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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 22nd January 2013

Spending a ninth day watching the snow falling and having to think carefully about even short journeys, it is easy to forget that there are parts of the world where summer is at its peak and plants are blooming and starting to set seed. A news report, and its follow-up, was a useful reminder.

The Christchurch Mail reported on a father and son who suffered burns from contact with Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed. The plant was in the man’s garden, having invaded from an adjacent vacant plot, and he thought his 12-year old son would enjoy working with him to remove it. He had no idea what the plant was.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

Typically, it was some time before any adverse effects were felt but the father, eventually, experienced severe burns to his arms and lower legs. Luckily, his son did not have so much contact with the plant and his suffering is not too severe.

Within two hours of the story appearing, on 16th January, the paper published a follow-up piece containing expert comment from the ‘Ecan biosecurity team leader’, Rob McCaw. Mr McCaw says that the number of incidents seems to have risen in the past couple of years though the plant has been listed on the ‘unwanted pest register’ since 2006.

It is no surprise that the Christchurch Mail considered the story worth running nor that it sought expert follow-up but I was a little surprised by Mr McCaw’s advice to anyone with a plant on their property at this time. This was to leave it alone and deal with it during the winter or early in the spring.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

Clearly, dealing with the plants as they appear in the spring is the easiest option but that ship has sailed for this year and leaving a plant alone to complete its cycle and form then shed its seeds seems to me asking for a worse problem next year.

Mr McCaw says that anyone who needs to deal with a plant immediately should have protective clothing, including gloves and eye protection, which is good advice though I would have said a full face mask rather than just eye protection. I would have thought anyone suitably dressed should be encouraged to remove the flower head, or seed head if flowering is already over, using long handled loppers, so that no new seeds are entering the ground.

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