Australia’s poisonous plants, fungi and cyanobacteria

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Rob Richardson

RG and FJ Richardson, Meredith, Victoria 3333 Australia.

Cite this article as:

Richardson, R. (2012a). Australia’s poisonous plants, fungi and cyanobacteria [Book Review]. Plant Protection Quarterly 27(4), 138.

Australia’s poisonous plants, fungi and cyanobacteria

by Ross McKenzie

This is the first full colour, comprehensive guide for the major natural threats to the health of domestic and native animals, and humans in Australia. The aim of this book is to prevent poisoning, as there are few effective treatments available, particularly for domestic animals. The species presented in this book have been chosen because of their capacity to threaten life or damage important organs, their relative abundance or wide distribution in the Australian flora, or because of their extensive cultivation as crops, pastures or as garden plants.

This is the first major book published on poisonous plants in Australia since Poisonous Plants of Australia by Selwyn Everist was published in 1974 and revised in 1981. Since then the gap has been filled with a range of smaller books, especially those by Ros Shepherd, Pretty but Poisonous and Is that Plant Poisonous?

Australia’s poisonous plants, fungi and cyanobacteria by Ross McKenzie fills a large gap in the scientific botanical literature. Ross has spent most of his working life studying plant poisonings and poisonous plants and advising on the diagnosis, management and prevention of poisoning in domestic animals. From 1994 to 2008 he lectured veterinary students at the University of Queensland on toxicology with plant poisonings as a major theme. He has authored over 100 scientific publications and contributed to several international veterinary text and reference books.

The poisonous organisms in this book include plants, algae, ergots and mushrooms. They were chosen because of their capacity to cause serious illness in humans or other animals. This book does not include detailed entries for all known poisonous species although they are all listed in Chapter 15. Excluded from the book are poisonous mould fungi (mycotoxins) of stored food because they are often not apparent to the naked eye. Plants causing contact dermatitis or allergy in humans are also excluded because reactions to them are not consistent across all humans. Also excluded are woods that caused irritation to timber workers, plants causing taints in eggs, milk or meat and fish-poisoning plants used by Australian Aboriginal peoples to harvest fish. Reference sources to these excluded groups of organisms are given.

The introductory section of this book includes the headings: About the author, Preface, Acknowledgements, Warnings, Using this book followed by chapters on Understanding plants and plant poisonings, How to confirm tentative identifications and Common poisoning profiles. The major section of this book is divided into three parts, Poisonous cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), Poisonous fungi and Poisonous vascular plants (this is subdivided into ferns, cycads, grass and grass-like plants, grass trees, iris and lilly families, forbs, vines, shrubs and trees. The book concludes with extensive appendices.

Each entry begins with the scientific name and common name of the organism. It is followed by a very useful highlighted section designed to allow the reader to quickly grasp the essentials of a poisoning, with symbols highlighting onset and duration of toxic effects, toxins involved, specific preventative measures available, effective therapies available, or lack of effective therapies. This is followed by the full scientific name, including synonyms; the meaning of the scientific name; family; common names; description; flowering and fruiting seasons; main distinguishing features; confusing species; distribution (including a map) and habitat; weight of evidence for toxicity; degree of danger; toxins; toxic parts of the plant; animal affected; conditions of poisoning; toxic dose; clinical signs (and symptoms for humans); post-mortem changes; and finally management (therapy, prevention, control). There is an enormous amount of data here, for example the entry for Hypochaeris radicata (cats ear) covers two and a half pages and includes five photographs.

This book will become the poisonous plant bible for farmers, veterinarians, agricultural advisors and anyone else with deep interest in toxic plants, fungi and cyanobacteria. It is the distillation of the many years of experience of its author Ross McKenzie and is written in a clear straightforward manner that makes its contents readily accessible. Ross is congratulated for having the patience and perseverance to produce this amazing body of work.


First published online: December 15, 2012