~Nightshades & Others~
Although the mere mention of Nightshade (Solanaceae) family plants may evoke pictures of medieval sorcerers preparing poison potions of mandrake root or belladonna, a variety of attractive plants commonly found in many yards and gardens are poisonous.
Deadly nightshade is a flowering ornamental that is considered highly toxic, and placing this plant in your yard or garden is NOT recommended for those who have small children and pets that frequently spend time outdoors.
Consuming any part of the deadly nightshade can produce toxic effects.
These flowering plants are important to human beings because of their many uses and they include potatoes, tomatoes, some types of pepper and even eggplants.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, many nightshade plants provide spices and medicines.
Over 2,000 species of nightshade exist, all with distinct traits that affect the human body in varying ways.
It is interesting to note that although Belladonna is the Deadliest of the Nightshades, it ranks #4 NOT #1 on the Top 10 Most Poisonous Plants that list is at the Bottom of this article.
Alkaloids in Nightshades
The thing that sets nightshades apart from other types of plants is the fact that they contain special kinds of alkaloids.
Most plants produce alkaloids but the kinds specific to nightshade have effects on humans.
These include steroidlike alkaloids, tropane alkaloids, pyrrolizidine alkaloids and indole alkaloids.
The last three all have drug-like properties and can affect chemicals in the human body.
One of the more famous types of tropane alkaloids is the nicotine found in tobacco.
Health Effects of Alkaloids in Nightshade Foods
The nightshades with which most people are familiar — common vegetables like tomatoes — are not harmful.
Although they do contain alkaloids (tomatoes actually have nicotine content in them), there is not enough of the chemical to have any significant impact.
One health concern that has been raised is the effect of nightshade foods on the joints. The steroid alkaloids found in tomatoes and potatoes, for example, can cause inflammation in the joints and should be avoided by people with ailments like arthritis.
The belladonna is a particular species of nightshade that is infamous for its poisonous nature.
Its name means “pretty woman” in Latin.
The name comes from the fact that women applied belladonna to their face and the plant would turn their cheeks red.
When ingested by humans, it is extremely toxic because of the atropine alkaloid.
This can be so toxic if enough is ingested that it can cause death.
Yet today, atropine is used in painkillers.
Another infamous and dangerous plant in the nightshade family is the Jimson weed.
It is a natural growing weed that can be found in many common areas — along roads and in cornfields and pastures.
Jimson weed can be poisonous if the seeds or juice of the plant are ingested.
It is also possible to consume the poison by smoking the leaves or making tea out of the leaves.
It is known to cause hallucinations, vomiting and even death.
The 17th-century settlers at America’s Jamestown colony suffered hallucinations after snacking on a Nightshade family plant now known as jimsonweed in their honor.
While it’s true that these plants contain toxic alkaloids, many other Nightshade species have found their way into home gardens as widely grown ornamentals or edibles.
The Deadliest of these Nightshades is Atropa belladonna
Illustration from Köhler’s Medicinal Plants 1887
Atropa belladonna was published by Linnaeus in Species Plantarum in 1753.
It is in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which it shares with:
potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, jimsonweed, tobacco, wolfberry, and chili peppers.
The common names for this species include:
- deadly nightshade,
- devil’s berries,
- naughty man’s cherries,
- death cherries,
- beautiful death,
- devil’s herb,
- great morel,
The name Atropa is thought to be derived from that of the Greek goddess Atropos, one of the three Greek fates or destinies who would determine the course of a man’s life by the weaving of threads that symbolized his birth, the events in his life and finally his death; with Atropos cutting these threads to mark the last of these.
The name “belladonna” comes from the Italian language, meaning “beautiful lady”;originating either from its usage as cosmetic for the face, or, more probably, from its usage to increase the pupil size in women.
- A branching herbaceous perennial, often growing as a subshrub, from a fleshy rootstock.
- Plants grow to 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) tall with 18 centimetres (7.1 in) long ovate leaves.
- The bell-shaped flowers are purple with green tinges and faintly scented.
- The fruits are berries, which are green ripening to a shiny black, and approximately 1 centimetre (0.39 in) in diameter. The berries are sweet and are consumed by animals that disperse the seeds in their droppings, even though the seeds contain toxic alkaloids. There is a pale yellow flowering form called Atropa belladonna var. lutea with pale yellow fruit.
- Rarely used in gardens, but when grown, it is usually for its large upright habit and showy berries.
- It is naturalized in parts of North America, where it is often found in shady, moist locations with limestone-rich soils.
- It is considered a weed species in parts of the world, where it colonizes areas with disturbed soils.
- Germination of the small seeds is often difficult, due to hard seed coats that cause seed dormancy. Germination takes several weeks under alternating temperature conditions, but can be sped up with the use of gibberellic acid.
- The seedlings need sterile soil to prevent damping off and resent root disturbance during transplanting.
- This plant is a sign of water near by.
Flowers of belladonna
Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants found in the Eastern Hemisphere.
All parts of the plant contain tropane alkaloids.
The berries pose the greatest danger to children because they look attractive and have a somewhat sweet taste.
The consumption of two to five berries by a human adult is probably lethal.
The root of the plant is generally the most toxic part, though this can vary from one specimen to another.
Ingestion of a single leaf of the plant can be fatal to an adult.
In humans, its anticholinergic properties will cause the disruption of cognitive capacities, such as memory and learning.
The symptoms of belladonna poisoning include:
- dilated pupils,
- sensitivity to light,
- blurred vision,
- loss of balance,
- severely dry mouth and throat,
- slurred speech,
- urinary retention,
- and convulsions.
In 2009, A. belladonna berries were mistaken for blueberries by an adult woman; the six berries she ate were documented to result in severe anticholinergic syndrome.
The plant’s deadly symptoms are caused by atropine’s disruption of the parasympathetic nervous system’s ability to regulate involuntary activities, such as sweating, breathing, and heart rate.
The antidote for belladonna poisoning
Atropa belladonna is also toxic to many domestic animals, causing narcosis and paralysis.However, cattle and rabbits eat the plant seemingly without suffering harmful effects.
The common name belladonna originates from its historic use by women – Bella Donna is Italian for beautiful lady.
Drops prepared from the belladonna plant were used to dilate women’s pupils, an effect considered attractive. Belladonna drops act as an antimuscarinic, blocking receptors in the muscles of the eye that constrict pupil size.
Belladonna is currently rarely used cosmetically, as it carries the adverse effects of causing minor visual distortions, inability to focus on near objects, and increased heart rate. Prolonged usage was reputed to cause blindness.
Belladonna has been used in herbal medicine for centuries as a pain reliever, muscle relaxer, and anti-inflammatory, and to treat menstrual problems, peptic ulcer disease, histaminic reaction, and motion sickness.
At least one 19th-century eclectic medicine journal explained how to prepare a belladonna tincture for direct administration to patients.
Joseph R. Buchanan, R.S. Newton (1854). “Officinal preparations”. In Wm. Phillips and co. The Eclectic Medical Journal (Wm. Phillips and co.).
- Belladonna tinctures, decoctions, and powders, as well as alkaloid salt mixtures, are still produced for pharmaceutical use, and these are often standardized at 1037 parts hyoscyamine to 194 parts atropine and 65 parts scopolamine.
- The alkaloids are compounded with phenobarbital and/or kaolin and pectin for use in various functional gastrointestinal disorders.
- The tincture, used for identical purposes, remains in most pharmacopoeias, with a similar tincture of Datura stramonium having been in the US Pharmacopoeia at least until the late 1930s.
- The combination of belladonna and opium, in powder, tincture, or alkaloid form, is particularly useful by mouth or as a suppository for diarrhea and some forms of visceral pain; it can be made by a compounding pharmacist, and may be available as a manufactured fixed combination product in some countries (e.g., B&O Supprettes). A banana-flavoured liquid (most common trade name: Donnagel PG) was available until 31 December 1992 in the United States.
- Scopolamine is used as the hydrobromide salt for GI complaints, motion sickness, and to potentiate the analgesic and anxiolytic effects of opioid analgesics. It was formerly used in a painkiller called “twilight sleep” in childbirth.
- Atropine sulphate is used as a mydriatic and cycloplegic for eye examinations. It is also used as an antidote to organophosphate and carbamate poisoning, and is loaded in an autoinjector for use in case of a nerve gas attack.
- Atropinisation (administration of a sufficient dose to block nerve gas effects) results in 100 per cent blockade of the muscarinic acetylcholine receptors and atropine sulphate is the benchmark for measuring the power of anticholinergic drugs.
- Hyoscyamine is used as the sulphate or hydrobromide for GI problems and Parkinson’s disease. Its side effect profile is intermediate to those of atropine and scopolamine, and can also be used to combat the toxic effects of organophosphates.Scientific evidence to recommend the use of A. belladonna in its natural form for any condition is insufficient, although some of its components, in particular l-atropine which was purified from belladonna in the 1830s, have accepted medical uses.
- Donnatal is a prescription pharmaceutical, approved in the United States by the FDA, that combines natural belladonna alkaloids in a specific, fixed ratio with phenobarbital to provide peripheral anticholinergic/antispasmodic action and mild sedation. According to its labeling, it is possibly effective for use as adjunctive therapy in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (irritable colon, spastic colon, mucous colitis) and acute enterocolitis.
Berries of belladonna
Belladonna preparations are used in homeopathy as treatments for various conditions, although no scientific evidence supports their efficacy. Clinically and in research trials, the most common preparation is diluted to the 30C level in homeopathic notation. This level of dilution does not contain any of the original plant, although preparations with lesser dilutions which statistically contain trace amounts of the plant are advertised for sale.
Atropa belladonna and related plants, such as jimson weed (Datura stramonium), have occasionally been used as recreational drugs because of the vivid hallucinations and delirium they produce. However, these hallucinations are most commonly described as very unpleasant, and recreational use is considered extremely dangerous because of the high risk of unintentional fatal overdose. In addition, the central nervous system effects of atropine include memory disruption, which may lead to severe confusion.
The tropane alkaloids of A. belladonna were used as poisons, and early humans made poisonous arrows from the plant. In Ancient Rome, it was used as a poison by Agrippina the Younger, wife of Emperor Claudius on advice of Locusta, a lady specialized in poisons, and Livia, who is rumored to have used it to kill her husband Emperor Augustus.
Macbeth of Scotland, when he was still one of the lieutenants of King Duncan I of Scotland, used it during a truce to poison the troops of the invading Harold Harefoot, King of England, to the point that the English troops were unable to stand their ground and had to retreat to their ships.
Leaves of belladonna
- In the past, witches were believed to have used a mixture of belladonna, opium poppy, and other plants, typically poisonous (such as monkshood and poison hemlock) in flying ointment, which they applied to help them fly to gatherings with other witches.
- Carlo Ginzburg and others have argued that flying ointments were preparations meant to encourage hallucinatory dreaming; a possible explanation for the inclusion of belladonna and opium poppy in flying ointments concerns the known antagonism between tropane alkaloids of belladonna (specifically scopolamine) and opiate alkaloids in the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum (specifically morphine), which produces a dream-like waking state. This antagonism was known in folk medicine, discussed in eclectic (botanical) medicine formularies, and posited as the explanation of how flying ointments might have actually worked in contemporary writing on witchcraft. The antagonism between opiates and tropanes is the original basis of the Twilight Sleep that was provided to Queen Victoria to deaden pain as well as consciousness during childbirth, and which was later modified so isolated alkaloids were used instead of plant materials.
- The belladonna herb was also notable for its unpredictable effects from toxicity.
The Solanaceae, or nightshades, are an economically important family of flowering plants.
The family ranges from herbs to trees, and includes a number of important … but I’ll let you look this information up if you are interested.
It’s helpful for people with sensitivity to alkaloids to familiarize themselves with common fruits, vegetables and other products that belong to the nightshade family.
Nightshades include fruits and vegetables that contain alkaloids.
Individuals, who suffer from gastro-esophageal reflux disease, arthritis, or acne can possibly see improvements in their condition if they eliminate these foods from their diet.
Some members of the nightshade family are culinary vegetables, culinary fruit, spices and sauces.
A basket of chile peppers.
- Italian pepper,
- green peppers/bell pepper
- chili/chile peppers
are culinary vegetables and are all members of the nightshade family.
Although, this list appears straightforward and easy to avoid, individuals on a nightshade-free diet, also need to avoid these foods in modified forms. For example, potatoes are present in potato starch, otherwise known as modified food starch, a common ingredient in many processed foods and a common filler in medications and vitamin supplements.
This means that many common foods contain alkaloids. , such as
- French fries,
- potato chips
- potato salad,
- Many species of peppers, both sweet and hot,
- including the pimentos found in pimento cheese
- and some olives.
Sweet potatoes are commonly mistaken for nightshade plants, but they actually belong to a different family.
The most common fruit in the nightshade family is
Those trying to avoid nightshades should avoid products like ketchup and pizza sauce.
- Ground Cherries, which grow inside a husk.
- Goji berries, which are growing in popularity in the United States, are nightshades.
A group of tomatillos that contain nightshade & A close up of sliced tamarillo cherries
Many fruits that are more common in Latin America also belong to the nightshade family, such as
- Tomatillo, a small green fruit enclosed in a husk that is often used in green salsas.
- Tamarillos, which are grown primarily in the Andes and are also known as “tree tomatoes,” are nightshades as well.
- Pepino melons, sweet melons that grow in shrubs primarily in South America, are another variety of nightshade.
- Gooseberry The gooseberry is a fruit that can be used for culinary purposes, such as desserts. But, it also has medicinal purposes and features prominently in homeopathic remedies.
Goji berries are antioxidant berries that have more recently become used in goji berry juice, a popular health drink.
The pepino is an exotic fruit, often used as a dessert
the tamarillo is a relative of the tomato, usually eaten as fruit.
Spices Derived from Nightshades
Many widely used spices are derived from fruits or vegetables in the nightshade family: most notably
is made from the common red pepper, cayenne pepper and ground chili peppers.
These spices and sauces are commonly found in Mexican cuisine, and are present in many popular soft drinks and snack foods.
These spices and sauces can also be found hiding out in breading and seasoning for meat and are common ingredients in many
African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Asian and Caribbean spice blends, so if you’re sensitive to nightshades, pay attention to ingredient labels and menu items.
Only impatiens outsell petunias (Petunias spp.) as garden annuals, notes the Missouri Botanical Garden.
These bushy or trailing Nightshade family plants typically reach between 10 and 14-inch heights. They spread as much as 2 feet.
flowers may be single, funnel-shaped blooms or densely petaled, double ones. Their color palette ranges from pure white and pale yellow to multiple shades of pink, red, salmon, orange, blue or purple.
Bicolored varieties are common.
These spring-to-frost bloomers thrive in full sun to partial shade and nearly any well-drained soil.
- Poor man’s orchid (Shizanthus pinnatus)
butterfly-shaped, white, pink, red, yellow or purple blooms top 18- to 22-inch stems of pale green, fernlike leaves.
The striking, spring-to-autumn flowers often have contrasting yellow centers.
This Chilean native annual thrives where summers are cool and damp.
It loves moist, well-drained soil in full sun.
- Bush violet’s (Browallia speciosa)
white-eyed, blue-violet, 2-inch flowers bloom between early summer and early fall.
The flowers open beneath the light-green, oval leaves lining the upper portion of its woody, 2-foot stems.
Bush violet grows as a perennial where winter temperatures remain above 20 degrees Fahrenheit
- The Black Pearl ornamental pepper (Capsicum annuum)
cultivar, a Missouri Botanical Garden Plant of Merit, has a 1-foot to 18-inch mound of glossy, black 3-inch foliage.
Its summer clusters of tiny, purple blooms give way to pearl-sized, black fruit that mature to brilliant red.
While technically edible, they are exceptionally hot.
Black Pearl is hardy to minus 30 F.
Both plants perform best in full sun to partial shade and moist, organically rich soils.
- Brazilian potato vine (Solanum jasminoidesis)
pairs yellow-stamened, white or lavender blooms with slender, twining stems of deep-green to purple foliage.
The fragrant, star-shaped flowers bloom in numerous clusters from spring to fall.
Where winters are mild, sun-loving 10- to 25-foot potato vine may flower all year.
- Chilean potato vine (Solanum crispum)
typically reaches 6 to 12 feet, with up to 5-inch, dark-green leaves.
Clusters of large, yellow berries follow its fragrant, deep-blue flowers.
All its parts are toxic if ingested.
Miscellaneous Places to Find Nightshades
Nightshades are also found in other various places.
- Tobacco is a nightshade.
Therefore, cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco could be harmful to individuals on a nightshade-free diet.
- Several drugs and pesticides also contain nightshades. Some of these are belladonna, atropine, and scopolamine.
- tell your pharmacist of nightshade sensitivity prior to taking prescription medication,
- over-the- counter drugs,
- vitamin supplements or
- mineral supplements
Top 10 Most Poisonous Plants
Using Deadly Plants as Medicine
It seems counterintuitive to put deadly plants to work at saving lives. But some of the most deadly plants are used in the medical arena. Jimsonweed, for example, has been used by hired assassins to kill people and by doctors to treat epilepsy. Other contenders? Castor bean plant is used in Paclitaxel, a chemotherapy drug, in Sandimmune, a drug for immune suppression, and in Xenaderm, a topical for skin ulcers. Scopolamine, found in deadly nightshade, was combined with morphine as early as 1902 and used to induce “twilight sleep” during childbirth. And quinine, the long-standing treatment for malaria and internal parasites, is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree. It’s deadly if consumed in large amounts.
You may be surprised to find that poisonous plants could lurk in your own backyard. Foxglove, a perennial common in landscaping, is particularly dangerous: If ingested, it causes severe nausea, abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea and possibly even fatal heart problems. Other common garden plants — azalea, black locust, colchicum, daphne, hellebore, hydrangea, lantana, lobelia and yellow Jessamine — also have the potential to trigger mild to severe toxic reactions.
In fact, the following 10 could actually kill you.
It’s important that children and pets be taught not to eat the flowers or leaves of plants around your home, because some may be poisonous.
Popular houseplants that can trigger reactions, both mild and severe, include:
- the peace lily,
- English ivy,
- dumb cane,
- ficus tree,
- pencil cactus and
- Christmas cherry.
Oleander flowers are beautiful, but the plant is deadly.
The oleander, or Nerium oleander, is considered by many to be the most poisonous plant in the world. All parts of the beautiful oleander contain poison — several types of poison. Two of the most potent are oleandrin and neriine, known for their powerful effect on the heart. An oleander’s poison is so strong, in fact, that it can poison a person who simply eats the honey made by bees that have digested oleander nectar.
The oleander is an attractive plant, and despite its deadly reputation is often planted for decorative purposes. Although native to the Far East and the Mediterranean areas, oleander has been introduced in the United States, where it grows easily. It’s tolerant of poor quality soil and dry weather. The plant grows as a dense shrub, and is typically 6 to 18 feet (1.8 to 5.4 meters) tall at maturity. It has thick, dark green leaves, and the flowers, which grow in clusters, can be yellow, red, pink or white.
Even in barren areas, the oleander produces lovely flowers and fragrance. Animals instinctively avoid the plant, and it grows rapidly, so it’s often used for highway barriers and other areas that require screening from noise and pollution. Its rapid growth also makes it a popular choice around new construction zones, as it prevents erosion.
Unlike some toxic plants, the oleander is poisonous to most animals as well as humans. A single ingested oleander leaf can kill a child. Ingestion of oleander results in diarrhea, vomiting, intense stomach pain, drowsiness, dizziness, an irregular heartbeat, and often, death. If the victim survives the initial 24 hours after ingestion, his or her odds of surviving increase dramatically. For successful treatment, the patient is induced to vomit, his or her stomach may be pumped, or he or she may be fed activated charcoal to absorb as much of the poison as possible.
2. Water Hemlock
When Plants Attack
It seems impossible that a plant, rooted to one spot, could attack. But several species of stinging trees, indigenous to rainforest areas of Australia and Indonesia, certainly make victims feel that they’ve been assaulted. These plants, which range from overgrown shrubs to full-sized trees, have glass-like hairs covering their leaves and fruits. When a person brushes up against the plant, those hairs become dislodged and imbedded in the person’s skin. The hair, once under your skin, releases a pain-inducing neurotoxin, a poison that works specifically on nerve cells. The pain gradually subsides but can reoccur intermittently for several months. There’s one confirmed death due to stinging tree and other anecdotes of victims — particularly World War II soldiers — shooting themselves to escape the pain.
The water hemlock, or cicuta maculata, is a very attractive wildflower with an upright growth pattern, purple-striped leaves and small white blooms. But the water hemlock’s white roots are sometimes mistaken for a parsnip plant — a potentially fatal error. The poison contained in the water hemlock, cicutoxin, is present in the entire plant, but is most concentrated in the roots. Anyone who confuses the plant with parsnips and decides to take a bite faces a violent death.
The water hemlock, which is native to North America, is considered by many to be the most deadly plant on the continent. The wildflower, which grows to 6 feet (1.8 meters), thrives along stream banks, in marshy areas, and in low-lying, damp meadows.
For those unlucky enough to taste the water hemlock, the onset of illness is rapid. The cicutoxin contained in the plant causes violent and painful convulsions, nausea, vomiting, cramps and muscle tremors. Those who survive the poisoning experience long-term health conditions, such as amnesia. No amount of water hemlock root is considered safe to ingest.
3. The Rosary Pea
The rosary pea, or Abrus precatorius, has very pretty seeds. Two-thirds of the seed is red, and the top third is black. These decorative seeds are often used to make jewelry, and that jewelry is imported to other countries. In fact, these seeds are especially popular for rosary prayer beads.
But rosary pea seeds contain the poison abrin. The seeds are only dangerous when the coating is broken — swallowed whole, the rosary pea doesn’t present any danger. But if the seed is scratched or damaged, it’s deadly. The rosary pea poses greater danger to the jewelry maker than to the wearer. There are many reported cases of death when jewelry makers prick a finger while handling the rosary pea.
Rosary pea plant is an aggressive grower and can take over an area if not kept in check. One rosary pea vine can grow and climb more than 20 feet (6 meters) in a single season. The plant, which is native to Indonesia, has spread across the world, in tropic and sub-tropic climates. It’s even located in several states in the United States, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Hawaii. The plant has long leaves with off-shooting leaflets and red flowers.
Abrin, the poison found in the rosary pea seed, is more deadly than ricin. Less than 3 micrograms of abrin in the body is enough to kill, which is less than the amount of poison in one pea. In the human body, abrin bonds to cell membranes and prevents protein synthesis, one of the most important duties of the cell. Symptoms of rosary pea inhalation poisoning are: difficult breathing, fever, nausea and fluid in the lungs. If ingested — and the seed coating is broken — rosary pea seeds cause severe nausea and vomiting, which eventually leads to dehydration, and ends with the kidneys, liver and spleen shutting down. Death usually follows within three to four days.
4. Deadly Nightshade
Legend has it that women in Italy put deadly nightshade juice in their eyes to brighten them
In fact, one of the common names for deadly nightshade is belladonna, which is Italian for “beautiful lady.” Today, doctors rarely perform any type of eye surgery without using atropine, one of the poisons in deadly nightshade, to dilate the patient’s pupils.
The name says it all.
Deadly nightshade, or Atropa belladonna, contains poisonous atropine and scopolamine in its stems, leaves, berries and roots.
Deadly nightshade is a perennial plant that grows between 2 and 4 feet (0.6 to 1.2 meters) tall. You’ll recognize it by its dull, dark green leaves and bell-shaped purple, scented flowers, which bloom from mid-summer through early fall.
Deadly nightshade berries are green when they form and turn to a shiny black as they ripen. They’re sweet and juicy, which makes them tempting to children. The plant requires rich, moist soil to thrive, and it grows wild in some areas of the world, but in the United States is limited to cultivation. Not all animals are affected by deadly nightshade. While it’s deadly to humans and some animals, horses, rabbits and sheep can eat the leaves without harm, and birds feed on the berries.
The poisons contained in deadly nightshade affect the nervous system. Taken in sufficient doses, the deadly poison paralyzes nerve endings in the involuntary muscles of the body, such as the blood vessels, heart and gastrointestinal muscles.
Symptoms of deadly nightshade poisoning include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, headaches, confusion and convulsions. As few as two ingested berries can kill a child, and 10 to 20 berries would kill an adult. Even handling the plant can cause irritation.
5. The Castor Bean
This plant has several different looks so I am adding a search link so you can see all of them.
Well-known Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov defected from Bulgaria in 1969, when Bulgaria was still a Communist state. Once he settled in England, he took a job as a journalist and broadcaster for BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe. Bulgarian government officials were not pleased when Markov developed a broadcast titled “In Absentia Reports” about life in Communist Bulgaria. So they made arrangements to silence him for good. As Markov stood at the bus stop one day, he felt a sharp jab in the back of his leg. When he turned, a man apologized for poking him with his umbrella. Three days later, Markov was dead. During an autopsy, physicians removed a metal pellet the size of a pin head from Markov’s calf. The pellet was hollow in the center and contained traces of ricin
The castor bean plant, or Ricinus communis, is widely cultivated for its castor oil and is also used as an ornamental plant. Neither of these uses would clue you into the fact that this plant has deadly contents: ricin.
Castor oil is a mild-tasting vegetable oil that is used in many food additives, flavorings and in candy production. It’s also available to the consumer as a laxative and to induce labor (though no scientific evidence shows it’s successful in inducing labor). Castor oil comes from the plant’s seeds, which are 40 to 60 percent oil.
The castor bean plant probably originated in Africa, but is now found throughout the world. This large, shrubby plant is popularly used in gardens because of its hardy nature. It grows well in barren areas and doesn’t require special care. It’s fast-growing and can reach 36 feet (11 meters) in a season. The flowers of the plant are yellowish green, and the centers of the flowers are red. The leaves are large with toothed edges.
Ricin is present in low levels throughout the plant, but it’s largely concentrated in the seed coating. Seed poisonings are rare and usually involve children and pets, but they can be deadly. As few as three seeds, which are green with brown markings, could kill a child who swallows them.
Symptoms of castor bean poisoning include nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, internal bleeding, and kidney and circulation failure. Many people suffer from an allergic reaction to the dust from the seeds and may experience coughing, muscle aches and difficulty breathing. Exposure to the dust is most common in areas where the beans are processed for commercial use. In ancient times, the castor bean was used in ointments, and allegedly, Cleopatra applied the oil to the whites of her eyes to brighten them.
6. English Yew
The toxic English yew tree has come to represent both death and the immortality of the soul.
Joseph Devenney/Getty Images
Given the English yew’s highly toxic nature, it’s fitting that the tree is commonly found growing in church graveyards across Great Britain. Some scholars believe that this tradition started when early Christians incorporated the trees — which already had spiritual value to the pagans — into their new religion. Today they stand not as symbols of death, but of the immortality of the soul.
The English yew (Taxus baccata) is an evergreen tree with needlelike leaves and red arils, or fleshy seed-coverings. It grows to a height of 60 to 70 feet (18.3 to 21.3 meters) and is found throughout Great Britain, but is also cultivated in the southern United States. Every part of the tree is toxic due to taxine alkaloids, except for the aril flesh. Consumption of the leaves, and to a lesser extent the seeds, can lead to increasingly serious symptoms, including dizziness, dry mouth, dilation of the pupils, weakness, irregular heart rhythm and possibly death.
Despite its harmful qualities, English yew has been used for a variety of productive purposes. Its wood was valued across Europe for bow–making as early as the Neolithic period, which lasted from approximately 7000 B.C. to 2500 B.C. Later, the Anglo-Saxons explored the tree’s medicinal qualities, including yew berries in a 10th-century formula for the treatment of “water-elf disease” (probably measles or chicken pox). More recently, researchers have studied the English yew for its potent antitumor qualities. Today, yew extract is used to formulate the drug paclitaxol, or Taxol, which slows the growth of ovarian, breast and lung cancers.
7. White Snakeroot
Most people know that John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, but did you know that a plant killed the president’s mother?
The culprit: white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum), a shade-loving weed native to the forests of the eastern and southern United States. This shrubby plant grows to a height of 18 to 60 inches (46 to 152 centimeters) and boasts leaves that are serrated around the edges. Its flowers, which emerge from the ends of the branches in late summer, are small and grow in white clusters. Don’t let these beautiful blooms fool you, though; the plant contains high levels of tremetol, a powerful toxin.
White snakeroot causes “milk sickness,” a condition that afflicts people who consume milk or meat from a cow that has grazed on the highly poisonous plant. (Snakeroot is also poisonous to the cow.) Those affected can experience a variety of symptoms, including bad breath, loss of appetite, listlessness, weakness, vague pains, muscle stiffness, vomiting, abdominal discomfort, severe constipation, coma and possibly death. Milk sickness was common until the 1920s when farmers widely recognized white snakeroot as the cause, eradicating the weed from their pastures and fencing them to prevent cows from wandering into the woods to graze. Unfortunately, this discovery came much too late for Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, who fought milk sickness for two weeks before passing away on Oct. 5, 1818.
Pretty flowers, sure. But laced with toxins. The yellow are the Winter flower & the White are Aconite-leaved buttercup (Ranunculus aconitifolius)
Aconite (Aconitum napellus) is commonly referred to as monkshood because the top of the flower resembles the monastic head covering. But there’s nothing holy about this plant. A perennial, it stands 2 to 6 feet (0.6 to 1.8 meters) tall and produces blue, white or flesh-colored bunches of flowers at the tops of its stalks. Every part of the aconite plant is laced with the toxin aconitine, making it dangerous to consume or even touch.
Poisonings from aconite are rare but typically occur when gardeners or backpackers mistake its white carrot-like root for horseradish or some other edible herb. Consuming the plant causes burning in the mouth followed by increased salivation, vomiting, diarrhea, a tingling sensation in the skin, blood pressure and heart irregularities, coma and sometimes death. Just touching aconite can cause tingling, numbness, and in severe cases, heart problems.
People have used aconite in the past to intentionally harm people or animals. Nazi scientists used the plant’s toxin to poison bullets, while shepherds in ancient Greece laced bait and arrows with aconite to kill wolves that preyed on their stock. From this latter use came another common name, “wolfsbane.” Fans of the Harry Potter series will recognize this as the plant Professor Snape brews to help Remus Lupin turn into a werewolf.
With pointy leaves and spiky fruit, jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) definitely looks the part of a poisonous plant.
Its toothed foliage emits an unpleasant odor and branches from reddish-purple stalks, which grow to a height of 3 to 4 feet (0.9 to 1.2 meters).
The plant’s fruit is particularly wicked-looking. The green spheres, measuring about 2 inches (5 centimeters) across, are covered with long, sharp spines.
Even the nectar and petals of its beautiful white or lavender trumpet-shaped flowers are dangerous.
They, like the rest of the plant, are tainted with the toxins atropine and scopolamine.
European settlers in the New World quickly discovered the potency of jimsonweed, which grows throughout Canada, the United States and the Caribbean. The plant was plentiful at Jamestown, where some colonists made the mistake of having it for dinner as early as 1607. They would have experienced horrific symptoms, including dilated pupils, racing heartbeat, hallucination, delirium, aggressive behavior and possibly coma or seizures.
The plant has been linked to darker arts, like witchcraft and voodoo, because of its delirium-inducing and hallucinogenic properties.
For most people, though, jimsonweed is a dangerously poisonous plant that’s best avoided completely.
There’s a tree so poisonous that you don’t actually have to touch it to be harmed..
It’s called the manchineel tree (Hippomane mancinella),
found throughout the Florida Everglades, Central America and the Caribbean.
- Inhaling sawdust or smoke from the 30-foot (9.1-meter) tall tree may result in a variety of uncomfortable side effects, including
coughing, laryngitis and bronchitis.
- Some reports suggest that simply standing beneath the tree during a rainstorm and being splashed by runoff may result in rashes and itching.
- Your car isn’t even safe from this toxic tree: Park under its low branches, and dripping sap can seriously damage the paint.
Direct contact with the manchineel tree is far more hazardous.
- Its milky sap can squirt from the tree when twigs are snapped off, painfully irritating the skin and eyes.
- Ingestion of the deceptively sweet, crabapple-like fruits is known to blister the mouth and cause the throat to swell shut, then inflict severe gastrointestinal problems. These harmful effects result from the toxin hippomane A and B, which are present in every part of the tree.
The manchineel tree sometimes grows near the beach, giving it another of its common names, “beach apple.”
Hapless tourists vacationing on the warm coasts of Central America and the Caribbean often encounter its poisonous boughs with unfortunate consequences. So if you’re heading to that region’s beach resorts, make sure to avoid the manchineel tree or else your dream vacation could turn into a nightmare.
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