toxic's photography


Hypericum perforatum, Hypericaceae

If you’ve seen large clumps of bright yellow flowers in sunny and grassy locations earlier this summer, chances are it was the very common perforate St. John’s-wort, native to Europe and Western Asia, but naturalised extensively around the world. Although the flowers are not as large or showy, you can probably recognise the structure as being identical to the other species of Hypericum I wrote about, tutsan (H. androsaemum) and the hybrid Hypericum x moserianum.  

It is often considered a noxious weed which can cause severe damage to livestock if consumed in large enough quantities, either fresh (although most animals avoid the plant if given a choice) or dried and mixed with hay during winter. The symptoms of poisoning range from photo-sensitivity to convulsions and death, which give an idea of the potential danger its two main active compounds, hypericin and hyperforin, can pose. These compounds are also what gives the plant the medicinal properties it’s been known since antiquity for, most notably as an antidepressant. Now, there would be a lot to write about when it comes to the ways perforate St. John’s-wort has been used, and the ailments treated by it, but, as I stated before, I won’t go to far into it due to its potential toxicity. Regardless of all the above, it is another great flower to attract wildlife to your garden. 


Solanum dulcamara, Solanaceae

Looking at the small purple flowers of bittersweet, also known as climbing nightshade, it’s easy to notice the resemblance to those of tomato, potato and aubergine, as they are all members of the Solanaceae. However the berries this plant produces are safe to eat only for some birds which perform seed dispersal, while toxic for us and other mammals. This is generally a well-known fact, but still, I heard more than one person my grandparents’ age talking about sucking on the stems when they were kids as they are sweet at first and then become bitter, hence the common name (they didn’t have sugar-filled junk food back then…). Regardless of its toxicity, the plant has also been traditionally used for its medicinal properties, which I won’t list here as I decided from now on I’ll refrain from giving this sort of information about potentially dangerous plants which could be misused. 

Although I have had a strong interest in recognising medicinal plants for as long as I can remember, that doesn’t make me a herbalist, so, if you are interested in actually using any of the plants I write about do your part: research and pay particular attention to the sources you use, and if you have old books look for updated content. For example, I own a botanical pharmacology book which I love, but it belonged to my cousin who began studying pharmacy the year I was born, almost 30 years ago! Also, in my spice cabinet in the kitchen I keep some yarrow oil I made this summer and I use it whenever I burn myself with the oven or cut myself by accident: this is very different from preparing a decoction of multiple herbs for internal use to treat something more serious, don’t do it without asking your doctor for advice! I know this is all common sense, but better safe than sorry! Happy (careful) foraging!


Cytisus scoparius, Fabaceae

The multitude of small, yellow flowers of common broom, somewhat similar to those of gorse (Ulex europaeus), within the same family, have now given way to just as many dark seed pods: walk by this plant on a sunny day in this period and you will be able to hear them continuously cracking as they split open releasing the small seeds. This shrubby perennial native to Western and Central Europe is very hardy and quite common here in Scotland, where it often colonises sunny slopes forming dense colonies on well-draining acidic soil. It is very attractive to wildlife and often used as an ornamental plant, but it can quickly become invasive given the right conditions. Among all the plants of this species I’ve seen there was also one with orange spotted flowers, C. scoparius ‘Firefly’, one of the numerous cultivars developed.

The young flowers buds have been used as food in the same way as capers, and the roasted seed to make a coffee substitute, but I wouldn’t recommend consuming any parts of the plant as it can have toxic effects. It has also been used as a medicinal plant, but its active principle is an alkaloid with cardiotonic, vasoconstrictor and strongly diuretic properties, hence quite dangerous. 


Colchicum ‘Waterlily’, Colchicaceae

Today’s a gloomy day, it really feels like summer is over and a good sign of the change of season is the sudden emergence of the meadow saffron, Colchicum autumnale, from its summer dormancy. Although fairly similar to the crocuses, which flower in late winter/early spring or autumn depending on the species, this geophyte native to the British Isles belongs to a different family, the Colchicaceae. The common name only refers to the resemblance to Crocus sativus, from which saffron is collected, but Colchicum is highly toxic so wear gloves and be careful when handling it. 

The cultivar in these photos is a beautiful monstrosity. As for many other flowers, artificial selection has resulted in the reproductive organs mutating into supernumerary petals, giving a full, ‘waterlily’ look, as the sterile flower also seem to emerge and float on the ground surface. I can only imagine the disappointment of the bumblebee I found slowly crawling through the petals, torpid due to the morning cold and late season, with no hope of getting a meal out of the showy aberrations. Although this hybrid doesn’t set seed, it propagates vegetatively and slowly spreads around as the corms produce offsets. If planted in between a loose, low-growing ground cover, the emerging flowers will have more support to withstand the rain and wind that can batter them quickly. 


Fatal Beauty

Inkberries (Phytolacca americana), also known as Pokeweed.  Pretty but toxic, and potentially deadly to humans and livestockBirds are not affected by the toxin.  NEVER EAT, and best not to touch or handle without gloves.

New Jersey, October 14, 2016

Photos by @mellowcat-artist

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Strychnine, distilled from the seeds of the Strychnos Nux-Vomica tree, is a deadly herbal poison and one that has little medicinal value. The fruit of the tree is yellow, containing five hard seeds, which are covered in a soft wool-like substance. Its toxic effects have been well known from the times of ancient India and China and upon death it produces the grisly Risus Sardonicus, a terrifying ghoulish grin that contorts the face.