Country diary: The nuthatch takes a toxin that can paralyse our hearts – Rights History
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Country diary: The nuthatch takes a toxin that can paralyse our hearts

Meeting of the Waters, Teesdale: Humans have to be wary of poisonous yew trees. Not so these masked bandits

A treasured old guide to wildflowers, a birthday gift 60 years ago, sits, dog-eared, on my bookshelf. It warns of poisonous plants with a bold, black letter P, in the kind of gothic typeface usually seen when the credits roll in a Hammer House of Horror movie. Botany with a frisson of danger, plants with a chilling story to tell.

Few are deadlier than yew, fatal to cattle and horses if they browse its foliage, a favourite with assassins and still an occasional accidental killer of unwary people. The lethal dose is small, there’s no antidote, and death inevitably follows swiftly from heart failure. Add the tree’s ancient, funereal association with churchyards and you have all the elements of a gothic horror story. Every part of the tree contains the toxic alkaloid taxine, except for the watery, gelatinous red cups surrounding each seed; botanically they’re called arils but my grandmother in Sussex, who gave me the flower guidebook, knew them as “snotty-gogs”.

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