Most plants will make you feel unwell if consumed, rather than just admired. How else do you account for the popularity of salads? Lettuce contains a soporific but in such small measures that you need to be rabbit sized to feel the sleepy effects. Tomato, aubergine and potato are members of the Solanum family, which includes Atropa belladonna or deadly nightshade. Conium maculatum (hemlock) is a dangerous denizen of the carrot clan which can paralyse the lungs until you pass in your chips, rumoured to be the dose of choice of infamous killer Dr. Crippen and which saw off Socrates, long before. A little research is necessary before browsing on anything other than known flowers, fruit or vegetables growing in the garden. I have Hygrocybe conica (blackening wax cap, witch’s hat) toadstools emerging from my lawn. They are said to taste revolting as well as being possibly toxic, so I’m not going to try them in soup anytime soon. The same goes for any fungus arriving in the kitchen without a grocer’s wrapper.
Brugmansia (angel’s trumpet)
Most people know that Aconitum (monkshood, wolfsbane) is poisonous to consume and some say, even to touch. Ah, but the blossom is heart stoppingly beautiful. Symptoms after ingestion include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and numbness of face and limbs, pain and palpitations. Difficult to say which you would rather expire from. Berries of Arum maculatum (cuckoo pint) look appetising but cause swelling, throbbing and breathing problems. Euphorbias (spurge) have irritant sap designed to deter the munchies in all but the hungriest of diners. Humans may experience photosensitivity after exposure. Heracleum mantegazzianum (hogweed) has the same effect, not to mention the attractive extensive contact blisters and enduring scars.
Aconitum napellus (monkshood)
Some of the plants with sinister reputations have proven to be quite helpful. Phytolacca americana (pokeweed) berries will make you die but were used by native Americans to make deep red dye. In ancient Greece, the physician Hippocrates wrote about the medicinal properties of willow bark in the fifth century BC. Nowadays we use it in the manufacture of Aspirin. Digitalis (foxglove) will make you wish for death if ingested but parts are used for the treatment of heart conditions. Hyoscamus niger (henbane) is another member of the Solanacae which was used in medieval times as a remedy for toothache, because the seed heads resemble the shape of a jaw bone. It is, of course, lethal. Bane means a source of harm or ruin, not an association with a good time. Makes you wonder how many patients gave up the ghost in search of a cure.
Phytolacca americana (pokeweed)
Nobody likes Urtica dioica (stinging nettle) and the painful, persistent itchy rash inflicted is caused by localised toxins injected into the skin of the unwary. You don’t know you’ve lived until you try an alfresco bathroom break in a stand of the beastly things. On the same wild moor land, Pteridium aquilinum (bracken) is a fern of short term toxicity which is carcinogenic in the long run, if you make it that far without kicking the bucket. Just reading about this is making me want to scratch. If you are hungry for more, try realgardeners.co.uk/poisonousplants for an exhaustive list. Products of Theobroma cacao (cocoa tree) are safe to eat, given a little restraint. I believe that for humans, 20 lbs (10 kilos) could be a fatal amount. Enjoy your chocolate this weekend and have a happy Halloween.