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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 27th July 2011

I knew when I decided to try writing a daily blog that there would be quite a lot of repetition, at least of the plants if not the actual stories about them. After all, the A to Z section of this site has 87 pages so, even if I wrote about each in rotation I’d end up back at the start in under three months.

As it is, of course, some plants demand more attention than others and that is why, as a result of two sites and a sight, I’m returning to Senecio jacobaea, ragwort.

The two sites came up as part of my Google alert for ragwort, this morning. One was a thread from a forum and the other the online version of an article from a local newspaper.

The forum was another one of those for ‘horse-lovers’ and involved an hysterical rant from a number of contributors about ragwort seen in fields. You may have noticed that I put ‘horse-lovers’ in quote marks. That is because, it seems to me, if these people truly loved horses they would take the time to read about issues surrounding their well-being and stop reciting rubbish. This thread, in addition to all the usual nonsense about how it should be removed wherever it appears and an admission of criminal behaviour, that is removing a wild plant without the permission of the landowner, had one poster who said she had stopped buying British honey because bees pollinate ragwort.

I wonder if someone will tell her that there are poisonous plants in countries other than Britain and giving up British honey is not a sure way to avoid toxins. (Actually, the way to avoid toxins is to only eat honey that is nice to eat. As I mentioned on 28th June, honey with enough ragwort toxins in it to be potentially harmful is unpalatable.)

The newspaper article was written by someone who, it seems, is a member of a horticultural society. That’s no guarantee of anything because the article said that ragwort was a foreign plant, said the taste was bitter and said that gloves should be worn when pulling it because of the poisons.

Senecio jacobaea, ragwort with cattle

There’s little point in attempting to convince the horsey sort that their knowledge of ragwort is flawed but I will just set the local paper straight. Senecio jacobaea is a native plant to the UK not an immigrant. The taste is sour rather than bitter and sour is much more discouraging that bitter. I do try to be sure of what I write so, this afternoon, I took advantage of the excellent weather to take a walk out into nearby fields and have another taste. And sour is definitely the taste. Anyone who has tasted Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade, knows what bitter tastes like and it isn’t ragwort.

And pulling by hand without gloves does not expose you to risk from the pyrrolizidine alkaloids that cause liver failure. If you do a lot of pulling you may get mechanical damage to the hands leading to soreness and, if you are sensitive, you may get contact dermatitis from other chemicals found in many plants but you won’t get poisoned, unless you already have a seriously impaired liver.

Incidentally, I haven’t given links to the two sites concerned because I don’t mean to pick on this small group of individuals. There is plenty of misinformation about Senecio jacobaea on the Internet and in print and my concern is with all of them not just these two.

And the sight that led me to write this entry? The picture above showing cattle happily in a field next to a large clump of ragwort. Here’s where common sense comes into the story. I’ve heard people say that farmers are too money-driven to be prepared to spend on removing ragwort from their fields. Farmers may well be driven by financial return but, common sense should tell anyone, that they would not risk losing their investment in the cattle concerned if Senecio jacobaea growing in a field with plenty of quality grazing were actually a threat.


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