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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 29th January 2012

Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade

Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade

By chance, I came across a mention of a poisoning incident involving Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade, on an internet forum and was able to learn more about it.

I won’t give any more details of where I came across it or from whom but it is, I think, worth giving some detail about it as it points up a number of lessons.

It happened in the late 1970s and involved a 2-year old boy picking blackberries with his father. The father noticed that growing in amongst the brambles was another plant with red berries on it but didn’t recognise the plant or think anything of it. He was not aware that his son, as well as eating some blackberries, ate some of these red berries. He says it was three berries but I think this was the conclusion reached by the hospital rather than a precise count.

I’ve always said that woody nightshade is not a plant to be too wary off because the berries are so bitter that no-one, least of all a child, would be inclined to eat a lot of them. Obviously, in this case, I’m wrong but it hasn’t been possible to determine whether the child chewed the berries and ignored the bitter taste or simply swallowed them whole without chewing. Not surprisingly, the man has few if any memories of what happened to him as a small boy.

The father only became aware that something was wrong when his son began panting and sweating and had a very high pulse rate. Realising what may have happened, the father took some of the woody nightshade plant with the boy to A & E where they confirmed that his symptoms matched Solanum dulcamara poisoning.

Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade

Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade

Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade

The boy was hot, shaky, thirsty and hyperactive for two days but it was a further two and a half days before his blood pressure and pulse returned to normal so he could be released from hospital. He suffered no long-term effects and his father went on to become a professional gardener who would not ignore a patch of woody nightshade again.

I asked whether the incident had been written up in a medical or other journal but the father thinks not.

This story points up some interesting things. First, there is the importance of taking to the hospital whatever is suspected as being the cause of poisoning. By identifying the poison early on proper treatment can be given and ‘proper treatment’ includes avoiding unnecessary treatment ‘just in case’.

The whole incident, of course, is a lesson in the need to keep children away from potentially harmful substances until they are old enough to understand that they should not experiment without knowing what it is they are about to eat.

For me, I need to revise my view that poisoning incidents are so unusual that they invariably get written up as case studies. Clearly, it is not a universal occurrence.

And, I need to qualify my comments about being deterred by the bad taste of many poisonous plants by pointing out that swallowing whole bypasses the taste and can happen.