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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 26th September 2011

Five days to the end of September and, finally, we get what could be called a summer’s day. At least, it was cloudless for much of the time and reasonably warm, if sheltered, but the wind had a sharp edge to it. It wasn’t too bad on the walk from Budle Bay to Bamburgh, but the return, with the wind in our faces was a bit of a slog at times.

Bamburgh beach

Bamburgh beach from a video
taken in November 2009

If you’re not familiar with the north-east coast of England you’ll have to take my word for it that Bamburgh has one of the nicest beaches in the world. This screengrab form a video I took in november 2009 doesn't really do it justice. Or, you could try these pictures to see for yourself. If it had better weather it would, of course, be spoiled by being covered in people.

We walk along the beach to Bamburgh and then back on the footpath through the golf course. Walking along the road to the golf course I saw a couple of Hippophae rhamnoides, sea buckthorn, growing in a garden. I’m going to cheat a bit and quote what I wrote in that excellent book ‘Is That Cat Dead? – and other questions about poison plants’.

Hippophae rhamnoides, sea buckthorn

Hippophae rhamnoides, sea buckthorn

‘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.  Others say it is emetic though this may be the result of the ripe berries being so acidic as to cause gagging and vomiting. 

‘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.  It is Mrs Grieve who cites Henslow as saying ‘in some parts of Europe the berries are considered poisonous’ but this is erroneous as there is clear evidence that the berries, which remain on the plant through the winter, were used as a good source of vitamin C but, due to their bitter taste, they needed to be mixed with honey to be palatable.’

Hippophae rhamnoides, sea buckthorn

Hippophae rhamnoides, sea buckthorn
the orange berry clusters

Now that I have no connection with the Alnwick Garden, I’ll never find out what the designer intended by including it. I suppose she may have got confused with the common buckthorn, or she may have wanted to make the point that you can’t tell a poison just from its taste. That was certainly what I used to say to explain its presence. When the re-planting took place in 2006, it was decided that it should remain, mostly, I think, because it was a substantial and, therefore, expensive tree and there wasn’t the money to replace it with something of similar size.

I did think about whether to blog about it as it isn’t poisonous. It doesn’t appear in the A to Z section of this site because I know some people would simply remember seeing the name in the menu and take away the idea that it must be poisonous if it is on this site. In the end I decided to write about it because I do like the clusters of orange berries.

They will, usually, stay on the plant because even the birds find the taste unpleasant. That adds a mystery. In general, we think of the fruit of a plant as being the attraction for birds to eat and then they excrete the seeds at a distance and give the plant a chance of spreading itself.

But, what purpose is served by producing berries that don’t get eaten so that the seeds remain on the tree? Is the Hippophae rhamnoides one of evolution’s cul-de-sacs or is there something different going on?