Tuesday, December 30, 2008

#5. Some Poisonous Plants of India

Jatropha curcas (Physic nut)


Glory lily vine

Ratti or Ghumchi

Strychnos nux vomica fruit in Andhra pradesh

Strychnos nux vomica tree in Andhra Pradesh


Raat ki Rani

Photo credit for Jatropha curcas photos: Muthu Karthik
Others to Wikipedia and indiatreepix

Some Poisonous Plants of India

During childhood days, one heard stories about sadhus who were in the habit of taking dhatura seeds which were considered poisonous. One also read about vishkanyas in ficion and about poison arrows in fact and fiction. The story about vishkanyas is fascinating, and so is that of poisons in which arrow darts were slaked, both in the tribal societies and among more civilized people. But let us first take something more in our vicinity: poisonous plants. There are several species which are poisonous or injurious to human body in some way or the other. And you can find them in your garden or planted by the Forest department as a roadside tree with or without the knowledge about their effects on human body system.

Poisoning can be by contact (causing skin irritation), ingestion (causing internal poisoning), absorption (by the skin) and inhalation (in the respiratory system).
Some surfing on the net told me startling facts. Some plants which we consider harmless are actually not so. And many which are used in some way or the other in medicines (especially in homeopathic pharmacology), in raw from are certainly not so benign.

Let us start with Bakain, which is a sister to our famous neem tree, known in English as chinaberry or scientifically as Melia azedarach. (Neem is Azadirachta indica). All pats of Bakain tree are dangerous if eaten. Leaves are used as insect repellents in stored grains and we arre suitably warned that when those cereals are eaten, care should be taken to remove all Bakain leaves from it. This tree can be often found in our country either on the roadside, or in large gardens, and one should be aware of its deathly qualities. Although its fruit is poison to humans, birds gorge on it, and reach a level of ‘intoxication’.

Oleander (Nerium oleander) Is another garden plant and all parts of the plant are poisonous. Its wood if used to cook food can poison it by the fumes. This bush has attractive flowers: pink, yellow or white (tubular) or double pink flowers. One can find it all over the country. My first posting was as Sub-divisional Officer in Jashpur, a large subdivision of Raigarh district and connected by rail to the district headquarters 213 kms. away. It was a small erstwhile state, with majority of tribals in the area, and therefore not having richness which could give it the opulence of Jaipur, Indore or Gwalior. Well, duiring the state time there was an English Diwan who had planted double pink oleander all through the road from Jashpur to Raigarh in his area. It was the border of Kasabel development block. There is another plant called Pangi (pangium edule) found in South East Asia where all parts of the plant are poisonous especially the fruit.

In Castor oil plant (Ricinus communis), all parts of the plant are poisonous to eat.
The next is Lantana (Lantana camara) where all parts are poisonous if eaten and can be fatal.It can also create dermatitis in some.

Renghis or rengas tree or marking nut (Gluta) causes dermatitis similar to poison ivy and poison oak (discussed later).

Lantana, castor oil plant, oleander and marking nut tree are endemic to India.
The other plant worth mentioning in this regard is Rosary pea (Abrus precatorious) which is a vine, and has beautiful black and red seeds. It is most dangerous and one seed is enough to kill an adult. This is found in India sporadically. It is known as ghumchi or ratti. Its seeds are surprisingly unvarying in weight and were used by goldsmiths in our country to weigh gold. One seed was equal to one ratti. One tola is 11.66 gm. 1 Tola is 12 Masha, and 1 Masha is 8 ratti. So one ratti is about 120mg. Whereas one carat is 200 mg.In Hindu gemology, especially related to astrology, ratti and carat are considered and treated almost synonymously. I vaguely remember that in my nana’s village, he had planted a lot of henna tres along the boundary of his homestead, and one of them had this creeper whose seed pods dried and opened showing the red and black gems inside. I also remember that as a child of 3-4 years I climbed the bush (not much of mountaineering I assure!) and plucked those seeds. But nobody told me then or later about its toxic properties, for obvious reasons if anybody knew.

Another plant I could mention is Strychnine tree (Nux Vomica). Berries contain the seed which yield strychnine. Al parts of the plant are poisonous, This is a native of tropics and non-tropics of South East Asia and Australia.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and poison oak (Toxicodendron diversibba) cause serious contact dermatitis. Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vemix) has similar effect. All parts of the plant can cause serious dermatitis at all times of the year. This plant is native to wet, acid swamps of North America.

Renglas tree or the marking nut (which was used by our washermen to mark the clothes wih distinctive mark of the owner so that their clothes are not mixed up. lt has flowers similar to poison oak and poison ivy and causes dermatitis. This plant is native to India, and East and South-east Asia.

Trumpet vine (campsis radicans) causes dermatitis. It is found throughout eastern and central North America in wet woods and thickets.

Once I went on short course to Nainital, a nice and cosy hill station in Uttarakhand. The blanket in the guest house there gave a strong dermatitis, with itching sensation and urge to scratch for 30-40 seconds, in the calf region. Any kind of dermatitis is not something to be talked about, and so I kept mum thinking that in a few days when I went back to Delhi, I would consult a physician. At the end of the course, when we were going by bus to Delhi, one fellow participant very coolly announced that now he was going to scratch, and he did. Later I came to know that about half a dozen trainees were thus afflicted which resulted from the room boys sunning the blankets on the lawn. Why I mention this is that only those who have had this can appreciate how violent the itching sensation can become in some kinds of dermatitis. I don’t remember now, but I think the Nainital itching subsided after a few days on its own. Or may be I used calamine on the advice of the physician. Althoough I haven’t done it ever (I was considered a studious type) but in stories one heard of leaves which was put on teacher’s chair folloed by the violent reaction.

I cannot resist the temptation of mentioning a few of more deadly plants. Death camas or death lily (Zigedenus species )has onion-like plant, but it does not have onion smell. All parts of the plant are very pisonous. It is a native of US (North and East), and American Western subarctic.

Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) is native to Eurasia and is extrememly poisonous. Easy to confuse with carrot or Queen’s lace. At another place the writer has said that that it can be mistaken for fennel, wild carrot or parsley, The habitat is swamp, streambank and wet meadow.

Water hemlock (Cicuta maculata) is also a deadly poison. Small amount may cause death. This is again a native of US and Canada and grows in swamps,wet meadows,stream banks and ditches.

In Cowage (Mucuna pruritum) contact with pods and flowers causes irritation and blindness if it is in the eyes. All parts of the plant are poisonous if eaten, and can be fatal.

The Manchineel (Hippomane mancinella) is extremely toxic. It can cause serious dermatitis even after ½ hour. It is a native of Florida and Caribbean.

Physic nut (Jatropha curcas) has yellow apple-sized seeds which are violently purgative. All parts of the plant are poisonous. This is found throughout the tropics and south USA.This Jatropha is looks like the same species that is being developed as a bio-fuel.

Among some other popular Indian plants, the famous Raat ki Rani(cestrum nocturnum) is poisonous, ncluding its white berry. Dhatura (Dhatura metel)contains highly toxic alkaloids, the main being scopolamine. This hallucinogen is present in highest concentration in leaves and seeds. Often it is mixed with food articles for robbing innocent passengers. This plant and its intoxicant properties have been known in India since prehistoric times. Shiva is associated with its flower and seeds. The latex of Madar or kanak (calotropis gigantean and C. procera) is considered poisonous, and was used for making poison arrows. however, its milky juice, flowers, rootbark and leaves are used in medicine. The powdered dried root is used for treatment of bronchitis, asthma, leposy,eczema etc. The whole plant dried and consumed is a god tonic and expectorant. It also attracts butterflies. The flowers are of two colours: purple and white. White is rarer, and its roots are used to carve icons of Ganesh. Arc latex processed is used in treating vertigo, baldness, hairfall, toothache etc. The side effects of its use are blisters, lesions and eruptions. Therefore the preparation of c. procera is to be used under the careful survellance of a capable medical practitioner.

Last in the list is GLORY LILY or Gloriosa superba. My friend Satyen introduced me to it. A vine with beautiful orange and red flowers, but all parts of the plant are poisonous. विष रस भरा कनक घट जैसे। Especially the roots. In traditional medicine it is used to treat ailments like sprain, bruise, colic pain etc. Poisoning results from overdose. It is also used for committing suicide.
First step after immediate hospitalization is stomach wash or use of emetic followed by symptomatic and supportive therapy. Prophylactic antibiotic treatment is also indicated.

You saw above how some poisonous plants resemble plants that are used by men for eating and otherwise, and so one has to be very particular in choosing what to eat if the plant is not known to him. Good old days when I had some land in a village and my father used to stay there, I remember that with a minor millet there used to be some poisonous grass which was impossible to separate from the grain plant whether in the beginning or at the time of harvesting. So sometimes when the person ate that poison grain along with that the cooked real grain, he used to sleep and sleep. He could get up only in the late afternoon. This was a known phenomenon and nobody bothered if somebody was thus affected. There is another pulse closely resembling tuar which is known as Khesari, and if it is eaten in the form of a loaf made out of its flour, it brings an affliction known as lathyrism with twisted swollen knees. This low grade pulse is used, hopefully not extensively, to adulterate tuar. Argemone seeed has been used to adulterate mustard oil because of its close resemblance to the mustard seed. There was a havoc in Delhi a few years ago because of such adulteration. The use of such adulterated oil in cooking brings lethal dropsy.

We live in dangerous times and dangerous world. Dangerous times as the world has become smaller and any plant seed can land up anywhere. See the nuisance parthenium (gajar ghas which some people jokingly called congress grass!) has created when it came with Mexican wheat seeds (its flower causes skin irritation). Moreover, it has become a weed.

I think I have revealed enough to make you worried at least for the night for you and your family. Next time we shall deal with something more fictional and less nearer to you (vishkanyas and arrow poisons!). Good night.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

#4. Tear Jerkers

Tears, Idle Tears

When the Poet Laureate wrote: 'Tears, idle tears I know not what they mean’ was he referring to the tears that come to your eyes when you are sitting just like that, reminiscing about something, you yawn in the winter afternoon sun and the tears come to your eyes. They are tears of laziness, slight boredom and sleepiness. Then we have crocodile tears which are only for show, and without any emotion behind them. There is another type which is full of emotion, grief, sadness, when you part with your near and dear ones, or when you remember something which you wish could have been otherwise, like crying over the spilt milk with a lot of emotion thrown in.

In the movie ‘Lamhe’, a neighbouring jagirdar comes to meet the son of his old friend who is no more, and the son has come after a long time. Well the jagirdar comes and leaves abruptly when his late friend is mentioned. The son is stupefied thinking that it was because of his faux pas, and is explained by his nannie that Rajputs don’t want to show their tears even to their own and that is why he had left.

Memories do bring tears, but what I have in mind the audio visual which draws tears, a movie, a song, or somebody reminding you of something. I remember one of my teachers who at the time of his retirement during his farewell speech to the students cried bitterly. There are some who cry in a movie, some invariably whether the scene is sad or not. Some even cry when they hear a sad song, or even during a reality show. Many sposrtspersons during their moment of achievement give way to their emotion and cry on the victory stand. Some cry when they could not stand on that. One remembers that when Lady Margaret’s son was lost in the African desert, his mother cried bitterly, in spite of her being called the Iron Lady. Some don’t cry when their nearest and dearest have passed away, and people worry over the effect pent-up emotins will have on the mental make-up of the bereaved. There is a sigh of relief everywhere when ultimately the person loses control.
Why should anybody start crying at the smallest incident in a movie or a TV serial whether sad or happy? Is that their threshold of emotions is too low? Are they emotionally more vulnerable, and therefore more disturbed? Or is it because of some psychological disturbance deep inside their mind which creates this havoc? Once I read that some actors do not need artificial tears and they can cry whenever they feel like, or whenever the need arises.

Whatever, there is a lot of difference between the real tears and these idle tears, and at the most emotional level are those which come to the eyes but do not fall: ‘Humne to jana hai Hazin/ Jo gir jaye woh paani hai/ Ansoo to who ek katra hai, jo palkon pe tadpe, beh na sake.’( I have realised Hazin (the poet) that what comes out of eyes is just water. Tear is the drop which trembles at the eyelids but dare not come out).

#3. Me Marathi Maanus Naai

Me Marathi Maus Naai?

During these days of linguistic fanatism in Mumbai, I am passing through a strange personal dilemma. But to understand why, you have to be patient and hear a long story about who I am.

It was probably during the Third Battle of Panipat that a large number of Maharashtrian Brahmans came to north India. Maratha warrior chiefs liked to travel with their paraphernalia, family, purohit et al apart from the battle things. It seems that after the Maratha were defeated, these Brahmans dispersed in north India, and a large chunk came to Banaras (now Varanasi). My great-great grandfather shifted to Ghazipur, a small place on the bank of Ganga about 45 miles to the east, and my forefathers lived there ever since. My great grandfather was a renowned ayurvedic vaidya in that part of the country, and he reportedly amassed a fortune. Unfortunately my grandfather died of cholera when my father was only 10 years old, and the property disappeared in a generation.

This group of Brahmans was different from the ones who went with the Maraharashtrian Brahman Shankaracharya who was sent by the Adi Shankar to Jyotishpith in Uttarakhand. This happened much earlier, and you still find Maharashtrian surnames like Joshi, Bhatt, Pant etc. in Uttarakhand. Our venerable Govind Vallabh Pant belonged to the same stock.

If our history is not clear, one may rightly ask why we call ourselves Marathi. The proof is Marathi, the spoken language, though what was used by my later forefathers was much diluted by the influence of north India. The other evidence is the religious rites and customs.

Come to poor me. My father married a girl from Bihar. And I grew up as a typical upper middle class Hindi speaking person whose family was never fully assimilated with the North Indians.

Many from our closed group migrated to Calcutta where a number of them got employment in banks, and some to parts of Bihar. Several religious rites were observed which were more prevalent among other linguistic groups than a typical Deshastha Brahman family. My father’s sister observed a Lakshmi Puja which was basically a Gujerati rite, and people expressed surprise. She was insistent that it brought her good luck, and she would not give it up.

Some of my cousins and other relatives went back to various places in Maharashtra, Nagpur, Pune, Nasik. They quickly adopted the accent of the region, language was of course the same. But one of my cousins who shifted to Nagpur, and married a local girl, casually confided to me that he would probably have been happier in Calcutta where he spent his young days. He said that whenever he talked to local people, and his son was also with him they replied to him in Hindi and to his son in Marathi. (He is above 70, and has been Nagpur for more than half a century).

Coming back to myself, I also married a north Indian girl and most of my life worked in Madhya Pradesh, and for some years in Delhi. My last stint was in Mumbai for about 7 years, but there I found that the people considered me more of a north Indian and never tried to speak to me in Marathi. In those seven years, even the domestic help spoke to me and my wife in Hindi.

That my daughter has married a north Indian, and settled in Mumbai where he has a job, and my son who is working abroad is also thinking of marrying a Delhi girl is understandable,

This time when my daughter came to us in Gwalior for her annual visit, she casually mentioned that very soon her position would be that of Muslims in Mumbai. I had no readymade reply for her.

Can my and my children’s claim of being only Indians and not Marathi Manus be acceptable in the largest metro of the country ?