Poisonous Plants: Chinese Lantern, Deadly Nightshade and Castor Oil Plant
Beware of Chinese Lantern (Physalis), Deadly Nightshade (Atropine) and Castor Oil Plant (Ricinus)
Many people sail through life thinking "This will never happen to me". But when it comes to poisoning by toxic plants, you can never be 100% sure—haven't you ever brushed against stinging nettles and felt a very unpleasant tingling, stinging rash for several hours afterwards? Of course that could happen even if you know very well what nettles look like. It just needs a moment's inattention whilst you are gardening or walking through a field or overgrown path.
A few days ago, I felt a prickly sensation after putting on my leather gardening gloves. It felt like a small rose thorn. I inspected my thumb but there was nothing to see. For hours afterwards and up through following day, it became red and tingly—not agony, but very unpleasant and a bit worrying. Then I remembered that some weeks ago I had brushed against some stinging nettles. Goodness knows how anything got inside the gloves, or how it lasted so long, but at least I solved the mystery.
So staying alert and mindful is probably your best protection, but first you need knowledge. Then, with knowledge comes wisdom.
This article will provide information on three poisonous plants: Chinese lantern, deadly nightshade and castor oil plant.
The Most Important Thing
Learn to identify poisonous plants and treat them with respect.
Chinese Lantern Plant (Strawberry Ground Cherry or Physalis Alkekengi)
The attractive, bright orange seed pods of Chinese lanterns (Physalis alkekengi) are poisonous, and the unripe berries can be highly toxic and possibly fatal (although the ripe fruit is edible).
Poisonous Parts: Unripe berries, leaves.
Symptoms: Headache, stomach ache, vomiting, diarrhea, low temperature, dilated pupils, breathing problems and numbness.
Deadly Nightshade (Atropa Belladonna)
Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is one of the most toxic plants found in the Western Hemisphere. Children have been poisoned by eating as few as two berries, and ingestion of a single leaf of belladonna can be fatal to an adult.
It is a perennial plant that grows between 2 to 4 feet (0.6 to 1.2 metres) tall. Deadly nightshade has dull, dark green leaves and bell-shaped, purple, scented flowers, which bloom from mid-summer to mid-autumn. The green berries turn to shiny black as they ripen. They are attractive to children because they are sweet and juicy.
Although toxic to humans and to some animals, horses, rabbits and sheep can eat the leaves and birds can feed on the berries without harm.
The poisons contained in deadly nightshade affect the nervous system. Taken in sufficient doses, the deadly poison paralyzes nerve endings in the involuntary muscles of the body, such as the blood vessels, heart and gastrointestinal muscles.
Uses of atropine from deadly nightshade: In the past, Italian women would put the juice of deadly nightshade in their eyes to brighten them by dilating the pupils, which makes the eyes look larger.
Atropine, one of the poisons in deadly nightshade, is still regularly used in ophthalmology to dilate pupils.
Poisonous Parts: Deadly nightshade contains poison in its stems, leaves, berries and roots—all parts of this plant are toxic. The young plants and seeds are especially poisonous, causing nausea, muscle twitches and paralysis; it is often fatal. The root of the plant is generally the most toxic part, however.
Symptoms: Dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, headaches, confusion and convulsions. As few as two ingested berries can kill a child, and 10–20 berries would kill an adult. Even handling the plant can cause irritation.
Castor Bean or Castor Oil Plant (Ricinus Communis)
The castor bean plant (Ricinus communis) is widely cultivated throughout the world for its castor oil, but the seeds contain a deadly poison: ricin.
It grows well in barren areas and can reach 36 feet (11 metres) in a season. The flowers of the plant are yellowish green with red centers, while the leaves are large with toothed edges.
Uses of Ricinus communis: Castor oil, which comes from the seeds, is a mild-tasting vegetable oil that is used in many food additives and flavorings and is also used also as a laxative. In ancient times, the castor bean was used in ointments and, allegedly, Cleopatra applied the oil to the whites of her eyes to brighten them.
Castor bean plant is used in Paclitaxel, a chemotherapy drug, in Sandimmune, a drug for immune suppression, and in Xenaderm, a topical for skin ulcers.
Poisonous Parts: Ricin is present in low levels throughout the plant, but it is largely concentrated in the seed coating. Seed poisonings are rare and usually involve children and pets, but they can be deadly. As few as three seeds, which are green with brown markings, could kill a child who swallows them.
What Is Ricin?
Ricin is a toxin that is fatal to humans in extremely small doses. Just 1 milligram is a deadly amount if inhaled or ingested, and only 500 micrograms of the substance would kill an adult if it were injected (CDC). Ricin comes from the castor bean plant and is present in the mash that is left over after grinding castor beans into oil. It can be delivered as a powder, a mist or a pill.
Ricin is a ribosome-inactivating protein. It irrevocably damages the ribosomes that carry out protein synthesis in cells. The ribosome-inactivating proteins found in the castor bean plant are extremely powerful, and ricin poisoning can do serious damage to major organs.
Symptoms of Ricin Poisoning
Nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, internal bleeding and kidney and circulation failure are the main symptoms of ricin poisoning. Many people suffer from an allergic reaction to the dust from the seeds and may experience coughing, muscle aches and difficulty breathing. Exposure to the dust is most common in areas where the beans are processed for commercial use.
There is no known antidote for ricin poisoning.
Exposure to ricin can be fatal if it is inhaled, ingested or injected. While skin or eye contact with ricin can cause pain, it is typically not fatal in that type of exposure.
The initial symptoms of ricin sickness—which may appear anywhere from 3–12 hours from the time of exposure—include coughing, fever and stomach pains.
If ingested, the main symptoms within the first hours are stomach ache, gastroenteritis, bloody diarrhea and vomiting. Over the course of the first days after exposure, the victim may experience symptoms of dehydration and low blood pressure.
Ricin inhalation can manifest as lung damage, including pulmonary edema (fluid in and swelling of the lungs).
Other possible symptoms include seizures and problems with the central nervous system.
If the exposure is fatal, the victim most likely will die within five days. If death does not occur in that time, the victim will most likely recover.
There is no known antidote for ricin poisoning!
More Poisonous Plants in this Series
How many of these dangerous plants did you know about before reading this article?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2010 Diana Grant