Guest Post by Laura Cooper
For much of human history, people have sought to find a way to prove or disprove a person’s guilt. Today, we hope evidence and a fair trial will do this, but people have always wanted a quick and definitive way of doing this. This is where the idea of the trial by ordeal came in. Most people are familiar with the practice of dunking suspected witches in bodies of water in parts of 17th century Europe; if they floated they were guilty and if they sunk they were innocent. But in what was then called the Calabar region (now North-East Nigeria) in the 19th century, a particularly poisonous seed was used in these trials by ordeal. This plant, known as the Calabar bean, Physostigma venenosum, became notorious as a poison. However, the principle lethal chemical of the Calabar bean, phystostigmine, was investigated by a number of physicians in Europe as an antidote to poisoning by atropine. Though both compounds can kill, their methods of murder are mirror images of each other, so that one can be used to cancel out the effects of the other; and so a poison can become a cure.
I can only find reports of the use of P. venenosum in ordeals in reports by Europeans visiting Calabar in 1846, who reported that 120 people died annually in the region by the Calabar bean. A person suspected of a misdeed would be made to consume the bean, likely soaked and crushed to release the toxins rather than whole. If they were guilty they would die, if they were innocent they would survive. It has been reported that swallowing the bean probably won’t result in death, but consuming a crushed seed would release toxins, like Abrus precatorius. Consuming enough seeds can lead to increased salivation, seizures, loss of control of urination and defectation and death by asphyxiation. Physostigmine has an oral LD50 (a dose which will kill half of a large group of mice) of 4.5 mg/kg, and the maximum number of beans reported eaten and survived is 35. Depending on a person’s weight and health, it is possible that one person may survive and another die after being given the same number of beans, and this difference can be attributed to their guilt or innocence.
The bean extract was known by medics in Europe, and extracts were used to constrict the pupil by ophthalmologists. Aware of it’s effects, in 1864 the Prague ophthalmologist Niemetschek suggested that a patient with atropine poisioning be given Calabar bean. Thomas Fraser investigated the effects of P. venenosum extract rigorously, and identified the chemical phystostigmine as the active chemical.
Phystostigmine acts as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. This means it prevents the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from being broken down, so the parasympathetic nervous system is continually stimulated. This is the exact opposite effects of atropine, an anticholinergic drug derived from Atropa belladonna, which I have written about before. Atropine causes anticholinergic syndrome, making the patient “dry as a bone, blind as a bat, red as a beet, mad as a hatter, hot as a hare”, as medical students remember it.
But many other chemicals and conditions can cause anticholinergic syndrome, and despite many published cases of phystostigmine being used to treat anticholinergic syndrome safely and effectively, it has been reported as being underused. It could be speculated that this underuse could be due to the gruesome reputation of the source of the chemical, the Calabar bean, and therefore a hesitancy to recommend the drug. But whilst the drug is dangerous at a high enough dose, the ordeals themselves show that it is survivable (if you are innocent, that is!). We return again to the common theme of plant poisons; everything has a lethal dose, even water, what is more interesting is what doses lower than this can do to the human body.
Guest Post by Laura Cooper
Binomials can be a pain to learn, but they often have a hidden poetry. Deadly nightshade’s common name stresses its notoriety as a poison. But it’s binomial, Atropa belladonna, is far more beautiful and apt. The genus name is derived from Atropus, one of the three Fates of Greek Mythology, whose shears could cut the threads of life. The species name belladonna is the Italian for beautiful woman, named so because of the plant’s use in giving pleasingly dilated pupils. A figurative translation of the name could be femme fatale, appropriate for a plant whose main danger to humans is to the forager lured to pick and eat the glossy black berries.
The Herbarium has a large model of these berries displayed on a cabinet in the main room. It caught my eye as I was returning the gloves I wore to find Atropa belladonna Herbarium sheets. Compared to the shriveled fruits I had just seen, this was a regal fruit with the sepals like a ruff and a grandly arching stem. A belladonna indeed.
Atropa belladonna is one of the most common plants involved in poisoning throughout most of Europe and central Asia, but is still no minor threat. For example, the plant topped the list of plants causing severe poisoning in Switzerland between 1966-1994. Of a total of 24,950 cases of contact with poisonous plants, 135 cases (0.6% of total) were serious poisonings with sufficient information. Atropa belladonna was involved in 42 of these cases, but no deaths were reported. This doesn’t mean the plant should be treated lightly though. It has the potential to be quite dangerous.
As with many poisonous plants, it is very difficult to get an accurate measure of the lethal dose. Some report that an adult would be killed by 10-20 berries, whilst others report a case of children who had eaten eaten up to 40 berries and survived after hospitalisation.
A. belladonna‘s deadly potential is principally derived from three toxins, the tropane alkaloids hyoscine, hyoscyamine and atropine. The toxins have an anticholinergic effect, which means they affect neurones by competing with the neurotransmitter acetylcholine for muscarinic receptors. After a delay, this leads to an inhibition of the parasympathetic nervous system. This produces anticholingeric syndrome, whose symptoms are remembered by the mnemonic, “dry as a bone, blind as a bat, red as a beet, mad as a hatter, hot as a hare”. If the dose is high, this can lead to psychosis, convulsions, respiratory failure and death.
A. belladonna and its derivatives were favoured tool for the poisoner. In the late 19th century, the psychopathic American nurse Jane Toppan used atropine in concert with morphine to kill over 31 people. As atropine and morphine produce opposite responses, atropine “speeds up” the system whilst morphine slows down the body, Toppan balanced the doses of both drugs to prolong her victims’ struggle until a fatal dose was given.
However, atropine in the right hands can be a very useful chemical, even a lifesaver. It is the standard antidote for nerve gas poisoning, as it blocks the excess acetylcholine the nerve gas produced. It is also used to dilate eyes for examination by an ophthalmologist and is given to patients after cardiac arrest. Ironically, the very “poison” that Jane Toppan used to kill a victim whose death was originally recorded as heart disease is now used to help save patients from dying from a heart attack. There can always be a useful side to the proverbially deadliest of plants.
Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg
Cinnamon is a spice that we have all had the opportunity to try, whether in fancy coffees, liqueurs or delicious buns. Whilst the “true” cinnamon species is Cinnamomum verum, the most common source of cinnamon is Cinnamomum cassia. Both species originate in Asia, with C. verum being native to Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) and C. cassia originating in southern China. In order to distinguish the cinnamon produced by the two species in the spice trade, cinnamon refers to C. verum whilst cassia refers to C. cassia. This is because, C. verum is more expensive of the two due to its sweeter taste and aroma as less than 30% of cinnamon exports come from Sri Lanka.
Cinnamon has been traded for many thousands of years, with the imports into Egypt reported as early as 2000 BCE so it is no surprise that there are countless tales and historical events that surround this spice. From Sieur de Joinville believing cinnamon was fished from the Nile at the end of the world and Herodotus writing about mystical giant birds (such as a phoenix) that used cinnamon sticks to build their nests, the history of cinnamon is rich in legends of its origin as it wasn’t until 1270 that it was mentioned the spice grew in Sri Lanka. However as sweet as this spice may be it also appears to have a bloody history. Aside from the countless wars raged over the right to trade cinnamon, it was also used on the funeral pyre of Poppaea Sabina, the wife of Nero, in 65 AD. It is said that he burned over a years supply as recompense for the part he played in her death.
There are a total of 5 species (C. burmannii, C. cassia, C. citriodorum, C. loureiroi and C. verum) that produce cinnamon however C. verum and C. cassia are where the majority of international commerce is sourced from. Production of cinnamon is fairly straight forward albeit time-consuming. The outer bark of the tree is shaved off exposing the inner bark which is the cinnamon layer. This inner bark is also shaved off and left to dry, naturally curling as it does. By comparison the cinnamon of C. verum has a more delicate flavour than that of C. cassia as well as having thinner bark that is more easy to crush and produces a much more smooth texture.
Cinnamon is prominent in the practice of Ayurveda medicine as well as traditional Chinese medicine, being one of the 50 fundamental herbs. Traditionally it has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments from digestive problems, respiratory problems, arthritis and infections. In traditional Chinese medicine it is believed that cinnamon is able to treat these ailments through it’s ability to balance the Yin and Wei as well being a counterflow for Qi. These terms are aptly explained here for those who are interested. While there is little scientific evidence for the treatment of digestive and respiratory disorders, cinnamon does appear to possess antibacterial, antifungal and antimicrobial properties which may help to fight infections although at this moment in time it is inconclusive in studies trialled on humans. Cinnamon produced from C. cassia coumarin, which thins the blood, can be toxic to the liver in high concentrations so it is advised that only a few grams per day be consumed.
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Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg
Lycium chinese, and its close relative Lycium barbarum, are both native to China although typically found to the Southern and Northern regions respectively. Part of the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family, they are also related to tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, chili peppers, tobacco and of course belladonna. Both L. chinese and L. barbarum produces the goji berry, or among English folk commonly known as the wolfberry believed to be derived from the resemblance between Lycium and the greek “lycos” meaning wolf. Both species are decidious woody perennials that typically reach 1-3M tall however L. barbarum is taller than L. chinense. In May through to August lavendar-pink to light purple flowers are produced with the sepal eventually bursting as a result of the growing berry which matures between August and October. The berry itself is a distinctive orange-red and grape-like in shape.
In Asia, premium quality goji berries known as “red diamonds” are produced in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of North-Central China where for over 700 years goji berries have been cultivated in the floodplains of the yellow river. This area alone accounts for over 45% of the goji berry production in China and is the only area in which practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine will source their goji berries as a result of their superior quality. The goji berry has a long history in Chinese medicine, first being mentioned in the Book of Songs, detailing poetry from the 11th to 7th century BC. Throughout different dynasties master alchemists devised treatments centering around the goji berry in order to improve eyesight, retain youthfulness and treating infertility. However it must be noted that because of the goji berry being high in antioxidants those on blood-thinning medication such as Warfarin are advised not to consume the berries.
As a result of their long standing history in Chinese medicine and their nutritional quality Goji berries have been nicknamed the “superfruit”. Many studies have linked the berries being high in antioxidants, vitamin A and complex starches to helping reduce fatigue, improve skin condition and night vision as well as age-related diseases such as Alzheimers. However, there has been little evidence to prove these claims and the evidence that is available is of poor quality.
In the 21st century the goji berry is incorporated in to many products such as breakfast biscuits, cereals, yogurt based products as well as many fruit juices. Traditionally the Chinese would consume sun-drief berries with a wide range of food such as rice congee, tonic soups, chicken and pork. Goji berries would also be boiled alongside Chrysanthemums or tea leaves from Camellia sinensis as a form of herbal tea. How would you like your berries?
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I know you’re thinking “hasn’t she already covered tea?” and yes you’re correct. I have. However, Camellia sinensis (and all of the wonderful varieties of said species) is not the only plant that tea can be made from. In a more recent blog post you have seen that tea can be made from winter green (Gaultheria procumbens) and the same can be said for a lot of plants. Today I will be venturing into the world of Chrysanthemums – Chrysanthemum indicum and Chrysanthemum morifolium to be exact.
C. indicum is a perennial that grows to roughly 100cm tall and is native to China. Chrysanthemum originates from the greek “chryos” and “anthos” translating to golden flower. C. indicum lives up to the name and typically produces a beautiful array of small yellow flowers that flower from August through to October however a multitude of colours are available amongst varieties. One particular variety, C.indicum var. edule (Kitam), is grown and cultivated as a vegetable in China. C. indicum is also one of the main parents of C. morifolium. C. morifolium is less cold hardy than its parental species, often requiring to be stored in greenhouses in Britain when during the cooler weather. However C.morifolium is far larger than its parental species and so is often favoured as a garden ornamental plant. In 1630 over 500 cultivars were listed and in the centuries since numbers have continued to rise generating plants that range from 30 – 120cm tall, with large blooms again in a range of colours.
Aside from being beautiful garden plants Chrysanthemums have also been used in Chinese medicine dating back to 475 -221 BCE and the production of tea. The leaves from both species can be used to brew tea, with cultivars of C. morifolium developed so that leaves are less bitter. The flowers, specifically the petals, of C. morifolium can also be brewed to produce a delicately sweet flavoured tea that is also very beautiful to look at. The tea itself is said to help improve vision by soothing sore eyes and headaches as well as reducing infection and inflammation. Chrysanthemums are said to have antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties and so flowers would often be collected in Autumn and dried so that they could be used later as an infusion. Chrysanthemum tea is also recommended as an alternative to tea from Camellia sinensis for reducing blood pressure.
Flower heads and leaves can also be used in a variety of dishes. Leaves can be battered and turned into fritters and the petals can be pickled or served with soy sauce alongside tofu and salad. Why not try some Chrysanthemum tea or a sprinkling of petals in your salad next time you’re out in the garden?
As always, let me know in the poll below what you would like to see next and stay tuned for the next Travelling Botanists blog post.
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Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg
Seasons greetings from the travelling botanist, I’m taking a break from my travels to bring you a special blog post featuring in the advent botany. Today’s advent features Cornus mas. More commonly known as the cornerlian cherry, it is a medium-large deciduous tree of the dogwood family. Linnaeus referred to this species as both Cornus mas and Cornus mascula, translating to “male” cornel in order to distinguish it from the “female” cornel, Cornus sanguinea. It is native to South Europe as well as many parts of South Western Asia. It was thought not to be in the UK until 1551 whereby William Turner, a keen natural historian and friend of Conrad Gessner, heard that Hampton Court Palace had one in its gardens.
Cornus mas has a cold-hardiness rating of zone 4-8. The fact that it is so cold-hardy means that it is able to survive at temperatures between -25 to -30°C Celsius and is still able to flower at -20°C. The cold-hardiness has also meant that Cornus mas has been successfully introduced to countries outside of its native range such as Norway, Denmark and Sweden as well as across the UK.
Typically used as an ornamental plant, it is a bright and cheerful tree amongst the cold greys of winter. During autumn the glossy green leaves turn purple and come winter the tree boasts beautifully bright yellow flowers. The flowers appear around February to March and are typically very small (5-10mm in diameter) however they provide an important food source and a habitat for pollinators and other insects during those winter months. The flowers are replaced by green berries that ripen to a dark, rich red by mid-late summer. The berries swell to around 2cm long and 1.5cm in diameter and are very fleshy, containing just a single seed. The berries have been harvested and eaten for around 7000 years in ancient Greece, however as the small seed sticks to the flesh of the fruit it has been neglected by mass production and processing. Trees of this species are reported to live and still be producing fruit for over 100 years meaning that there are many years of bountiful harvests to be had if you find one near you.
When unripe the berries are often compared to olives however upon ripening they bear a tart flavour similar to that of cherries. Recipes from the 17th century detail pickling the berries in brine or serving them up in small tarts however the berries are also ideal for making into jams, sauces, syrups or even distilled into your own home-made liqueur or wine. According to Granny, cornelian cherry jams make a great a great alternative to other condiments with your turkey, but also suits cheese and other savoury dishes for this festive season!
I have listed some of the recipes below in case you happen to come across some of the cornelian cherry for yourself.
Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg (with images and introduction provided by Rachel Webster)
It’s always a joy to see something growing through these dark and dreary winter months. With glossy, green leaves, little cream bell-like flowers and big, red berries that start to appear as the snow melts, today’s plant, Gaultheria procumbens, is a very popular choice for baskets and containers. The name of this plant originates from Pehr Kalm, a Swedish explorer who named this plant after his good friend, Dr. Hugues Gaultier who expressed huge enthusiasm for the plant’s potential for tea.
Gaultheria procumbens goes by many common names such as the Checkerberry, Mountain Tea or my particular favourite la Petit te du bois meaning “the little tea of the woods”. The “tea” part of these common names refers to the fact that the leaves can indeed be brewed for tea however unlike that of Camellia sinensis, the leaves must be left to ferment in order to produce a distinct flavour. Drinkers of this mountain tea suggest that you place several leaves in a jar that can be sealed with boiling water and then cover said jar with a cloth or tea towel. The leaves must then be left to ferment for roughly 3 days in a warm environment, or at least till you can see small bubbles appearing. The liquid can be drained from the jar and stored, being diluted and warmed when required. The left over leaves are then dried and can be used again to make a more delicate flavoured tea. The leaves are evergreen and so can be harvested all year round to produce tea however it is suggested that you only take one or two leaves from each stem.
The essential oils of the leaves, known as oil of wintergreen, contains methyl salicylate and relative of aspirin and is known to act as a natural painkiller however those who are allergic to aspirin should avoid Gaultheria procumbens.
The small berries produced by Gaultheria procumbens is often referred to as “teaberries” and these are also edible with a mild minty wintergreen taste. The unripe berries are a pale green-white colour but soon ripen to a beautiful rosy red with a star-shaped depression on the bottom. They can be eaten raw or cooked to produce pies, jams or jellies.