What’s Your Poison? Opium!

poppy

Did you know:

  • Papaver somnifera – the Opium Poppy – has been cultivated in Eurasia for over 6,000 years.
  • There is some evidence that poppies were important in pre-historic religious rites.
  • The word opium comes from the Greek word opos, meaning juice.  It was associated with the love goddess Aphrodite, and the god of sleep, Hypnos.
  • The flowers can be red, white, orange, yellow, and deep pink.
  • Not all poppies contain the narcotic opium, but they are all poisonous.  For this reason they were traditionally mixed with hemlock for a quick and painless death.
  • For many years opium was used as a murder weapon by unscrupulous members of the medical profession.
  • Poisoning occurs from eating unripe poppy seed capsules, or from overdose after it has been processed into opium, codeine, heroine, and morphine.
  • Poppies were grown for a wide range of medicinal benefits: sedatives, pain reduction, and mood elevation.  The Greeks and Romans used them to treat diarrhea, dysentery, asthma, stomach complaints, and poor eyesight.
  • Overdose triggers erratic behavior, loss of appetite, stupor, coma, and may result in death from respiratory failure.
  • Poppies are also toxic for dogs and cats.
  • John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields inspired the adoption of the poppy as the national Remembrance Day symbol to honor British war veterans.

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John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”

Sources:

Poison Diaries. “Opium Poppy: A poisonous plant,” at http://thepoisondiaries.tumblr.com/post/18186895021/opium-poppy-a-poisonous-plant

Poison Plant Patch. “Poppy,” at http://www.novascotia.ca/museum/poison/?section=species&id=102

Right Diagnosis From Healthgrades. “Common Poppy Poisoning,” at http://www.rightdiagnosis.com/c/common_poppy_poisoning/intro.htm

Wikipedia. “Opium” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium

 

What’s Your Poison? Henbane!

Did you know:

Henbane

  • Hyoscyamus niger is also called Henbane, Black Henbane, Stinking Nightshade, and Devil’s Eye.
  • The name Hen likely derives from the Old English word for death, as this plant was known as hen bell (meaning death bell) as early as 1265.
  • Its veined yellow flowers grow wild in chalky soil, by roadsides, on waste ground, and near old buildings.  It likes sandy ground too, and flourishes by the sea.
  • Although part of the Mandrake and Belladonna family, Henbane is also associated with the potato, tomato, and tobacco plants.
  • All parts of the Henbane plant are poisonous – especially the leaves.  Neither boiling or drying destroys its toxicity.
  • Henbane is often associated with witch-brews and magic potions because it causes hallucinations and the sensation of flight.  Merely sniffing its offensive smell can make people giddy.  Other symptoms include restlessness, flushed skin, and manic behavior.
  • The Oracle of Delphi supposedly inhaled smoke from smoldering Henbane to induce mystical experiences.
  • In ancient times this herb was used as a pain medication, toothache cure, and sleep aid.  During the Nineteenth Century it was prescribed for epilepsy and other convulsive ailments.
  • Before the widespread use of hops, Henbane was used to flavor beer.
  • Perhaps because of its association with witchcraft, in German folklore Henbane was believed to attract rain, blight cattle, and destroy crops.
  • And Shakespeare may have used this plant as the “cursed hebenon in a vial” that killed Hamlet’s father.

Sources

Botanical.com.  “Henbane,” at https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/h/henban23.html

Rowan.  “Henbane – the insane seed that breedeth madness,” at http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/henbane.htm

Wikipedia.  “Hyoscyamus niger” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyoscyamus_niger

What’s Your Poison? Strychnine!

Did you know:

  • Strychnine comes from the seeds of the Strychnos nux-vomica tree found in India and elsewhere.
  • It also appears in the bark of some species of this toxic tree.
  • The fruit is the size of a large apple, orange in color, has  a hard rind, and contains five flat seeds.

Strychnine

  • Strychnine poisoning causes stiffness in the jaw, neck, and belly, and eventually leads to muscular convulsions and death from asphyxiation.
  • There is no antidote, but early hospitalization can save lives.  If a patient survives the first 24 hours then a full recovery is possible.
  • This poison is used to kill rodents and small predators in Europe.
  • Strychnine has been called the “least subtle” toxin.  At first the symptoms resemble a tetanus infection but most people who ingest it know they have taken poison!  It is said to cause a great deal of suffering because victims remain conscious until death.
  • In the 1904 Olympic Games the marathon was won by Thomas Hicks.  He had been given a stiff brandy and two shots of strychnine to enhance his performance.
  • In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries this substance was used as a recreational drug.  It is also occasionally mixed with street drugs such as LSD, heroine, and cocaine.

But according to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Tobacco, coffee, alcohol, hashish, prussic acid, strychnine, are weak dilutions. The surest poison is time.”

Sources:

Inglis-Arkell, Ester. “Strychnine: A Brief History of the World’s Least Subtle Poison,” at http://io9.com/strychnine-a-brief-history-of-the-worlds-least-subtle-1727903421

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Black Cat, 1987)

Wikipedia. “Strychnine,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strychnine

___.  “Strychnos nux-vomica at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strychnos_nux-vomica

 

What’s Your Poison? Arsenic!

Did you know:

Rice

  • The word arsenic comes from the Persian word for yellow, but it is better known as The King of All Poisons or The Poisoner of Kings.
  • Arsenic is highly toxic but nowadays it can be successfully treated in a hospital.
  • This poison occurs naturally in rice.
  • It is also found in leafy vegetables, apple juice, grape juice, and seafood.
  • One of the greatest natural threats is contaminated groundwater that has absorbed arsenic salts.
  • Long term exposure causes cancer of the bladder, kidneys, liver, prostate, skin, lung, and nose.
  • Symptoms of poisoning start with headaches, confusion, drowsiness and severe diarrhea.  Then comes vomiting, bloody urine, hair loss, stomach pain, convulsions, coma, and death.
  • Although this toxin used to be very difficult to detect it is now traceable in hair, blood, urine, and nail clippings.
  • For over 2,400 years arsenic was used in Chinese medicine, and in the West it was an early treatment for syphilis before penicillin became available.
  • For hundreds of years women mixed arsenic with vinegar and chalk to provide the desired white complexions of the ruling classes.
  • And because this poison has similar symptoms to cholera, many criminals throughout the ages have – quite literally – got away with murder!

Sources:

Authority Nutrition. “Arsenic In Rice” at  http://authoritynutrition.com/arsenic-in-rice/

GreenFacts, “Arsenic” at http://www.greenfacts.org/en/arsenic/

Wikipedia. “Arsenic” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic

_. “Arsenic Poisoning” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic_poisoning

What’s Your Poison? Mushrooms!

Did you know:

  • Mushroom poisoning is called mycetism.
  • About 100 types of fungi are toxic to humans.
  • Most deaths occur from eating the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides):

Death Cap Death Caps

  • Death Caps are a sticky pale yellow or olive green color, and their caps measure 3-6 inches.
  • They are easily peeled and often mistaken for edible varieties like the Button or Caesar mushrooms.
  • Found during the Fall, this fungus grows in woods near the bases of trees.  It likes hardwoods, preferably oaks and pines.
  • Death Caps are pretty and taste pleasant.  The effects of poisoning do not appear until 2-3 days after ingestion.  Death occurs 6 – 16 days later.
  • Toxicity is not reduced by cooking, baking, drying or freezing.
  • Poisoning produces diarrhea, vomiting, delirium, seizures, coma, and eventually results in fatal organ failure.
  • Victims of mushroom poisoning may have included Emperor Claudius (AD 54), Pope Clement VIII (1554) and Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI (1740).
  • The Death Cap is closely associated with The Destroying Angel.  This all-white mushroom is just as deadly as its cousin.

DCF 1.0 Destroying Angel

Sources:

Adams, Cat. “Most Dangerous Mushroom” at slate.com

Fischer, David. “The Death Cap Mushroom” at americanmushrooms.com

Wikipedia. “Amanita phalloides” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanita_phalloides

 

 

 

What’s Your Poison? Mandrake!

Did you know:

Mandrake

  • Mandrake – Mandragora officinarum –  was historically known as Satan’s Apple.
  • The roots and leaves are highly toxic.  They result in coma and asphyxiation.
  • If ingested in large doses, mandrake causes delirium, madness, and death.
  • Its thin tuberous roots look like parsnips.  Ancient Greek and Roman physicians offered patients pieces of root to chew on before surgery because it acted as an early anesthetic.
  • This plant grows best on poor, sandy soil in full sunlight.
  • The greenish-yellow (sometimes purple) flowers are followed by round, orange seed pods.
  • Because mandrake has a narcotic, hallucinogenic, hypnotic effect, it has been aligned with Black Magic and mystical rites since the Dark Ages.
  • Also, the roots often resemble human figures.
  • Anyone who digs up a mandrake root is supposedly condemned to Hell, so animals were usually used to harvest it instead.
  • Legend claims that the mandrake root screams when it is pulled from the soil, and that anyone hearing this cry will instantly die.  This explains Shakespeare’s reference in King Henry VI, Part 1: “Would curses kill, as doth the Mandrake’s groan.”

 

Sources:

Grieve, M.  “Mandrake” at https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/m/mandra10.html

Medieval Bestiary, “Mandrake” at http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast1098.htm

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Black Cat, 1987)

Wikipedia, “Mandrake” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandrake

 

 

 

 

What’s Your Poison? Aconite!

Did you know:

Aconitum_napellus_JPG1a[1]

  • Aconite – Aconitum napellus – was used by the Ancient Chinese to poison the tips of their arrows.
  • All parts of the plant are extremely toxic.  Death occurs in 2 – 6 hours and is caused by the paralysis of the heart.
  • Poisoning produces symptoms similar to rabies – frothy saliva, poor vision, disorientation, and coma.
  • The helmet-shaped flowers are usually a violet- blue color, but they can also be white, yellow, or pink.
  • This plant grows in moist mountain meadows and has glossy, dark green leaves.  The root looks like small turnips.
  • Aconite was historically used to kill wild predators – hence the nicknames Wolf’s Bane and Leopard’s Bane.
  • It is also commonly known as Monkshood, Devil’s Helmet, and The Queen of All Poisons.
  • Cleopatra used Aconite to kill her brother Ptolemy XIV, in order to place her own son on the throne.

 

Sources:

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Black Cat, 1987)

Wikipedia, “Aconitum” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aconitum