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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 26th June 2011

It is nice to be right occasionally. It’s even nicer because it doesn’t happen that often. I tend to eliminate most of the caveats when I’m writing because I think it would be tedious to keep saying ‘it is thought’, ‘some people believe’, etc. but that doesn’t mean I don’t doubt much of what I think I know. So, those few occasions when what I think turns out to be so are that much more enjoyable.

I’ve believed for some time that I could go into any garden and find enough poisonous plants to give an off the cuff talk for twenty minutes. That’s the basis of the tagline I use ‘…because every garden is a poison garden’. We all have plants in our gardens that can be classified as poisonous though they never cause us or anyone else harm.

As well as running this site and giving talks about poisonous plants, one of the things I do is to manage the website for Gavinton, a village about five miles from where I live. Yesterday, quite a high proportion of the villagers opened their gardens to the public as part of a fundraising effort for ‘Help for Heroes’ and I was asked to go along to get some pictures for a gallery for the site.

It made sense to challenge myself to try and spot poisonous plants in every one of the 23 gardens on the list of all those I would be photographing. I did think the ‘village vegetable plots’ might stump me but, perhaps not surprisingly, there were plenty of foxgloves growing around the edge. That saved me having to stretch the definition quite a bit and just take the many potato plants as qualifying.

Buxus sempervirensActually, foxgloves and plants in the Helleborus genus would have let me tick off just about every garden but I was pleased to see plenty of others as well. The owner of this sculptured Buxus sempervirens had grown it for the look of it and was surprised to hear that, as an added bonus, he’d made sure no witches would ever come to his door.







There were quite a few Arums around both maculatum and italicum but this italicum caught my eye because the spathe was so bent back that it was possible to see right down to the base of the spadix which is where the ‘flower’ really is, that is the sexual organs of the plant. Arum italicum








Nepeta, catnip

Quite a number of people had Nepeta of different kinds. This is a plant that I use to make the point about how different animals are affected differently by plants and also to talk about psychoactive plants because the catnips are often termed ‘cannabis for cats’.





Rheum hybridum, rhubarb

And, of course, there were the food plants. I’ve blogged before about the HTA’s list of potentially hazardous plants excluding vegetables but, as well as the potatoes already mentioned, I saw plenty of tomatoes and parsnips in the many vegetable plots around the village. And this fine clump of Rheum, rhubarb.









 Atropa belladonna berries, deadly nightshade




There were also quite a few blackcurrant bushes and the similarity between the fruit and the berries of Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, was quite striking. Of course, the leaves are very different so as long as you look at the whole plant you won’t make an unpleasant mistake but, it shows, you do need to look at a whole situation not just one isolated part.

Heracleum sphondylium, cow parsnip

Talking of parsnips, Pastinaca sativa, brings me to my favourite of all the gardens. This one has an area of proper woodland at the bottom and the owner had mowed a path through the wild plants so people could get round to see it. I didn’t spot any Conium maculatum, poison hemlock, though it was the right environment for it but I did see plenty of the beautiful flowering Heracleum sphondylium, cow parsnip, the less harmful relative of Heracleum mantegazzianum which, nonetheless, is capable of causing skin burns if you get enough of it in very bright sunlight.






Veratrum album, sneezewort

But, the moment that gave me the best glow of self-satisfaction came when the owner of one garden asked if I could identify a plant. Usually, when this happens, I have to either admit ignorance or fudge around with ‘it looks a bit like…’ but, yesterday, I had an immediate answer, or part of an answer. The pleats in the leaves are a sure identifier for the Veratrum genus but I couldn’t be sure if it was album or nigrum because the flowers had not opened. I told the owner about its common name, sneezewort, and the fact that its use in sneezing powder has been illegal since 1994 which is why you shouldn’t be tempted to give the flowers a good sniff.





Now, there were no flowers and I didn’t get really close to the plant, as the photo shows, and I didn’t sniff even from a distance. So, why is it that, as I turned away to explore the rest of the garden, I sneezed. 


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