Ways to Die: Poisonous Plants

Humans have been out to get each other since before we were even Homo sapiens sapiens. For the strong and the brash, there was always outright physical violence; a club to the head or a knife to the throat was a simple way to destroy an unsuspecting rival.

But humanity had more than just violence at its disposal. Those inclined to plan and use their brains over their brawn found that there was an easier way to kill, one that would not risk their own body in an attack, or let others know who killed their rival, or even if the rival was killed by another person in the first place.

Enter: POISONS. Historically largely derived from plants, humans have murdered each other, and at times themselves, using various species of plants. There is an expansive list of plants that can potentially kill a human, but a few have gained reputations over the millenia as premier agents of death…

  • Aconitum spp. - Wolfsbane or Monkshood: A genus of over 250 beautifully flowering plants, closely related to the buttercup. Grows throughout Eurasia, cultivated worldwide.

    Aconitum sp.
    was used by the Ainu of Japan to hunt bears, and A. napellus is used by the Minaro of Ladakhi to hunt ibex. A probable culprit in multiple Borgia murders. Large doses are almost instantaneously fatal. Causes poisoning similar to that of pufferfish - tetrodotoxin-sensitive channels are open, and flaccid paralysis will quickly ensue following exposure.

  • Cicuta maculata - Spotted Water Hemlock, Snakeweed, or Spotted Cowbane: The most deadly plant in North America, due to its roots occasionally being mistaken for wild parsnip.
    Ageratina altissima
    killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother, due to its ingestion by a cow whose milk she drank. A relative of C. maculata, Conium maculatum (poison hemlock) was used in the death sentence of Socrates.

  • Datura stramonium - Jimsonweed, Thorn Apple, or Locoweed: A member of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family. Found mostly in North America, but other species of Datura exist in the rest of the Americas. Contains atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, which lead to a complete inability to differentiate reality and fantasy (delirium - not hallucination as many people allege), tachycardia, hyperthermia, and bizarre/violent behavior patterns.

    Tea made from Datura plants is sometimes alleged by quacks to be medicinally beneficial. It is not. Multiple people have come very close to death, and two (known) people have died in the United States because they thought it would have some positive hallucinogenic or medicinal effect upon them. The very unpleasant taste of the beans leads to few accidental deaths due to ingestion.

  • Strychnos nux-vomica - Strychnine Tree: Ahh, strychnine. Used as a poison in India from ancient times, and the source of a most unpleasant and violent death (or near-death episode). Strychnine causes prolonged grand mal seizures, due to the entire motor ganglia of the spinal cord being stimulated at one time, once the toxin makes it to the bloodstream.

    Currently still used as a rodent poison in many parts of the world, but illegal in the United States. One of the most common agents of domestic murder in India and Pakistan today. Easily detected by mass spectroscopy, but despite several dozen murders in the US and Indoasian countries, specific testing for the agent is still not routine in those suspected to be poisoned.

  • Ricinus communis - Castor oil Plant: Indigenous to the Mediterranean, East Africa, and India. The attractive flowers have made this tree a popular installation in gardens throughout all tropical regions. This is where the toxic agent ricin comes from. This causes an extremely painful death, with convulsions, and intense conscious pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and spasms.

    While its use in Africa as a “trial-by-fire" agent (if one did not die from ingesting the beans, they were innocent) has been around for centuries, its emergence in the West is relatively recent. In 1971, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was shot in the leg with a pellet of concentrated ricin from a weapon concealed inside an umbrella, and died four days later. Since then, over a dozen in the Western world have been convicted of murdering others with crushed castor beans, and several dozen other incidents are suspected.


Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

A Modern Herbal. Mrs. M. Grieve, 1931.

Plants and Civilization. Maintained by Prof. Arthur C. Gibson, from 1985 textbook.

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