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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 19th April 2013

Until this week I’d never tasted Rhododendron.

I started tasting poisonous plants after reading divergent opinions about the taste of Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade. In ‘A Modern Herbal’, Mrs Grieve says the berries are insanely sweet but Frohne and Pfander, in ‘A Colour Atlas of Poisonous Plants’, say they are ‘sweetish but insipid’. There was only one way to resolve this dispute and I found, not for the first time, that Mrs Grieve got it wrong.

That led me to try other plants where the taste is said to be of importance. With Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade, I found that the common name sometimes used, ‘bittersweet’, is wrong because dulcamara translates a sweet bitter and that is the progression of the taste of the berry.

With Pulsatilla vulgaris, the pasque flower, the books said it was too bitter for anyone to be able to ingest a harmful amount and I would certainly agree with that.

When it came to Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, I wanted to know if the argument, that no animal would eat the living plant because of its taste except in extremis, was likely to be true and I did, indeed, find that to be the case though, personally, I would describe the taste as more sour than the bitter usually stated.

Rhododendron

Rhododendron

And so on. I try not to take anything for granted and experiment whenever I can though I don’t do so with any of the psychoactives.

And that brings me to Rhododendron. It has been a long winter with some very cold weather in late March/early April and, coming after cool and very wet summer 2012, many plants are not doing very well. This led to a story in ‘Farmers Weekly’ saying that farmers in Wales had been warned that the poor state of most vegetation could lead stock to graze on the Rhohdendrons growing in common grazing areas of Snowdonia.

The International Poisonous Plants Checklist does give a few case studies for poisoning in sheep, but only a few, so I wondered if taste were a factor in limiting the attractiveness of the plant to grazing animals. Fortunately, rhododendrons are evergreen so it was a simple matter to obtain some leaf samples. I selected a few newly produced leaves thinking they were likely to be more flavoursome than leaves that had been on the plant for some time.

When I try the taste of poisonous plants, I use the smallest amount possible, for obvious reasons, so I took a very small leaf and chewed it to see if that was enough to convey a flavour. I found two problems; it was very tough and difficult to chew and, as a result, I couldn’t detect a flavour.  I took the rest of the leaves I’d collected and used a pestle and mortar to extract a small amount of green juice from them. Whilst I could now move this juice around my mouth, I still did not detect any noticeable taste.

Based on this very limited trial, it seems to me that there is nothing about the taste of rhododendron that would prevent grazing but, it may be, the texture of the leaves is the disincentive in this case.

Perhaps texture is another factor to be considered when trying to determine whether poisonous plants are likely to be grazed or ignored by domestic livestock.

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