Book Review: Australia’s Poisonous Plants by Dr Ross McKenzie

If you put raw silverbeet in your salad, or casually add nitrogen to your vegetables, this book is a must read. If it doesn’t save your life, it will certainly improve it.

If you eat food and live and garden in Australia, you and your pets will come into daily contact with toxic plants and their products. Reading this seminal work should make a difference to how you live, grow food, grow fodder or keep animals.

“Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”
Chinese proverb

“If only I had known” is not much of a defence once something fatal has occurred. I wish I had access to this book back in 1986, because it could have made a difference.

Back then I was responsible for seventeen gardeners employed to establish Mt Annan Botanic Gardens in western Sydney. As we cleared weeds to make way for collections, we encountered many toxic plants on a daily basis. Luckily, there were no serious incidents.

Some years later, luck ran out in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. In the mid 1990’s a gardener experienced long term, debilitating pain and damage, suspected to have come from toxin(s) in a cyanobacterium that bloomed in the pond system.

“The animal species, the dose and the circumstances make the poison”
Dr Ross McKenzie’s Maxim

Toxins abound in nature. But instead of living in fear, relying on luck, and dying of ignorance, Dr Ross McKenzie dedicated his life to shedding scientific light on the underestimated, variable, poorly understood and fascinating world of toxins in Australian diets and landscapes.

Natural doesn’t mean harmless. And harm minimisation isn’t about culling poisonous plants as some with a survivalist, bunker mentality might recommend.

Explore toxins and toxicity as McKenzie carefully reveals how toxicity varies not merely according to the species involved, but also with the horticultural care given, food preparation methods, the individual, and the circumstances involved.

Written for the non-expert, this authoritative work is the last word here in Australia. McKenzie has gathered current, practical information acquired from his unique, diverse and prolific career in which he researched and diagnosed 10,000 cases of poisoning.

Learn why boiling peeled green potatoes doesn’t neutralise their poison. (For another blog on this topic, read this).

Discover ripping yarns. How can eating a flying fox in Guam give locals brain damage? Under what circumstances can comfrey kill poultry?

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Now an honourary Research Associate of Queensland Herbarium and Biosecurity Queensland, ‘Toxic Ross’ has drawn from over 100 of his scientific publications made over his 36 year career.

Global Warming isn’t just changing our landscape, it’s altering the nature of toxicology as we understood it.

Gardeners and students working in community or school gardens, in OH&S, pet and livestock owners, rural doctors and vets will find this an essential reference book.

Jerry Coleby-Williams
1st September 2012

Simply the best: ‘Australia’s Poisonous Plants, Fungi and Cyanobacteria’

Australia’s Poisonous Plants, Fungi and Cyanobacteria, a guide to species of medical and veterinary Importance, by Dr Ross MacKenzie.
Publisher: CSIRO. ISBN 9780643092679, 2012.
Visit CSIRO Publishing page here.

Author feedback:

Dear Jerry,

Thank you for your positive review. You have highlighted the essence of my attempt to provide solid information on natural toxicants in Australia in order to prevent poisonings. I am  impressed. Thank you again.

All the best,
Ross McKenzie


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Sam Eeles says:

    Thanks, Jerry – I’ll be organising to read this one very soon.

  2. Pol says:

    So are the beans AT the top of the story’s pic poisonous too?

    1. Under certain circumstances, they can be. Read my earlier post on them.

  3. Lissa says:

    I’m sure it’s an important and interesting read. But the book costs $195 – a bit beyond most peoples budgets. Pity there isn’t a small reference version for the home gardener.

    1. Dear Lissa,

      It all depends on your values.

      I look at it this way. This is the most up to date, comprehensive reference Australia has ever had.

      If someone you love is at risk of death by poisoning by plants, I’d spend the money willingly. A little temporary financial discomfort is better than a lifetime of regret.


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