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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 15th July 2013
Call me Mithridates

I love Centaurea Montana, knapweed. The flowers have a stunning blue colour, very intricate delicate structure and attract all sorts of pollinators in abundance.

Centaurea Montana, knapweed 

The only drawback is that it tends to splay outwards dropping into all the surrounding plants and leaving a bare centre. It looks a bit like the bald spot on an ageing punk who still dyes his hair. I read that you can cut it back and get a second helping later in the summer so I thought I’d do that.

One of the plants that featured in almost all of the gardens I visited at the weekend was Urtica dioica, stinging nettle, and I was quite pleased to see that I’m not the only one to have this squatter making its home all over the garden. Because it is another excellent food source for pollinators, I leave quite a bit in out of the way places but, if I’m tidying up a border, it has to go. It was no surprise that, amongst the Centaurea, there were quite a few nettles and even less of a surprise to find that I got stung.

The Urtica dioica is one of the plants I use as the introduction to my talks and I say that it shows that you can find lessons about substance misuse with nearly every plant. We all know that stinging nettles sting so why do still get stung? Do we assume that stinging only happens to other people or do we think we’re too clever to get harmed by it?

The idea that you get stung whatever you do led to one of its other names, the Devil’s plaything. The story was that Old Nick would send demons to hide behind stinging nettles and give the plant a little flick just as you are walking passed thinking you’d avoided it. When gardening, those demon flicks seem to come when I’m bagging up the plants for the recycling centre. No matter how careful I am about avoiding contact with any bare flesh, the stems will twist themselves around and, generally, sting me on my bare arm above my nettle-proof gloves.

And that is just what happened, yesterday. But although I felt the sudden sharp pain of the hundreds of needle-like bristles penetrating the skin there was no follow-up long-lasting sting.

This is not the first time I’ve noticed this. Some years ago, someone said that eating a few young leaves of a stinging nettle was the best antidote to the sting. I tried it. I deliberately rubbed some nettle on my arm and then ate a few leaves. And the sting never really developed.  Then I decided to see if it would deal with a raging sting so I rubbed my arm again, a few days later, intending to leave it for ten minutes or so until the sting was really uncomfortable and see if this ‘cure’ still worked. The problem was that I didn’t get the burning stinging pain associated with the stinging nettle.

Since then I’ve noticed that, early in the year, I can get some uncomfortable stings when I start clearing the garden up. They don’t cause me a lot of distress because I know they aren’t doing serious harm and won’t last. By the height of summer, however, I seem to be able to get stung and not suffer anything more than very slight discomfort and not always that.

Mithridates VI, was the King of Pontus in Asia Minor in the first century BC. It is recorded that he regularly took small doses of poisons in order to build up his tolerance so that no enemy could kill him by administering poison in some way. This led to the notion that a combination of many toxic substances was a universal antidote, which notion survived for a very long time under the name theriac.

Mithridates himself may have come to regret his efforts. It is rumoured that, when defeated in battle, he tried to commit suicide by poison but could not achieve a lethal dose. He was forced to order one of his men to kill him with a sword.

The story of Mithridates shouldn’t have been used to justify the notion of a theriac. In the same way that history is written by the victors, the stories of those who didn’t build up tolerance are not recorded because early deaths were unremarkable at the time.         


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