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.

1 comment:

vaishnavi singh said...

thanh's for the information. it will help me a lot.