Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Monday, 25 August 2014

"It's much too dangerous to keep that plant alive..."

Run for your lives!
Flowers deadly enough to kill humans were reportedly planted in a public park by a group of well-meaning girl guides.
It's the perfect B-movie scenario - the innocent youngsters unwittingly sowing the seeds of humanity's doom, the plant that attacks without mercy...
As well as death it can also cause stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness, weakness and slow breathing.
...and, of curse, the plucky hero who tries to tell the world that the attractive flowers hide a terrible threat to mankind:
They were only discovered to be dangerous when curious photographer Mike McKee alerted authorities on August 14.
Be afraid! Be very afraid!

Or, alternatively, consider that this is the corn-cockle, agrostemma githago, a feature of the British countryside for centuries and, until modern farming methods changed the agricultural landscape, a common plant in the wheat-fields from which it derives its name.

The RHS even gives helpful advice on how to cultivate the corn-cockle, 'an upright annual to 75cm, with narrow grey-green leaves and open funnel-shaped magenta-purple flowers 5cm across in summer', and sells the seeds on its website.

So why the panic? Well, it appears we have our intrepid hero to thank for that:
‘I looked in my flower book and it said these were scant and very rare, so I did a bit more research on them. When I Googled them I found out they could be deadly.’
Deathly peril from an unlikely source? Internet stories spreading unnecessary panic? You've guessed it; step forward the Daily Mail:
The flower that can kill: Deadly British plant thought to be extinct is discovered by a lighthouse (16th July 2014)
How confusing English prepositions can be! The plant was actually found by a National Trust assistant ranger who clearly hadn't read the Mail's script:
'I have never seen one before. I am delighted. If it disperses, we might get a small population of them which would be great.'
The RHS spokesman wasn't exactly on message either:
'They are poisonous and harmful - but as long as you wash your hands thoroughly you should be okay.'
Still, why let the details get in the way of a good headline? Thus this once-commonplace plant becomes a threat and its presence in a public park a matter for reporting to 'the authorities'. Predictably enough,
...after being alerted by Mr McKee earlier this month, contractors quickly moved in to remove the plants before they could seed.
But Mr McKee and the Mail will surely not stop as long as our gardens contain such murderous predators as aconite, bluebell, celandine, daffodil, euphorbia, foxglove, hellebore, hyacinth, laburnum, laurel, lily-of-the-valley, lupin ....

Burn them! Burn them all!


  1. Now I'm disappointed - I expected triffids!

  2. Foxglove (Digitalis) is used in heart medicine.

  3. Sorry, Julia! Though if this is the reaction to a 'somewhat poisonous'(RHS) wild flower, I'd love to see what sort of havoc a full-blown triffid could create.

    R, like a lot of these things, it;s a question of quantity - and which part of the plant. I've always wondered how our ancestors discovered that rhubarb leaves are poisonous; was it accident or deliberate experimentation?

    There's more on foxgloves at 'The Poison Garden', including the case of a a Colorado woman who pleaded guilty to poisoning her husband by putting foxglove leaves in a salad, a tale which tells us something about the effects of the plant and rather more about husbands.

    'Her husband, who required hospital treatment for severe gastrointestinal upset and heart problems, apparently thought the salad tasted unusually bitter but assumed it was just one of those fashionable herb leaves which seem to appear from time to time.'


  4. A friend's cousin made what the thought was sloe gin from laurel berries.

    Fortunately my friend is a chemist and noticed the pleasant aroma of almonds before anyone tried the stuff.

  5. AKH, I can think of a few people I'd like to present with a bottle of that...

    Some years ago, there was an entertaining exchange on Gardeners' Question Time when an audience member asked for recipe ideas to make use of berries from the laurel bush at her new home; I imagine her neighbours are now somewhat wary of dropping in for tea and home-made treats.

  6. Delicious and nutritious, Demetrius - as long as you happen to be an insect.

    I wonder how much of the toxins in these poisonous flowers gets into wildflower honey.

  7. "contractors quickly moved in to remove the plants"

    "Contractors", eh?

    Would they be licenced, regulated, and approved (and above all, expensive) corncockle contractors, other than whom nobody is allowed to touch this plant in any way?

    If they're not, then I bet the EU is even now working furiously on the directive that will create and enforce them.

  8. WY, almost certainly; they will doubtless have had special training and everything - don't want any lawsuits:

    "Have you been attacked by a plant at work? Are you suffering from flower-related injuries? Call Grasp, Covet & Lucre right now!"


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