the rest to be dried and ground to make a sort of bread flour. It is, also, possible that baking the bread destroyed the toxins though many of the poisoning incidents associated with Narcissus, daffodils, occur when the bulb has been cooked in a meal.

What happened during that terrible winter over sixty years ago is still being studied and seems to have lessons for us even today. Researchers in the Netherlands have now studied people whose mothers were pregnant during the period mid-October 1944 to mid-May 1945, the Dutch Hunger Winter. They found a statistically significant link between people whose mothers were in the first three months of pregnancy in this period and later mental illness. There was no significant link later in pregnancy. The study confirms earlier suggestions that malnutrition in early pregnancy inhibits proper brain development. The researchers raised concerns about future mental health problems in parts of the world affected by serious famine.

But today, I hope, I can be forgiven for not dwelling on the troubles of the world but just taking it easy and making the most of the lovely weather. Just like this chap.

Swan at Budle Bay



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