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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 15th September 2012

To the health centre. My wife had a blood test the other morning so that meant me sitting in the waiting room trying to find a magazine to read that wasn’t wholly about reality TV stars. I settled on the December 2010 edition of ‘Gardeners’ World’ the spin-off from the BBC TV show.

There was a feature in it by Toby Buckland about things you can do in the garden in the depths of winter and one part concerned his attempts to get Viscum album, mistletoe, to grow.

Viscum album, mistletoe

Viscum album, mistletoe

I wrote about mistletoe last December 5th December explaining that it is a parasitic plant that puts its roots under the bark of a host tree. In nature this happens when birds, that have eaten the flesh of the fruit, try and scrape the sticky seed off their beaks and it gets lodged in a gap in the bark. For the gardener, the trick is to try and replicate that natural process but it isn’t easy and you may have to wait years before knowing if you’ve succeeded.

At the end of the piece Buckland commented that mistletoe berries were poisonous so it shouldn‘t be in the house with children. I don’t know if this was just a throwaway line to end the piece or if it was typical of our risk averse culture where the writer didn’t feel he could avoid issuing the warning in case anyone tried to blame him if a poisoning occurred.

It is the sort of dumb comment I’ve grown used to seeing about poisonous plants and it wouldn’t have bothered me if I hadn’t happened to have read an article about the Environmental Working Group (EWG) an organisation whose purpose is ‘to use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment’. The article on CBSNews reported on the EWG’s ‘Hall of Shame’, a list of household products containing what the EWG says are ‘extremely toxic compounds’.

I’m not going to get into whether the EWG’s list is reasonable though it does draw attention to the use of chemicals that have been banned in other places and the example of a concentrated substance designed to be diluted before use being supplied in a spray top bottle does look odd. For all I know, these claims may be overstated (actually I'd be very surprised if they aren't based on previous stories of this type) but my interest is in the ridiculous notion that mistletoe should not be brought into houses that are already stuffed full of household cleaning products, personal hygiene products, cosmetics and chemicals for house and garden maintenance.

Even if not nearly as harmful as the EWG wants us to believe there is no denying that these sorts of products cause far more actual cases of severe child poisoning than plants ever have.

As I said, Mr Buckland’s comment may just have been a throwaway line that he didn’t think to examine. That would put him alongside all those scientists who, in the introductions to their latest paper on ricin, the toxin found in Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, refer to it as a bioterrorism weapon without bothering to look and see if there is any justification for that statement.

At least he didn't make the mistake of suggesting that artificial mistletoe should be substituted. The danger of choking on a dropped plastic berry, though still small, is much greater than the risk from real berries and persists for a longer time since plastic berries won't decay over time.

What riles me more are those garden writers who think that dramatizing and exaggerating the harm plants actually do, who want people to think that plants are inherently wicked, is an easy way to get attention and sell more books.

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