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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 16th January 2012

I could never be a librarian. I’m just not methodical enough. My own library is roughly divided into subject areas – murder, psychoactives, herbals, folklore – but the books are not in A to Z order. A similar situation arises with my hard drive where I give files names that suggest what they may be about but don’t always succeed in keeping things in the right folders.

My philosophy is that it will take me less time to have to search around for a specific piece of information than to organise my records so that every possible piece of information is instantly available. And that seems to work.

For example, I received an email from someone wanting to know more about the number of poisoning cases due to Arum maculatum, cuckoopint, that I mention on the A to Z page. I had to do quite a bit of scrambling around but, in about ten minutes, I did find my source for those numbers and was able to respond to the enquiry.

I’m not writing about this just for a ‘good for me’ moment. My lack of order means that I don’t know whether the rest of today’s piece is total nonsense.

I have a friend who is meticulous about writing down what happens in her garden on a calendar. This means she knows when she planted every seed, took every cutting, when and how much produce she harvested, etc. If I were more like her I would know whether what I saw was, truly, unusual.

We restarted our Monday morning walks, last week, and went up to St Abbs Head on the Berwickshire coast. It was a very bright day, though quite windy and the low sun cast dramatic shadows across the grass and onto the cliff edges.

St Abbs Head, Berwickshire

But down in the car park, I spotted two things that surprised me; a clump of Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop, just opening their blooms and a couple of small, new leaves on a Heracleum sphondylium, cow parsnip, the much less dangerous relative of Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed.

Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop,


Snowdrop, like the other spring bulbs causes gastrointestinal upset if ingested so, when it is growing in the ground and producing flowers, it is at its least harmful in the spring. Folklore says that snowdrops flower on Candlemass Day, that is 2nd February, so the ones I saw are, probably, quite early.

As further evidence of the strange results of the unusual weather in recent months, I’ve got new roses in bloom. I’m not really sure whether they are very late for last year or very early for this but I suspect the former.

When I wrote about the death of a Chinese chef and a kitchen assistant due to Amanita phalloides poisoning, I wondered if it occurred because the chef was away from his native area and didn’t realise his foraging skills would not work in a different country. I could easily fall into the over-dramatisation that I often complain about by inferring that having plants growing out of their normal time would cause deadly problems, but I won’t.

Rather I’ll conclude that these untimely sights simply demonstrate that nobody told nature the rules so it is very foolish to be dogmatic about what plants do and don’t do.