Deadly Nightshade

Early in June several mature bushes of Deadly Nightshade, Atropa belladonna, were spotted in Warriston Recreation Ground, in Edinburgh, by local resident and BSS member, Anne Pankhurst. She informed the BSS and we informed the local councillor, Hal Osler (Lib Dem Councillor for the Inverleith Ward). Since 2-5 of its deceptively sweet and glossy berries can kill a child, and 10-20 can kill an adult, we felt that its presence posed a significant danger particularly in a recreational area where children play hide-and-seek. The Council reacted promptly and the five mature bushes were physically removed last week. The question should of course be asked about whether the bushes should in fact have been removed, or whether they should have been left for naturalists (like us) to enjoy. To answer this question one needs to investigate the law behind accidental poisonings. Is the Council liable if the guilty plants are on land under their jurisdiction?

To research this further I searched the internet for incidences of accidental belladonna poisonings and its consequences. Data from the UK National Poisons Centre indicates 62 patient-specific inquiries in the UK in the 4 years between 2007 and 2011. All related to children under 16 years-old, mean age being 3.7 years. The majority of poisonings occurred in August and September which suggests ingestion of berries, rather than leaves or flowers. But it’s not only children who can be foolish. Someone once made jam out of it. My husband, David Chamberlain, when he was Herbarium Curator in the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, clearly remembers a police query in the form of a beautiful jar of dark-red belladonna jam.

Left: Atropa belladonna plant with flowers
© Maria Chamberlain
Above: fruit © Chris Jeffree

In order to find out whether the Council is in fact culpable if a fatal poisoning should occur, I sought the advice of a legal daughter-in-law. She drew my attention to a case from the 1920s when the father of a boy, aged seven, who died from eating the berries in some public gardens in Glasgow, sued the Corporation as the proprietors and custodians of the gardens for damages for the death of his son. The garden in question was in fact the Glasgow Botanic Garden, under the jurisdiction of the Corporation of the City of Glasgow. Since the gardens were open to the public, the Judge ruled that “there was fault in having such a shrub where it was without definite warning of its danger and definite protection against the danger being incurred”. The appellants were bid to pay the sum of £500 in compensation – a seemingly small sum, but equivalent to nearly £300,000 now.

I am not aware of any fatal poisonings in recent years, though Anne Pankhurst, who spotted the shrubs earlier this month, told me that an enthusiastic forager friend and neighbour, did eat some of the local berries and was only saved by getting to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in time.

Maria Chamberlain

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