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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 25th May 2014

This time of year, the site gets a significant increase in the number of visitors to the Laburnum page in the A to Z section. I have no way of knowing whether it is the same people who each year forget what that pretty year flowering tree is and have to look it up again or whether it is people who have moved during the previous eleven or so months and find they have a laburnum in the new garden.

As I’m giving a talk later this week I thought I should try and include what the audience in interested so I’ve inserted laburnum in the introduction. I’m still trying to decide what needs to be dropped to keep the timing about right but something will have to go.

There is though, for me, a problem in talking about laburnum. It’s not a very interesting plant.

What I find most interesting about poisonous plants is the difference between what people think they do and what they actually do, in terms of causing harm, plus the folklore associated with them.

Digressing for a moment, I had an interesting email from someone who had read my piece about the BBC ‘Countryfile’ programme that talked about the Painswick yews. I had complained that the presenter had stated that  ‘Legend has it St Mary’s has 99 [yew trees]’ saying that either it does or it doesn’t and it shouldn’t take much for someone to count them.

My correspondent pointed out that the intertwining of the growth of many of the trees is such that it is said to be impossible to count them and he had tried and failed. Given that the folklore says that should there ever be 100 yews in the churchyard the devil will appear, the notion that the trees are impossible to count seems to make for a much more interesting story.

Lots of folklore had a role in reducing harm or influencing behaviour. I nearly made the mistake of writing that this was its intention but I have no way of knowing if there was any conscious action in the way folklore developed.

If the presence of 100 yew trees will make the devil appear and if there are already, probably, 99 yew trees but it is hard to separate them then there is imminent danger of the devil appearing so you’d better behave and not be a sinner because they’ll be the first to fall into Satan’s hands. Almost all folklore/religious stricture has some rational basis and I dislike seeing it being passed off as quaint or amusing.

But I digress. And I do so for a good reason. The problem I have with laburnum is that it is not a very interesting plant. On the plant page, I have only one piece of folklore and that quite tedious.

Of the main sources I use for folklore about plants Pliny makes only brief mention of laburnum when writing about useful woods and Gerard describes the plant but offers no interesting stories. No-one else mentions it.

Interestingly, Gerard talks about it as a plant that grows outside the UK but says he has one in his garden. It could be, I suppose, that laburnum wasn’t known in north-west Europe when most of plant folklore was either created or adopted from the ancient civilisations. That speculation rather stumbles because the ancients don’t seem to attach much significance to it.

So, on Wednesday, I shall have to talk about a plant that many people seem to be interested in but I shan’t have very much to say because it isn’t a very interesting plant.


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