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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

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Friday 30th September 2011

I’m one of those people who grew into gardening in middle age. It was really only when we moved to Scotland in 2001 that I had to develop some sort of interest in gardening and, of course, since 2003, when I started researching poisonous plants, it has been my passion. Well, the plants have though I’m still not great when it comes to the actual gardening.

But, I think, it is quite common for people to ‘grow into’ gardening at or just after middle age. Taking the whole lifeline, I suppose we grow out of gardening when we become teens before growing back into it later. I think most of us know of some scheme to encourage primary school children to learn about how vegetables end up on their dinner plates and/or how plants help to nourish wildlife from the smallest insects to the largest land mammals in the world...more

Thursday 29th September 2011

This should really be dated Wednesday 28ath September or headed 'Plants in a Public Park Part 2' because, as you'll know if you read yesterday's blog, when I decided to see if I could find six poisonous plant genera in our nearest municipal park I ended up with eleven and a fungus in no time at all.

So, I decided to split the pictures I took over two days and this is the second day...more

Wednesday 28th September 2011

If I thought Monday was a summer's day there is no way to describe today. Bright sunshine, hot and with enough of a warm wind to make you think you were in some Mediterranean resort.

I had to go into town for an eye test in the afternoon. In Scotland, if you're over 60, they put drops in your eyes to be able to photograph the retina and keep a watch for changes that might indicate future serious problems. I did ask if the optician was using atropine, from Atropa belladonna, but it is a manufactured chemical that causes less dramatic pupil dilation...more

Tuesday 27th September 2011

I’m working on a new page for the A to Z section about Rhododendron. It is not an especially poisonous plant, in fact, it isn’t included in the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) list of potentially harmful plants. This is the list that forms the basis for Dr Elizabeth Dauncey’s book ‘Poisonous Plants – A guide for parents and childcare providers’.

But, it is poisonous and there is a particular situation with the nectar of the plant that leads to some of the exaggerated stories about the harm that is caused as so often happens with poisonous plants. My problem, so far, is that I’m not too sure how interesting it is...more

Monday 26th September 2011

Five days to the end of September and, finally, we get what could be called a summer’s day. At least, it was cloudless for much of the time and reasonably warm, if sheltered, but the wind had a sharp edge to it. It wasn’t too bad on the walk from Budle Bay to Bamburgh, but the return, with the wind in our faces was a bit of a slog at times.

If you’re not familiar with the north-east coast of England you’ll have to take my word for it that Bamburgh has one of the nicest beaches in the world. Or, you could try these pictures to see for yourself. If it had better weather it would, of course, be spoiled by being covered in people...more

Sunday 25th September 2011

Earlier this month 4th I blogged about Colchicum autumnale, the autumn crocus. I mentioned the medicinal use of colchicine for treating gout and killing white blood cells, a necessary treatment for some conditions.

Yesterday, I wrote about the excellent NHS Choices ‘Behind the Headlines’ website and its clear review of newly published research. While I was looking at what it had to say about smoking in the movies, I came across another report on new research involving colchicine...more

Saturday 24th September 2011

Yesterday, I blogged about how someone arguing against the claim that the war on drugs had failed demonstrated by her argument that the war on drugs had failed. Today, I’ve been reading about smoking and young people and, as part of that, came across someone else making an argument they, probably, didn’t realise they were making.

But, we’ll come back to that later. First, I want to look at a story that appeared a few days ago based on a paper published in the journal Thorax. The BBC headlined its coverage of the paper ‘Smoking in films 'encourages teenagers to take it up'’ while the Guardian went for ‘Smoking in films 'should get automatic 18 rating'’ ...more

Friday 23rd September 2011

Some days, I write this blog by staring at a blank screen and seeing what words appear on it. Other times, I’ve got an idea in my mind based on something that has been attracting my attention for a while. The other thing that stirs my choice of topic is actually what happened on the day.

Today, I should have been writing about my visit to Lincolnshire to run an all-day course on poison plants. Unfortunately, the course didn’t happen. It was being organised by a farmer who offers a wide range of courses to supplement her farm income. Most of the courses offered are of the ‘How to’ variety. ‘How to make your own fencing using willow’, ‘How to have a kitchen garden in limited space’ and the like...more

Thursday 22nd September 2011

It seems that the British Horse Society uses a press cuttings agency. Or, perhaps, they have a vanity Google alert to bring up any mention of their name. I think it must be one or the other.

Last week, I blogged about my letter to the Berwickshire News in response to a very fact light story about Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort. The original story is here can be found and my letter is here...more 

Wednesday 21st September 2011

A tweet from Transform Drug Policy Foundation took me to a number of photos in the USA’s National Archive showing some people smoking pot in May 1973. There’s no copyright restrictions on these photos so I thought I’d reproduce a couple of them here.

On the same day, I read the latest report from the FBI on the number of arrests associated with Cannabis sativa in the USA during 2010 showing that of the 1.6 million people arrested for ‘Drug abuse violations’ over 750,000 were arrested simply for possession of cannabis...more

Tuesday 20th September 2011

I’ve been trying to get to grips with the differences between fairies and witches because quite a few stories from plant folklore are attributed to witches in some parts of the country and fairies in others. As I expected, the closer I look at it, the harder it is to understand. What is clear is that the general perception of the differences between the two that is current has not always been so easy to see.

The general perception is that fairies are all good and witches are bad. I’d better stress that ‘general’ because, of course, there are those who call themselves ‘white witches’ and would disagree. But, as we’ll see, you need to try and keep to the main path because the offshoots are many and confusing...more

Monday 19th September 2011

For the first time in a number of weeks, the weather was pretty good and enough people were around for us to get an enjoyable Monday morning walk in. We started from Paxton House, climbed up through the village, over the Whiteadder and up to Low Cockburn before coming back to the river, along to Canty’s Brig, up the road to the border then down onto the river Tweed for the return to Paxton House and an excellent lunch in the cafeteria.

And wherever we went, the signs of autumn were already very apparent. Most of the conkers were already off the Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut, and the leaves were turning bright red. The Symphytum was looking rather forlorn and the Arum maculatum, cuckoopint, I saw was passed its best...more

Sunday 18th September 2011

An odd decision by a European court is coming to a fireside near you, this winter. A group of Bavarian bee-keepers has successfully argued that they have been breaking the law by selling their honey.

As soon as you read that you should begin to suspect that there is something going on. And you’d be right. The basis of the case was that the bee-keepers said they had tested their honey and found evidence of pollen from a GM crop trial near their hives...more

Saturday 17th September 2011

Malta was our favourite holiday haunt. Or to be more precise, Gozo the second largest of the Maltese islands was where we would return to whenever we felt in need for some peace and quiet. It’s six years since we’ve been there; six years since my wife’s ‘accident’ that means we can’t contemplate overseas travel. But, if some medical miracle meant she could travel again, we’d go back in a flash.

But though we’ve had half a dozen or so holidays there and I was fortunate enough to make a number of business trips, as well, we’d never really done much in the way of learning about the place. Holidays to us were always about doing as little as possible though I would usually have an afternoon walk while my wife had a rest and, sometimes, those walks would include a visit to an historic site...more

Friday 16th September 2011

I thought David Tredinnick MP was bad enough. It shouldn’t be surprising that in a group of 650 people, albeit people who are well-educated and, supposedly, capable of understanding the evidence about any situation before reaching a conclusion about it based on their underlying philosophy, there turns out to be one who supports homeopathy.

And not just homeopathy. Mr Tredinnick also believes in medical astronomy, whatever that is, and his particular contribution to the MPs’ expenses scandal was the discovery that taxpayers had funded the purchase of computer software based on this mumbo jumbo. But now along comes another MP with bizarre opinions, denying science...more

Thursday 15th September 2011

I’m not looking for a fight. Really, I’m not. But, it seems, my local newspaper follows the lead given by so much of the media and thinks the only way subjects can be debated is by two people shouting their completely opposite views without listening to the other’s point of view. As a result, it has made me look like a fanatical plant hugger.

Last week, the Berwickshire News published a piece about Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort, that contained many of the usual fallacies about how it is illegal to allow it to grow, how it kills lots and lots of horses every year, how it is spreading out of control and so forth...more

Wednesday 14th September 2011

What’s in a name? I won’t finish the quotation as I’m sure you already know it or rather think you do. A lot of people cite it as ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ but the original is ‘That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet’. And I can’t help thinking that it should be brought up to date by the addition of ‘assuming it’s not one of selectively bred roses where the grower put flower colour and disease resistance above aroma so it doesn’t smell at all.

But, I digress. My point is that names often impart preconception. We respond to a name in a way that is conditioned by our understanding of what that name should mean. With scientific names, there’s a preconception of reliability in the information if it comes from someone with a sciencey name...more

Tuesday 13th September 2011

I started to write a piece about the lies that get told about poisonous plants but then I came across one of the frequent ones and thought that I’d do another ‘compare and contrast’ post in the hope of reducing the confusion over these two plants.

As with Sunday’s blog, Atropa belladonna is one of the plants concerned but, this time, the other one is Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade...more

Monday 12th September 2011

The sub-heading for all these blog pages uses the word ‘ramblings’ and I think this is likely to be one of ramblier examples because it brings together the high winds currently affecting northern parts of the UK, novels aimed at teenagers and what their subject matter should include and my favourite subject, being as true as you can about the effects of plant-derived substances.

Let’s start with the high winds. For some days, the UK Met Office has been warning about high winds as the ‘remains of Hurricane Katia’ arrive over the UK. The high winds were expected to be both strong and gusting and an amber warning was issued for the area thought to be likely to experience the highest winds. Areas to the north and south were subject to a yellow warning but no red warning was issued...more

Sunday 11th September 2011

Someone on the Pregnancy Forum UK was concerned about a plant with black berries that their child was paying interest in. Judging from the responses, the initial posting didn’t include a photo but one had been added the suggestions started. The overall view was that it was one of the St John’s Worts; a number of species in the genus Hypericum have that common name.

Hypericum perforatum is the plant most commonly called St John’s Wort but Hypericum androsaemum is also described that way as well as being known as tutsan. Just as it seemed that there was going to be agreement that the plant in the picture was Hypericum androsaemum, tutsan, someone posted in a very definite style to say that it was Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade...more

Saturday 10th September 2011

I stumbled across a parliamentary answer from April 2011 concerning the strength of cannabis. The question was asked by Charles Walker, the Conservative MP for Broxbourne. Mr Walker is a prohibitionist and his question asked the Home Secretary to provide figures for the THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) content of seized skunk cannabis for the latest period and for five, ten and twenty years ago.

On the 2nd September, I made a brief reference to ‘the lie that says that cannabis, today, is not the same as it was in the ‘60s’. In the light of Mr Walker’s questions it’s worth looking at that lie in greater detail.
As I noted, before, the generations that grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s are now able to speak with the wisdom that comes with age and more and more of them are willing to say that they used cannabis as young adults and that they have suffered no long-term harm. They are increasingly open to the argument that the present regime for dealing with cannabis needs to be revised...more

Friday 9th September 2011

I’ve never set out to make this site a comprehensive guide to poisonous plants. There are just about 100 plants featured here and some of the books in my library have up to 1,200 species so there’s plenty missing.

The selection of plants to include is pretty arbitrary and, to an extent, relies on the plant have interesting folklore, being psychoactive or having recorded incidents of harm that are worthy of note...more

Thursday 8th September 2011

Yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of the murder of Georgi Markov. I find it strange that some murders stay in the public mind a lot more than others but I think it results from the reporting of the event at the time and, especially, if it is a long-running story for some reason.

Markov was attacked on 7th September and died on the 11th. Because he felt the sting of the attack and noticed a red lump on his thigh, foul play was suspected even before he died. Coming during the Cold War, his death provoked a great deal of interest and a great deal of speculation and that, perhaps, explains why people still remember it. The press speculation actually brings about one of the more amusing aspects of the case but that comes much later in the history of the public fascination with his death...more

Wednesday 7th September 2011

One of my favourite radio programmes is BBC Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’. I’m so interested in it that I have been known to switch it off, because I couldn’t give it my full attention, and listen to it later on the BBC website.

It is supposed to about numbers and how they are wrongly used by people who don’t know any better or misused by people who should. I put ‘supposed to be’ because an item on the latest programme had only a tangential relationship to numbers but it was very interesting...more

Tuesday 6th September 2011

Prof Derek C Knottenbelt, BVM&S, DVM&S, DipECEIM, MRCVS RCVS is the European Specialist in Equine Internal Medicine, Philip Leverhulme Equine Hospital, Leahurst, Neston, part of the University of Liverpool. Or, rather that should be ‘was’ because in an email from him today he twice pointed out that he is retired. Unfortunately, that wasn’t clear from a letter he wrote to the Yorkshire Post about liver disease in horses and the University of Liverpool website says that, 'following a very short retirement, Derek is now back in the Equine hospital continuing from where he left off'.

Prof. Knottenbelt is often quoted, by the horse owning community, as THE authority on ragwort poisoning so his views deserve careful consideration. That is why, when some of the comments made in his letter looked a little less than scientifically rigorous, I decided to ask him some direct questions by email...more

Monday 5th September 2011

I’ve mentioned my new camera before. Like a lot of the latest generation of digital cameras it is capable of taking high-definition video as well as still. I use video in the presentations that accompany my talks because, I think, it gives the audience something to look at while I’m talking and, hopefully, helps to stop their attention wandering.

As I checked before giving last week’s talk, I realised that the video taken on my previous, standard definition, video camera doesn’t look as good as video taken this summer. I haven’t really been focussed on getting new video through the summer but I managed to get quite a few new clips in order to update the footage I use...more

Sunday 4th September 2011

The weather was a little better today so I took the chance of getting some more pictures of my Colchicum autumnale. It’s one of the odder of the poisonous plants and not just because of its strange growing habit. (Gardeners can skip the next paragraph.)

The leaves emerge in the spring and then die back in the summer. Then, early in the autumn, the flowers emerge straight out of the ground. After being fertilised the flowers die back and it is the following spring that the seeds, along with the leaves appear. It is this flowering habit that gives the plant two, really three, of its common names; autumn crocus and (bare) naked ladies...more

Saturday 3rd September 2011

I started out to write about an unexplained death by strychnine poisoning that featured in a radio programme, today, but when I started to look for extra details I found so many different versions of what should have been a simple story that I’m inclined to think more about the difficulty of identifying truth in historic events.

The death of Lieutenant Hubert Chevis in the early hours of Sunday 21st June 1931 was the subject of a BBC Radio 4 programme in the series ‘Punt PI’ where comedian Steve Punt investigates a range of stories from the past. Punt’s aim was to see if he could shed new light on what has been an unsolved murder case for 80 years...more

Friday 2nd September 2011

So, it’s autumn. As far as I’m concerned it is, anyway. I would expect different people to have different views on what constitutes the start of autumn. In England, for families, it may well be the start of the new school term in the next few days. In Scotland, of course, the new term started back in the middle of August and that’s a bit early to be considered autumn.

For me, my first talk of the season tells me summer is over and, in a normal year, I would have added ‘and it’s all downhill from now’. This year, however, there really has been so little pleasant weather that I don’t think there’s any hill left to do down. Incidentally, I’m not alone in thinking autumn has arrived as the picture, taken this morning, of my autumn crocuses, Colchicum autumnale, attests...more

Thursday 1st September 2011

A question on a TV game show about birds of prey and the precautions taken by a farmer in northern California have set me the challenge of trying to think how other people think and see the world from their point of view.

If you’re in the UK, you may have seen the programme ‘Pointless’. If you haven’t, then think of ‘Family Fortunes’ in reverse. In other words, the contestants don’t have to find the answers the public gave they have to find the ones they missed. Every question is put to 100 people and the contestants have to try and find the obscure, but correct, answers that no-one in the survey group thought of...more


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