Spalding man talks about our fear of the natural world

Mike Harrison has counted the number of plant species in his garden in Low Fulney, Spalding.

He admits it was a bit of a geeky thing to do, but a story in these newspapers drove him to it.

Mike Harrison in his garden containing 18 poisonous plants.

Mike Harrison in his garden containing 18 poisonous plants.

We featured a woman raising the alarm over a plant she had found in her garden that was poisonous and, good community newspaper that we are, we duly spread the word.

Of Mike’s 120 species, he tells us that 29 are varieties of food plant; 30 are rated as herbal medicine; 18 are poisonous; 14 have medicinal uses; and nine are both a poison and/or one of the other categories.

“Everything is poison. It’s the dose rate that makes the difference,” says Mike, quoting Paracelcus, an ancient philosopher and medical practitioner.

To demonstrate that we really do not need to worry about this, Mike says that about 240 grammes of salt is enough to potentially kill 50 per cent of humans (weighing about ten stone).

An example of the toxic plants in our gardens: geraniums.

An example of the toxic plants in our gardens: geraniums.

He said: “Toxicity is a relative measurement (a comparative scale) and on this scale weed killer can be less harmful than common salt and farm herbicides are relatively safe.”

When it comes to potentially harmful garden plants, Daphne is poisonous, but it is also a herbal medicine, and the same is true for a whole list of common plants – from daffodils to geranium. Mike says: “Anything can be a poison, in enough quantity.”

The trouble is, believes Mike, we have become disconnected from the plant world – and the thousands of queries to the National Poisons Information Service backs this up.

Mike still has that knowledge, partly because his professional life has been spent in industrial weed control and in the pesticide sciences area.

But he also thinks it’s a generational thing, and as an example talks about his own upbringing, which other older people may relate to.

He grew up on a farm in south Lincolnshire where guano was used as a fertiliser and where his home had no electricity or running water.

The toilet was outside, the water came from a well, lighting was from oil lamps and coal or wood was burned for heat. There was no bathroom; just a tin bath in front of the grate.

A pig kept in the garden was killed and salted, the bacon hung to dry in the house, and they made their own sausages.

Other than that, the family had a small garden and kept cattle, so milk was fresh, and they also had sheep and grew a variety of crops.

Mike says: “The level of knowledge generally and understanding of plants and their interactions has been lost in comparison with older generations because there is no need for this information any more.”