Death by Jewelry? : Abrus precatorius

These pods with their innocent looking, pretty red and black seeds have been sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks now.
I had noticed the brilliant red dots shining out from the tangled remains of a decaying creeper which was twining over the chain link fence of the dog park opposite our apartment block.
I had no idea what it was and was astonished to find that, insinuating itself amongst the benign ivies and maypops, is one of the most deadly plants in the world!

abrus pre

Abrus precatorius Flowers and leaves at Gulfstream Park, Florida. September 24, 2009 photo”Forest & Kim Starr” from Plants of Hawaii  

The pretty leguminous vine Abrus precatorius (from the Latin precari to pray), has many names: Jequirity, Rosary Pea, ‘John Crow’ Bead, Precatory bean, Indian Licorice, Saga Tree, Lucky Bean, Giddee Giddee or Jumbie Bead, locally here they are called Crab’s Eyes.

But its most fascinating “attribute” is that the hard red and black seeds, which are still used for jewelry in central America and Mexico, contain a poison which is really deadly.

So much so, that just one thoroughly chewed seed can cause fatal poisoning. The poison is “Abrin”, a relative of “Ricin” which was used in London in 1978, to dispatch Georgi Markov, in the famous umbrella killing.
Jewelry making accidents sometimes do happen when the makers prick a finger while handling the seeds, but apparently if swallowed whole the seeds are harmless..
The ever useful, excellent and entertaining site Waynesword has this to say and gives more info about its deadly qualities.

In spite of their reputation as one of the world’s most deadly seeds, precatory beans are certainly one of the most beautiful seeds on earth. They are sometimes called prayer beans or rosary beans and have been used for rosaries. Because of their remarkably uniform weight of 1/10th of a gram, seeds of Abrus precatorius were used by goldsmiths of East Asia as standard weights for weighing gold and silver. In fact, the famous Koh-i-noor diamond of India, now one of the British crown jewels, was reportedly weighed using seeds of Abrus precatorius.”

It’s another unwelcome invasive species here in Florida given category 1 status. A thorough explanation of the plant and its toxicity can be found here.

I am left wondering what being so toxic does for the plant? Of course it will repel some animals grazers, but interestingly it appears that birds are not affected by abrin and they are largely responsible for dispersing the seeds.

It is also another of those strange plants that quite likes being burnt. Seeds are readily available from seed suppliers, some of whom do not mention its deadly properties, but then as a funny article about the possibility of terrorist uses of Abrus says,

Somehow mankind has muddled through, managing not to exterminate itself with rosary peas” ………read more from the Register here

Whatever its problems it is lovely to draw, the shiny seeds contrasting with the dark twisted pods which have a thin papery lining. I think I may do a couple more studies and find out a bit more about this interesting plant which also has some medicinal uses… apart from the fatal ones of course!

Abrus Precatorius,

The “Lucky” (for some but not others) Bean.

abrus sm

Watercolour on Arches HP 12 x 7 inches

Leaf of the Day: The Good Jicama..if just a little toxic

Hmmmm…This is really not the sign you want to be confronted with when entering a vegetable garden, is it!

How can this be? The pods look every bit as inviting and edible as a runner bean at least. But here, growing in the Leu Gardens vegetable plot, in a big untidy heap of pods and leaves, is the Jicama, Pachyrhizus erosus.
The sign well is deserved, especially in this public garden, because just as it says, all aerial parts of this plant are poisonous. So I cannot really add this to my “eat you way round the garden” list and definitely not “eat your models” list, unless I was drawing the root, which I have to say doesn’t look too inspiring.

Image from the Root and Tuber Crops Section of the International Society for Horticultural Science. here

Jicama is a tropical vine which given the right conditions and a sturdy support can clamber a good 20 feet. A member of the Fabaceae (pea) family, it is native to Central America, where it is also known as Yam Bean or Mexican Turnip. Its botanical name “Pachyrhizus” means “thick root” and the colloquial name Jicama, from Nahuatlan Indian xicama, means “edible storage root.” Other descriptions include ” a dusty old stone”or “an inert looking blob”but these splendid edible roots can weigh up to fifty pounds, although those you may see at the supermarket are more likely to be 3 or 4 pounds. On balance I think it probably has a bit more about it than the average potato.
Its taste seems to be difficult to describe, somewhere between an apple and a potato, or a bit like a water chestnut. It can be eaten raw, boiled, mashed, fried or sauteed etc. Raw, it is crisp, slightly sweet, can be added to salads and used for dips….and it is the slimmers friend being very low in calories. I can’t understand why it is not at the front of every veggie display.

In its native Mexico Jicama is a staple food, added to many dishes and sold on the street as a snack, livened up with a squeeze of lime or a dash of chili.
It is also one of the 4 foods included in the Dia de los Muertos festivities, celebrated in November, the others traditionally being sugar cane, tangerines and peanuts.

photo by lacasa from Travelpod website here

It is the time when the beautiful and thoughtful altars are made as homage to the dead. Bowls of fruits are offered as nourishment and placed amongst other mementos, symbols and flowers as offerings, to aid the dead in their journey to visit the living. The Jicama is also celebrated in the form of the delightfully delicate papel picado dolls.

I think this is a wonderful festival, celebration and remembrance all rolled into one, reflecting the Mexicans robust way of dealing with death.
“The Mexican… familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but a least death is not hidden away….” Octavio Paz 1914-1998

However if the death had been caused by Jicama poisoning you might not be so ready to include it in the plate of vegetables, but that is more likely to occur if you are a fish or an insect. The seeds of the Jicama contain Rotenone, a fish and insect poison. The Native Americans used the crushed seeds in their, perhaps less than sporting, fish-stunning, fishing technique, scattering the seeds on the waters surface and gathering up the immobilized creatures when the Rotenone has taken effect. Similar to the soapberry stunning I wrote about here in Soapberry, The Dark Side.
It is also used as an insecticide. Ant was noticeably absent from the drawing table this afternoon having been scampering about earlier. Yes, Ant is still with me, despite more attempts to encourage him to find a new life elsewhere.

The leaves are big, very big, I found a smallish one to sketch but this takes up the whole page of my 14 x17 inch sketchbook. I opened up a pod to draw, (not licking my fingers..) Its two sides were elegantly symmetrical with the tiny unripe seeds anchored like little shiny pearls in their spacious compartments, held in green chambered security, quite beautiful. As I was drawing, the pod sides began to twist and curl as they dried out. An hour on, it would have been more pleasing to draw .. but such is life.

Jicama Leaf and Pod

Leaf of the Day: Rattlebox Pod and Leaf

I went to the Gardens today and spent quite some time just wandering the paths. The light is beautiful at this time of the year. The low angled sun picks out features that you may have missed before. It must be a year now since my first brief visit and I am beginning to see some of the same plants in bloom. Leu Gardens is well know for its huge camellia collection and they are just beginning to blossom. I have not been a great fan of camellias before, the flowers seem to spoil very easily looking brown and very unattractive but I have already seen bushes with big eye catching white flowers. I do like white flowers, particularly against the deep blue green of these leaves. I will be taking a series of photos of the different varieties. Prepare for camellia overload. I may even paint one!

I am not sure of this variety, it was just a passing shot.

My drawing today is not of some strange fish which it rather resembles but the broken pod of the Rattlebox Tree, Sesbania punicea. I had seen the tree some time ago and have been waiting patiently for a couple of pods to mature and rattle! The flowers are long gone now but are pretty and typical of the Fabacea family earning it the perhaps more attractive, but less interesting name Scarlet Wisteria tree.

The pods have a very interesting structure and when dry do make a wonderful rattling sound. Killerplants here and image above describes the pods as having
” four ‘wings’. and when mature, the seeds loosen and rattle within the pod. (This trait is totally unnerving to field personnel who are expecting to come upon rattlesnakes)”
I have not met with a rattlesnake yet so am not quite sure of the exact sound.

I found this wonderful old engraving by Paul Hermann Wilhelm Taubert (Wiki here )
from 1891, which shows, in a very modern schematic way, the 4 wings and the seeds, much better than my broken pod.
This is my photograph of the Sesbania taken earlier today with more rattles forming.

Unfortunately this appears to be another unwelcome and invasive species and despite its attractive pods this is a poisonous plant, similar, I imagine to the laburnum in the UK.
Tomorrow more poisonous beans!

Rattlebox Pod and Leaf

Leaf of the Day: FishTail Palm and Jaggery

Sunday. Rain was promised later so we made the most of the morning sun and cycled all around some local areas we had not explored before. Three hours later, we returned just before the storms. We did get just a tiny bit lost amongst the lakes and tree lined streets of Maitland, but found the Maitland Arts Centre which looks very interesting. I am hoping for perhaps a course or two and maybe some artistic contact and I think there is a foundry nearby too. I can feel the old sculpture itch coming back..oh dear.

Todays drawing is probably the smallest compound leaf I could find from one of the fishtail palms at Leu. When you first see a fishtail palm you would be forgiven for thinking that all the leaves had been damaged, torn or severely attacked with pinking shears. They always seem to look ragged and untidy and if exposed to too much sun the leaves turn brown at the ends, looking as though they really need either some TLC or digging out completely. If you decide to take this latter course of action it won’t be easy, as these big palms fight back. Not only is their wood terrifically hard so they can resist even a chain saw, but their seeds, which they produce in profusion, are very toxic and contain severe skin irritants.(Calcium oxalate crystals). The symptons are, burning and swelling of lips, mouth, tongue, and throat; difficulty of speaking. Redness and swelling of skin and eyes after handling berries, with severe pain in the mouth if eaten.

All these dangerous qualities would not really bode well for using this plant for food stuffs of any kind but the sap of some the caryotas, particularly Caryota urens also known as Toddy palm, is used to make an unrefined sugar called jaggery or gur, and also to make palm wine. In Burma, the translucent white syrup is boiled until it becomes golden brown and referred to locally as Burmese chocolate. It is also made into bite-sized pieces which are served as a sweetmeat with green tea. The sweet little squares may include shredded coconut, plum puree or sesame. They sound delicious. Palm wine or Toddy, is made from various palm trees and I will return to it another time but one of its attractions must be that is can be ready to drink in 2 hours! I would also like to know if the Scottish “hot toddy” was named after this drink or the otherway round.

This ragged edge is very much part of the design of the leaf. This particular one is the Caryota misca and of course their nickname “fishtail” comes from the jagged or “chopped” appearance just like the tail of a fish. They are also unusual in that they have a bipinnate leaf rather than one big leaf with a central stem. “Bipinnate” means that the leaf stem has secondary branching stems (pinna) with leaflets. The one I have drawn is a young leaf, with 5 leaflets on one pinna.


FishTail Palm

Leaf of the Day: Spotty Dumb Cane

This pretty spotty leaf is a very small one from a much bigger plant, which I am sure is a diffenbachia, growing in a shady side road here.
The diffenbachia is a well known houseplant in the UK and another to be treated with some respect. It’s called the “dumb cane” with good reason as the plant contains tiny, needle sharp, calcium oxalate crystals. These puncture the cells and release a protein called asparagine, which causes severe inflammation of soft tissues. Chewing on the leaves makes the tongue swell and can restrict both speech and breathing. A guide I read here advises that you should “dissuade your rabbits, canaries, dogs and cats from snacking on the leaves.”

Its medical uses are, as you can imagine, interesting.
The German pharmacologist G Madeus in 1938 writing about some if its unusual applications had found that Amazon Indians used it, not only as an ingredient for poison arrows, but also to sterilize their enemies. In parts of the Caribbean it used to be thought that chewing a leaf was an effective temporary contraceptive. I can only assume that your lover would be struck dumb as well…. “whispering sweet nothings” would become more truth than romantic foreplay, some ladies possibly finding it an added attraction to be spared the verbal encouragement.

In light of this alarming information I think that, in addition to the treasured pets, you need to dissuade your man from snacking on this plant lest he be rendered both speechless and useless. (There must be a joke in there somewhere..)


Dumb Cane

Leaf of the Day: Crown of Thorns

This is a very strange little plant. I saw it growing close by, in the border under the bauhini tree. Initially I had no idea what it was and kept this small piece here in the studio for about a week in water. It is so pretty and I am hoping to propagate it despite the thorns.
The drawing is in pen and ink and comes with a few sketches I had made on the side of the page. (..a bit like showing your workings in the old maths exams). The main drawing is done with a fine felt tip pen, the sketches on the side with dip pen and brown ink which I still prefer for its more expressive line.
Crown of thorns is a succulent, belonging to the Euphorbiacea or spurge family which also includes the poincettia, casava and the hevea rubber plant. (there is the most fascinating short article here about rubber.) Its Latin name is euphorbia milii.
Euphorbias appear to be named after Euphorbus a Greek physician to the interesting King Juba II (approx 50 BC to 19 AD) of Numidia a region of north Africa now Algeria. The “milli” after Baron Milius, who introduced the species to France in 1821.
As you can imagine it was thought to have been the plant used for the “crown of thorns” worn by Christ which may be, in part, because of its pliable stems but there are other contenders for that role.
The latex from the spurge family is toxic and can cause dermatitis, have stupifying effects if ingested, and as the name spurge implies, has been used as a purgative in medicine. It is just another delightfully dangerous addition to my growing list of poisonous plants .. the garden is a hazardous place and my enemies had best beware my newly acquired knowledge!

Crown of Thorns

Leaf of the Day: Aconite

An aconite from under the weeping ash tree. They are so pretty and dainty with their green fringe and glossy yellow petals. Locally they are known as “choirboys “, an innocent and charming image, but like the hellebore from yesterday they are poisonous. Their root is similar to Horseradish and that confusion had added a deadly zest to some roast beef in the past.
The Latin name is “Eranthis hyemalis” and together with the hellebore they are part of the ranunculus genus..buttercups.

Winter Aconite.

Leaf of the Day: Lenten Rose

Here I am at home in Lincolnshire. Spring is just getting underway and the low sun is slanting across the garden through the bare trees. Delightful little snowdrops and aconites carpet the grass under the branches of the weeping ash and this beautiful purple Lenten Rose (helleboris orientalis) is in bloom under the old apple tree. I only had time for a quick sketch today which does not do it justice at all.

These are mysterious plants with dark purple flowers, called the Lenten Rose as they often bloom during the 40 days before Easter, later than their showier relative the Christmas Rose. The plant is extremely toxic, the word ‘hellebore derived from the Greek “elein” meaning to injure and “bora” meaning food. It has a deliciously bad history in medicine and since Greek times it has been employed as a poison, purgative and magic potion… even as a spell for becoming invisible. Hellebore is one of the classic poisons along with aconite, hemlock and nightshade. John Calvin, regarded it as “a good purgation for phrenticke heads.”

Mysterious, deadly and beautiful… to be handled with some caution I think.


Lenten Rose