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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 10th November 2011

My talk yesterday evening was to a garden group from a small nearby village. I nearly wrote a small village garden group but I thought you might conclude the group was small rather than the village. In fact, considering how small the village is the garden group is thriving and there were quite a few more people there tonight that when I spoke to them at this time last year.

Sometimes, the smaller audiences are better because everybody knows everybody and that seems to make them less shy about sharing their own experiences. I thought I’d write about some of the stories I picked up.

I’ve actually spoken to this group twice before so they’ve heard ‘Lethal Lovelies’ and ‘Medical Murderers’ and though I wouldn’t expect them to remember every story I thought I’d turn to the more local ‘Poisonous Plants in Berwickshire’ and try and bring in as many of the stories I’ve heard in the past twelve months as possible.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

One of those was more dramatic than I intended because my finger slipped on the remote control for the projector and an image appeared that I normally warn people about before I show it. I’d been talking about Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, and moved onto the infrequent occurrences of skin burns resulting from contact with Pastinaca sativa, parsnip.

On the plant page for the parsnip I have some photos sent to me by a woman who made the mistake of handling parsnip tops in very bright sunlight. I’ve reproduced one of them further down this page. This was the picture I clicked onto before giving my customary warning about an unpleasant image and, given the reaction of the audience, I think I may not issue any warnings in future.

It prompted one woman to say that she’d had a similar experience, in 2009 she thought, when she removed some parsnips that had run to seed in their second year after not being harvested. Though she was wearing a long-sleeved top, she didn’t wear gloves and the next morning the backs of her hands were beginning to burn. Later that day, large blisters began to appear and, because she was visiting her mother, she could not get to a doctor until later in the afternoon. (It sounds as though she should have gone to A & E but I think she didn’t want to make a fuss.)

Interestingly, she has not had any repetition of the burning, which is generally seen with giant hogweed. It is not possible to know if Pastinaca sativa doesn’t give this repetitive burning or whether it’s just that the two summers since have been poor in the extreme.

I spoke about Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort, and I think someone was preparing to claim it was a killer of many, many horses so I was pleased I’d decided to talk about the FOI request I made that contradicted Prof Knottenbelt’s claims. See the blog entry for 11th October. Also, another audience member said that she kept horses and knew that they didn’t like living ragwort. She said that she’d seen plenty of horses in pasture with ragwort in it but never seen them eating it or seen any indication that plants had been grazed.

Before the talk started, the organiser told me that a different village group had recently had a talk from a woman who spent a year living as close as possible to an 18th century lifestyle. She’d grown only vegetables known at the time and supplemented her diet with foraging. So, with that in mind I told them the story of Will (14th October) and his encounter with Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort, not to deter anyone from foraging but just to make them aware of the need to be sure of what you’re picking.

Burns from Pastinaca sativa, parsnip

Burns from Pastinaca sativa, parsnip

When I was talking about Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, someone made the not uncommon comment about the attack on the Tokyo subway and I explained that, somehow, parts of the media had confused ricin with sarin, a nerve gas, and erroneous reports still appear wrongly blaming ricin. (Another example of how useful it might be to rewrite history?) After the talk a man told me he had been working in Tokyo at the time and had been assigned a Japanese assistant for translation and secretarial work. Because they'd had a very busy time, he told her to take the following morning off and, as a result, she was not on the train that was attacked. Small unimportant choices can have very long-lasting effects.

I finished by showing some footage of a Cannabis sativa plant growing in a front garden in another local village and was told by someone that, when she lived in California, she had a plant growing in her garden until a friend saw it and told her what it was. She asked her friend how she knew about it to which the reply was ‘I have three teenage sons’.

It was Wednesday afternoon when I heard from my publisher that the Kindle version of ‘Is that Cat Dead? – and other questions about poison plants’ was now available and I’d already transferred my presentation to the laptop but I decided to change the slide that shows the book cover and I’m glad I did because a couple of people asked about that format.