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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 23rd July 2014

I really don’t understand why the reaction to any poisonous plant is an absence of logic rapidly followed by a tendency to hysteria. Regular readers will assume I’m about to write about Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, and the latest ragwort survey from the British Horse Association (BHS) and I am, later. But what leads me to that opening is a story about another plant all together. A plant that, until today, I hadn’t even considered; that’s how little trouble it causes.

My Google alert drew me to a local paper story but, when that mentioned another story in a national I went looking for that. It appears to have started with a report in the Daily Express though, purely by coincidence I’m sure, the Mail had a very similar story the following day.

The Express headline is;

‘Look but don't touch! Pretty flower so poisonous that it could KILL returns to the UK’

The Mail ratchets things up with

‘The flower that can kill: Deadly British plant thought to be extinct discovered by a lighthouse’

Agrostemma githago, corn cockle

Agrostemma githago, corn cockle
Picture taken by BerndH
12 June 2005 {{cc-by-sa-2.5}}

According to the Express, Agrostemma githago, corn cockle (or corncockle), is;
‘…filled with a poison that could cause severe stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness, weakness, slow breathing and even death.’

It reports;

‘Guy Barter Chief Advisor at the Royal Horticultural Society, said the plant is barely seen in the UK but is also very dangerous.’

But then gives an actual quote from Mr Barter;

"They are poisonous and harmful - but as long as you wash your hands thoroughly you should be okay.”

I didn’t think the RHS would describe it as ‘very dangerous’ given that it published Liz Dauncey’s book based on the Horticultural Trades Association list of potentially hazardous plants which lists it as class C (the least harmful class) with the possibility of causing ‘mild poisoning’.

The excellent ‘Plants for a Future’ website says ‘The seed and leaves are poisonous, containing saponin-like substances. Although poisonous, saponins are poorly absorbed by the human body and so most pass through without harm.’

So, a mildly poisonous plant that has nothing to encourage human consumption and could cause slight harm if someone ate a reasonable quantity.

But, as I pointed out there is never a logical response to a poisonous plant story. And, of course, any story claiming that a plant is very rare will always produce other stories of someone having it growing in the garden. And so it was that my Google alert took me to the Spalding Guardian with its ‘Is this poisonous plant in your garden too?’ story about a woman in Long Sutton who saw the story and realised she had them in a patch of wildflowers growing from a pack of mixed seed.

Her conclusion is that ‘I must get rid of it’. The picture used to illustrate the story suggests that, just like every other garden in the land, she has other plants that are similar in their toxicity to the corn cockle.

I’d finished drafting this piece and took a break to check Twitter before proceeding. That’s how I came across a tweet from Justin Brower with a link to a newer story from the Express that ups the ante of stupidity.

Headlined ‘BBC's Countryfile sent gardener toxic flowers’ it’s about someone who bought a packet of wildflower seeds from a joint Countryfile/Kew Gardens promotion and is now demanding John Craven or Matt Baker comes round to remove them. (OK, he’s saying Countryfile or Kew should remove them not naming the show’s best-known presenters but it’s almost that silly.)

There’s a little bit of shooting itself in the foot from the Express because after stating that the plant is very rare in the first story its latest story says that 230,000 packets of the seeds were distributed.

UK newspapers like nothing better than the opportunity to attack the BBC so I expect this one to run and run, as they say.

Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort

I said I would get to common ragwort and, of course, talking about an irrational response to a limited threat is the perfect lead in to the latest round of ragwort hysteria. The BHS has launched yet another survey of ragwort. It says that this survey, which has input from Defra, is intended to ‘discover the real facts about ragwort and gather data from across England on perceptions and reality’.

What is doesn’t do is offer any comment on why this is necessary given all the previous surveys it has conducted to ‘discover the real facts’.

The new ragwort survey is an improvement in that it does offer the opportunity for people to say that ragwort has not caused them any concerns but it still suffers from a fatal flaw. It is a survey that anyone can complete meaning that it is unlikely to be completed by people who are not campaigning for tougher action. The only way to truly establish what the effect of ragwort is would be to conduct a properly representative survey not by urging people who think ragwort is a problem to complete a survey saying ragwort is a problem.

Just to repeat three things the BHS won’t tell you.

There is no evidence of widespread poisoning of horses as a result of ingesting ragwort and what incidents there are can always be traced back to contaminated forage or neglect.

Ill-informed efforts to remove ragwort can increase its availability and acceptability to horses and cattle so, promoting hysteria about the plant, probably, increases the harm it causes.

Though few in number (about 2-3 per year), there are incidents of cattle poisoning as a result of being fed contaminated forage. The excessive focus on the alleged harm to horses from ragwort may result in some farmers thinking that it is not a problem for cattle.

I’m assuming that Defra’s involvement will at least mean that the full survey results will be available to the public even if it takes a Freedom of Information Act request to get them. In previous years, the BHS has said very little about the results of its surveys. Would it be wrong to assume that if the surveys found widespread evidence of harm the BHS would have been more forthcoming?


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