Guns n’ roses: the plants that kill
Sometimes, the biggest threat in the British countryside can feel like the downpour ready to ruin your picnic. What you may not know is that some of this nation’s most beautiful plant life is out to get you – if you mess with them, first. Get clued up on the UK’s most poisonous plants with this go-to guide.
The fatal flora responsible for the death of Socrates (who drank a beverage spiked with its toxins), you’ll find Hemlock lurking everywhere from paddocks to playgrounds. Distinguished by its molecular-like cloud of fluffy white flower heads, all parts of the plant are poisonous – with even dead canes touting their toxins for up to three years.
Shock story: There are many reports of severe reactions to Hemlock, including paralysis, in those who have pulled the plant from the ground on a hot day, when the toxins are at their most brutal.
How do you kill the deadly wolf? Folklore tells us there’s only thing for the job: Wolfsbane, the purple buttercup with a history of slaying mighty beasts. Wolfsbane is even deadlier to us humble humans: while the roots are the most toxic part, consumption of any part of the plant can run the risk of vomiting, motor weakness and even death.
Shock story: The last Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, was said by the Romans to have poisoned her youngest brother by lacing his food with Wolfsbane.
Every autumn, Cuckoo Pints found in the UK’s wildest hedgerows suddenly ditch their hooded forms to sprout a flashy cluster of orange-red berries. And while the berries acrid taste, thankfully, tends to thwart any cases of severe poisoning, it still remains one of most common culprits of accidental plant poisoning based on A&E hospital admittance.
Shock story: The plant’s waxy leaves are said to be flecked with dark spots since the plant grew beneath the cross of Chris’s crucifixion, where they were speckled with the saviour’s blood.
It may be pink and it may be pretty, but Foxglove is poisonous to its core. Digitalis glycosides or digoxin - an organic compound that directly affects cardiac function – can be found in particularly lethal concentrations in the green leaves that surround the stem. That doesn’t mean the petals are safe, though – every part of the plant is known for its toxicity, with dogs, cats and other unsuspecting wildlife its biggest victims.
Shock story: In 2015, a botanist with a keen knowledge of plants committed suicide by digesting two Foxglove leaves in Sheffield – with a fatal dose of digoxin showing in his post-mortem.
The flowers, dull purple, are bell-shaped or spikey; the berries black as night. Whichever form you find it, Nightshade is a plant to be sidestepped at all costs. Ingesting just two to four berries can kill a child, while ten to twenty will stop an adult in their stride. The fault lies with two simple toxins, atropine and scopolamine, which are often used to regulate heartbeats in modern surgery.
Shock story: King Duncan I of Scotland passed around bottles filled with liquid nightshade to his enemies, the Danes, during a seemingly innocent celebration. They died without his forces even lifting a finger.
Like the delicate Hemlock, but bigger, mightier and all-together more treacherous, Giants Hogsweed can be found beside many a British riverbank. Unfortunately for us, it’s coated in silky, savage sap that burns and blisters upon even the lightest of touches from human skin, known to cause permanent scarring and even blindness.
Shock story: For those heading to the World Scout Jamboree in the USA this year, watch out - a teenager was hospitalised in Virginia last summer with third degree burns after brushing against the plant whilst gardening.
Though they may be a floral staple in public gardens across the UK, all is not innocent when it comes the surprisingly toxic Rhododendron. The honey produced by bees feeding on the flower’s nectar is known as ‘mad honey’ for the delirium it causes, and has been used throughout history to fatal effect.
Shock story: In 65BCE, King Mithridates VI laid out honeycombs made from Rhododendron-feasting bees along the roadside to trap the Roman army led by Pomey the Great. Having scoffed the apparent gift, his soldiers fell in a poisoned stupor, ready for slaughter by Mithridates VI’s waiting army.
Eerily located in cemeteries across the country, the ‘tree of the dead’ can live up to thousands of years, with spikey needles and festive red berries that hide a deadly toxic seed within. All parts of the tree are poisonous; dizziness, dry mouths, dilated pupils and, worse case, death, all on the cards for those who get on the wrong side of the ancient yew.
Shock story: St Martin's churchyard beside Ullswater in the Lake District is the home of a giant yew tree thought to be a staggering 1300 years old, making it one of the world’s oldest living things.
We know what you’re thinking – springtime daffodils are not high on your ‘to-eat’ list, which is fortunate, as these lovely blooms are toxic to the core. Daffodil bulbs bear a striking similarity to onions, except those chowing down on a Daffodil bulb will be greeted with a cocktail of toxins that have the power to cause severe stomach upset to those who mix-up the two.
Shock story: Did you know, Pluto – the ruler of the underworld in Greek mythology – kidnapped Persephone whilst she was distracted, picking daffodils. Since then, it’s been a flower closely associated with deceit and death.