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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

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Monday 31st October 2011

I suppose there’s only one possible topic today for someone who is involved in a subject where witches make a frequent appearance.  Back in September, 20th I wrote about the differences and similarities between witches and fairies and I said that it seemed as though witches had appeared around the 14th century and replaced fairies who, until then, had generally been evil and exerted a malign influence on human affairs.

I often talk about ‘home remedies’ based on plant extracts and say that a herbal remedy that seemed to alleviate a condition, or happened to be administered just as a fever or other illness was running its course, is usually said to have been provided by the wise woman in the community. If, however, the remedy either failed to produce a benefit or actually caused harm then it would be the old witch who dispensed it...more

Sunday 30th October 2011

I mentioned 27th October that the Royal Society had made its older Philosophical Transactions available free online. And I said then that I would work my way through any documents concerning poisonous plants.

Since it was Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort, that first led me to the Philosophical Transactions, back when it cost £27 a time to get access to a single article, I thought I’d start there but I want to do more than just précis cases reported hundreds of years ago...more

Saturday 29th October 2011

Yesterday, I wrote that I drove home on Thursday evening through some patches of mist that I took to be a clear sign that the seasons were changing. So, when it was a bright sunny afternoon on Friday, I thought I would go out for a drive and have a look at the autumn colours before the next period of strong wind or the first period of sub-zero temperatures took all the leaves off the trees.

It’s a little strange that there can be such beauty in death. Though there are many things about the spring that are attractive and encouraging and heart-warming, we tend not to make as much fuss about the beauty of the green leaves appearing on a tree as we do of the brown and golden and yellow dying leaves just before they drop off in the autumn...more

Friday 28th October 2011

The church hall where I gave last night’s talk had a motion-activated floodlight outside the entrance. I think the detector was aimed more at people arriving than leaving because it took a couple of steps in the dark before it snapped on as I came out to start loading up my car.

But, when it did come on, it revealed a swirl of mist like something from a scary movie where the script calls for the atmosphere to be eerie. It was a clear sign, confirmed on the drive home by going from clear visibility to an impenetrable wall of white in a matter of a few yards, that the season is changing rapidly. This time last year, after all, we were only a month away from very heavy snowfalls...more

Thursday 27th October 2011

I may struggle to find the time to write this. That’s not just because I’m giving a talk this evening and have to have a technical rehearsal as well as trying to work out what to include and what to leave out in order to keep within the allotted time and allow for questions.

The more I learn about these plants, and I do learn something new every day, the more difficult it becomes to decide what should be included in the talk especially when, as it is this evening, it is under the catch all heading ‘Lethal Lovelies’. The true reason for my shortness of time actually adds to that problem...more

Wednesday 26th October 2011

I must confess to quite a high degree of trepidation as I start typing today’s blog and, when you learn the cause of it, you may find you are amused that I should have any concern at all.

Obviously, there is quite a high dose of ego, some would say self-esteem and others might, with justification, prefer arrogance involved in creating and maintaining a large website like this that largely represents my distillation of what is important in the whole body of information about poisonous plants...more

Tuesday 25th October 2011

Someone in a gardening forum asked the question ‘Are the berries on cotoneasters good to eat?’ The first response was full of uppercase letters and exclamation marks saying that they are poisonous and to be avoided at all costs.

I’m not going to give a verbatim report of the ensuing discussion but I thought I would blog, again, on the subject of relative risk, common sense and the Jerry Maguire Test...more

Monday 24th October 2011

I read a piece, written several years ago, about whether it was possible to use current knowledge to determine if Alexander the Great died as a result of alcohol abuse. I love these sort of articles when, as this one, the author acknowledges that you cannot reach a conclusion you can only try and make an informed speculation.

The ones I don’t like are where the author tries to claim that they have proved or disproved some specific point. I come across a number of those sorts of pieces when looking into poisoning murders from the past. So far, I’ve always found that the only way for such claims to stand up is to ignore at least one crucial piece of evidence...more

Sunday 23rd October 2011

I was looking back at some items that have appeared  in ‘Addiction’, the journal of the Society for the Study of Addiction, and I came across an interesting article, from 2003, about the events leading up to Cannabis sativa becoming a proscribed substance in the first half of the 20th century.

It’s a fascinating story of political horse-trading, prejudice and the problems that arise if people are poorly briefed about a subject. I’m not going to try and précis all of it, obviously, but it reminded me of an interesting example of someone trying to work with relative harm...more

Saturday 22nd October 2011

I’ve mentioned the NHS Choices Behind the Headlines website  before. I’ve used it to help me explain research on ‘Tabex’, the smoking cessation aid produced from Laburnum, Sunday 9th October, the possible role of colchicine, from Colchicum autumnale, the autumn crocus, in treating cancer Sunday 25th September and whether films showing smoking should be given an ‘18’ certificate Saturday 24th September.

It’s such a very well written and informative site that I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt when the authors resort to bad puns. A recent item about ‘fish pedicures’ couldn’t resist discussing the ‘scale’ of the problem and warning against being ‘reeled’ in by ‘fishy’ headlines...more 

Friday 21st October 2011/

It is only four days since I blogged about the announcement that an American company is to receive funding from the Department for Homeland Security to help it bring to market a device suitable for small to medium companies to detect any biological threats should they receive white powder through the post.

On Tuesday, I wrote ‘There is a real need for this product because the US government has created it’. And today, from Darlington in the UK, comes a story of just what I had in mind...more

Thursday 20th October 2011

Back in August, first on the 14th and then, again, on the 30th, I blogged that something was eating my Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, berries. It appears that whatever it was didn’t have a very big appetite or decided it didn’t like the taste because, this morning, out in the garden doing some autumn tidying up, I took these pictures of some rather nice looking berries still completely intact on the bushes.

I don’t know if anyone has ever done a precise study but it always seems to me that you send half your time in the garden trying to get things to grow and the other half clearing that growth away and putting in the compost bin or the council green recycling skip. Perhaps it’s because I think that way, I’m on the lookout for anything to divert my attention from the job I’m supposed to be doing...more

Wednesday 19th October 2011

They’ve been digging up the road for what seems like months. Turn left out of our house and it is about three miles to the first crossroads. A couple of months ago, they began digging up the verge at that crossroads and heading in our direction.

‘They’ are contractors working for the water company and the boards assure us that they are ‘improving services’ with these works. What that means is they have dug a trench, almost entirely along what was a grass verge at the edge of the road, placed a large blue pipe into it and replaced the earth over it...more

Tuesday 18th October 2011

I’m a scientist. It’s not always easy to define what being a scientist means or rather to define what particular things fit an individual into the term ‘scientist’. I rely on the timetable choices offered by my high school to all its 13-year old boys. You could choose ‘arts’ (history, geography, English literature, etc.) or you could chose ‘science’ (physics, chemistry, applied mathematics, etc.)

By that definition, I’ve always thought of myself as a scientist and I’ve held that up as a sign of logical thinking and a closer desire for truth than is found with arty types who are much more inclined to offer interpretations and tolerate imprecise thinking. But, every now and then a scientist or group of scientists does something that gets me tearing my hair out and feeling tainted by the term...more

Monday 17th October 2011

I got involved in a discussion of whether this has been a particularly bad year for mushrooms. It took place on an Internet forum and began with someone saying they hadn’t been able to collect any field mushrooms this year and wondering about other people’s experiences.

I’ve blogged before about how early I saw Amanita muscaria, fly agaric, in the place I’ve seen it before and I wondered, given that this was a full month earlier than last time, if the weather conditions this year had caused fungi to fruit early...more

Sunday 16th October 2011

I’m grateful to Esther Hegt, whose 'Ragwort, myths and facts website is such a useful resource, for drawing my attention to some new research on Equine Grass Sickness (EGS). I hadn’t even heard of this condition until a couple of months ago when Esther explained that it produces far more problems that Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort, but does not provoke the same reactions.

‘Grass Sickness is a disease of horses, ponies and donkeys in which there is damage to parts of the nervous system which control involuntary functions, producing the main symptom of gut paralysis’. That quote is lifted straight from the Equine Grass Sickness Fund, a charity trying to raise funds for research into this condition...more

Saturday 15th October 2011

One complaint you hear a lot about the media these days is that too much time is spent speculating about what is going to happen rather than reporting on what has. Especially with political matters there always seem to be stories about what tomorrow’s announcement/report will say. You’d think there wasn’t enough actually happening to fill the papers and programmes.

This makes it a little surprising when a story that could have been reported before suddenly breaks and you would think it was something new. This is what happened when the WHO’s survey of cocaine use and its effects was suppressed by the UN after pressure from the USA because the survey’s results showed that cocaine was not nearly as harmful a substance, for the majority of users of powder, as the ‘party line’ on the drug war stated...more

Friday 14th October 2011

As everyone knows, Andy Warhol said “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” (though that was a 1979 restatement of the 1968 original “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes."). A visitor to the site who contacted me with details of his personal experience of Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort, in the 1970s, would, I suspect, have preferred to make his appearance in a national newspaper for a different reason.

Will (I’ll stick with his given name rather than the full name) was studying ecology at university and took a summer job, in 1976, working on a farm in Northumberland. He was staying in what the Guardian called ‘a hut’ on the farm catering for himself and decided to experiment with living off the land...more

Thursday 13th October 2011

I’ve mentioned before 4th October that I’ve been reading Deborah Blum’s ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’. I finished it last night so I thought I’d blog about it, today.

I’m not intending to either review it or provide a synopsis but I will need to give some details of what it is about in order to write about what to me is the most fascinating part; the title...more

Wednesday 12th October 2011

After yesterday’s rather heavy topic, I thought I’d go for something a little lighter today, though it is still on the theme of truth and lies and how we describe them.

Although I live in Scotland I am close enough to the border to be able to pick up TV transmission from the north-east of England. I tend to watch the BBC’s local news for the north-east because the Scottish news is mostly about Edinburgh and politics whereas the north-east news has more items that are relevant to me...more

Tuesday 11th October 2011

I’ve had a response to my Freedom of Information requests to the University of Liverpool concerning the number of horses treated for liver disease at its Philip Leverhulme Equine Hospital where Prof Derek C Knottenbelt, BVM&S, DVM&S, DipECEIM, MRCVS RCVS is the European Specialist in Equine Internal Medicine. Professor Knottenbelt is a vocal campaigner against Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort, and his statements on the extent of ragwort poisoning are often repeated by those who seek its eradication.

I’m very pleased to find the response was inside the time limit (alright it was only two days inside but, still, that counts as a proper response), it gives quite a bit of the information I requested and offers a clear explanation of why not all of the information could be provided. With the information now received I can return to the subject of the 6th September’s blog. Usually, when I refer to a previous blog I just leave the link for people to follow but, today, I’m going to quote from that blog because it puts the information I now have into better context...more

Monday 10th October 2011

Someone told me about a piece they’d read in The Sunday Times suggesting that we should stop shaking hands because it could lead to the spread of viruses like flu. It seemed a bizarre suggestion to make so I wanted to learn more but that, of course, was a problem.

I buy national newspapers very rarely. I do buy the local paper but that is because it has a very slow to respond website and you can feel left out if you haven’t read it by Thursday lunchtime. But I do believe that printed national newspapers are a waste of resources and I’m quite confident that I but fewer than ten in a full year...more

Sunday 9th October 2011

I’ve been accused, in the past, of being excessively distrustful of information about poisonous plants given to me by members of the public. I’d have to say I am willing to accept ‘distrustful’ but I wouldn’t say I agree with ‘excessively’. I’m not saying people set out to tell lies but it is my experience that people tend to fill in the gaps rather than admit they’ve forgotten something and it is human nature to personalise stories.

I’ve found that it makes sense to research a story before including it either on this website or in my talks because, quite often, it won’t be precise in every particular. I have made the mistake of finding a story so fascinating that I’ve begun retelling it immediately only to find, later, that it wasn’t as told to any extent...more

Saturday 8th October 2011

Australian newspapers have been reporting a growing death toll amongst horses recently relocated to a property in Kooralbyn, Queensland. Initial reports said that five horses had died but that tally has grown and, as I write, stands at seventeen with an eighteenth animal seriously ill and thought to be unlikely to survive.

So far, the Hendra virus that has already killed over twenty horses in Queensland, this year, has been eliminated as the cause and post mortem investigations are being undertaken to see if a toxin of some sort can be identified. Since the animals had not been on the property long it seems possible that either a toxic plant had been growing in the pasture but all possibilities are being explored include malicious intent...more

Friday 7th October 2011

Personally, I no longer mark anniversaries. No birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Christmas, New Year or Easter. It’s been that way for a number of years and, now, I genuinely find some ‘important’ date has passed without my noticing. That’s not possible, of course, for things like Christmas where the commemoration is marked by the media and becomes impossible to avoid.

The media, also, is usually the reason I become aware of anniversary events with significance in world politics and I do find those of much more interest. Today, for example, is the tenth anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan...more

Thursday 6th October 2011

If you have visited the home page of this website you will have read that ‘accidental plant poisoning is very unusual’. The USA, probably, has the most widespread network of publicly accessible poison information centres but of the over 4 million calls dealt with in a typical year around 60,000 involve plants and under 100 result in  a ‘major outcome’. As a result, there is a lack of detail on these poisonings and I’ve referred to some work done in Switzerland link to try and see which plants do the most harm.

In the UK, there is no publicly accessible poison information service. Instead there is the National Poisons Information Service (NPIS) that offers both a telephone enquiry service and an information website to medical professionals only. The NPIS has just published its latest annual report and it contains one of the most unscientific conclusions I have ever read...more

Wednesday 5th October 2011

I came across a blog written by an Australian dairy farmer. She made an interesting observation about the possible relationship between more intensive farming and improved pasture management.

Her point, in the piece I read is that having more cattle in paddocks that are sub-divided much more than they used to be makes pasture management much easier and she hasn’t seen any Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort, in years. Her family has farmed the same land for generations and, with her brother, she remembers spending a lot of time pulling up ragwort. She also says this way of using the land has resulted in a much better quality of sward...more

Tuesday 4th October 2011

Sometimes finding a topic for this blog is about taking two, or more, apparently unrelated things and seeing similarities in them. It is for the reader to decide if those similarities are real or just my desperation to find something to keep me on course to produce a blog post every day.

Yesterday, the Sacramento Bee ran an article about the use of Toxicodendron diversilobum, poison oak, to protect a Native American burial ground from thieves. And, at present, I’m reading ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’ by Deborah Blum...more

Monday 3rd October 2011

I’ve written before Thursday 21st July about the difficulties many people experience in getting adequate pain medication as a result of the prohibition on substances derived from Papaver somniferum, opium poppy, such as morphine, heroin and codeine.

Now comes news of a different way in which the prohibition of certain substances can limit the advance of medical science. This time the substance is not plant derived but, I think, the issues raised are important enough to include here...more

Sunday 2nd October 2011

“When the President does it that means it is not illegal”. As anyone with any interest in the USA’s late 20th century history will know, these are the words of former president Richard Nixon when being interviewed by David Frost on May 20th 1977.

By one of those strange coincidences, the BBC broadcast a programme about the recording of the interviews and showed the film ‘Frost/Nixon’ on the day that President Obama seemed to be taking that same line over the killing of two American citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in a drone attack in Yemen...more

Saturday 1st October 2011

In England, from today, the sale of cigarettes from vending machines becomes illegal. It’s another small step to try and reduce the number of young people taking up smoking. The other parts of the UK (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) are expected to follow suit within a year.

The ban is based on evidence that 11% of under-18s who smoke buy their cigarettes from vending machines. As always with tobacco control measures there is debate about how effect a measure will be and what harm it will do...more