THE POISON GARDEN website      Arum maculatum berries on a Cannabis leaf 


This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 3rd April 2014

A small puzzle. What caused the skin blistering on an estimated 30 Royal Marines following an exercise on an Albanian island?

I’m afraid the story starts with a Mail Online piece so there needs to be a bit of de-sensationalising to get to an idea of what happened. The headline says the men became ‘violently ill’ with the sub-heads saying they ‘needed urgent medical attention’ and were ‘in agony’. Those same comments appear in the first three paragraphs.

I started by trying to establish how credible the ’30 Royal Marines poisoned’ claim was by finding out what proportion of the total force that would be. I couldn’t find any information on the size of 42 Commando, the troops involved, but I did find another report of the incident from the Plymouth Herald with a rather more restrained headline saying ‘20 Plymouth Royal Marines suffer skin blistering after training at Soviet chemical weapons base’ That same report stated that 200 troops were involved in the exercise so 20 to 30 sounds credible.

Let’s dispense with any thoughts of ‘violent’ illness and ‘agony’. The ‘urgent medical attention’ might suggest that symptoms developed quickly but the Plymouth Herald report says that it took about 24 hours for small lumps to come up on the skin. There is reference to ‘puss’ but, of course, that could be the result of scratching and getting an infection rather than the primary source of the skin irritation.

Because the exercise took place on an island that is home to a former Soviet base, the Mail asks if mustard gas might be responsible. The Ministry of Defence, however, is reported to have said it was giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). That’s not an official quote from the MoD. It’s ‘a military source’ saying ‘We were later told about this giant hogweed’.

Actually, there are no official comments until the very end of the articles when the MoD is quoted saying it was aware of ‘short-term illness’ suffered by ‘a number of personnel’. Everything else is from ‘a source’ or a ‘marine’. The reliability of such statements has to be doubted especially when ‘Another marine’ is quoted saying “We had all been covered up. There was no skin showing, we all wore gloves and were covered.” I’ll talk more about what the available images show later but, for now, I’ll just note that every picture shows troops with bare hands and, given that it is reported that some of the men had been on the island for a few weeks, the idea of being completely covered all the time is clearly wrong.

So, was it giant hogweed that caused these problems? There are three points that suggest that is unlikely. First, giant hogweed is a plant of the north. I haven’t heard of it being found in the Mediterranean or Adriatic. Second, the exercise was in September. In the UK, giant hogweed has set its seed by late July and completely dried up by early September as these pictures show.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

Seeds already formed on giant hogweed. Picture taken 24th July 2009

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

Plant completely dried up. Picture taken 3rd September 2012

In a warmer climate, if it grows at all, it would be finished even earlier. And, third, there is no indication of long-term harm. It’s true we haven’t had a lot of sunny weather since then but absence of any repeat burning or permanent discoloration of the skin doesn’t help giant hogweed’s case.

But it is the pictures that are of interest. There are plenty to choose from. There are about 30 on this Pinterest page and more on the Military Photos site None of these show any plants that can be giant hogweed. The Plymouth Herald story I linked to above has a photo gallery and the sixth (and last) image shows three soldiers beside a derelict building. In front of them is an out of focus plant so a full identification isn’t possible but I think there’s a pretty high likelihood that it comes from the Euphorbia genus.

All Euphorbias contain an irritant latex that can result in skin irritation much more like the ‘little lumps’ described.

Though there is no way to be sure, I’d say Euphorbia is a more credible candidate than giant hogweed. It may be that the plant in this picture that has some slight resemblance to giant hogweed led to what I’m sure is a misattribution of the blame for this minor incident that wouldn’t have made it to the media at all unless there was the most tenuous of links to World War I chemical weapons.


Full Entries


Tuesday 25th October 2016
Saturday 20th August 2016
Sunday 6th March 2016
Wednesday 3rd February 2016


Saturday 28th November 2015
Friday 27th November 2015
Monday 17th August 2015
Wednesday 15th July 2015
Friday 26th June 2015
Thursday 25th June 2015
Thursday 30th April 2015
Wednesday 29th April 2015
Wednesday 11th March 2015
Tuesday 3rd March 2015
Saturday 28th February 2015
Sunday 22nd February 2015

November 2014

Monday 24th November 2014
Saturday 8th November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

Wednesday 24th September 2014
Monday 1st September 2014

August 2014

Tuesday 26th August 2014
Saturday 16th August 2014
Tuesday 5th August 2014
Friday 1st August 2014

July 2014

Sunday 27th July 2014
Wednesday 23rd July 2014
Sunday 13th July 2014
Sunday 6th July 2014
Tuesday 1st July 2014

June 2014

Wednesday 25th June 2014
Tuesday 24th June 2014
Sunday 22nd June 2014
Monday 9th June 2014
Wednesday 4th June 2014

May 2014

Monday 26th May 2014
Sunday 18th May 2014
Wednesday 14th May 2014

April 2014

Sunday 13th April 2014
Saturday 5th April 2014
Thursday 3rd April 2014
Tuesday 1st April 2014

March 2014

Monday 31st March 2014
Tuesday 25th March 2014
Friday 21st March 2014
Monday 17th March 2014
Sunday 16th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Thursday 6th March 2014
Wednesday 5th March 2014
Saturday 1st March 2014

February 2014

Thursday 27th February 2014
Monday 24th February 2014
Wednesday 19th February 2014
Monday 17th February 2014
Thursday 13th February 2014
Monday 4th February 2014
Monday 3rd February 2014
Saturday 1st February 2014

January 2014

Thursday 28th January 2014
Thursday 23rd January 2014
Friday 17th January 2014
Wednesday 15th January 2014
Monday 13th January 2014
Thursday 9th January 2014
Tuesday 7th January 2014
Wednesday 1st January 2014

December 2013

Monday 23rd December 2013
Friday 20th December 2013
Tuesday 17th December 2013
Friday 14th December 2013
Thursday 12th December 2013
Sunday 8th December 2013
Wednesday 4th December 2013
Sunday 1st December 2013

November 2013

Friday 29th November 2013
Wednesday 27th November 2013
Tuesday 26th November 2013
Friday 22nd November 2013
Monday 18th November 2013
Friday 15th November 2013
Thursday 14th November 2013
Sunday 10th November 2013
Thursday 7th November 2013
Wednesday 6th November 2013
Friday 1st November 2013

October 2013

Thursday 31st October 2013
Sunday 27th October 2013
Wednesday 23rd October 2013
Monday 21st October 2013
Friday 18th October 2013
Friday 11th October 2013
Wednesday 9th October 2013
Tuesday 8th October 2013
Monday 7th October 2013
Tuesday 1st October 2013

September 2013

Monday 30th September 2013
Saturday 28th September 2013
Friday 27th September 2013
Monday 23rd September 2013
Sunday 15th September 2013
Monday 9th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

August 2013

Sunday 8th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

Tuesday 27th August 2013
Sunday 25th August 2013
Monday 19th August 2013
Friday 16th August 2013
Tuesday 13th August 2013
Friday 9th August 2013
Friday 2nd August 2013
Thursday 1st August 2013

July 2013

Saturday 27th July 2013
Sunday 21st July 2013
Wednesday 17th July 2013
Monday 15th July 2013
Saturday 13th July 2013
Friday 12th July 2013
Thursday 11th July 2013
Wednesday 10th July 2013
Tuesday 9th July 2013
Saturday 6th July 2013

June 2013

Friday 28th June 2013
Tuesday 25th June 2013
Friday 21st June 2013
Thursday 20th June 2013
Wednesday 19th June 2013
Saturday 15th June 2013
Sunday 9th June 2013
Saturday 8th June 2013
Saturday 1st June 2013

May 2013

April 2013

March 2013

February 2013

January 2013

December 2012

November 2012

October 2012

September 2012

August 2012

July 2012 blog

June 2012 blog

May 2012 blog

April 2012 blog

March 2012 blog

February 2012 blog

January 2012 blog

December 2011 blog

November 2011 blog

October 2011 blog

September 2011 blog

August 2011 blog

July 2011 blog

June 2011 blog


The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.