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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 4th August 2011

I’ve added a page about the Delphinium genus to the A to Z section of this site. There’s not a lot to say about these very attractive plants but I came across an ‘Is this poisonous?’ question on a gardening forum and thought I’d add it.

When I started this site, I focussed on the plants I’d studied during the years I was involved with the Alnwick Garden but I said, from the start, that I would add new ones from time to time.

I have, in fact, added a small number but mostly because they have relevance to one of the plants already on the site. So, for example, I added Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite, because I came across a number of instances where the properties of Aconitum napellus were attributed to this totally unrelated spring flower.

I added Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut, because there was a lot of misinformation about it with people assuming that the trees they saw being felled were because ‘’elf ‘n’ safety’ had decreed that children should be prevented from playing ‘conkers’.

There is a problem with adding plants that you may notice on the horse chestnut page, though not with the winter aconite. Although I don’t claim that they are good enough to allow identification, I do like to show at least one picture of the plant under discussion. That’s, largely, because pictures help to break up the text. People, in general, are put off by large blocks of text and may leave a page rather than undertake the arduous task of reading all of it.

With one exception, every picture on this site was taken by me so that I am sure that there is no problem with copyright infringement. I fully accept that putting any picture on a website is inviting someone to use it as their own but I try very hard not to ‘steal’ someone else’s work. When I add a new page, therefore, I hope to be able to have a photograph or two of the plant concerned.

The problem with getting plant photographs is that plants have an annual cycle so if, as I have with the delphinium, you miss the flowering stage you’ve got a long wait before the next ‘Kodak moment’ comes along. Actually, if you’re a really keen gardener you can get delphiniums to produce a second flowering so, if I can find one such, I may be able to get some pictures this year. With the horse chestnut, it’s really just a tree until the fruit forms so I’ll have to wait until the autumn for that.

It’s one of the reasons I’ve tended to stick to plants that grow readily in northern Europe. There are a great many poisonous plants found only in South America or Asia or Australasia and some of them have fascinating stories but I have no chance of getting a picture of them.

Of course, the plants on this site aren’t exclusively from British gardens. The Erythroxylum coca, Cannabis sativa and Catha edulis are three obvious exceptions but even something like Mandragora officinarum struggles to be at its best this far north.

I could make another trip to the Chelsea Physic Garden to see some of the more exotic types that manage to flourish in that microclimate next to the Thames. My last visit was memorable but, probably, not for the right reasons. Perhaps I’ll write about it, here, one day.


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