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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 30th July 2011

I’ve written before about being taught, during my one day of learning about gardening, that plants want to grow and it is up to the gardener not to prevent that happening. Which is excellent if you’re talking about plants you want to have in the garden, but not so good if it’s something you’d rather wasn’t there.

Our current home was newly built when we moved in just over ten years ago but had been built on the site of previous buildings. Go back far enough and this land was part of a Victorian slaughterhouse. Our neighbours are on the site of the main premises so they find more pieces of animal bone in the garden than we do but I still dig up the occasional big piece of thigh bone or similar.

Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry

Our immediate predecessor, however, was a private residence that, according to reports, was not much more than a wartime Nissen hut and as its sole resident grew older the large garden was allowed to become more and more overgrown. The builder, of course, had to clear a lot of this in order to build this house but he didn’t bother removing the shrubs along the northern boundary and the trees at the bottom were required to be left.

When we moved in, in July 2001, I was happy to leave alone anything that was growing well so as to concentrate on the parts of the garden that were no more than weedy scrub. But, over the following few years I started to deal with those shrubs that didn’t suit us. The main plant in that category was Symphoricarpos albus, the snowberry. Part of my problem with it was that it had become so large, or rather THEY had become so large because there must have been a dozen of them along a 10m stretch of fence. Underneath there was a strong growth of Aegopodium podagraria, ground-elder, and I knew I needed to be able to get at that to have any hope of dealing with it.

I considered just removing some of them and cutting the rest back but once I start removing plants I tend to go for the lot so the whole lot came out; at least what was visible above ground had gone.

Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry

Since then, each year, I’ve had to remove some re-growth from roots left behind. This year, however, I’ve let one stay and, I hope, it will get big enough to produce fruit. That’s because I want to see if my theory about the berries is correct. The list of toxic substances reported to be present is just about endless but there are very few reported cases of ingestion and none of serious poisoning.

The absence of serious harm is attributed to the berries being very strongly emetic so that the toxins never get the chance to be fully absorbed but, it must be said, that idea is based on the evidence of only two known cases of ingestion since 1885.

My theory about the lack of incidents is that the white berries simply don’t look appealing and don’t, therefore, lead to accidental ingestion. Plus, of course, there are very few plants that produce white berries and none of these is known as a tasty treat so there’s no reason for confusion.

Generally, what stops a poisonous berry from causing a serious poisoning incident if ingested is the taste. Many such berries, like the Solanum dulcamara, are so bitter that you just don’t want to eat enough to be poisoned or, like Arum maculatum, cause an almost immediate tingling in the mouth indicating something untoward is going on.

I’ve never read anything about the taste of the Symphoricarpos albus so I don’t know if this is an additional factor. If my, presently, small plant succeeds in fruiting I shall, very carefully, see if there is anything about the taste that offers an additional disincentive.

Update 4th December 2015

After receiving an email from someone who tried a berry and had an hour long tummy ache as a result, I thought I would add this note that I did try and berry and found the taste unattractive.

Unlike my correspondent, I didn't bite into the seeds and experience the extreme bitterness that she suffered. But, we can both confirm that eating snowberry fruits is not a fun thing to do.