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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 3rd January 2012

It often seems to me that many arguments could be settled very quickly if only one or other of the disputants said ‘That may be what you heard but it is not what I said’. People place their own interpretation on what is being said to them, often without realising it, and draw completely the wrong conclusion about what the other party meant.

It happens in politics all the time, though often it is deliberate misunderstanding in order to try and make a political opponent look bad. In the last couple of days, papers from 30 years ago appear to show the then Conservative government in a bad light but, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time has tried to explain, this results from putting a meaning on the contentious statement that was not intended.

Last week, 24th Dec, I wrote about the discovery that bracelets being sold by the Eden Project and numerous other retailers had been made using seeds from Abrus precatorius, rosary pea, a highly toxic plant containing abrin a substance that is, theoretically, much more toxic than ricin from Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant.

Abrus precatorius, rosary pea

Abrus precatorius, rosary pea

I started this website because I knew that visitors to the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden wanted more information about the plants they saw on their visits than they could get during their tours so the initial plant list very closely matched those in the garden at Alnwick.

I said, at the time, that I would expand the number of plants but I didn’t want to add plants just by doing a ‘cut and paste’ job from other information sources. For that reason, I’ve only added new plants when I’ve found myself becoming familiar enough with them to feel that I could add a new page.

For example, during the summer, when the controversy over Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort, was raging I came across a story of a horse dying after eating a large quantity of horse chestnuts and I added a page about Aesculus hippocastanum.

So, after reading about Abrus precatorius in my reference library and seeing many of the online stories about it, I decided to add a page to the A to Z section pointing out that, though the toxicity of abrin was undisputed, the actual number of proven poisoning incidents is very small. The idea that the workers who make jewellery using the seeds suffer poisoning as a result of piercing the seeds to thread them onto a necklace or bracelet is widespread but there are no reliable case reports.

Overall, I wrote the page to show that there is no cause for hysteria over the potential for harm arising from abrin and to show how developments in medical treatment have reduced the effectiveness of abrin.

This brings us to the difference between what I wrote and what was read. I was very pleased to see that someone, in an online forum thread about the Eden Project bracelets, had provided a link to my newly created page.

But I was bemused to see that a later poster had followed the link and reported that it showed how serious a threat Abrus precatorius posed because it was ‘top of the list of all the poisonous plants on that site’.

I don’t know of any genus of plants whose name begins ‘aa’ or even ‘abc’ and, until I find one, Abrus precatorius will remain at the ‘top of the list’ given that the list is alphabetical.