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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

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Friday 29th June 2012

A new paper1 about ricin, the toxin found in Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant, made me chuckle initially and then laugh out loud.

The chuckle was because the authors had, as always happens, begun by stating ‘Ricin is reported to be a bioterrorism agent’. If you follow the link, above, to the plant page, you’ll see a long list of blog entries about ricin most of which explain that ricin has never been a bioterrorism weapon though it was, once, used as a murder weapon...more

Wednesday 27th June 2012

Please tell me if this is getting tedious.

Another visit to Edinburgh. Another photo-blog of thriving Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed...more

Tuesday 26th June 2012

I’m conducting an experiment today. I’m going to try a sort of live-blogging about World Drug Day. That is, I’m trying a sort of pseudo-live blogging because I’m going to be writing throughout the day but only posting the finished piece.

What led to me trying this was the lack of Google News results for ‘world drug day’ at 0830 GMT. During the course of today there will be a number of documents released and a number of press conferences and statements so I thought it might be interesting to see if media attention grows...more

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...more

Saturday 23rd June 2012

It is 100 years ago today that Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician credited with playing a major role in UK code-breaking during World War II and making significant contributions to the development of computers, was born.

Unsurprisingly, this event has been widely marked, not least, because he didn’t receive the appreciation he deserved either during his life or after his early death at the age of 41. There are a number of meetings and conferences around today in several places in the UK as well as in India and the USA plus other foreign countries...more

Friday 22nd June 2012

Imagine your boss told you he needed you to make a trip to Iran’s capital, Tehran. What sort of things would you worry about before you went? You’d want to make sure all your paperwork was in order wouldn’t you so you didn’t get any problems at the airport or if stopped on the street during your stay?

You might want to read up a bit about the versions of the Muslim religion to be found there and how to avoid giving anyone offence as a result of your ignorance. You’d probably have a thorough check through the hard drive on the office laptop to make sure it contained nothing that might be misunderstood. And you’d have to decide between deleting most of the books on your Kindle, in case they were on some banned list you didn’t know about, or leaving it behind...more

Thursday 21st June 2012

The summer solstice is a significant event for quite a lot of people. I suppose for early humans the increasing length of the days must have been a cause for concern until it was realised that this was a cyclic process and that the earth was not going to end up constantly bathed in light. It is not surprise that a great deal of myth surrounds the event and many of those myths have a plant dimension, like believing a plant is at its strongest on the longest day.

But for me, this year, the significance of the summer solstice is that I’ve been able to look out at the truly awful weather for longer than on any other day...more

Tuesday 19th June 2012

I’ve written a number of times about apparently separate stories that, in my mind at least, come together to make a single point and it has happened again today.

This morning the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) heard evidence from Prof. David Nutt and Dr. Les King of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD) and, then, Dr Les Iversen (Chair, Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), Professor Ray Hill, and Annette Dale-Perera, ACMD members...more

Monday 18th June 2012

Another amazingly poor piece about Catha edulis, khat, appeared on Saturday evening on the Mail Online. The headline;

‘This is khat: The natural high available on British streets...and suspected of funding terrorism1

is, as you would expect extremely misleading but I’ll leave that to one side and focus on what the writer has to say...more

Sunday 17th June 2012

The Cuban Missile Crisis took place just after the start of my second year in high school. I remember it because our English teacher, a former British ambassador to Russia, decided to get us to debate the issues. That meant having someone speak from either side of the situation and I was chosen to present the case for Russia’s deployment of missiles close to the USA and argue that the USA should stop its interference in the affairs of an independent country, Cuba.

It was very interesting trying to find points to present that went against my inclination to think that the USSR was very much at fault and that all of the right lay with the USA...more

Friday 15th June 2012

Many, many years ago, the 'agony aunt' of a woman's magazine began her column with 'I'm sorry to return to premature ejaculation so soon but my postbag was absolutely full of it'.

I suppose returning to Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, in just under a month counts as pretty soon but the truth is Edinburgh is absolutely full of it...more

Tuesday 12th June 2012


Without being immodest, I have often been complimented on the light-hearted way I write about poisonous plants and psychoactive substances. Those compliments have been applied to the A to Z section of this site, this blog and my book ‘Is That Cat Dead?’

Just for a bit of fun, I tried samples from each of those three at ‘I Write Like’ and was surprised to find all three returned the same modern, humorous American novelist. So it seems that computer software agrees with real people that I treat my subjects with a good measure of levity.

But not today...more

Saturday 9th June 2012

The term ‘medical marijuana’ has been in the news in the USA, again. It is not a term I’m fond of for reasons I’ll deal with, later. I’ve been trying to find out who first used it and why but, for once, the Internet has failed me.

It is fairly obvious that it would have been coined by those wanting to suggest that it was being used for a different purpose to that normally associated with Cannabis sativa. But, what I can only surmise is that part of that need for separation was the underlying racism of the prohibitionists...more

Friday 8th June 2012

I’m a really poor gardener. And, I hope, I’m also stupid. I’ve written before about my lack of ability when it comes to actual gardening but there is a big difference between having an opinion of oneself and having that opinion confirmed independently.

As I wrote, a month ago, of the eight Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, seeds that germinated, only two produced leaves and looked like being suitable for planting out. That turned out to be the case and, just before the end of May I planted the two survivors out into a newly prepared area of the garden...more

Thursday 7th June 2012

It’s not about what you have to say. It is about how loud you are able to say it and how much the people listening want to hear you. A day after writing about the British Lung Foundation (BLF) report ‘The impact of cannabis on your lungs’ I came across an altogether more worthwhile document on the subject.

I’ll come back to that but, first, I’d like to thank all those people who retweeted my blog announcement. It made it the second most accessed piece of writing I’ve ever done (This piece about Peter Hitchens being the first) and showed me how the ‘network’ part of Twitter works. People who follow people who follow people who follow me found out about it..more

Wednesday 6th June 2012

Earlier this week, I wrote about the problem of Chinese whispers in scientific papers. That is the difference between what the media says, what the press release says, what the abstract says and what the paper itself says.

Today, I came across another similar situation but with the added complication of the ‘paper’ not really being that, i.e. it is a non-peer reviewed report that looks like a paper, plus internal inconsistency about what it has to say and a difference, in some instances, between the document's claims and what the references used to support that claim say....more

Tuesday 5th June 2012

An email from Dr *****, in Germany, tells me that he wrote his PhD about thujone and asks if I was aware that Thuja occidentalis, white cedar, also produces thujone. The essential oil is reported to contain up to 80% thujone so you have to wonder why, when oil of wormwood from Artemisia absinthium is said to contain 40-60% thujone there is much less information about the former.

I did a quick search of a database of research papers and found that the keywords ‘Thuja’ and ‘toxicity’ produced six results but ‘Artemisia’ and ‘toxicity’ gave 99 documents...more

Monday 4th June 2012

“’ere, you know that Laughing Cavalier painting. Why is he laughing? Is he on something?” To which the answer is, yes, he’s on cannabis. Cannabis sativa, marijuana, is also hemp and hemp fibre used to be used to make the material painter’s used for their work. The word ‘canvas’ is derived from the Dutch ‘canefas’ meaning made of cannabis.

A small comment in a story from Russia set me thinking about the other uses of the cannabis plant..more

Sunday 3rd June 2012

When I started out, yesterday, by writing about the Jim Clark Rally I did so with the intention of showing some photos of the beauty around at the moment; beauty that usually comes with a large measure of peace and quiet but not this weekend.

But then I got side-tracked into considering who should say what risks we can take and which should be discouraged/banned...more

Saturday 2nd June 2012

The Jim Clark Rally started yesterday and continues throughout the weekend. It is, apparently, the only closed road rally in the UK. ‘Closed road’ means that the rally stages run over what would normally be public highways but, for the duration of the stage concerned, that road is no longer available to the public and the laws about driving speed and style do not apply.

Though the organisers mount a very large operation to minimise the risks involved there have been incidents where participants have been injured in crashes. Though much less often, there have also been incidents where spectators have been struck by a competitor’s car. And, yesterday, there was, probably, a first when a spectator went into labour and the rally had to be delayed to allow an ambulance to reach her...more

Friday 1st June 2012

And so the experiment comes to an end. This is my 366th blog entry meaning, since 2012 is a leap year, that I have written something every day for a full year.

I started, on 2nd June 2011, because I’d just given my last talk of the season and wanted to have something to keep my mind on poison plants. I decided that I should try and see if I could find something to write about, daily, though I didn’t set out with the intention of doing so for a full year...more


Full Entries


Tuesday 25th October 2016
Saturday 20th August 2016
Sunday 6th March 2016
Wednesday 3rd February 2016


Saturday 28th November 2015
Friday 27th November 2015
Monday 17th August 2015
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Friday 26th June 2015
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Saturday 28th February 2015
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November 2014

Monday 24th November 2014
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October 2014

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Wednesday 24th September 2014
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Tuesday 26th August 2014
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Sunday 13th April 2014
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March 2014

Monday 31st March 2014
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February 2014

Thursday 27th February 2014
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Thursday 28th January 2014
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December 2013

Monday 23rd December 2013
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November 2013

Friday 29th November 2013
Wednesday 27th November 2013
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Thursday 31st October 2013
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