Posted by: Naomi Slade | August 13, 2010

Know Your Poison – book review

Don't Eat Autumn Crocuses!

Colchicums are toxic if eaten

Here for your delectation is a book review:

With a long-standing interest in plant toxicity and botany in general, and regularly fielding questions about this from friends and acquaintances I was pleased to receive a copy of Elisabeth A Dauncey’s new Poisonous Plants book, published by Kew.

According to the cover it is designed for parents and carers to which the blurb adds educators, medics, gardeners, nurserymen and just about everyone involved with plants or people – which is great, this is a book that has been needed for ages. The Author has worked both with Kew Gardens and with Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals on plant toxicity so the credentials are good and its value to nurserymen and medics (ie those who don’t spend a lot of time wrangling small children) is instantly apparent. However, as one permanently on alert for hazards of the berries-in-mouth kind, my interest was in ease and accessibility of the information. 

A good peruse later, it appears that this is a book that lends itself to proactive use (rather than reactive ‘oh god they’ve eaten this what is it?’ use). It is a great thing to have on the shelf to do the occasional assessment of the garden and check it out for things that might be better at the back of a border, or avoided until children are bigger. But the language could be considered quite daunting and nursery school staff, for example, may not have the assumed familiarity with this level of botanical and medical detail.

There are some good sections  – the first aid tips and ‘most toxic plants at a glance’ (aka ‘panic and go to hospital now’) are very useful. And the ‘fruiting plants of ‘low’ toxicity’ (aka ‘phew, it is just a nibble of pyracantha/hypericum/mahonia/berberis berries, wash out mouths and scold’), cover most of the plants that I am most often asked about.

 But for use under stress there are failings. While you can make a good guess at the symbols that indicate what part of the plant is poisonous and where to find it, I only found the key (sensibly but discreetly located under pull-out flaps) when I read the publication info. A traffic-light system of toxicity would also have been useful. And while the profiles of similar-looking plants are grouped together for ease of identification this means that until you are familiar with the book there is no logic to the listings even if you do know the Latin.

To its credit , the index is good and has both Latin and common names, so you can find what you want if you are being systematic.

 The trouble is that when a child appears with a mouthful of unidentified plant or a spreading mystery rash, people are rarely systematic and are likely to be reduced to leafing frantically through to find something that looks a bit like the culprit. All one wants to know at that point is ‘should I panic, and if so how hard?’. An interesting and slightly intellectual browse is not on the cards.

That said, this is a book that makes a decent fist of advising a dauntingly wide target audience. It should be compulsory reading for medics and garden nursery staff and every home, school, nursery and childminder should have a copy – just do your homework in advance.

Poisonous Plants: a guide for parents and childcare providers by Elizabeth A Dauncey (Kew Publishing 2010. ISBN 978 1 84246 406 9, £15,


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