I’ve always felt sorry for the first people to try poisonous plants. Some early humans got lucky in that roulette, getting to try plants like apples and oranges. Others lost that roulette of life, sampling belladonna and death caps. While some of these poisonous plants were no doubt discovered by how animals reacted to them, some were discovered by human experimentation.
Nature has a special kind of lore that surrounds it in the human experience. The natural world gave early humans everything they needed in life, from food, to clothing, to shelter. And as Mother Earth nurtured them, humanity created legends about the plants and animals found on her. Everything from the water to the rocks,, to the plants, both poisonous and helpful, had their own little pieces of lore about them. Whether it was something as elaborate as the story of the Narcissus flower, to something as simple as Aconite being called wolfsbane because it kept wolves away from graves, plants have their own stories about them.
Pick Your Poison
Things in the natural world are rarely black and white. The same waters that give life can suddenly turn violent during a rainstorm, washing away the very village that depends on it. The same can be held true for different plants. Take the pineapple for example. A delicious yellow fruit originating in South America, many people enjoy it in ice cream, on pizza (ew), and with ham. In Colonial America, it was seen as a sign of welcome and often hung on doors or depicted on signs. However, as much as you might love everything about the pineapple, the taste, the sight, the smell, stay away from the sap. The sap from the pineapple tree can cause your skin to break out in rashes. While not the deadliest, that certainly would cause some discomfort. Similarly, while the apple is a common food in most households, the seeds are extremely toxic.
Five Potent Poisons (In no specific order)
The famous poison, nightshade, is actually an entire family of poisonous plants found all over the world, except Antarctica. The one that most people talk about is deadly nightshade, also known as belladonna. The distinctive tubular purple flower to the black shining berries, this poison stands out from the rest. Belladonna is specifically found in Europe and Asia, though is also grown in ornamental gardens in North America (because death is apparently pretty). The plant is home to various types of poisons through out the leaves, berries, flower, and roots. Most of the time, poisoning happens when a child accidentally eats the berries, which are extremely deadly to young people. Symptoms include vomiting, abdominal pain, disorientation, fever, and sometimes hallucinations. If the poisoning is bad enough, coma, convulsions, and death from respiratory failure might happen. While death is rare, as little as three berries have been known to kill children.
Probably one of the prettiest deadly plants in existence, oleander is an evergreen shrub with clusters of pink or white flowers. While they are native to the Mediterranean and Japan, it is also planted in North America as an ornamental piece, sometimes by people who don’t realize the plants are poisonous. Oleander is so poisonous that the smoke and even the water the flowers have been placed in are toxic. A single leaf as enough poison to kill a human, symptoms including dizziness, nausea, coma, paralysis of respiration, and eventually death. Other forms of Oleander grow in other places around the world, including yellow oleander which is found in Hawaii and is considered the cause of many severe poisoning cases.
Since the Cold War, ricin poisoning has entered into American folklore. Tales of secret ricin poisoning by Soviet agents spread around and still surface on the internet from time to time. The ricin poison is created from the castor bean plant, an ornamental shrub like plant with spiny seed pod clusters that hold bean like seeds. While it originally came from Asia, it has been naturalized as a weed in North America. The seeds are the most toxic part of the plant and can be used to make the ricin poison. Symptoms including diarrhea, stomach pains, burning of the mouth and throat, and convulsions that sometimes don’t appear until hours or even a few days after ingestion. If you suspect ingestion, get the victim to the hospital as soon as possible.
Water hemlock, or cowbane, is a member of the celery family and probably the most poisonous variation of hemlock. It grows on the banks of or in shallow water and the stems branch upwards into umbrella like clusters of white flowers. Hemlock is considered the most poisonous plant genus in North America and the entire water hemlock plant is deadly, poisoning occurring rapidly. Ingesting even one portion of a root with the width of your finger can result in death within the first few hours. Accidental poisoning is actually quite common as parts of the water hemlock look similar to other, less deadly plants. Symptoms include frothing at the mouth, respiratory paralysis, coma, and death that often sets in before medical help can respond. However, if the affected person survives the first few hours, they normally will be fine.
Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? Well you won’t have to be with wolfsbane growing at your door. Also known as Aconite or Monkshood, Wolfsbane is part of the buttercup family. From the dark taproot to the narrow, pointed leaves, and up to the distinctive ‘hooded’ flower, the entire plant is poisonous. The flower can come in anything from white, to blue, to yellow, and the plant itself is native to Europe, though it now also grows in North America. Considered to be one of the most poisonous plants in Europe, one of the main issues with wolfsbane is that the various parts of the plants can easily be mistaken for other plants. The roots have been mistaken for horseradish and celery and the leaves have been mistaken for parsley. If actually ingested, symptoms include either burning or tingling of the tongue, lips, throat, and mouth, pain in the abdomen, severe thirst and vomiting, diarrhea, slow heartbeat, headache, and paralysis. Eventually coma or death may result from circulatory failure and asphyxiation, though most of the time the patient will recover. The treatment involves inducing vomiting and eating charcoal (helps absorb toxins in the system), as well as monitoring the patient. As with everything else, if you suspect you or someone else has consumed Wolfsbane, go straight to the emergency room.
- Turner, N. J., & Szczawinski, A. F. (1991). Common poisonous plants and mushrooms of North America. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.