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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 29th August 2011

I really like it when visitors to this site use the contact form to ask questions or let me know about their own experiences with poisonous plants. I’ve collected a number of interesting stories that way including the family who got fed Narcissus bulbs because mum thought mother-in-law had left some onions while they were out.

This weekend, I’ve had a couple of particularly interesting emails from visitors though for two different reasons.

Narcissus, daffodil

The first was from someone in the south of England who is preparing a newsletter for his allotment holders’ group and wanted to know if he could use one of the pictures of Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, from this site to illustrate his piece. It's very flattering to have someone say something nice about my pictures still, I suppose, if you put enough pictures into picture galleries some of them must be reasonable. 

The first thing of interest about that is to wonder why he wanted to write about a plant that I hadn’t heard of spreading that far south. Giant hogweed originates from Russia and is usually thought of as a plant that likes damp, cool conditions. I hope his interest doesn’t mean it is becoming a problem in ever larger areas of the country.

But the second thing about his email that distinguished it was that he asked for permission to use one of my pictures. For the most part, it seems to me, people assume that pictures on websites are fair game for anyone to use. There will be those, of course, who don’t give a hoot about ownership or copyright but, I suspect, many people don’t even realise that downloading an image from a website or linking to it from another site is copyright theft unless permission is given either on the site or, as in this case, in response to a request.

When I wrote about not having a picture of Delphiniums 4th August for my new page, one of my Twitter followers pointed me to the Creative Commons scheme where people make images freely available. I haven’t pursued that because I wouldn’t want to use pictures under that scheme when I’m not prepared to make my own available in that way.

The other contact was from someone who is writing a novel and wanted advice to make sure she selected the right plants to include as murder weapons in her plot. It would be unfair of me to say more than that. You’ll hear all about, I can assure you, if the book gets published with my suggestions included.

But, it reminded me of the whole question of poisonings in fiction. There are plenty of uses of poison plants in novels and plays and, as you might expect, some authors take a lot of time making sure they use the plants well while others make ridiculous statements about the doses and symptoms of the plants they want to include as poisoning agents. I’ll confess to feeling quite a bit of frustration when someone challenges what I have said about a plant by relying on what has been included in a fictional account of murder by poison.

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

Two authors who made extensive use of poisons in their writing were Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. Shakespeare was clever in that he rarely gave a recognisable name for the poisons he employed. That’s left scholars to spend hours discussing the possibilities. To give one example, in Hamlet it is said that Hamlet’s father dies from having hebenon poured into his ears. Some people think this meant Hyoscyamus niger, henbane, but others claim the word works its way back to an extract from a tree. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare doesn’t name the sleeping draught that produces the climatic tragedy of the play and scholars have speculated that it could be Mandragora officinarum, mandrake.

Agatha Christie, on the other hand, spent time working in a pharmacy in the days when many more plant extracts were used and applies the knowledge gained there to give specific plant poisons and, generally, faithful descriptions of their effects. I say ‘generally’ because there are times when she needs to stretch the truth a little for the purposes of the plot.

Of the modern crime writers Val McDirmid stands out as someone who takes the time to learn about the weapons she deploys. She was a regular visitor to the Poison Garden at Alnwick when she was researching her book ‘Beneath the Bleeding’ and those visits plus her other researches meant she used ricin as a murder weapon in about the only way that I have ever read that stands a chance of succeeding. But given that it involves what these days they call ‘graphic sexual content’ I won’t go into more detail.

For those who haven’t read ‘Beneath the Bleeding’, it has two stories running in parallel. One involves a number of murders using plant poisons and the serial killer turns out to be the man responsible for a privately owned poison garden in the grounds of a stately home. The villain is responsible for the actual gardening as well as understanding all about the plants concerned and, of course, at Alnwick we had a gardening team but, in spite of that difference, I like to think that I am the model for the serial killer.

Certainly that’s what I say when explaining, during a talk, why I don’t pay too much attention to what is written in fiction about poisonous plants.