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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 13th June 2011

If you go down in the woods today…

I used to be able to state that every Monday I went walking with a group of friends. Time has, however, taken its toll with some feeling they are too old to go out at all and others suffering the occasionally illness or injury that prevents them walking any distance. In addition, we’ve all become less tolerant of bad weather and we’ll call off a walk rather than put on the waterproofs.

Those walks were, generally, focussed around some high point in the area and, at times, we’ve walked most of the day covering eight or more miles and attaining the peak of some notable landmarks. Together with a decrease in frequency there has been a reduction in ambition and, these days, we’re more likely to do a coastal walk or one involving only gentle slopes of hills.

So, it is now truer to state that sometimes on a Monday morning I walk with a group of friends before finding a suitable café for a light lunch. Yesterday, because of a number of the group being away or otherwise occupied, five of us went for a stroll around the Hirsel, the estate of former Prime Minister, Alec Douglas Home.

There’s a variety of paths offering a choice of distances and terrain. Yesterday we went around the lake, through the rhododendrons and then around some of the woods on the edge of the estate before crossing the golf course and returning to the car park.

So, an easy and interesting walk with a variety of things to look at. The day was cool and overcast with the odd shower and, being term-time, there weren’t many families around. We did, though, see a number of people walking their dogs and there was a school party in the estate complex but I don’t think that, on this occasion, they were going out walking.

Conium maculatum

So, a typical large estate with plenty of public access and plenty of people, in good weather, who make use of that access.

What then to think when we passed a large clump of Conium maculatum, poison hemlock, growing at the side of the path? At this point, I was at the back of the group and my colleagues passed it without noticing it. Two are very keen gardeners and one is a farmer’s daughter so they could be expected to recognize it but, in amongst the other wild plants, it didn’t stand out enough to divert them from their discussions of the latest village activities. I actually agree that talking about the plans for the ‘Help the Heroes’ fundraiser being held in 12 days was a reasonable excuse for not concentrating on every plant we passed.

Conium maculatum

Conium maculatum is, without doubt, a very toxic plant. Occasionally, that should really be ‘very rarely’, it has caused deaths when people have harvested it thinking it to be wild celery or thinking the roots are parsnips. In general, however, people are put off by the mousey smell it gives off though, in yesterday’s cool weather, that smell was not evident. Plus, of course, hardly anyone would consider foraging for wild food when walking on a private estate.

So, should the landowner be expected to check every path and remove any poisonous plant from within the range of walkers? Or, can it be assumed that people won’t start munching on the vegetation in sufficient quantity to make themselves ill? I’ll make a return visit in a week or so because it was about to flower and I’ll spend more time getting pictures and video of the plants. I’ll know, then, if the estate staff have removed the plants or left them be.

Last year, I saw quite a lot of poison hemlock growing on the banks of the River Tweed but, when I returned to get some pictures of it in flower, it had been dug out. That was on a stretch of prime salmon fishing, however, so I suspect the estate were concerned about their high-paying guests who might not have any idea of what grows in the big outdoors.