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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 1st September 2012

I’m trying to suppress the feeling of Schadenfreude after seeing two local news stories from different parts of the UK. That’s largely because the ‘others’ whose suffering I’m in danger of enjoying are children and, obviously, it would be very wrong to be pleased at youngsters being harmed. There is though a feeling of reassurance.

I’ve written a number of times about what I call the Jerry Maguire test that I apply to stories about how dangerous a plant can be. That is to say, I look for the numbers of people, or animals, that actually get harmed by a plant before accepting what is said about its potential.


So when, for example, people start on about how dangerous it is to have a Laburnum tree in the garden I point out that there are no records of anyone dying after eating Laburnum seeds and many of the children who had their stomachs pumped in the 70s and 80s would, probably, not have exhibited any symptoms if left untreated.

Laburnum, of course, produces yellow flowers and another yellow-flowering plant produces its own crop of hysterical stories about how much harm it does. I’m referring to common ragwort, Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea) where plenty of people will tell you about all the horses who die from the liver damage the plant causes but they struggle to point to any actual proven examples.

I have considered if I was falling into the trap of believing a plant to be extremely harmful yet the evidence doesn’t support that conclusion when it comes to Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed.

I wrote on 15th June this year;

‘Either there will be lots of reports of people suffering burns from contact with these plants or there will be further evidence that, although we live our lives surrounded by potentially harmful plants, we mostly avoid the harm they could cause.’

Though not ‘lots’, I wrote about one news report in July and now there has been two stories on consecutive days about children suffering burns after contact with the plant. First, on 23rd August, the Flintshire Chronicle1 reported the story of an 8-year old girl who suffered severe burns after coming across the plant during a family camping holiday in Devon.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

The next day the Sunderland Echo2 reported on two 13-year old boys who had played amongst the plants on the banks of the river Wear. One of the worrying details of the story is that the boys had spent three days in hospital before doctors realised what had caused their problems. That might, in part, have been the result of a 48-hour gap between the exposure and the appearance of burns.

I also have a concern about the difference between the advice the different families have been given. The family in Flintshire were apparently told to keep the girl inside for the rest of the summer and not to take holidays in the sun for a year. The Sunderland families, however, were only told to keep the boys out of the sun for eight weeks. I hope they realise the need to be careful next summer in case the burns reappear.

Both stories quote the parents as wanting to let people know of the harm the plants can cause and also quote representatives of the local authorities concerned as saying that they have programmes for dealing with appearances of the plant.

I’m off to Edinburgh on Monday so I’ll see if there is any sign that Edinburgh City Council has any sort of control programme.


1. Flintshire schoolgirl burned by toxic park plant The Flintshire Chronicle 23rd August 2012
2. Teenagers burned by poisonous plants The Sunderland Echo 24th August 2012


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