What’s Your Poison? Belladonna!

Did you know:

  • Atropa belladonna is the strangest and deadliest member of the tomato family.
  • The name Atropa comes from the Greek goddess Atropa – one of the three fates who determine human life and death.
  • Belladonna is Italian for “beautiful lady.”  This poison has historically been used by women as a cosmetic eye drop to dilate the pupils, making the user appear more desirable.
  • Its common name is Deadly Nightshade.

Bella Donna

  • Belladonna has dull green leaves, purple bell-shaped flowers, and shiny black berries that are sweet to the taste.
  • All parts of the plant are highly toxic to people, though cattle and rabbits seem to have a natural immunity.
  • Deadly Nightshade grows in woods, hedgerows, and wastelands.
  • Before the Middle Ages it was used as an anesthetic in surgery.
  • Witches were said to mix Deadly Nightshade with other poisons to create a flying ointment (which may have triggered the hallucination of flight).
  • According to local folklore, the Lancashire Witches sometimes mixed belladonna berries into blackcurrant or blueberry pies as toxic “gifts” for their enemies!

 

Sources:

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

WebMD: “Belladonna” at http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-531-belladonna.aspx?activeingredientid=531&activeingredientname=belladonna

Wikipedia: “Atropa belladonna” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atropa_belladonna

 

 

What’s Your Poison? Foxglove!

Did you know:

  • The Foxglove plant has been called Bloody Fingers, Dead Men’s Bells, Witches’ Gloves, and Fairy Glove because of its toxicity.
  • It is part of the Digitalis family.
  • Its attractive flowers have tubular bell-like petals that hang from a long stem.   They blossom in a variety of colors – most often purple, pink, red, white, and yellow – and many have speckled throats.

Foxglove

  • Foxgloves like acidic soil, and because different varieties favor sun or shade they thrive in a range of places from woodlands, moorlands, hedgerows, mountain slopes, and sea cliffs.
  • Since the Eighteenth Century a medicine extracted from the Foxglove plant has been used to treat irregular heart conditions.  A modern derivative called Digoxin is still used by cardiologists today.
  • The entire species is poisonous.  They cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, altered vision, abnormal heart rates, weakness, seizures, and death.
  • All parts of the plant are toxic to humans, a range of other mammals, and poultry.  Drying does not affect the potency.  Symptoms last 1-3 days but recovery is likely with medical intervention.
  • Vincent Van Gogh’s “Yellow Period” may have resulted from taking a Foxglove medication that was given to control seizures!

Sources:

Botanical.com. “Foxglove,” at http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/f/foxglo30.html

MedicinePlus. “Foxglove Poisoning,” at https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002878.htm

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

 

 

What’s Your Poison? Oleander!

Did you know:

  • Nerium Oleander is a highly-toxic shrub that grows between 6-20 feet tall.
  • It is drought-tolerant and can survive in poor soil.
  • Oleander thrives naturally around dry stream beds but it is often reared in ornamental gardens because it is a showy and fragrant bush.
  • Mature stems have a gray bark, while the dark green leaves are thick and leathery.
  • The downy seeds grow in long narrow capsules.
  • Oleander flowers come in a wide variety of shades including white, purple, yellow, apricot, pink, and red.  They generally have a sweet scent.
  • All parts of the plant are toxic, even when dried out.  It should not be used for firewood or cooking.
  • The sap causes irritations of the eyes and skin.
  • Rodents and birds are not affected by the toxins but it is highly dangerous to humans.  There are, however, few reported deaths from Oleander poisoning, even when it is intentionally ingested in suicide attempts.
  • Effects of the poison last 1-3 days if treated in a hospital.
  • Ingestion of the toxin affects the stomach, heart, and central nervous system causing blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, excess salivation, pain, diarrhea, and irregular heartbeats.  The skin becomes pale and cold.  There can be drowsiness, tremors, seizures, coma, and eventual death.
  • Because Oleander was the first plant to bloom in Hiroshima after the atomic bombing of 1945, it  was adopted as the city’s official flower.

Sources:

Home Guides. “How Toxic Is Oleander To Humans?” at http://homeguides.sfgate.com/toxic-oleander-humans-82304.html

Medline Plus.  “Oleander Poisoning,” at https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002884.htm

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

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