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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

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June 2011

Thursday 30th June 2011

At last, for those of us further to the north of the UK, there has been a bit more warmth and even some sunshine resulting in more flowers opening and more activity from the bees and other pollinating insects.

As a child, I used to accept it when I was told that bees pollinated flowers and made honey with the nectar they collected. As a city boy, I didn’t distinguish between honey bees and bumble bees. They were all just bees. But, it turns out, it’s a bit more complicated than that and so is the answer to the question ‘Why don’t bees get poisoned?’...more

Wednesday 29th June 2011

‘I missed you on Sunday’ said a fellow swimmer, ‘I wanted you to have a look at a plant’. Usually, when this happens, it turns out that someone has suggested that the mysterious invader is cannabis. And, quite often, it is. In this case I’ll never know because the neighbour whose plant is was had pulled it out and destroyed it before my swimming friend saw me.

It a strange part of human nature that honest people get very concerned about the possibility that they have inadvertently done something the law regards as dishonest. Realistically, there is never going to be a raid by a fully tooled up drugs squad because a resident of a quiet village has a single cannabis plant growing in the garden...more 

Tuesday 28th June 2011

Isn’t nature wonderful? Last week, I mentioned that my Verbascum x hybrida ‘Southern Charm’ had blown over in the wind. This was before the full flower spike had opened. Like many other plants, the flowers on the Southern Charm open from the bottom of the spike upwards. I regretted that I hadn’t got around to staking the plants as the flowers are amongst my favourites.

BBut, just a week later, as the picture shows, the top third of the flower spike has turned itself back to the vertical and looks stunning. I say ‘like many other plants’ but, it appears that this is not common to the whole Verbascum genus because the flowers on the two olympicums that have seeded themselves in the front garden seem to be opening at random on the spike...more

Monday 27th June 2011

Reports, in the last few days of a mother, in South Carolina USA, charged with homicide by child abuse after the death of her 6-week old baby from an overdose of morphine only give some of what looks to be a very interesting, though tragic, incident.

Several months after the death of Alexis Greene the authorities have decided that they have enough evidence to demonstrate that the baby died as a result of her mother, Stephanie, having used morphine pills and patches to such an extent that a lethal dose was passed to the child via her milk...more 

Sunday 26th June 2011

It is nice to be right occasionally. It’s even nicer because it doesn’t happen that often. I tend to eliminate most of the caveats when I’m writing because I think it would be tedious to keep saying ‘it is thought’, ‘some people believe’, etc. but that doesn’t mean I don’t doubt much of what I think I know. So, those few occasions when what I think turns out to be so are that much more enjoyable.

I’ve believed for some time that I could go into any garden and find enough poisonous plants to give an off the cuff talk for twenty minutes. That’s the basis of the tagline I use ‘…because every garden is a poison garden’. We all have plants in our gardens that can be classified as poisonous though they never cause us or anyone else harm...more 

Saturday 25th June 2011

Earlier this week, when writing about alcohol and older people, I pointed out that the media would have you believe that the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report on the subject was the first to suggest that lower limits of alcohol consumption were indicated for people over 65. It was an indication of a frequently seen phenomenon where work is published but goes unnoticed outside the immediate field of interest and only later does it come to the attention of the mainstream media and achieve wide circulation.

I believe the same thing will happen, again, but this time it is the active ingredient in plants of the Aristolochia genus, aristolochic acid, that will, at some point in the future, hit the headlines...more 

Friday 24th June 2011

To Edinburgh, as the proper diarists used to say, for my wife’s third dental appointment in a course of six that might see her with top teeth after an absence of eighteen months. In 2010, Edinburgh was ‘Heracleum heaven’ as everywhere you looked, it seemed, there was giant hogweed flourishing.

And not just on the banks of watercourses where we tend to think Heracleum mantegazzianum likes to make its home. Every piece of derelict land, every quiet corner of a park, every untended end of a large garden seemed to be proudly displaying its large white flowers or, later, its huge seed heads carrying enough potential plants to ensure many years of ‘hogweed hell’...more

Thursday 23rd June 2011

For the past few years, the publication of the annual United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ‘World Drugs Report’ has become somewhat routine with the stance taken under Executive Director, Antonio Maria Costa, entirely predictable. Release of the 2011 report ggives a first chance to see if Yury Fedotov, his replacement, is going to approach the role any differently.

Right at the start, it does appear that there may be a difference in emphasis. The executive summary of Mr Costa’s last WDR looked at production before consumption. The 2011 Executive Summary reverses that and puts consumption as the first topic. Whether that reflects a true change of emphasis remains to be seen. It would be a small step towards a more sensible policy if UNODC recognised that fighting the ‘war on drugs’ by trying to limit production is never going to work if demand is present...more 

Wednesday 22nd June 2011

There’s a tendency, I was going to write ‘in science’ but I think it’s more general than that, to take a flawed assumption and build an entire edifice on it with tentacles stretching into whole new areas. If this goes on long enough you can easily forget the weakness of the starting point of an argument. But, equally, we’ve become so used to hearing that something has been plucked out of the air (5 a day, 45 minutes, etc.) that we may assume something is flawed when, at its heart, it is not.

This week’s report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists  is about the whole topic of substance misuse in the older population but almost all of the media coverage has centred on its call for a reduction in the recommended ‘safe’ levels of alcohol consumption for the over 65s...more

Tuesday 21st June 2011

It occurred to me, even while I was still writing about my tribulations with Fritillaria imperialis and Aconitum napellus, that I should try and write something more positive about the garden because I do seem to have a fair few successes as well as the failures detailed earlier in the week.

Of course, defining success depends on where you set the standard and I’m the first to admit I set the bar fairly low. This means that, if a plant comes up looking healthy and produces a pleasing flower, I’m not too concerned about whether I planted it myself or if it has appeared as a result of the action of the wind or some bird...more

Monday 20th June 2011

I went looking for Laburnum and bumped into Alan Titchmarsh.

I make a point of having a look, each morning, at the previous day’s visitor statistics for this site and, although they are limited in detail, from time to time that sets me off on a little detective work that, in turn, sometimes, leads me along an unexpected path...more

Sunday 19th June 2011

Another report is published saying that current policy on ‘drugs’ is flawed and “doomed to failure”. But, this is not another in the growing number of reports saying that prohibition isn’t working and a radical change in policy is required to reduce the harm done by substance abuse. This is a report from Kathy Gyngell for the Centre for Policy Studies, the right-wing think-tank.

Though reported as news by the BBC and others it appears that there is nothing new, at all, about this report since its main objective is exactly the same as the United Nations has been seeking since the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. That is a ‘drug free world’...more

Saturday 18th June 2011

“The first thing to learn is that plants WANT to grow. All a gardener has to do is not put obstacles in their way.” Those were the opening remarks of the tutor on the one-day gardening course my wife and I attended shortly after moving to Scotland, ten years ago.

At the time, that seemed like a revelation. Gardening wasn’t about learning lots of stuff to do to get plants to grow; it was just a matter of learning a few things about what stops plants growing so you don’t create those obstacles.

If only it were that simple...more

Friday 17th June 2011

Two separate news stories have been running round my head for the last few days and, finally, they’ve come together. The first concerned a report entitled ‘Sexualisation of Young People Review’ published by Dr Linda Papadopoulos. The second was another one of those surveys about the extent of and attitudes to lying.

I’m not going to get into the detail of the review and whether it is an independent literature review or Dr. Papadopoulos expressing her own opinions as fact. All I want to do is accept that children are exposed to adult topics and images much more, today, than was the case for most of the 20th century. I’ve said the 20th century because, go back any further than that and you’re into a world of child labour, child prostitution, use of alcohol, cocaine and morphine by children and many other things that would be unacceptable today. I can’t tell whether children in a 19th century slum were exposed to the adult world faster than children today but it’s too close to judge so a blanket statement that children grow up faster today than ‘in the past’ is almost certainly wrong...more

Thursday 16th June 2011

Why do plant names cause so many problems? And I mean all of them, the common names and the botanical ones. On Tuesday, I wrote about the confusion between the castor oil plant and the false castor oil plant so I thought twice about returning to the subject, today.

But, the fact that I have another plant name story to tell so soon seems to indicate how much of a mess we get ourselves into over the naming of plants...more

Wednesday 15th June 2011

Yesterday, the woods; today, the open road.

Anyone who has ever walked along a high speed road with no pavements knows that there is, often, no alternative than to take to the verges for safety. No matter that the grass on the verge may be wet and quite long leaving you with wet trouser legs, if vehicles are coming from both directions and look likely to pass just where you are, it would take a brave person to stay on the tarmac and hope the drivers found a solution to the problem of too much solid matter trying to occupy too little space...more

Tuesday 14th June 2011

It’s a continuing source of frustration to me that my book isn’t being stocked by garden centres. Don’t get me wrong. This is not the arrogance of saying ‘My book is wonderful’ so it should widely on sale. It’s bigger than that.

(Of course, my book IS wonderful but, if you’re interested enough in poisonous plants to be reading this blog, I would hope you’ve already bought your copy.)...more

Monday 13th June 2011

If you go down in the woods today…

I used to be able to state that every Monday I went walking with a group of friends. Time has, however, taken its toll with some feeling they are too old to go out at all and others suffering the occasionally illness or injury that prevents them walking any distance. In addition, we’ve all become less tolerant of bad weather and we’ll call off a walk rather than put on the waterproofs...more


Sunday 12th June 2011

I hope they give midwives a long spoon.

News that Diageo, ‘the world’s leading premium drinks business’, is to sponsor training for midwives aimed at reducing the alcohol intake of pregnant women has met with a hostile reaction from a number of groups...more

Saturday 11th June 2011

I’m not the meticulous type. Maybe I never was or, perhaps, my early interest in set building for amateur dramatics has left its mark. The idea that a bit of rough work wouldn’t be noticed by an audience sitting quite a way away has stayed with me. I tend to vacuum a room so it looks as though it were done yesterday and I always stand back when deciding if I need another coat of paint when I’m decorating.

With gardening, this means I don’t try and remove every single weed from every bed and I don’t want single plants surrounded by finely tilthed soil. And I don’t do annuals...more

Friday 10th June 2011

Well, me and my big mouth. A day ago I wrote ‘Apart from one report of a kitten dying after using a laburnum tree as a scratching post, I don’t think I know of any confirmed case of a pet being poisoned in its own garden.’  Today, I read of a Springer spaniel dying after, it is believed, eating Aconitum napellus, monkshood, in the owner’s garden...more

Thursday 9th June 2011 

I thought about starting this entry with a feeble joke about ticking all the boxes or boxing all the ticks. Ken Bruce, on his BBC Radio 2 morning programme, had, before I switched on, brought up the subject of ticks and people were making contact with their preferred ways of dealing with them.

I don’t have a dog, these days, so I don’t know if ticks have become more of a problem but I know that, in the past in the UK, you were unlikely to come across them unless you went onto farmland. Not so in warmer climates because, when we lived in Zambia, dealing with ticks on two dogs who never left our large garden required constant attention...more

Wednesday 8th June 2011

When I was a boy, the Isle of Man TT races were a major event each year. These days they seem to be much less significant. I’m not sure whether the world has moved on or I have. Maybe it’s both of us.

I was brought up in a semi-detached council house in East London where the two sons of the family next door were amateur motorcycle racers. Their garage had doors at both ends so it was very common to come out of our back door and see luridly painted motorcycle parts scattered about while the two lads, both in their early 20s, talked about who had done what at the most recent meeting. Naturally, in that environment, the TT races were the highlight of the year and, though I never got caught up in their enthusiasm for the sport, all the talk of what was going on far off in the Irish Sea seeped into my consciousness. Once I moved out of that house, motorcycle racing ceased to feature in my world...more

Tuesday 7th June 2011

I suppose we’ve all got our heroes. Those people who we believe played a vital role in how the world works. It was perfectly clear from the first part of ‘Botany: A Blooming History’, shown on BBC4 this evening, that for Timothy Walker, the presenter, John Ray was such a hero.

The first programme was, supposedly, about how botany was created and how ‘the mysteries of the plant kingdom’ were ‘unlocked’. The approach was to suggest that the idea of plant classification started with John Ray in the middle of the 17th century bringing an end to beliefs based purely on superstition before following the story through to Linnaeus and his binomial system...more

Monday 6th June 2011

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think twice before putting a bag of salad leaves in my shopping trolley, yesterday.   The story of the public reaction to the E.coli outbreak in Germany follows from yesterday’s entry about how the media can do harm by spreading fear...more

Sunday 5th June 2011 

Here we go, again.   Go all the way back to its roots and the word ‘terrorism’ is derived from the Latin ‘terrere’ meaning ‘to frighten’. Of course, that meaning has evolved and, because of the involvement of politics, it can be hard, nowadays, to arrive at an agreed definition of terrorism. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.   But it would be really helpful if the media, I’m thinking primarily about the UK though I suspect it is similar in other countries, would go back to the original definition and realise that overblowing stories because they can scare people and scared people buy more newspapers is an act of terrorism...more

Saturday 4th June 2011

I’ve got this mole. Anyone who recognises that line is showing their age. It’s the start of what used to be a very funny routine from Jaspar Carrott back in the days before he was more famous as a TV mogul and father of ‘that blond off of the Office’. I say it used to be funny not because, like a lot of comedy, it seems dated and quaint looking back at a distance of a two or three decades.
It’s one of those routines that has lost nothing over time and it was still extremely funny.
Until I got a mole...more  

Friday 3rd June 2011

Getting ready to go out swimming, I half-watched the coverage on ‘The Wright Stuff’ of the report from the Global Commission on Drugs. The report from this group of politicians, former UN officials and businessman has received a lot of media coverage because of its unequivocal statement that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed...more

Thursday, 2nd June 2011

You couldn’t make it up.  

I gave a talk this evening to the 25 or so members of Craster WI. They’d asked for ‘Medical Murderers’ which is a bit grisly in places and, sure enough, it produced a good mixture of grimaces and laughs, along with a couple of hearty ‘Yeuk’s...more


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Tuesday 25th October 2016
Saturday 20th August 2016
Sunday 6th March 2016
Wednesday 3rd February 2016


Saturday 28th November 2015
Friday 27th November 2015
Monday 17th August 2015
Wednesday 15th July 2015
Friday 26th June 2015
Thursday 25th June 2015
Thursday 30th April 2015
Wednesday 29th April 2015
Wednesday 11th March 2015
Tuesday 3rd March 2015
Saturday 28th February 2015
Sunday 22nd February 2015

November 2014

Monday 24th November 2014
Saturday 8th November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

Wednesday 24th September 2014
Monday 1st September 2014

August 2014

Tuesday 26th August 2014
Saturday 16th August 2014
Tuesday 5th August 2014
Friday 1st August 2014

July 2014

Sunday 27th July 2014
Wednesday 23rd July 2014
Sunday 13th July 2014
Sunday 6th July 2014
Tuesday 1st July 2014

June 2014

Wednesday 25th June 2014
Tuesday 24th June 2014
Sunday 22nd June 2014
Monday 9th June 2014
Wednesday 4th June 2014

May 2014

Monday 26th May 2014
Sunday 18th May 2014
Wednesday 14th May 2014

April 2014

Sunday 13th April 2014
Saturday 5th April 2014
Thursday 3rd April 2014
Tuesday 1st April 2014

March 2014

Monday 31st March 2014
Tuesday 25th March 2014
Friday 21st March 2014
Monday 17th March 2014
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Thursday 27th February 2014
Monday 24th February 2014
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