5 UK native poisonous plants and fungi to inspire you this Halloween
Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble, Grow Wilders – it’s the spookiest season of the year, which means it’s time to draw the curtains, dim the lights and pay homage to some of the most ghoulish plants and fungi to go bump in the night all across the UK.
Before we begin, however, we must remind readers not to eat, touch or in any way mess with the following species or any other toxic organisms they might find. They can be very dangerous to your health!
Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna)
Its bell-shaped, lushly coloured flowers and Latin name might be as pretty as they come, but don’t let deadly nightshade lull you into a false sense of security. This perennial bombshell’s as toxic as they come, with both leaves and berries having hallucinogenic and lethal effects.
Deadly nightshade lives in scrubby areas, in woodland and along paths all across the southern half of Britain.
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum)
The term ‘hemlock’ can be found throughout botany and is thought to come from the Old English for ‘hop plant’, but this nasty is far from visions of tankards spilling over with ale. Ingestion, even in small quantities, can cause prolific vomiting, paralysis and respiratory failure. As it looks a little bit like the harmless and delicious fennel plant, there have been instances of people accidentally chowing down on hemlock to predictably lousy effect.
On a lighter note, poison hemlock has also been gifted with some of the most vivid (and occasionally, downright farcical) common names in existence; we’re particularly tickled by ‘stink flower’, ‘badman’s oatmeal’, ‘cartwheel’ and ‘curtains’.
Satan’s bolete (Rubroboletus satanas)
With its unique ‘brain on a stalk’ mushrooms appearing between June and September, this sinister fungus is just as unpleasant as its devilish name might suggest; it’s got blood-red pores, turns blue and bruiselike when cut or crushed and smells, charmingly, of rotting flesh.
Growing to a fairly sizeable 30cm when fruiting – that’s bigger than your average dinner plate – satan's bolete is the largest example of its family growing in Europe, and was discovered in 1831 by a German mycologist who, predictably, became ill when studying it.
Wolfsbane (Aconitum lycoctonum)
With a Latin name roughly translated as ‘wolf kill’ - and a role in folklore as a treatment for lycanthropy - there are few plants around more metal than wolfsbane.
Its appealing conical growth and drooping flowers might look innocent, but wolfsbane doesn’t even need to be ingested to cause harm; there are reports of people being taken ill after brushing against the plant or even smelling the flowers. If the toxins are consumed, or administered through open wounds, vomiting is accompanied with a potentially fatal slowing of the heart, making this plant one of the most deadly native species in the UK and one to be treated with extreme caution.
Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria)
This iconic fungus looks exactly like a video game power-up and has both hallucinogenic and psychoactive qualities, popping up in fairy stories and folklore worldwide. In India and Iran, fly agaric forms part of religious rituals, and Alice in Wonderland sees the heroine encounter a hookah-smoking caterpillar, sitting on a spotted toadstool which she subsequently eats.
Please don’t make like Alice and take a bite, however - it won’t make you shrink or grow, but it could make you seriously ill. Fly agaric can be found across the UK, with large specimens reaching 20cm across and up to 30cm tall, and favours woodland areas from late summer to early winter.