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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 25th June 2012

I like to think that my antennae are pretty well-tuned to pick up stories about poisonous plants. There’s the various Google alerts I use, though I’m thinking of giving up on ‘laburnum’ as an alert term because all the results seem to be properties for sale, there are websites I visit because I expect them to have items of interest and there is Twitter where I follow people who might be tweeting about the things that interest me.

But all these methods do not provide complete coverage and, sometimes, I miss the coming into prominence of some particular plant. When that happens I get a surprise by seeing the statistics for this site’s visitors showing an unexpected search word, or phrase, being the most used by people who clicked through the search engine result.

This happened a few days ago when ‘hemlock’ suddenly became the most used search term and then stayed that way for three days. Often, when something like that happens, I can trace it to a mention on one of the gardening programmes on TV or radio. BBC Radio 4’s ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ is, most often, the cause of interest in a particular poisonous plant.

Conium maculatum, poison hemlock

Conium maculatum, poison hemlock

This time, however, there seemed to be no recent broadcasts that might have provoked the interest so I had to resort to searching Google News to see if any stories might have been the cause of people wanting further information.

I found three possibilities which could have produced the searches but they were differentiated by one being of interest to a small part of a large population and the other two of concern to a large section of a small population.

The first of the small populations would be the residents of the islands referred to in the name ‘Islands Weekly’ that is those off the city of Bellingham in Washington State close to the Canadian border. The paper carried an article from the San Juan County Noxious Weed Control Program explaining how to identify poison hemlock, Conium maculatum, and how to remove and dispose of it.1 It is a requirement to control it even though, the piece explains, it is not that common.

The second small population is centred in Gem County, Idaho where the Idaho Weed Awareness Campaign used the local media to remind residents of the dangers of poison hemlock and how to identify and remove it.2

To be honest, I didn’t really think either of these articles would produce the sort of reaction I’d seen so I was concerned that the third story might be the culprit.

Conium maculatum, poison hemlock

Conium maculatum, poison hemlock

I’m not an expert on the Indian movie industry but I know it turns out a huge number of new films each year so I’m not sure how much impact one movie makes especially if it is given a three and a half star rating by a leading newspaper’s critic.3 ‘Hemlock Society’ is apparently about a group of would-be suicides who come together to provide mutual support. The film is said to subvert its central premise and produce a life-affirming ending where the central character realises that life is very much worth living.

It is the association being made between ‘hemlock’ and ‘suicide’ that makes me suspect this could be the source of my extra visitors and that raises a fundamental concern about how I run this website.

Many of the plants I write about are potentially lethal and part of my intention is to provide information to enable people to avoid the harm they could cause. That is particularly true when it comes to parents looking to protect their children. But, explaining which plants to avoid could, to someone so minded, point out which plants are of most interest.

Ben Goldacre has frequently criticised newspapers for providing too much information about how some unfortunate person has committed suicide because he feels it can act as an instruction manual for others. I can see that argument but you can’t expect to prevent all suicides simply by withholding information.

Conium maculatum, poison hemlock

Conium maculatum, poison hemlock

I can’t remember where I saw it, but I recently read a report suggesting that the measures to limit the number of over the counter painkillers sold in one transaction are rendered meaningless because many people have stocks at home exceeding that amount and could, therefore, take a potentially fatal overdose without even needing to make multiple purchases from different outlets.

In a similar way, there is no point in me withholding details about a particular plant or plants when there are plenty of other sites offering similar information.

And there is nothing to be gained by lying about what the plants are capable of. I’m always saying that, with drugs education, if you tell lies to young people when trying to prevent them using drugs they will find you out and will ignore all of what you have to say even if some of it is valuable.

So, I try and find the line that runs between giving misinformation by not giving a full enough explanation of a plant’s effects and providing a guide for the desperate. I doubt if I always find that line perfectly and that troubles me. 


1.The dangers of poison hemlock in San Juan County Islands Weekly 22nd June 2012
2.Officials warn about hemlock dangers Messenger Index 20th June 2012
3.Hemlock Society The Times of India 24th June 2012  

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