Poisonous plants

The Poison Chronicles: Bryony – Deadly Margins

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Guest Post by Laura Cooper

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Margin Illustrations from The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre. Image Source.

 

The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre is one of the most famous and beautiful illuminated manuscripts. It is a collection of prayers and psalms for each of the hours of the medieval religious day made for the personal use of the Queen of Navarre somewhere between 1328-1343. The book is lavishly and elegantly decorated with images of saints and angels framed by a naturalistic border. This curling foliage has been referred to as ivy, but was identified by Christopher de Hamel actually white bryony, Bryonia dioica.

Bryony is a notoriously poisonous plant, so the scenes the illuminator painted are far from idyllic. As de Hamel writes in his book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts,“The world in the medieval margins is not a comfortable place, any more than the gilded life of Jeanne de Navarre was safe and secure.” Bryony is not just a decorative flourish, but a memento mori, a reminder of the danger that surrounded the medieval monarch.

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Byronia dioica leaves and flowers from the Charles Bailey Collection of the Manchester Museum Herbarium

 

In reality, despite it’s elabourate image, bryony is an unglamourous poisoner. The plant is the only gourd (family Cucurbitaceae) native to Britain, mostly found in Central and South Eastern England. Eating the plant produces powerful laxative effect, a scatological killer not fitting the intrigue of the royal court. There doesn’t seem to be any records of human poisoning by B. dioica, but it’s occurrence in hedgerows means livestock occasionally are poisoned by the root. Historical there would have been many more cases, however. B. dioica was used as a medicine, such as for leprosy, likely as a drug of last resort for an untreatable condition.

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Bryonia dioica from the Charles Bailey Collection of the Manchester Museum Herbarium

 

The B.dioica plant is remarkable for its large, rapidly-growing and foul-smelling root. Roots the size of one year old child were shown to John Gerard by the surgeon of Queen Elizabeth I, William Goderous.The size and speed at which the roots can grow means that they have been used by “knaves” to counterfeit the more alleged aphrodisiac mandrake (Mandragora officinarum). In his Universal Herbal of 1832, Thomas Green describes this practice; “The method which these knaves practiced was to open the earth round a young, thriving Bryony plant […] to fix a mould, such as is used by those who make plaster figures, close to the root, and then to fill in the earth about the root, leaving it to grow to the shape of the mould.” However, the notably effects of anticholinergic toxins of mandrake, inducing hallucinations and rapid heart rate, and the laxative bryony means these frauds were unlikely to have repeat customers.

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Bryonia dioica leaves and fruit from the Manchester Museum Herbarium

 

The medieval margin illustrations feature identifiable bird species, but lack botanical detail. Bryonia dioica itself is a rapid climber of hedgerows. It’s five-lobed leaves have a rough feel with curling tendrils, white flowers and red berries which produce a foetid smelling juice when squeezed. The root is usually simple like a turnip and when cut produces a white foul smelling milk from the bitter succulent flesh.

Despite its surface charms, its scent, taste and effects are the exact opposite of belladona, meaning it lacks the glamour of this more famous poisoner.

The Poison Chronicles: Hemlock

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Herbarium Sheet of Conium maculatum from the Manchester Museum Herbarium

Guest Post by Laura Cooper

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is one of the most notorious of poisonous plants. It’s best known as the poison that killed the philosopher Socrates, and may even be indirectly responsible for the deaths of quail eaters, but even this species has been used as a medicine.

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Conium maculatum achenes from the Manchester Museum Herbarium

Conium maculatum is in the family Apiaceae. Many species in this family resemble hemlock as they possess white flowers in umbels, branches of the stem which form a flat surface, and pinnate leaves, resemble parsely (Petroselinum crispum) and wild carrot (Daucus carota). This has lead to foragers accidentally poisoning themselves, but most are put off by the “mousy” or foetid odour and bitter taste. This and red spots that appear on the base of the plant in spring, traditionally gained when the plant grew at the base of Christ’s cross, are key identification features. It is a common “weed” globally, and was introduced as an ornamental to North America.

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A plant easily confused with poison hemlock, Mirrhis odorata or Sweet Cicely. The image on the left is from Leonhart Fuchs’ De Historia Stirpium 1542, illustrations from the Manchester Museum Herbarium.

A vivid account of hemlock poisoning is given in Plato’s Phaedo, where his teacher Socrates is sentenced to death by consuming a “poison” known to be C. maculatum. After being given the poison, Socrates “walked about until […] his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back […] the man who gave him the poison […] pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; […] and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he […] said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. […] in a minute or two […] his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.” The execution is an apt one for a philosopher, as he retained conscience throughout. However, the description may be idealised to preserve the dignity of Plato’s old teacher, as most hemlock poisonings involve vomiting and seizures in addition to the creeping paralysis.

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Specimen from the Manchester Museum Herbarium

Hemlock kills by a cocktail of similar chemicals, including γ-coniceine and coniine. Coniine affecting the nicotinic receptors on neurons first to stimulate the nervous system, causing seizures, vomiting and tachycardia. Later it may inhibit the central nervous system, causing brachycardia and paralysis.

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Specimen from the Manchester Museum Herbarium.

One of the most sinister ways of being poisoned by a plant is the rare condition coturnism. It is caused by eating quail, Coturnix coturnix, killed in the Mediterranean whilst migrating north from Africa in the spring (but not when returning in the autumn). It is widely reported that this is due to the quail consuming the seeds of C. maculatum, but there is conflicting evidence. According to E. F. Jelliffe, hemlock drops seed in late summer and autumn, meaning quail migrating north in the spring cannot have eaten this seed. Therefore, the cause of coturnism is still a mystery.

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Specimen from the Manchester Museum Herbarium

But despite it’s notoriety, C. maculatum features in medieval household remedies. It’s powers of sedation are utilized in a recipe for an anesthetic known as dwale. The recipe involves boiling pig bile, three spoonfuls each of of hemlock juice, opium and henbane, bryony, lettuce and vinegar and adding this to half a gallon of wine. Drinking this would apparently allow a person to fall asleep and be “safely cut”, after which vinegar and salt to the face would revive them. Though the mixture seems effective at knocking a person out, it is questionable that the vinegar would be enough to revive them. However, there is no scientific evidence that “root of hemlock, digged i’ th’ dark” that the witches in Macbeth add to their potion contributed to Macbeth’s false imperviousness.

The Poison Chronicles: Deadly Doping with Strychnos nux-vomica

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Strychnos nux-vomica‘s bumpy nuts

Guest post by Laura Cooper

Strychnine is an infamous poison. It is most well-known by its appearance in the novels of Agatha Christie as an effective but unsubtle method of murder. It was widely available in the 19th century from chemists as a rat poison, but this was taken advantage of by a number of real life serial killers including Dr Thomas Cream who gave disguised as a medicine and in alcohol. But strychnine had another side to it. Its caffeine- like stimulating effects means it has been used as a performance enhancing drug in competitive sports.

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Herbarium sheet of Strychnos nux-vomica

Strychnine, along with the toxin brucine, is present in the seeds of Strychnos nux-vomica. Though its name is lurid, it does not have anything to do with vomiting, “nux vomica” translates as ‘bumpy nut’. S. nux-vomica is in the family Loganiaceae and is native to South-East Asia and India. It is a medium-sized tree with large smooth oval leaves. The flowers have a repellent smell and the fruit is apple-sized with a hard shell that is orange when ripe. Inside, the seed are held in soft gelatinous pulp. The seeds are flattened disks covered with fine hairs, their flatness gives them the nickname ‘Quaker buttons’. The strychnine is concentrated in the seeds, but the wood also possesses poisons including brucine. Strychnine in the S. nux- vomica plays the same role as abrin in Abrus precatorius, it prevents herbivore species evolving which specialize in eating these seeds, as the poison is so general that it will likely kill any animal that eats the seed.

Strychnine poisons by blocking glycine from binding to specific neurons in the central nervous system. Strychnine prevents glycine from carrying out its inhibitory role, so causes the central nervous system to over-react to the smallest stimulus.

Initially the muscles become stiff, which is followed by hyperreflexia, where small stimulus trigger powerful reflex reactions. Later, increasingly frequent whole body convulsions occur. These resemble those in tetanus, an explanation often used to cover up strychnine poisoning. Eventually the respiratory muscles become paralysed and death by asphyxiation  occurs usually within a few hours. Strychnine cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so the victim is fully conscious throughout, making strychnine poisoning one of the worst ways to die I can imagine.

The main method of treating strychnine poisoning is crude. The patient is given barbiturates and muscle relaxants and removed from stimuli to prevent convulsions until the strychnine is metabolised by the liver which takes a few days.

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Botanical illustration of Strychnos nux-vomica

However, S. nux-vomica extracts have been used in herbal and alternative medicine. It has been recommended for many different health issues from abdominal pain, heart disease and migraines though there is no evidence for its efficacy as a drug. However, a low dose of strychnine stimulates the central nervous system in a similar way to caffeine, but to a greater extent. This gives it great potential to act as a placebo, which is likely why it was reported to treat a wide range of illnesses, as well as to help spur athletes to victory.

S. nux-vomica‘s stimulating effects were used in 19th and early 20th century Europe and America in competitive sports as one of an arsenal of performance enhancing drugs, which were even deemed necessary for some endurance sports. Strychnine helped the American Thomas Hicks secure an Olympic Gold Medal. He was given strychnine and brandy during the 1904 Olympic marathon when he was flagging, though he collapsed after crossing the finishing line he later recovered. To this day, strychnine is on the list of banned stimulants in the World Anti-Doping Agency International Standard Prohibited List.

For more information, see the Poison Garden’s page on the species and Ian Musgrave’s article on strychnine in sport.