Plant Toxicity

Scrolling through Google news yesterday, I came across an item about a four-year-old girl in Bolton (a town in the north of England) who had brushed against giant hogweed and developed huge blisters on her hand. The photos looked pretty horrific – like huge water blisters as long as a finger joint.

So I read about Giant hogweed and it is a plant from the Caucasus that was was brought to Britain to Kew and distributed as an ornamental plant until its danger was recognised. It is recognised by the purple blotches on its stems and by its flowers that look like cow parsley. In ideal conditions the plant can reach five metres in height.

The sap of giant hogweed contains furanocoumarins. On contact with skin, these chemicals cause phytophotodermatitis. That is, the inflammation and blistering occurs after the plant is touched and is then exposed to sunlight because the furanocoumarins prevent skin from protecting itself from sunlight which then leads to bad sunburn.

Furocoumarins enter the nucleus of epithelial cells and form a bond with the DNA when exposed to UV light, and that kills the cell, and that causes inflammation. The chemical mechanism is known as the arachidonic acid cascade that involves prostaglandin hormones. They are found throughout the body and are involved in many inflammatory processes.

Certain furanocoumarins are toxic to fungi, which is interesting because of the role that fungi play in plant growth of very many other families of plants.

I went to the plant day at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden last Saturday and spoke with a researcher at the Cambridge University Department of Plant Sciences. She explained how most plant families regulate their intake of nutrients by a relationship with fungi in and around their roots and between plants.

The relationship, known as arbuscular mycorrhiza, is where a fungus penetrates the cells of the roots of a plant leading to a continuous orchestration of signals to benefit both the plant and the fungus.

The researcher explained that some plants – I think she mentioned the carrot family – do not have this relationship, and neither do plants that live in water.

That fits because Giant Hogweed is in the umbelliferae family of celery, carrot, parsley etc. Umbelliferae are easily recognised by the circular flower heads a circle made up of tiny flowers on short stalks around a central stalk.

This is a photo of umbels on a plant (NOT giant hogweed), to show how they look.

Coal In Crisis – Not What You Think

In these days of countries trying to do away with dirty fuels, spare a thought for this.

In October last year, Bloomberg reported the China had loosened the restrictions on imports to tackle its power crisis and that Indonesia supplies about two-thirds of China’s total imports and is China’s biggest overseas supplier, supplying 17 million tons of coal in August, and 21 million tons in September.

And now as the new year of 2022 comes in, Reuters reported that Indonesia, whose biggest customers for its coal are China, India, Japan and South Korea, has banned coal exports until it has evaluated whether it has enough for its own needs.

For comparison between China, Japan, and Korea, these are figure I have been able to pull out.

  • In 2019, coal made up 58 percent of China’s energy use.
  • In 2017, coal made up 24 percent of Japan’s energy use.
  • In 2021, coal made up 28 percent of Korea’s energy use.

Plainly, of the three, China needs coal like no other country – whether supplied by Indonesia or from elsewhere.

Indonesia has a population of over 275 million, so its own needs are not insignificant on a world scale.

The USA has a population of 332 million, to give you a comparison.

And The Russian Federation that has a population of just 146 million.

Indonesia is going to look at how its reserves are coping at the end of January and then decide what to do next to make sure it can plan for enough reserves through to the end of 2022.


I didn’t include India in the listing – my oversight. The figures is 56 percent, but India has its own state-owned Coal India Ltd, which supplied 38 million tonnes in August 2021. So while it imports from Indonesia, I don’t know how ultimately reliant India is on imports.


If we could fast forward to 2042, imagine if China had no coal and no way of making up the shortfall from other kinds of fuels. Indonesia is about 7,000 miles as the crow flies from Mainland China, so a task force to capture coal would stick out like a sore thumb. But China would be fighting for its life, so who knows. Pray that it doesn’t come to that.