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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

 Saturday 20th August 2016

It’s been a good year for growing stuff. At least, it seems that way to me. I added that second sentence because I have to acknowledge that it is only my belief that plants, in general, have thrived in this year’s weather rather than the result of any sort of scientific assessment countrywide.

One plant that I would say is more abundant than previous years is Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort. For a number of years, people have claimed that this plant is spreading but a lot of that has been based simply on local and highway authorities reducing the amount of verge cutting they do leaving more of the plants in place to be seen.

A little digression. People who call for verges to be cut when they contain ragwort are missing the fact that cut ragwort becomes palatable. Cutting verges and not clearing them, and I’d be surprised if any authority ever clears what it cuts, would make the ragwort more likely to be harmful. The fact that, back in the days when verges were cut, there were not many deaths simply shows that ragwort growing in verges is not a threat.

Where was I?

This year, I would say that there is more ragwort around. I base this both on general observations as I’ve travelled around the country and one specific field.

These are pictures I took in July 2008 and August 2012;


Common ragwort in 2012


Ragwort with cattle in 2008

Ragwort in field 

And these are shots I took this year;

Ragwort with cattle 2016


Ragwort in field 2016

This field is within about three miles of my home making it easy to get pictures from year to year. This next picture is a field I saw in mid-Wales when I was there in July.

Ragwort with horses in Wales

The reason for including that picture has to do with Taxus baccata, yew. When you ask people why there are so many yew trees in churchyards some of them will say it is because the English longbow was made of yew. That, of course, misses the point that, if yew trees in churchyards were used to make bows there would now be far fewer yews in churchyards. In reality, longbows were made from imported yew because European yew grows straighter than the English tree.

Similarly, seeing ragwort growing in a field with livestock in it is proof that livestock won’t eat the living plant – if they did there wouldn’t be so much to see.

But that is not the main point I wanted to make with this post. That has to do with Cannabis sativa, marijuana. Back in 2007, Hickman et al published a paper in Addiction looking at the prevalence of cannabis use and the prevalence of schizophrenia and projecting the increase in the incidence of schizophrenia that would arise from the increased prevalence of cannabis if the two were connected as is often claimed. Nine years on, it is clear that there is no direct link because the prevalence of schizophrenia has not tracked the earlier increase in cannabis.

The increase in the abundance of ragwort this year presents an opportunity to assess how harmful it is in reality.
It is a more difficult assessment to make because, of course, substantial ingestion would cause liver damage faster than regular ingestion of smaller amounts so there is no clear time delay between the availability of ragwort and the increase in liver failure that it allegedly causes but, if there is no clear evidence of an increase over the next few years, I would argue that this is evidence that ragwort is not the monster it so often is made out to be.

By writing this blog I am actively encouraging people to contact me if they can demonstrate, evidentially, that 2017 onwards shows an increase in liver failure in horses.


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