X is for X’d Out, or Plant Poisons

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

In “The Botanic Garden,” Erasmus Darwin asserted that plants “possess ideas of many of the properties of the external world and of their own existence.” This grandfather of Charles Darwin considered plants as more than passive. Indeed, observation of plants proves this as true.

To protect themselves, plants developed defenses. Although plants can’t flee from a potential threat, the Mimosa closes its leaves when touched. Several plants grow thorns, spines, or prickles. Stinging nettles and other plants grow “fur” bristling with trichome-bearing poisons. Some tropical nettles can cause permanent nerve damage or death. Urushiol is a toxic oil found in poison ivy and oak cause skin irritations. The subtropical houseplant dieffenbachia shoots calcium oxalate crystal-rich idioblasts and an enzyme into the mouths of predators, which can cause paralysis of the tongue. Some plants house aggressive ants that defend their homes. Some plants warn their community of impending crises by releasing volatile organic compounds.

Of course, humans have used plant poisons for their own nefarious purposes.

Back in “the day,” children were fed castor oil to benefit their health. Lucky for these souls, they only had to endure the oil’s dreadful taste. The manufacturers of the oil removed the lethal component of the castor bean, ricin. Ingesting one castor bean can kill an adult within an hour. In the television series “Breaking Bad,” Walter White tries to use castor beans to eliminate enemies.

J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series mentions many plant references, including “wolf’s bane” or monkshood. Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” describes the herb as coming from the mouths of Cerberus, Hades’ three-headed guard dog. In Greek myths, the goddess Hecate invented the poison contained in wolf’s bane, and Athena used it to transform the cloth-worker Arachne into a spider. Medea tried to poison Theseus with wine laced with the plant. William Shakespeare mentioned the poison in “Henry IV.” Elllis Peters’ “Cadfael Chronicles” and the “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” used the plant to murder, and in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” it is used for a suicide. Symptoms of aconite poison which come from the plant include frothy saliva, impaired vision, vertigo, and coma. Other names for the plant include blue rocket and devil’s helmet, and its flowers, when held beneath a person’s chin, could out a disguised werewolf by tinging the person’s chin with yellow.

While working in medicine dispensaries during the first World War, crime novelist Agatha Christie conceived of her detective stories. She said, “Since I was surrounded by poison, perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected.” Her writings often included poisons.

Angel’s Trumpet sounds sweet, but one of its aliases might better describe its poisonous nature. Devil’s snare, Jimson weed, stink weed, and loco weed causes hallucinations, convulsions, and in some cases, death. Its active ingredients are atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine. This plant is included in Vicki Lane’s “Elizabeth Goodweather Appalachian Mysteries.”

The Greek Socrates’ 399 BC death was the most famous Hemlock poisoning. A 1787 painting by Jacques-Louis David depicts the philosopher surrounded by students as he succumbed. All parts of the hemlock contain poison alkaloids which paralyze. According to the USDA, water hemlock is the “most violently toxic plant in North America.” Ingesting as few as eight leaves is fatal, with death beginning as paralysis and ending ultimately with shut-down of the respiratory system.

In Tim Burton’s stop-action animation “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Sally poisons her creator with deadly nightshade-laced soup. Although all parts of the flowering plant, also called belladonna, are poisonous, the black berries contain the most atropine. Women used to put belladonna drops into their eyes to improve their beauty. Legend holds that Locusta used nightshade to kill the Roman emperor Claudius, and before he ascended to the throne, Macbeth used nightshade to poison an invading Danish army.

Cleopatra forced her servants to ingest seeds from the strychnine tree to watch their reaction to the poison. Since she did not relish the obvious agony, vomiting, facial contortions, and convulsions caused by the toxins strychnine and brucine on her women, Cleopatra ended her own life with an asp bite instead.

The 1979 gothic V.C. Andrews novel “Flowers in the Attic” and the comedic Jimmie Stewart movie “Arsenic and Old Lace” use the “king of poisons,” arsenic. Arsenic is an element which can eek into vegetables, fruits, and rice. The infamous Borgia family from the Renaissance served troublesome guests wine enhanced with a bit of arsenic. Since it is an element, arsenic does not disappear. Traces of it can be found in poisoning victims’ fingernails, hair, liver, and kidneys.

Poisoned arrows and blow gun darts enhance the effectiveness of relatively primitive weapons. In South Africa, people use the milky sap of the bushman’s poison plant, and in South America, tribesmen use curare which includes chondrodendron tomentosum.

White Oleander by Janet Fitch tells a turbulent coming-of-age story of young Astrid whose beautiful poet mother poisons a cheating lover. All parts of the flowering shrub are deadly, including smoke from the burning plant. Like digitalis or foxglove, oleander is a cardiac stimulator and causes sweating, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, unconsciousness, respiratory paralysis, and death. Rhododendrons and azaleas are other poisonous flowering shrubs. Honey made from these plants can be deadly.

Also, many types of mushrooms are toxic. Once ingested, a poisonous mushroom produces degenerative effects on the liver, kidneys, and heart. Symptoms such as stomach pains, vomiting, intense thirst, and bloody diarrhea do not appear for as long as forty-eight hours.

Magister Santes de Ardoynis published “The Book of Venoms” in 1424. Chroniclers of Queen Elizabeth I mention two attempted poisonings during her reign. Many plant poisons do not affect other animals, but historically and in literature, they leave an indelible impression.