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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 31st August 2012

I sleep quite soundly. It wasn’t always like that. When I was regularly flying across continents, I did find it hard to go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning but, for the most part, that’s what happens to me these days. One consequence of this is that I’m not aware of any bad weather during the night and it is only the evidence of that weather, the following morning, that lets me know the fun nature had during the night.

I was thinking this on last Sunday morning as I drove out to the farm where the local cub scouts were having an overnight camp. The many small branches at various points along the road were signs that the strong breeze that had been around when I went to sleep on Saturday evening turned into something much stronger during the night.

I’d been asked to go out to the camp to talk to the cubs about poisonous plants. It was to be a ‘blind’ tour of the immediate area with me hoping to find enough poisonous plants or poisonous plant lookalikes to have something to talk about to seventeen under elevens and their adult leaders. Talking to younger children is not something I do a lot and I don’t always know where to pitch the talk so as to engage interest without either baffling them with scientific concepts or treating them like three year olds. So I was a bit nervous.

I didn’t go camping as a child. In fact, I was in my mid-thirties before I slept under canvas but, since that was with a group of thirty somethings going on twelve, I know how little sleep one gets even in good weather. Under the beating rain driven by high winds I knew my audience would be pretty sleepy and not inclined to listen to an old man talking boring stuff about plants.

But, actually, it went quite well. I began by promising them some yucky stories and got them to agree not to repeat them to any of their number who dropped off to sleep and missed them. Then I pointed out that very few people get seriously harmed by accidentally eating a poisonous plant so they shouldn’t panic about all the poisonous plants all around.

The field we were in had a good supply of Rumex obtusifolius, dock, and they all agreed that there was nothing about its appearance that would tempt them to try eating it. And, after the obligatory ‘Don’t try this at home’ warning, I also said that, even if they were tempted to try it, they would find the taste to be really unpleasant.

We moved on to a nearby stream with a Heracleum sphondylium, hogweed, growing on the banks. I intended to use it to talk about Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, but one of the leaders asked if it was hemlock and that gave me the chance to talk about Conium maculatum, poison hemlock, and Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort.

Because I couldn’t see any in flower, I used a Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup, to ask about any other yellow flowers they’d seen and that got us to Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort. By now they were beginning to get a little fidgety so I talked about berries, even though I hadn’t, at that point, seen any berry-bearing plants and used that to tell them about the ‘grisly demonstration’ used in the 1893 trial of Dr. Robert Buchanan to show how he used the properties of Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, to mask his use of morphine from Papaver somniferum, opium poppy, to murder his second wife. Miming the passing of a dead cat around the trial jury produced the first ‘yuck’ of the day.

The second, and much more widespread ‘yuck’, came with the story of Sir Thomas Stevenson, who tasted a murder victim’s vomit to confirm that Dr Lamson had used an extract from Aconitum napellus, monkshood, to kill his brother-in-law.

I try not to be too preachy, though I probably fail, when talking to children but I did add that Stevenson’s assistant had also tasted the aconitine and was very ill for several hours so it was better to be the scientist rather than the assistant.

On that point, I finished by saying that nobody fully understands how Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb, leaves poison and, sometimes, kill so there is plenty about the world around us still to be discovered.

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