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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 9th September 2013

There is a problem with the ‘laws of nature’ and that is nature has never been told what those laws are. Just when you think you’ve understood how plants work and do the things they do you’ll come across one that completely ignores the ‘rules’.

The theory says that you need to put a plant into good quality soil and feed and water it well for it to thrive. My Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, plants have completely gone against that this year. The plants in a proper bed next to the pond have died back almost completely, though they are carrying a few ripe berries. The ones that I left in a pot because I thought I didn’t need them, still have green leaves though they don’t look that healthy.

But, it is the one that set itself in the crack between two paving stones just outside the back door that has done reasonably well and carries around half a dozen berries. Not a heavy crop, it’s true, but very much the best of the bunch.

It is not just my plants that are going against the expected behaviour. Atropa belladonna is something of an oddball amongst poisonous plants. For the most part, the berries of poisonous plants are unpleasant to the taste and that prevents ingestion of a harmful amount. The berries of the deadly nightshade are slightly sweet and give no reason to be deterred from eating a handful.

The other general rule seems to be that the flesh of a berry contains only limited amounts of toxins with the higher concentration being in the seed. Taxus baccata, yew, is a good example of this. I don’t know if the same is true for Atropa belladonna because I’ve never seen any work analysing the juice of the berry separately from the seed.

One reason for this may be that, unlike the single seed often found in berries, the deadly nightshade has a lot of very small seeds dispersed in the juice. The video I use in my talks includes a shot of me squeezing a ripe berry to demonstrate just how juicy they are but, until today, I didn’t have any stills.

As far as the berries on the plant are concerned, I’ve never bettered this shot from 2006

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade 

that shows how appealing they can look.

This year it is more a case of finding single berries rather than clumps

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade 

I carefully removed it from the plant

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade 

And then removed the skin to reveal the inside that looks a lot like blackcurrant jam

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade 

Spread out, you get an idea of the thinness of the juice and the number of seeds in each berry.

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade 

For the sake of keeping the scale, here’s one showing a whole cherry-sized berry alongside the seeds.

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade 

It should be possible to test the juice separately from the seeds but, as I said, I’m never seen any report of anyone doing so. 

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