Poisoned by Lovely Plants
Pp. 90-123 (34)
Olen R. Brown
Many plants contain chemical compounds that are mildly toxic to humans;
some plants are overtly poisonous, and a few are deadly. Throughout history, the
leaves, roots, stems, and berries of certain plants have been used for murder, often of
the vilest sort. Also, people and animals are accidentally poisoned by plants some of
which are garden-variety ornamentals. Because there are so many choices, in this
chapter, I have elected to describe certain plant toxins because of extreme toxicity,
some because of unusual examples of their murderous applications, and a few because
they have become the subject of legends. I hope to draw the reader’s interest in the
science of toxic plants and their poisons and about the use of these poisons in modern
accounts and in tales that are mostly myth. A true story, but one with sensationalized
nuances and uncertainties and a modern revisiting, is the murder conviction of Harvey
Crippen based on a death from a medicinal chemical derived from the belladonna plant.
I will explore what I have chosen to call the art and science of five very poisonous
plants: belladonna (deadly nightshade), white snakeroot, castor bean, rosary pea, and
monkshood. I will include references rather than extensive descriptions of the plants,
details about the signs and symptoms of poisoning, an example of poisonous use
(extensive for belladonna), and the biochemistry and biology of the mechanisms of
toxicity of the chemicals.
Alkaloids, Belladonna, Belle Crippen, Castor bean, Hawley Crippen,
Deadly nightshade, DNA analysis, Ethel Le Neve, Georgi Markov, Hyoscine,
Hyoscyamine, Jequirity, Monkshood, Plant toxins, Scopolamine, Ricin, Rosary
pea, Vitali test, Water hemlock, White snakeroot, Wolf’s bane.
Dalton Cardiovascular Research Center University of Missouri Columbia, MO USA.