From The Times
August 4, 2008
When Antony Worrall Thompson, the celebrity chef, used a magazine interview to detail the joys of foraging for wild herbs, he recommended a little-known plant as a salad leaf.
In abundant supply, locally grown and organically produced, henbane would seem to tick all the boxes for television chefs who urge us to embrace a healthier and more environmentally friendly diet.
There was, however, one rather glaring problem – it contains a potentially fatal poison.
Henbane, a close relative of deadly nightshade, is often known as stinking nightshade, because of its pungent odour. Its name, derived from Anglo-Saxon, means “killer of hens”, and consumption can cause hallucinations, convulsions, vomiting and death.
Previous champions of henbane include Dr Crippen, who used an extract of the plant to poison his wife. In Hamlet, Claudius uses a potion containing the drug to kill the king.
Yesterday Mr Worrall Thompson, and Healthy & Organic Living, who published his culinary wisdom, issued an apology, reminding readers that henbane “is a very toxic plant and should never be eaten”.
Healthy & Organic Living, which has a circulation of 40,000, says it is “the only magazine dedicated to providing information and advice for modern women who want to discover how to lead a healthy and organic lifestyle”.
Mr Worrall Thompson, when asked by the publication whether he used any wild foods in his dishes, replied: “The weed henbane is great in salads.” His advice features in the magazine’s August edition, currently on sale, as the error was not noticed until after it had gone to print.
In a letter to subscribers, seen by The Times, Kate Collyns, the magazine’s editor, wrote: “In our August issue, Antony Worrall Thompson suggested that the weed henbane was great in salads. In fact henbane is very toxic and is a Schedule III poison under the Medicines Act. Please discount this suggestion. Antony is very sorry for causing confusion and had quite a different plant in mind.”
In modern complementary medicine henbane is used in low doses to relieve pain in the digestive system. A spokesman for the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said that the plant “can only be sold in herbal medicines following a one-to-one consultation with a practitioner”. It can be dispensed only under the supervision of a pharmacist.
Andrew Chevalier, a fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, said: “It’s a close relative of deadly nightshade and is a very well recognised poisonous plant. Like most poisons it has medicinal properties. It can be used to treat patients with pain affecting the urinary tubules, such as kidney stones, and for certain gut problems. It acts as a sedative, with analgesic properties.”
Those who had followed Mr Worrall Thompson’s lead and constructed a salad of henbane should seek medical help, Mr Chevalier said. “A good portion would probably cause significant gastrointestinal diffculties and a larger dose would be fatal. If anyone has followed Mr Worrall Thompson’s advice they should dial 999 and prepare to have their stomach pumped.”
Mr Worrall Thompson, who has insured his tongue for £500,000 to protect his tastebuds, is currently on holiday in Spain. He told The Timesyesterday: “I was thinking of a wild plant with a similar name, not this herb, but of course I’ve ended up killing half the nation instead.
“The magazine have put out a correction but they printed it in advance. It’s a bit embarrassing, but there have been no reports of any casualties. Please do pass on my apologies.”