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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 4th July 2011

There used to be a season for strawberries. It was a clear sign of the start of summer when mum bought the first small punnet of strawberries to be shared between the four of us. We knew that, in a good year, there would be a time, just a few weeks ahead, when they were so plentiful and so cheap that we’d have as many as we could possibly want. Now, assisted growing techniques, and airfreight, mean that strawberries are an all year round items and some magic has gone out of life.

There used to be a ‘silly season’ for newspapers. Once parliament had risen for the summer and families were off on holiday, the papers didn’t have so many heavy stories and, anyway, assumed their readers didn’t want too much heavy stuff. So, the papers were filled with more light-hearted stories often with only a passing acquaintance with the truth.

Then, along came multi-channel television, the Internet, instant text updates and all the other electronic delivery methods and most people didn’t expect their newspapers to have ‘news’, that is items they hadn’t heard about before. The papers’ response to this has been to try and find ways to cover events that don’t fit the online or digital TV model. This has made it silly season every day.

But, there remains one area where, for purely botanical reasons, a ‘silly season’ story can only happen during the ‘silly season’. Headlines such as ‘Poison arrow plant found in British garden’ or ‘Plant used for poisonous Amazonian arrowheads found in English garden’ or ‘Devil's weed in my geraniums!’ (all genuine headlines from 2010) could only appear when the plant concerned, Datura stramonium, jimsonweed, was in full growth during the summer months.

Datura stramonium, jimsonweed

The papers love it when a story spawns other stories; it makes their work so much easier. The third headline I quoted was over the story of a man who had read a piece about Datura stramonium in someone’s garden and realised that the unknown plant he’d left to see what it became was also jimsonweed.

In my own area, a holidaying couple found the plant growing in the garden of their self-catering accommodation and contacted the local paper. A reporter rang me, hoping to get some juicy quotes about the danger, and was, I think, rather disappointed when I blew cold logic onto his half-written piece.

There are, at least, two major flaws with the stories about jimsonweed. The first is that it is not the rare invader the stories always claim. Every year many thousands of people find they have it growing in their gardens and, because they didn’t plant it, it gets pulled out when only a few inches high and put on the compost.

And the second flaw is the idea that simply by being there it is dangerous. Poisoning by jimsonweed, though the press tends to favour its less well-known names like devil’s trumpet or devil’s weed, occurs due to ingestion, mostly intentional in the hope of experiencing its hallucinogenic properties. There are very few people whose reaction to an unknown plant springing up in their garden would be ‘I must eat that’. Most of the stories about it say that the gardener knew it was something different and left it to grow to see what it would become making the chance of accidentally eating it even more unlikely.

Of course, there is a small core of truth at the heart of the reporting. Poisoning by Datura stramonium does occur and, in around one third of all cases, death is the result. But, these are people who know what the plant is and believe they can obtain its psychoactive properties without long-term ill effects. They won’t make that mistake again.

It was actually a surprise to find that this year’s first ‘evil plant in garden’ story headlined ‘Toxic plant found in Cleckheaton’ was not about Datura stramonium but the rather more worrying Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed. I say ‘more worrying’ because disposal of the jimsonweed is simply a matter of pulling it up and throwing it onto the compost. With giant hogweed, you need to take very careful precautions to make sure your skin doesn’t come into any contact with it and you need to dispose of it in such a way that no-one else will unknowingly touch it.

Even worse, if you find that, at some point, giant hogweed seeds have been deposited in the ground you have a long-term problem. Either you spend many years carefully removing young plants as soon as they appear and making sure that no new seed enters the area or you bring in a specialist contractor to remove all the topsoil and replace it with hogweed free material. One man who took this second route told me that to clear an area about the size of a squash court cost him £20,000 including a guarantee that the plant would not return.

In Cleakheaton, it seems, the plant has appeared in an open area so the cost of removal and disposal will fall on the local authority as it already does in many parts of the UK. With budgets tight, it might be that the local council don’t place a high priority on control of this plant but that would be simply creating a much more expensive problem for the future.

Incidentally, if you do find you’ve got Datura stramonium in the garden you’ll probably find your local paper is happy to give you your fifteen minutes of fame but you might be better just enjoying the beauty of its flowers.