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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 5th August 2014

I got into a bit of a discussion with representatives of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) the other day mostly about plant naming and it came back to my mind after a surge in traffic to this site on Sunday that was due to confusion over plant names.

The RHS has a page on its website about Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, except that it calls it just Senecio jacobaea. My first query was why the internationally agreed name wasn’t shown to which the reply was that Senecio jacobaea is the name used in ‘New Flora of the British Isles’ by Clive Stace and that is the reference document RHS botanists ‘tend to follow’.

I have two problems with that. One is that it fails to appreciate that websites are available worldwide and it is very parochial to use a naming convention that refers only to the British Isles and the other is that, to me, relying on a printed reference work that inevitably goes out of date is rather old fashioned.

Though it may seem cumbersome to some, I always use Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, at least once in any piece dealing with common ragwort.

The bigger problem, however, is that the article says that Senecio jacobaea is the plants ‘Latin name’. The response to my querying this was interesting. It says ‘…our preferred phrase is scientific name but Latin name is widely understood’. I assume this means that the RHS does not have the sort of style guide major publishers usually have because that would tell writers what terms to use. It also seems that ‘preferred’ is not to be taken to mean ‘enforced’ because the article still says ‘Latin name’ days after the reply suggesting this was not the best way to label a plant name.

I also have a problem with the notion that ‘Latin name is widely understood’. For me, the way that ‘Latin name’ is widely understood is that it is the ‘posh’ name for plants that is used by intellectual snobs to show they are more intelligent than the ordinary run of people. I’ve complained before Monday 20th June 201  that Alan Titchmarsh practices a sort of reverse snobbery by dismissing the use of botanical, or scientific, names on the basis that Latin is nowt to do wi’ ordinary folk.

Saying plants have Latin names is a disincentive to people using those names. My constant example is that no-one struggles to call a Toyota Yaris a Toyota Yaris on the basis that this is a foreign name that only people who have studied for a long time can understand. If everyone adopted the idea that plants have botanical names people would, over time, get over their prejudice against using them.

And the proper naming of plants matters as my experience over the weekend shows.

Every morning I look at the visitor statistics for the previous day. These are not detailed (I don’t use cookies so get no personal information about visitors) but they give an idea of traffic levels. On Monday morning I could see that there had been a huge jump in traffic on Sunday all of it to one plant page. The visits resulted from people using the search term ‘hemlock’ and brought them to the page for Conium maculatum, poison hemlock.

I assumed this meant someone had mentioned the plant on radio or TV and took to Twitter for help, help that Twitter promptly provided. I was directed to the BBC1 programme Countryfile where at 31 minutes in a forager tells Matt Baker that people must know what they are picking and cites hemlock water dropwort as an example of the hazards that lie in wait for the unwary. (Link will only work until 10th August.)

Hemlock water dropwort is Oenanthe crocata not Conium maculatum so all those people in search of more information about this plant to make their time in the country safer who searched for ‘hemlock’ and ended up on the Conium maculatum page did not get what they were after. Too late, I added a comment on the page to advise people that Oenanthe crocata was the plant they were looking for.

If the RHS and other people and organisations were not so elitist about the use of the unique names of plants then the man on Countryfile could have given the plant its correct name and my visitors would have found the information they were after.

For any of those people who find themselves here, this is Conium maculatum, poison hemlock;

Conium maculatum, poison hemlock

And this is Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort;

Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort


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