THE POISON GARDEN website      Arum maculatum berries on a Cannabis leaf 


This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 28th October 2011

The church hall where I gave last night’s talk had a motion-activated floodlight outside the entrance. I think the detector was aimed more at people arriving than leaving because it took a couple of steps in the dark before it snapped on as I came out to start loading up my car.

But, when it did come on, it revealed a swirl of mist like something from a scary movie where the script calls for the atmosphere to be eerie. It was a clear sign, confirmed on the drive home by going from clear visibility to an impenetrable wall of white in a matter of a few yards, that the season is changing rapidly. This time last year, after all, we were only a month away from very heavy snowfalls.

The talk itself went very well and I had the usual pleasure of hearing, from a number of audience members, their own experiences of poisonous plants. ‘Lethal Lovelies’ is an overview of the world of poisonous plants. I joke that talking about all of them would take about four hours but that’s not entirely untruthful. To keep to the expected time, I try and pick out plants that make general points about how poisoning occurs, or more usually doesn’t occur because the taste is too awful for people to ingest a harmful amount, and plants that have the most interesting stories.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

The current version of the talk sees twenty-four plants get mentioned though several of them get only a sentence or two. One of the plants is Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, because it’s the best example of the reason why ‘Don’t touch!’ can be good advice with some plants. After the talk, a woman told me her experience of giant hogweed, some years ago, and I thought I’d write about it here because it provides an example of how people can pick up snippets of information and put them together to reach a completely erroneous conclusion.

The story was that the woman had been involved with a play group that had land backing onto a railway line. The track verge was heavily populated with Heracleum mantegazzianum and the children could reach some of the plants through the fence. This they did in order to use the hollow stems to make pea-shooters for their bellicose games in the field.

This is one of the classic routes for harm to be caused by this plant and, sure enough, the children soon developed burns around their lips where the furocoumarins from the cut stalks had been transferred to the skin.

The playgroup contacted British Rail, I said it was some years ago, to see about getting the plants removed. This was done but one of the British Rail staff involved with its removal told my audience member that giant hogweed was an invasive plant that had escaped from Kew Gardens and spread around the rail network.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

That is not true but it is quite easy to see how that story came into being. Heracleum mantegazzianum is an invasive plant but it was brought to the UK by the Victorians and was, for a time, a very fashionable plant to have in your garden. This may just have been because its flower heads are very attractive but it may also have been that, being a very large plant, having it indicated that one possessed a large garden and that, in itself, would be an analogue for having a large income. It was from these Victorian gardens that giant hogweed made its way into the wild and, especially, onto riverbanks.

Senecio squalidus is Oxford ragwort. It is not a UK native but was brought to this country, from Sicily, in the first decade of the eighteenth century. Though it is thought that it was originally planted in the gardens at Badminton it was soon transferred to the Oxford Botanical Garden. By the end of the eighteenth century it was to be found growing on walls and wasteland around Oxford and, since then, has spread to most of the British Isles. This spread seems to have occurred as a result of the plant following railway lines and growing on railway embankments.

It seems, therefore, that the British Rail official’s explanation for the Heracleum mantegazzianum that caused the children’s burns was part the story of giant hogweed and part the story of Senecio squalidus but with Kew Gardens replacing the Oxford Botanical Garden.


Full Entries


Tuesday 25th October 2016
Saturday 20th August 2016
Sunday 6th March 2016
Wednesday 3rd February 2016


Saturday 28th November 2015
Friday 27th November 2015
Monday 17th August 2015
Wednesday 15th July 2015
Friday 26th June 2015
Thursday 25th June 2015
Thursday 30th April 2015
Wednesday 29th April 2015
Wednesday 11th March 2015
Tuesday 3rd March 2015
Saturday 28th February 2015
Sunday 22nd February 2015

November 2014

Monday 24th November 2014
Saturday 8th November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

Wednesday 24th September 2014
Monday 1st September 2014

August 2014

Tuesday 26th August 2014
Saturday 16th August 2014
Tuesday 5th August 2014
Friday 1st August 2014

July 2014

Sunday 27th July 2014
Wednesday 23rd July 2014
Sunday 13th July 2014
Sunday 6th July 2014
Tuesday 1st July 2014

June 2014

Wednesday 25th June 2014
Tuesday 24th June 2014
Sunday 22nd June 2014
Monday 9th June 2014
Wednesday 4th June 2014

May 2014

Monday 26th May 2014
Sunday 18th May 2014
Wednesday 14th May 2014

April 2014

Sunday 13th April 2014
Saturday 5th April 2014
Thursday 3rd April 2014
Tuesday 1st April 2014

March 2014

Monday 31st March 2014
Tuesday 25th March 2014
Friday 21st March 2014
Monday 17th March 2014
Sunday 16th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Thursday 6th March 2014
Wednesday 5th March 2014
Saturday 1st March 2014

February 2014

Thursday 27th February 2014
Monday 24th February 2014
Wednesday 19th February 2014
Monday 17th February 2014
Thursday 13th February 2014
Monday 4th February 2014
Monday 3rd February 2014
Saturday 1st February 2014

January 2014

Thursday 28th January 2014
Thursday 23rd January 2014
Friday 17th January 2014
Wednesday 15th January 2014
Monday 13th January 2014
Thursday 9th January 2014
Tuesday 7th January 2014
Wednesday 1st January 2014

December 2013

Monday 23rd December 2013
Friday 20th December 2013
Tuesday 17th December 2013
Friday 14th December 2013
Thursday 12th December 2013
Sunday 8th December 2013
Wednesday 4th December 2013
Sunday 1st December 2013

November 2013

Friday 29th November 2013
Wednesday 27th November 2013
Tuesday 26th November 2013
Friday 22nd November 2013
Monday 18th November 2013
Friday 15th November 2013
Thursday 14th November 2013
Sunday 10th November 2013
Thursday 7th November 2013
Wednesday 6th November 2013
Friday 1st November 2013

October 2013

Thursday 31st October 2013
Sunday 27th October 2013
Wednesday 23rd October 2013
Monday 21st October 2013
Friday 18th October 2013
Friday 11th October 2013
Wednesday 9th October 2013
Tuesday 8th October 2013
Monday 7th October 2013
Tuesday 1st October 2013

September 2013

Monday 30th September 2013
Saturday 28th September 2013
Friday 27th September 2013
Monday 23rd September 2013
Sunday 15th September 2013
Monday 9th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

August 2013

Sunday 8th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

Tuesday 27th August 2013
Sunday 25th August 2013
Monday 19th August 2013
Friday 16th August 2013
Tuesday 13th August 2013
Friday 9th August 2013
Friday 2nd August 2013
Thursday 1st August 2013

July 2013

Saturday 27th July 2013
Sunday 21st July 2013
Wednesday 17th July 2013
Monday 15th July 2013
Saturday 13th July 2013
Friday 12th July 2013
Thursday 11th July 2013
Wednesday 10th July 2013
Tuesday 9th July 2013
Saturday 6th July 2013

June 2013

Friday 28th June 2013
Tuesday 25th June 2013
Friday 21st June 2013
Thursday 20th June 2013
Wednesday 19th June 2013
Saturday 15th June 2013
Sunday 9th June 2013
Saturday 8th June 2013
Saturday 1st June 2013

May 2013

April 2013

March 2013

February 2013

January 2013

December 2012

November 2012

October 2012

September 2012

August 2012

July 2012 blog

June 2012 blog

May 2012 blog

April 2012 blog

March 2012 blog

February 2012 blog

January 2012 blog

December 2011 blog

November 2011 blog

October 2011 blog

September 2011 blog

August 2011 blog

July 2011 blog

June 2011 blog


The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.