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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

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Wednesday 31st August 2011

Last week, the Office for National Statistics published its annual report on drug related deaths in England and Wales. This follows the publication, earlier in the month, of similar data for Scotland. As with almost every statistical report, there are difficulties in fully understanding what the numbers presented mean and there is scope for misrepresentation by the media.

The first problem is that both documents refer to drug-related deaths (DRDs); that is deaths where a specific drug or drugs is mentioned on the death certificate or where the general term ‘drug overdose’ is used. Generally, the media reports these as drug deaths rather than drug-related and write about drugs ‘causing’ the deaths. The distinction between ‘drug-related deaths’ and ‘drug deaths’ may appear to be fine but it leads to the perpetuation of misinformation and, I believe, misinformation contributes to the problem...more

Tuesday 30th August 2011

On 14th August I blogged ‘Something is eating my deadly nightshade’. Well, I wasn’t wrong because something has gone on eating my deadly nightshade and it’s just a little bit annoying.

I’ve been waiting for the green immature berries to ripen so that I could get lots of pictures of the ripe, shiny black finished articles but it is apparent that I’m not going to be able to get any shots of the whole bush covered in berries...more

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...more

Sunday 28th August 2011

In a single advert break during a TV programme I was watching, I noticed three examples of the English language being used to try and make me believe things that the actual words being used did not mean.

The connection with poisonous plants may seem tenuous but I can assure you there is one, for me at least, though you’re entitled to think it is a bit of a stretch...more

Saturday 27th August 2011

A brief news item in a local paper about money donated at the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden brings an angry response from a particular corner of society and opens up the discussion of what is meant by ‘poison’.

Last year, the Alnwick Garden decided to start asking visitors to the Poison Garden to make donations after a guided tour and a local funeral director donated a coffin, which was modified to become a large money box with a slot for people to put in their money...more

Friday 26th August 2011

The journalist I wrote about on 16th August has been in touch again but not so much about the piece she hopes the Scottish Daily Mail will run shortly as about her dealings with Edinburgh City Council who she has been in contact with about a large patch of Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, she found near Heriot Watt University.

By the sound of it, the official she’s been dealing with tried to fob her off by saying the plant she had seen was common hogweed rather than giant hogweed. So I thought I’d look at the similarities and differences between the two plants and a surprising third...more

Thursday 25th August 2011

There were some thunderstorms around, yesterday. I didn’t see any, in fact our weather was rather nice from the late morning on but I did see someone complaining that they were stuck under a storm and their fancy weather radar, the sort used by sports’ venues, showed nothing at all.

It’s a bit of a stretch, you may well think, but I could see a couple of analogies between thunderstorms like that and the recent alleged Al Qaeda ricin bomb plot...more

Wednesday 24th August 2011

I’m starting to think about what to do with this blog. I started it, in June, on the day of my last talk of the 2010/2011 ‘season’. The idea was to both see if I could find something with a connection, however tenuous, to poisonous plants to write about every day and to keep my mind busy during the long summer break.

The groups I talk to are mostly ones that meet during the autumn and winter and that means I get quite a long break through the summer months. I thought a daily blog might help me to keep myself up to date because there’s nothing worse than getting to the Q & A session and having someone ask about a recent event that I’ve heard nothing about. I shall have to think about whether to continue with it, in this or a modified form, during the autumn and winter...more

Tuesday 23rd August 2011

The Ayrshire Post has reported a trebling of drug deaths in the county over the past decade and says that a shortage of heroin is to blame. Before going any further, I should point out that, overall, the numbers are very small. So small, in fact, that the Ayrshire post compares averages per year over two five year periods.

From 1996-2000, there was an average of ten drug deaths per year but for 2006-2010 that number has risen to thirty-four. Looking at 2010, alone, the paper says nineteen people reported as ‘drug deaths’ had heroin in their systems, ten diazepam and one cocaine...more

Monday 22nd August 2011

It is over four years since I first began thinking about how to structure a website about poisonous plants and three years since the site went live. And, yet, today is the first time I’ve mentioned Christopher McCandless. There has been a huge amount written, in print and on the Internet, about this young man and the most famous book about him was made into a Hollywood film.

But, if you’ve never heard of him, here’s my one sentence summary of the story. Chris McCandless ‘dropped out’ and spent his time wandering the remoter parts of the USA, living off the land and what he could scrounge before dying of starvation in 1992. Now that doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing that could spark a book, a film, a long-running controversy and a number of websites entirely devoted to it...more

Sunday 21st August 2011

It’s the time of year when you notice new berries forming in the garden almost every day. I’m not always sure the berries have appeared within the previous 24 hours; it’s quite possible that I just haven’t noticed them.

But, today, for the first time, I spotted the unripe berries on the Actaea spicata, baneberry. This is the second year for my two plants and I don’t know if they are usually slow to get going or I’m not giving them the help they require. Either way, the plants are only about 15cm high and only have a couple of berry clusters each...more

Saturday 20th August 2011

Finally, a day with rather better weather, though still quite a breeze. I wasn't minded to get out in the garden and do any real work but I did have a walk around, camera in hand, to see if I could find any evidence that the plants were going to complete their normal life cycles before the autumn comes.

After yesterday's rather wordy commentary on the ludicrous arguments put forward for homeopathy, today I thought I'd do a photoblog showing some of plants in my own garden and how they look, today...more

Friday 19th August 2011

I’ve mentioned before that I have a number of daily Google alerts that are supposed to give me the latest items on the Internet for the search term concerned. ‘Items’ rather than news because you can set the alert to give you any or multiple types of webpage; news, web, blogs, etc.

It’s impossible to know how well these alerts work since you’d be trying to find out what new information had appeared but not been detected by Google and I don’t know how you’d go about that. So, I’m always aware that the alerts may not be giving the full story...more

Thursday 18th August 2011

I returned to Holy Island this morning to get some more pictures of the ragwort I photographed for Monday’s blog. Esther Hegt said you can’t separate species just from the flowers so I wanted to get some pictures of leaves.

I’m determined to have a crack at identifying the species myself and then ask Esther to confirm or correct me but I’m a bit rushed to do that now. So, don’t worry, this isn’t another blog just devoted to Senecio jacobaea, or Jacobaea vulgaris as I’m trying to get used to calling it...more

Wednesday 17th August 2011

I have become increasingly exasperated at the way the ‘ricin bomb plot’ continues to roll around the Internet. I’m quite new to Twitter so I don’t know whether replying to a tweet makes it available to more than the original tweeter and I don’t think I can be bothered replying individually to everyone who is spreading this nonsense.

I am leaving comments on online articles and blogs if they look as though they are active but I thought that, here, I’d have a go at using humour to counter it. It is for you to judge my success or otherwise...more

Tuesday 16th August 2011

I was contacted by a freelance journalist who wanted me to flesh out the information on Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, in an Edinburgh shopping centre that I give in the A to Z section of this site.

I didn’t establish if she has a commission to write a piece or whether she was writing it because of her own interest and hoping she could sell it. Towards the end of our chat, I wouldn’t call it an interview because she didn’t seem to have a target list of information she wanted to obtain, she asked me if I thought there should be a law requiring landowners to deal with giant hogweed...more

Monday 15th August 2011

The hysteria about ragwort, Senecio jacobaea, rolls on so I’ve returned to it even though I’ve written about it three times before. Here, here and here. I started out thinking I would make this a photo blog with just a little new information but it hasn’t worked out like that. Still, the pictures, all taken today on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, are to show that ragwort is a magnet for a wide range of insects and, although I’m not a bug man, I can recognise bees, wasps, hover flies and even a common green bottle fly.

There’s a saying, I’m not sure who coined it, perhaps, it was me, which goes something like ‘You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts’. By this, it means you can say that you think anything you like but that doesn’t mean that what you think is factual. And, furthermore, you can’t invent facts to support your opinion...more

Sunday 14th August 2011

Something is eating my deadly nightshade. It’s three weeks since I posted a photo-blog of the berries developing on my Atropa belladonna and said I would post again with the ripe berries. I’m still waiting for the berries to ripen, and the absence of sunshine for most of the last three weeks suggests I may still have to wait a while.

But, now, the question is whether whatever is eating the plant will complete its work before the berries get the chance to ripen...more

Saturday 13th August 2011

I wanted to look up the meaning of ‘terrorism’. Unfortunately, because of the political problems in deciding the difference between terrorists and freedom fighters, definitions of ‘terrorism’ are somewhat involved. So, instead, I looked up ‘terror’ and that has a simple definition; intense, overpowering fear, one that instils intense fear and the ability to instil intense fear.

I was interested because a story, originally reported by the New York Times, has been picked up by the media all around the world and it is a story that can easily create terror. It is, of course, another story about ricin, the poisonous ingredient in Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant...more

Friday 12th August 2011

Thursday evening is aquarobics. I put my car keys down on my sports bag while I put my shoes on, pick up the car keys, drove four of the six miles to the pool and then turned round and came back to get my sports bag.

That, to me, goes beyond forgetfulness and all the way into stupidity. So, maybe having a sniff of rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, wouldn’t have helped...more

Thursday 11th August 2011

I said, a few days ago, that I’d tell the story of my visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden and, as it has rained steadily for two days meaning I haven’t been to see how things are going in the garden, today seemed to be a good time.

I think most people have heard of the Chelsea Garden so I’ll just give this link to its website for those who haven’t or who want to learn more about it...more

Wednesday 10th August 2011

An interesting blog post about the Blarney Castle Poison Garden appeared a few days ago but I’ve only just seen it.

I feel a little puff of pride whenever I read something complimentary about that garden since I had a small role in its creation. In spring 2010, I was contacted by the head gardener at Blarney who asked me to have a look at the list of plants he intended to include...more

Tuesday 9th August 2011

Out in the car this lunchtime, it seemed that every radio station was determined to fill its airspace with one or another ‘expert’ giving the ‘true’ reasons for the criminal acts that have affected London and, last night, other UK cities since Saturday. In order to avoid this, I tuned to BBC Radio 3, not often my listening choice, and heard something that sparked today’s entry.

The programme was about Russian composer Anton Arensky and included a short piece he wrote entitled ‘The Upas Tree’ retelling, in music, the poem written by Alexander Pushkin. The poem is about a prince who sends a servant to collect the toxic gum from the upas tree to be used as an arrow poison. The servant completes his mission but dies from contact with the toxins on his return...more

Monday 8th August 2011

I drop into a couple of gardening forums just to see what plants people are talking about. A lot of the questions are of the ‘What is it?’ variety and it’s interesting to see people’s attitudes when in answer to a question about ‘This unknown beauty’ they find out that the plant concerned is poisonous.

In a way that is very slightly analogous to reports of the first cuckoo, I find myself, at this time of year, waiting for reports of the first Datura stramonium, jimsonweed or thornapple. And, there it was, this weekend ‘This plant is in a friend’s garden…’...more

Sunday 7th August 2011

The next time someone says to you ‘It’s a small world’ I suggest you tell them no it isn’t and invite them to read this blog entry. We all trot out this hackneyed expression and others like it but rarely actually give the matter any real thought.

The inclination to think the world is a small place comes because we struggle to deal with the simple fact that coincidence happens. We focus on the events that we think shouldn’t have happened without thinking about all the times when nothing surprising occurs...more

Saturday 6th August 2011

Good news; a new series of ‘Only Connect’ starts on BBC4 in less than two weeks. If you’ve never seen it, or you aren’t in the UK so don’t even know what BBC4 is, ‘Only Connect’ is about the most challenging quiz show ever devised for TV. It’s not just about knowing lots of stuff, like University Challenge, it is about having an agile brain and quickly thinking about everything you know about four different things at once. It’s one of those quizzes where you feel really proud of yourself if you get one right answer in half an hour.

But, what is the return of my favourite TV programme got to do with this website? Well, the way I learned about the new series provides a reminder of the difference between websites and books and made me think, again, about the information on this site...more

Friday 5th August 2011

Hooray for the people who take the time to add comments to Daily Mail stories! I should put my hands up and admit to a degree of hypocrisy here because, until today, I would have said that commenters mostly display a complete lack of sense by falling for the nonsense in the item under consideration.

Today, however, they have, for the most part, pointed out the glaring errors in the report and then gone on to question the basis of the report itself. And all because of a few Aconitum napellus plants in Cumbria...more

Thursday 4th August 2011

I’ve added a page about the Delphinium genus to the A to Z section of this site. There’s not a lot to say about these very attractive plants but I came across an ‘Is this poisonous?’ question on a gardening forum and thought I’d add it.

When I started this site, I focussed on the plants I’d studied during the years I was involved with the Alnwick Garden but I said, from the start, that I would add new ones from time to time...more

Wednesday 3rd August 2011

Let’s play ‘Think of a Number’. I don’t mean the version where you display apparent psychic powers by asking someone to think of a number and then applying complex, but ultimately circular, arithmetic functions to it plus, somewhere along the way, adding a known number so that at the end you can determine the number thought of from the apparently unrelated final number.

No, this is a specialised version of ‘Think of a Number’ and only people with a particular qualification can play. For this version you have to earn the right to enter by seizing a large quantity of illicit drugs. Once you’ve done that, the game consists of giving a value to the seized goods and then hoping that no-one looks too closely at how that number relates to reality...more

Tuesday 2nd August 2011

BBC TV’s current affairs programme, ‘Panorama’, tonight reported on the extent of alcohol related illness in the under 50s. It quoted a variety of statistics about alcohol use such as liver disease being the fifth biggest killer in the UK and that liver disease in under 30s has increased 50% in just ten years.

What struck me was that when statistics were quoted a small graphic at the bottom of the screen gave the source. I don’t know if I’m just sensitised to it because of all the recent talk about the trustworthiness of the media but it seemed to me a good move to reassure people that the programme wasn’t pulling numbers out of the air for dramatic effect...more

Monday 1st August 2011

This has been the stillest day I can remember for a very long time. If the sky had been clear, it would have been incredibly hot. As it was, the almost complete cloud cover meant it was just rather warm and very humid. Not really a good day for an athletic walk so it was just as well that there were only four of us and we were all happy to settle for a stroll through some woodland with plenty of time for looking around.

With no sound of any movement from the wind, it was possible to hear the, I suspect, thousands of bees feeding on the many different wild flowers but, in a sign that the second half of summer is underway, there was plenty of fungi to look at...more