Interview with Dr Elizabeth Dauncey: “Plants that kill”

Hello Elizabeth, thank you so much for the opportunity to ask you some questions! Can you tell us something about your career and passions?

Hi Beatrice, thanks for inviting me for an interview. I’m a botanist and plant taxonomist by training, and for most of my career I worked for the London unit of the UK’s National Poisons Information Service, on joint initiatives with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. We provided support for the treatment of plant-related poisonings, and also created poisonous plant resources for the public. For example, we worked with the UK’s Horticultural Trades Association to assess the toxicity of plants sold in the horticultural trade. This resulted in a list of plants with recommended warnings that are printed on plant pot labels. I’ve actually spent the last year working with the UK’s Horticultural Trades Association to review the HTA’s list, and an updated “HTA Guide to Potentially Harmful Plants” was published earlier this year. It’s free to download from www.hta.org.uk/poisonousplants.

Poisonous plants, both wild and cultivated, are my main love, but I’ve also become passionate about wild plants in general and the need to make space for them and value them in their own right and for their role in supporting the wider biodiversity.

Dr Elizabeth Dauncey
Fig. 1 – Dr Elizabeth Dauncey (Credits: Milly Jackson).

You wrote, with Sonny Larsson, the book “Plants that kill”, can you talk about it? Where did the idea for this book come from?

Plants that Kill” was a great book to write and Dr Sonny Larsson (Fig. 2) was the perfect co-author. The initial idea came from a commissioning editor who approached me to work it into a proposal and then write it. Sonny is a pharmacist and pharmacognosist, who I knew when he worked at Kew on plant chemistry and evolution, and he had subsequently started working for the Swedish poisons unit in Stockholm. In “Plants that Kill” we’ve taken the world’s most poisonous plants and arranged them by the part of the body that their toxins most affect. The actions of the toxins on animals are described and for some compounds their role within the plant is explained. And we’ve illustrated each plant account with interesting cases, and the variety of uses that humans have found for the plants or their toxins.

"Plants that kill" and Dr Sonny Larsson
Fig. 2 – On the left, “Piante che Uccido”, italian version of “Plants that kill” by Dr Elizabeth Dauncey and Dr Sonny Larsson (Credits: Beatrice Cavenago). On the right, Dr Sonny Larsson (Credits: Ulla De Verdier/Sveriges radio).

Do you have a favorite chapter and a favorite plant? And why?

In terms of favourites, there are several plant families that I find particularly interesting, some just for the way they look, such as the amazing floral structures of the Araceae, and others due to their combination of commonly eaten vegetables and very poisonous species – the Apiaceae, Fabaceae, and of course the Solanaceae, are the most obvious.

If I have to choose one plant, it would be the aconites, species of Aconitum (Fig. 3), in the Ranunculaceae. The UK has one native taxon, monkshood (Aconitum napellus subsp. napellus), but it is nationally scarce and I’ve only seen it once in the wild. The aconites are easy to grow herbaceous perennials with attractive flowers, and are probably the most poisonous plants that you can buy as a cut flower. Contrary to some reports that touching the plants is deadly, they are only seriously poisonous if eaten. And in addition to being beautiful, and deadly poisonous, the aconites are medicinal plants that are used in many traditional systems of medicine.

Aconitum hemsleyanum
Fig. 3 – Aconitum hemsleyanum (Credits: Dr Elizabeth Dauncey).

In your opinion, how important is to study plants metabolites?

It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of studying plant metabolites. Humans have already discovered many uses for them, for example, as medicines, insecticides, dyes, perfumes, flavourings, and they are also include some essential vitamins and dietary nutrients. By studying plant metabolites, new useful compounds or new sources of compounds will be discovered. In the field of medicines, for example, plants are providing interesting leads for treatments for infections caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria, which are an increasing threat to human health worldwide. The discovery and study of plant metabolites will also add to our understanding of the plants themselves, their ability to survive in particular environments, potential resilience to climate change, interactions with pollinators, and the relationships between plants.

Your book “Plants that cure” seems like the perfect sequel of “Plants to kill”. Would you like to tell us a bit more about it?

Throughout “Plants that Kill” we have referred to the ways in which people have made use of poisonous plants and this has frequently included their use as medicines, initially as the whole plant or plant part and subsequently as isolated active compounds. But it isn’t only poisonous plants that have provided humans with medicines, and in “Plants that Cure” my co-author Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes and I have been able to give a broader picture of medicinal plants and, in particular, the plant sources of important plant-derived pharmaceuticals. Melanie-Jayne is a pharmacist and phytochemist working at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where she specializes in plants used for medicine, food and health. The book is arranged by body system and within these we feature the illnesses and conditions that can occur and the plants that are used or provide compounds that treat them or ease their symptoms.

Do you think we “exploit” enough the potential of plants?

Plants provide us with useful materials and the range of applications can be increased, as we’ve seen with bamboo being used to replace some forms of plastic, although we have to be careful of any environmental and sustainability impacts of such new uses. Humans unfortunately have a tendency to overexploit particular plants, and fads in for example health foods or plant food supplements can have disastrous implications for wild populations and local communities. Rather than thinking solely of plants that give us something tangible such as food or pretty flowers, we need to rebalance our relationship with plants and expose the numerous ways in which we are dependent on them. Maybe then we will value plants for their ability to provide shade, stabilize soil, purify air, support a network of insects and other animals, etc.

How do you think we can encourage people to study plants?

People have to be aware of plants before they will think of studying them. The school curriculum could, for a start, give equal weight to plants and animals, and use stories that will engage the children. Poisonous plants can be part of that. Seeing young people on the TV and online who are passionate about all the different aspects of plants, their ecology, conservation and biology, would provide role models for other young people who may then think about making it a career or hobby. The BBC has a fine tradition of natural history programming but it concentrates on animals, with plants only having a supporting role and rarely even named, and it would be great if this changed to acknowledge the importance of plants.

We really thank you for this interview! In the end, may I ask you what your future perspective are? Should we wait for a new book?

Thank you for giving me the opportunity. There will be another book, which is already under way, but probably won’t be published until 2024. It will replace the book that I wrote in 2010, “Poisonous Plants: a guide for parents and childcare providers“. My co-author, Nicola Bates, was a colleague at the London poisons unit and now works for the Veterinary Poisons Information Service. Thanks to Nicola, the new book will cover plants that are poisonous to pets, in addition to those that are poisonous to humans.

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