Daily Archives: June 19, 2011


This word, with its doubled lines of l’s and i’s, presents a riddle to the eyes. The llii is like a thicket of tall prairie flowers that leave you dazed and confused. Of course, it has the dd as well, but they are earlier, and the two e’s are separated, and it opens with the third i (or the first one, really) and that solitary r.

The ensemble is like one of those photos of a woman altered through vertical doubling to give her two mouths and four eyes – there’s just more to this word that meets the eye than the eye is ready to meet. So the hair stands on end with droplets of anxious sweat flying from the head, as in a cartoon, llii, and the eyes become heavy-lidded e e, and you don’t know what is delineated by it but you want to get rid of it before you become delirious.

Just as well if you avoid riddelliine, anyway. The word may stay on the tip of your tongue when you say it, but you don’t want any actual riddelliine on the tip of your tongue. In sufficient quantity (and it doesn’t take all that much) it will damage your liver and may kill you (if not immediately by liver toxicity, then eventually by liver cancer). It’s a pyrrolizidine alkaloid, you see (and tell me if the sight of pyrrolizidine alkaloid isn’t enough to cause a toxic ocular reaction). It’s found in the plant Senecio riddelli, among some others, hence its name. The solution is simply not to consume any of that plant, which is also known as Riddell’s groundsel and Riddell’s ragwort.

The problem is that this plant, which is a yellow flowering perennial that grows in clusters in the grasslands of the American south and southwest, is sometimes mistaken for other plants. Inexpert herbalists have mistaken it for gordolobo yerba, a herbal tea used for treatment of cough, and sold it as such. Now, gordolobo, there’s a word that just sets four cups of pleasant tea before the eyes, and with a lovely symmetrical dab of dolob. How would you feel if you were expecting that and got riddelliine? Just sick, I’m sure.

But there is one riddle left to solve. Or rather one Riddell. When you see Senecio riddelli, if you know about botanical naming, your first question may well be “Who was Riddell?” because this is obviously the kind of Senecio that is named after someone Riddell.

Mind you, if you’re a major botany geek, you may well think instead “Oh, another Riddell plant.” This is because John Leonard Riddell (1807–1865) was a significant figure in American botany who went about the American south and southwest identifying all sorts of plants. He was for 29 years a professor at Tulane, and he invented the first microscope that allowed binocular viewing through a single objective lens. I don’t know whether he ever put rye under his lens – I mention this just because the family shield of the Clan Riddell, who are a Scottish family (the origin of the name is disputed and may be multiple), has three heads of rye on it (and just perhaps three fingers of Scotch before it).

But most people who read anything about poisonous herbs these days are as likely to read them in Harry Potter books. And those who have read the Harry Potter books have another association with that clan, through the variant spelling Riddle: Tom Marvolo Riddle was who became Voldemort. On the whole, pyrrolizidine alkaloids could not be more baleful than Voldemort, even if Voldemort is easier on the eyes – and on the i’s.