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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 5th August 2011

Hooray for the people who take the time to add comments to Daily Mail stories! I should put my hands up and admit to a degree of hypocrisy here because, until today, I would have said that commenters mostly display a complete lack of sense by falling for the nonsense in the item under consideration.

Today, however, they have, for the most part, pointed out the glaring errors in the report and then gone on to question the basis of the report itself. And all because of a few Aconitum napellus plants in Cumbria.

I picked up this story, yesterday, from the Westmorland Gazette  but, foolishly as it turns out, I thought it was nothing of interest. My mistake was in forgetting that this is the height of the ‘silly season’ and those few journalists who aren’t away on a beach somewhere are very happy to be able to promote a small local story to national prominence, as long as they don’t have to do any research.

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

Anyone who hasn’t seen the story will, by now, be wondering what on earth I’m on about. A local botanist, out walking in a park in Kendal, Cumbria, spotted a few Aconitum napellus, monkshood, growing in a flowerbed and, for reasons unknown, decided to raise Cain with the local authority responsible for the park. Now, I don’t know Mr Thomas Gudgeon’s background and training, and for that matter I’m naturally suspicious of whether he actually said what was attributed to him, but he is reported as saying “Natives of the Amazon jungle dip their arrows in the plant to kill monkeys in the trees”. They may do this, if that is they want to undertake a roundtrip of several thousand miles to go somewhere where Aconitum plants actually grow.

The local paper, as is the way of local papers, did not trouble to check this or any other part of the story but when off to a variety of experts and took quotes from them to suit their theme, which I take to be that the local council is run by idiots. One of them, a local vet, helpfully commented that he wouldn’t ‘have it anywhere near where children play’.

The Daily Mail took the story and, with the help of this quote changed the Westmorland Gazette’s ‘near a park where children play in Kendal’ into ‘in a children’s park’. But a careful read of the whole piece shows that the exact site of the plants is unspecified and that the park contains a bowling green, a croquet lawn, a museum and art gallery; all places where, of course, you would expect to find children in their hundreds.

These days, it seems, no-one in government, local or national, is willing to stand up and argue against criticism so the council apologised for the ‘error’ in planting and swiftly removed the offending items. This was, clearly, the time for a Jerry Maguire test because there are no recent cases of accidental poisoning from monkshood and there is no reason for anyone to ingest the plant if they just come across it.

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

Perhaps feeling that the original did not have quite enough scariness for Daily Mail readers, the report is embellished with talk of numbness up to the shoulder just from touching the plant. It adds a little ‘fact’ box containing such gems as that ‘ancient folklore’ says that smelling it turns you into a werewolf and that it appears in Harry Potter.

Then the Mail quotes the same vet as the Westmorland Gazette but adds to the quote a line about children kicking a ball into a flower bed or falling over. Obviously, I can’t say that the Mail didn’t contact the vet to get that extra detail but it seems like too juicy a line for the Westmorland Gazette to have omitted. Strangely, the Mail chose not to include his quote that “Cases are uncommon because people don’t grow it”. I’d disagree with that second part because I see plenty of Aconitum napellus in gardens and the open but the first half is certainly true.

The Mail piece ends with exactly the quote from the local council that appears in the Westmorland Gazette but, being the Mail, it can’t resist adding ‘In a statement, SLDC [South Lakeland District Council] refused to say whether it had planted the flower elsewhere in the area’. I think we can assume that ‘refused to say’ in this context means ‘didn’t answer a question no-one had asked’.

And then the commenters take over. And bless them, well most of them, because they sneer at the idea that Aconitums come from South America, they point out all the other poisonous plants that are in parks and gardens, they mention other hazards like the traffic encountered on the way to and from the park, they say there is no reason for children to eat any part of the plant and they mock the idea that simple contact causes paralysis up to the shoulder.

I said ‘most of them’. There is one comment from someone who takes Aconitum as a homeopathic remedy but the deluded condition of users of homeopathy is a subject for another day.


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