Plants, platypuses, poisons and, oh yes, paperbacks

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Why do I feel this sudden urge to plant a poison garden? Oh, nothing on the scale of the one at Britain’s Alnswick Castle (provocative gates pictured at left), but at least a leafy border full of foxglove and monkshood, maybe with a little jimsonweed and poison ivy thrown into the mix.

I blame it on my paperback giveaway for The Poisoner’s Handbook, actually. so many of the entries concerned lethal vegetation. “Plants that people do not think are poisonous, but actually ARE, such as Hemlock, Foxglove, Hellebore, Nightshade and Yew,” wrote one commenter.  And here’s another: “Foxglove, clematis, bryony, bloodwort… the list is endless, it seems. Would be interesting to find out how these were used historically as medicines and poisons.”

And a personal favorite: “I’ve been reading a lot of gardening catalogs lately, and notice plants marked “poisonous, keep seeds away from children and pets.” Could someone (hypothetically of course) grow castor beans, serve them up to granny, and feign innocence when she gets poisoned?”   The poison ricin, in case you wondered, is extracted from castor beans, and is most famous for its use in the 1978 umbrella assassination of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov.

I’ve always liked the subject of plant poisons because it raises a point that I think the often forget. We humans didn’t invent toxic substances. The natural world was always fully armed and from the beginning, our planet was fully loaded and capable of generating lethal events without our help – think, as one comment pointed out, about limnic eruptions and the suffocating potential of carbon dioxide. Or consider venoms – from snakes, from bees, and even from those rather adorable looking Australian platypuses. In fact, the comments about platypuses produced a link to a Grant Jacobs post on the subject on his terrific blog, Code for Life.

But there were also ideas concerning less “natural” hazards.  The industrial compounds included  hydrofluoric acid (a remarkably poisonous compound used in many pharmaceutical preparations) and the suspected carcinogen acrylamide found notably in french fries and potato chips. And one astute comment cited a post that I’ve been meaning to write for literally months, concerning over-the-counter the drug, acetaminophen, and its troubling and poisonous side-effects.

In fact, the ideas were so good that I wish I had a larger stockpile of paperbacks to give away. I do hope that if you’re intrigued by the ideas raised here that you’ll take a moment to go back to the comment list on the original giveway post – it’s a great way to get an overview of the kinds of questions that some very smart people are asking about poisons.

For those who entered the giveaway contest, if you see your idea specifically cited or quoted here – congratulations! I’ll be contacting you directly for instructions on sending your autographed copy of the brand-new paperback. And thanks to everyone who entered – just a terrifically smart list of ideas. I wish I could do them all.

And about that poison garden? My husband, I’m afraid, has vetoed the idea. For some reason.

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