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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

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Sunday 31st July 2011

If you live in the UK, you will, probably, have seen the adverts for the new project on the BBC website. ‘Your Paintings’ aims to make around 200,000 paintings, from collections all-round the UK, available to view online and gives the public the chance to add tags to the pictures to help future visitors search for paintings that might be of particular interest to them.

So far, there are 62,980 paintings on the site and, of course, I started with a search using the term ‘garden’. It produced 246 results and the first one that interested me was entitled ‘Yew Hedge in Gilbert White’s Garden'...more

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...more

Friday 29th July 2011

Yesterday, I did some blatant cherry-picking from the British Crime Survey’s ‘Drug Misuse Disclosed’ report and, today, I’ll do the same for the NHS report entitled ‘Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England in 2010’.

I mentioned that it is hard to do a direct read across from one report to the other so it is not easy to see how attitudes formed by the 11-15-year old group develop or change for the 16-24-year olds. One of the constraints is that the BCS covers England and Wales whereas, as its title states, the NHS report is only about England...more

Thursday 28th July 2011

Two reports, published on the same day look at substance use in England and Wales. The British Crime Survey (BCS) has, for some years, undertaken a separate survey of illegal substance use in 16 to 59-year olds. The reason for the age range is that illegal substance use for over 60s is perceived to be too low to produce meaningful survey data and the under 16s are dealt with by the second report.

This second report is prepared by the NHS and covers England only but does include smoking and alcohol as well as classified substances. Both reports can be downloaded as pdfs. The BCS report, ‘Drug Misuse Declared’, is available via the Home Office website and the NHS report on young people is directly available here....more

Wednesday 27th July 2011

I knew when I decided to try writing a daily blog that there would be quite a lot of repetition, at least of the plants if not the actual stories about them. After all, the A to Z section of this site has 87 pages so, even if I wrote about each in rotation I’d end up back at the start in under three months.

As it is, of course, some plants demand more attention than others and that is why, as a result of two sites and a sight, I’m returning to Senecio jacobaea, ragwort....more

Tuesday 26th July 2011

I’ve been conducting a wholly unscientific test of a remedy for nettle sting caused by contact with Urtica dioica. I would usually add the common name but I’m guessing you know the name of the plant that causes nettle sting.

If this were a TV programme, I’d, probably, have to say at this point ‘Don’t try this at home’. Since it’s just a blog I’m going to assume that you have the sense to decide for yourself without being nannied...more

Monday 25th July 2011

Back in June,  I mentioned the difference between mandrake and English mandrake, that is Mandragora officinarum and Bryonia dioica, but just in terms of their principle effects.

With my own Bryonia, usually called white bryony, now fully entwined through a hazel tree, Corylus avellana, and in full bloom, I thought I’d look at look at some of the physical differences and try and suggest why, I believe, the name English mandrake arose...more

Sunday 24th July 2011

There are people who say they would rather see a vet than a doctor. This is because the first question a doctor asks is ‘What’s wrong with you?’ whereas a vet has to find out just from their knowledge of medicine.

I was reminded of this, and why I don’t agree with the sentiment, by reading about the death of a giraffe at a zoo in Tucson, Arizona. It is believed that the animal, and another which, at the time of writing, seems to be slowly recovering, were fed oleander foliage by mistake. The story doesn’t say whether the plant was Nerium oleander or Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander, but I suspect it was the former as this is the more common in the USA...more

Saturday 23rd July 2011

I’ve been meaning for a week or more to do a photo blog showing the way the flowers of Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, become the attractive black berries that have, on rare occasions, been picked and used as a dessert with unfortunate consequences.

The problem is that we’ve had so little sunshine that, so far, none of the berries on the plants in my garden have even begun to ripen. I’ve decided, therefore, to make it a two part blog with the early stages today and the final stage to follow at some future date...more

Friday 22nd July 2011

When I was a boy I remember being told about Canute, the mediaeval king who was so stupid that he thought he could command the tide to stop coming in. Now, of course, the story is about how King Knut demonstrated the limits of his power by showing that he could not command the seas. From being stupid, Knut has become wise and realistic about the truth of the world.

Sadly, it seems, US presidents don’t have that same sense and would like you to believe that black is white if the federal government says it is so. There is a story that, in 2007, officials in George W Bush’s White House refused to open an email from the Environmental Protection Agency because they knew it said that greenhouses gases were pollutants and ‘must be controlled’. By not opening the email, the Bush line that man had nothing to do with climate change could be maintained...more

Thursday 21st July 2011

I said I’d be writing about an Al Jazeera English documentary today so I will; even though I haven’t seen it. I’m a long way from being the first person to write about something they haven’t seen but, generally, if it’s a theatre critic who couldn’t be bothered to go to the performance, you won’t find the admission being part of the report.

My problem is that, although, like a lot of modern broadcasts, this programme is being repeated about half a dozen times over a week, none of those times is when Al Jazeera is available on Freeview so I can’t see it. (They laughed when I said I wouldn’t have Sky because I didn’t like Rupert Murdoch but it’s looking like a better viewpoint, now.)...more

Wednesday 20th July 2011

I’ve been on drugs quite a bit recently. Not literally, of course, but just as subject matter for this blog. So, I thought I should try and find something a bit more light-hearted for today. Especially as tomorrow I’ll, probably, be writing about the Al Jazeera English documentary about the availability of morphine around the world.

One problem with that is the weather. We’ve had several rainy days in a row so I haven’t been out, either in my own garden or more generally, and haven’t seen any interesting poisonous plants or been able to spot how my own are coming along as we get to what should be the height of the summer...more

Tuesday 19th July 2011

The frequent claim that cannabis is a ‘gateway’ drug is given further circulation by a paper from Australia where Dr. Wendy Swift has been studying cannabis for some years and the alleged link between it and other substances.

Dr. Swift’s earlier work included looking at cannabis use by teenagers and whether that provided a guide to their use of it in their 20s. This new paper, as time has passed, looks at whether people in their 20s are more or less likely to use other substances if they use cannabis....more

Monday 18th July 2011

At this time of year our garden is full of birds. Actually, I should have said that our garden is always full of birds. We put food out all year round and have plenty of large shrubs to give them shelter. I sometimes think I spend more on food for the birds than for us but I’ve never dared check in case that’s true.

Today, I saw another of those discussions about how to get birds into the garden and, as usual, someone said that you shouldn’t give birds whole peanuts in the spring because they will give them to their young and choke them. I can understand people saying this when the RSPB says it on its website but I can’t help wondering if anyone has ever thought it through...more

Sunday 17th July 2011

Three unrelated items about Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, today and two of the three leave questions unanswered. They come from three different countries; the USA, England and Scotland.

In the USA, murder stories don’t always attract a great deal of attention but the finding of a man’s body in a house in Fruit Cove, Florida has been widely reported. What makes this story more interesting that all the other murders happening every day in America? Well, the victim was 53-year old Daniel Somerson, a man questioned by the FBI, in 2003, after ricin was found in an unaddressed letter at a sorting office in South Carolina...more

Saturday 16th July 2011

It is far too early to know what has happened at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport where police are investigating three deaths and eleven other possible cases of poisoning via contaminated saline. There are reports that insulin was the contaminant which is not a plant based poison but has been used before as a murder weapon. 

In 2006, Charles Cullen, a nurse who worked in New York and New Jersey hospitals, was convicted of killing 29 patients with an overdose of either insulin or digoxin, the heart medication derived from foxgloves, plants in the Digitalis genus...more

Friday 15th July 2011

The UK Home Office has published a literature review entitled ‘Khat: Social harms and legislation’ written by David M. Anderson and Neil C. M. Carrier of Oxford University. Khat is one of the many common names given to Catha edulis. I mentioned some of the others in the 10th July blog entry.

The authors examined the literature from the UK and seven other countries outside the ‘home territory’ for khat use and with a significant number of immigrants from Middle East and East African countries where khat use is traditional. They ‘found a general lack of robust evidence on the link between khat use and social harms’...more

Thursday 14th July 2011

News that five men had died in an explosion at what appears to have been an illegal distillery came on the day I read an article in a publication called ‘Addiction Today’ that included the author pointing out that there is a substantial illegal tobacco industry even though tobacco is available freely and legally.

Though, officially, the illegal production of alcohol at an industrial unit in Boston, Lincolnshire, is only ‘suspected’ at the moment, photos are already appearing online showing boxes of empty bottles and it is being said that the police ‘discovered chemicals at the site - suggesting that alcohol was being produced on the premises’...more

Wednesday 13th July 2011

Sometimes nothing makes a difference. That’s not a statement of despair. I don’t mean ‘everything makes no difference’, which is the sense normally applied to that first sentence. No, I mean that, on occasion, adding nothing can alter, if not real events, then, at least, the way we think about them.

Before this becomes too obscure, let me explain. I’m thinking about the difference that can arise by inserting a space into a word and making two words with nothing between them. ‘Womankind’ covers a whole gender where ‘woman kind’ is one pleasant representative of that gender...more

Tuesday 12th July 2011

I hadn’t intended to return to Senecio jacobaea, ragwort, so soon but the British Horse Society’s (BHS) ‘Ragwort Awareness Week’ seems to have started quite a bit of turmoil. As I drafted that sentence, I remembered reading, probably back in the ‘60s, one of those columns where one publication collects together unintentionally funny sentences from other newspapers and magazines. This one was the opening to a column written by one of those middle-aged, upper middle class women beloved by ‘quality’ magazines as their agony aunts.

In some ways, I suppose, those ‘60s agony aunts were the witches of their day. If you read yesterday’s blog entry you’ll understand what I mean. Anyway, the column that I remembered began ‘I’m sorry to return to premature ejaculation but my postbag is full of it’...more

Monday 11th July 2011

According to the cliché, ‘the truth is stranger than fiction’ and, in the seven years that I’ve been reading exclusively non-fiction, I’ve read some very strange stuff by way of folklore about poisonous plants and claims about the effects of poisons that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

But, recently, I’ve returned to reading fiction after a conscious decision to make more time in the day for leisure reading. But, it seems, I can’t completely separate reading for fun from my business and a line in the book I’m currently reading started a train of thought that is still incomplete...more

Sunday 10th July 2011

When Peter Cook, in his ‘Pete’ character, complained to ‘Dud’ about a ‘tap, tap, tap on the bloody window’ it was, he claimed, because Sophia Loren was desperate to get into his bedroom. The tapping that disturbed me this morning was no fantasy.

I don’t know whether it woke me up or it was just that, having woken up, I heard it but my first thought, as it often is with the odd noises houses make, was ‘That’s odd, no worry’. I didn’t trouble to rush around the house trying to discover what was going on...more

Saturday 9th July 2011

What a difference a fortnight makes. Two weeks ago, our trip to Edinburgh led me to write about Heracleum mantegazzianum because, though not as bad as last year, it was still in evidence. This time, yesterday’s trip revealed plenty of Senecio jacobaea, ragwort, along the roadside and on patches of open ground.

There are people who say that what you see is Senecio squaladis, Oxford ragwort, and claim that this is all from an original escape from the Oxford Botanical Gardens some time ago. I don’t agree with that and nor does the UK government whose 2004 ‘Code of Practice on How to Prevent the Spread of Ragwort’ specifies that it is referring to Senecio jacobaea...more

Friday 8th July 2011

Today is our wedding anniversary. For reasons that I won’t go into here, we don’t celebrate this, or any other annual festival but I thought I would use today’s blog post to look at some of the poisonous plants that have associations with weddings and marriage.

I’ll try and limit myself to those areas because once you start onto the overlap between poisonous plants and alleged aphrodisiacs you’re talking about a book not a blog post...more

Thursday 7th July 2011

I had thought I would be the only person in the UK writing a blog today without mentioning the closure of the News of the World. But, it occurred to me that there are similarities between what is happening now to NoW and one of the most famous murderers of all time.

Amongst all the accusations and rumours that will keep flying around for many months to come there are cries of ‘How could this have happened?’ And the answer is simply that whenever people say ‘Lessons have been learned’ they are proved to have been wrong...more

Wednesday 6th July 2011

Two completely unrelated websites I visited today took me back to the subject of misunderstandings arising from using the wrong plant names.

I wrote last month Thursday 16th June 2011 about the tendency of American websites to call Solanum dulcamara ‘deadly nightshade’ when that name applies to Atropa belladonna. Solanum dulcamara being ‘bittersweet’ or ‘woody nightshade’. That previous entry has photos showing the very large differences in appearance between the two...more

Tuesday 5th July 2011

A story in the Washington Post on 30th June caught my eye and I’ve been waiting to see if it was picked up by the UK press. It hasn’t been, so far, and I can’t help wondering whether its subject matter is so far away from the agendas of most of the UK’s papers that they’ve decided not to touch it.

It concerns the follow on effects of The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA) a law that re-evaluated the ways in which drugs users and those in the drug trade should be punished. This act recognises that, intentionally or otherwise, the law related to cocaine, the extract of Erythroxylum coca, was racist...more 

Monday 4th July 2011

There used to be a season for strawberries. It was a clear sign of the start of summer when mum bought the first small punnet of strawberries to be shared between the four of us. We knew that, in a good year, there would be a time, just a few weeks ahead, when they were so plentiful and so cheap that we’d have as many as we could possibly want. Now, assisted growing techniques, and airfreight, mean that strawberries are an all year round items and some magic has gone out of life.

There used to be a ‘silly season’ for newspapers. Once parliament had risen for the summer and families were off on holiday, the papers didn’t have so many heavy stories and, anyway, assumed their readers didn’t want too much heavy stuff. So, the papers were filled with more light-hearted stories often with only a passing acquaintance with the truth...more

Sunday 3rd July 2011

One of my Google Alerts threw up an interesting article on the regulation of herbalists.

Google, it seems to me, produces a great many new products but then leaves people to discover them rather than promoting them. That’s not a bad plan, I suppose, because it means that some of their dafter ideas disappear without trace. But it does mean you may not have come across Google Alerts...more 

Saturday 2nd July 2011

Today, mobile phones are safe to use. At least, that is the tone of the coverage of the latest scientific work on the subject.  But this comes only a month after mobile phones were unsafe after a different study.

There seems to be one key difference between the second report, published by the UK Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) based on work undertaken by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) Standing Committee on Epidemiology, and the first from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organisation (WHO). That difference is the application of common sense...more 

Friday 1st July 2011

I’ve spent most of the day building a photo gallery for 2011 and I really wish roses were poisonous.

I’ve got some nice looking roses out in the garden at the moment and, thanks to the clever people who designed and built my new camera, I’ve got some pretty good pictures of them. But, as the photo gallery is part of this site, I can’t put them up to show off...more