On the Wildside

John Robertson amongst Foxgloves.
John Robertson amongst Foxgloves.

Lethal Lovelies or Poisonous Plants was the title of a really interesting talk delivered by John Robertson to the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s members in Duns in October.

John highlighted the many ways that plants can poison or irritate us or other animals, in an attempt to protect themselves from harm. We were shown splendid photos and short video clips of a host of plants which can cause us problems.

The effects of stinging nettles is known to everyone, rub bare skin against a leaf and you will soon know about it. The poison is contained in little sharp spines on the leaves and stems and they easily puncture the skin, although not dangerous, the irritation and pain makes us keep clear and avoid nettles. Docken leaves are often used to cool down the nettle stings and in this function they are quite effective but the leaves of dockens are also poisonous if eaten, but as they are unappetising no one would think of eating them.

Similarly rhubarb, which is a relation of docks, has poisonous leaves but of course the stems are fine to eat.

The attractive yellow flowered small tree Laburnum has seeds which are quite poisonous but are unlikely to be eaten except by small children playing in the garden or park, where they can easily pick up the seeds and chew them, but as they are quite bitter they are most likely to spit them out and serious poisoning from Laburnum is very rare.

Similarly Yew has poisonous fruits but only the seed itself if chewed is poisonous, the bright red fleshy aril has evolved to be obvious and attractive to birds which eat the entire seed, but the hard seed passes through the bird and will get dispersed far from the parent tree, where they will germinate and grow away much faster after passing through the bird

Some animals like deer will eat the green leaves of Yew and can badly damage young trees but great care should be taken with dead prunings from Yew as once dead and brown are very poisonous to stock.

Daffodil bulbs are poisonous, at a glance they are quite distinct but there has been instances when someone in a rush has gone into a garden shed in the dark for an onion and picked up a large daffodil bulb by mistake and chopped it up.

The leaves are also toxic and the finer ones can resemble and be mistaken for chives.

Rabbits and deer know they are toxic and will never eat their leaves.

The Giant Hogweed is well known as a dangerous plant, brushing against its leaves or just walking amongst it and getting some sap on your skin can cause severe blistering and damage especially in sunlight, you must keep affected parts in darkness. If you have a severe reaction it may return again for several years if you expose your skin to bright sunshine.

The common Foxglove is also poisonous and extracts are used in heart treatment but it is easy to have an accidental overdose which can cause the heart to slow down or even stop!

The poisonous affects of a lot of other plants were described and it was a fascinating talk and subject.

The next Scottish Wildlife Trust talk in Duns Parish Church Hall is on Thursday 3rd November when Dr David Long’s subject will be ‘The Work of the Borders Forest Trust’. Meeting starts at 7.30 visitors welcome.