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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 16th February 2013

Another day when two apparently unconnected events came together in my mind. Both were contacts made via this site.

The first was an enquiry from a writer. I won’t go into the specifics because that would be unfair if anyone, at some point in the future, were reading a new book and realised they’d heard about it by reading this blog.

Rather, I’ll focus on the most common query I get from writers, which is about confusing one plant for another. Such confusion can be turned into a plot device in a number of ways. The murderer may use a poisonous plant that looks very like the plant used by the victim to make his favourite herbal tea in the hope that the death will be passed off as a fatal error. Or, the intention may be for the murderer to make the mistake so that the intended victim survives.

However the confusion is to be used, the matter of plant knowledge becomes important. If the fictional murderer is a professor of botany trying to kill off a TV gardener in order to take their place, you’ll struggle to come up with a credible misidentification. Even if your characters have no special knowledge of plants, you still need to make the confusion acceptable to readers who may scoff if your plot relies on someone thinking a foxglove was a purple sprouting broccoli.

The question of how different can two plants be and still be thought to be the same brings me to the second event.

On the page for the winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, it, originally said ‘There is no clear reason for naming this plant 'aconite'’. That’s pretty poor because, of course, I should have said I wasn’t aware of the reason. But that line has now been displaced because I am aware of the reason, thanks to an email from Dr Henry Oakeley, an expert on the historical use of plants for medicinal purposes.

Dr Oakeley pointed out that, in the past, plants were classified on the basis of the appearance of the leaves. This classification system meant that differences in growing habit and the appearance of the flowers was no bar to two very different plants being classified as belonging to the same genus.

The email sent me, where I should have gone before, to see what John Gerard says about it. He uses the name Aconitum hyemale or Winter Woolfes-bane. If I’d read that before, I might have wondered where the confusion started.

I wonder if this goes back to the Doctrine of Signatures. If the look of a plant told you what medicinal value it had, then plants of similar leaf appearance would have the same medicinal use and could be thought to be closely related.

Even accepting that people were only concerned about the look of the leaves, it is still a bit of a stretch to think the two plants are very similar. Early in the life of this blog I noted that my gardening knowledge used to be extremely limited and though it hasn’t advanced that much I don’t think that I would look at the winter aconite

winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis

And think its leaves looked just like monkshood.

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

The fact that people did believe them to be the same seems to me to be another indication of the human desire to find structure and order in everything.

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