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: Squirrels and Tabebuia Pods

Here the relentlessness of growth never stops. When one thing is dormant another is bursting into life. Not to have those regular quiet, dormant times of northern regions sometimes seems exhausting. So, despite it being early in the year and to both my delight and frustration, there are lots of seed pods around. I can’t possibly keep up with them all. In a confusion of life cycles there are trees with flowers but no leaves, trees with new leaves but without flowers and then trees with flowers, leaves and fruit all at the same time.

The golden trumpet tree Handroanthus chrysotricha whose beautiful flowers were with us for only a few days, is one which gets to shows off its flowers before the distraction of leaves. The overwhelming yellow of this tree set against a clear blue Florida sky is breathtaking.

The flowers are gone now but just over a week ago when I went to the Gardens I stood under one of the many “Tabebuia’s” as they are known here, admiring these very nice furry pods which seem to have appeared from nowhere, instantaneously and in profusion.. amazing.

However I also realised I was being was showered with seeds and bits of debris because above my head 3 squirrels were busy methodically stripping the tree of its fruit. I watched as they grabbed the pods and then daintily nibbled all the flesh from the pod leaving ribbons of the outer skin and discarding the seeds. They were voracious and determined. Yesterday I went back and only ribbons of the stripped pods remain but the ground is carpeted with the silvery seeds.

I did save one pod because the little, flat, winged seeds are so attractive, but today I only have time for a quick pod sketch and a study of 3 seeds which are looking a bit like strange owls.
For the next submission we are required to make a proper botanical study and I am supposed to be using a magnifying glass for a bit of dissection and being more methodical about recording accurately what size things are drawn. The seeds are drawn at 3 x their original size so are a massive 2.75″ long, but I neglected to write that on the drawing..Hmm well it has been a long week.

Golden Trumpet Seed Pod and Seeds

Almost Back to the Blog

Phew.. I have really put some hours in over the last week, barely surfacing to glance wistfully at the sun outside. I will post more about the illustration work later but now I have to get back to botanicals too, as the next course submission is almost overdue.
I am working in pen and ink this week, so today just a pen and ink sketch of a beautiful twisted dwarf poinciana, Poinciana pucherrima pod for a bit of practice.
And “thank yous”are also due to all who sent and are sending me emails re buying work and to Mary at the Orlando Sentinel for a super write up in the paper and on their website here


Dwarf Poinciana Pod

Leaf of the Day: The Naming of Pods

No drawing today, just sorting. I have much to do this week and I have spent most of the day today trying to remember what I need to get finished before next Tuesday which is when the exhibition has to be up. There is more framing, some more notes to make, some pieces to finish and some more work to do…

But apart from the framed drawings and paintings, I thought that it could be interesting to have some samples of the pods and bits of twigs and seeds etc that I have used as my models and have found so very fascinating.
So most of the day was spent just sorting out the boxes of bits that I have collected over the year. I have 4 boxes full and many pressed leaves to choose from which will be placed in a display case. There is not much room in the case so I must be selective. Something I am not very good at….here are just a few of the many.

I will tag them all with their names and I hope visitors will find it interesting to see these odd bits and pieces which usually lie unnoticed on the ground and will link them with the drawings and the wonderful stories that lie behind the different species.

There are the old favourites, soapberries, lipstick pods, silky hakea etc and some I have not yet got around to drawing. Ant has been busy “helping”, probably not taking too kindly to the disturbance of his extensive adventure playground.

I also started a “book” of pressed leaves which I may display too. It is so time consuming that I didn’t get very far, but is such a lovely record to have, like the old herbaria which I wrote about here.

It’s been wonderful to discover them all again. They are all such exquisite little works of art in their own right. I have spent far too long admiring them all again and still haven’t made my final decision..

Leaf of the Day: The Cotton Rose of China

I was pleased not to have to spend hours on the computer today..but couldn’t quite tear myself away from Catesby entirely. I think I have now looked at every one of those 220 plates.

However I did get one drawing done of a seed pod that has been sitting on the table for a couple of weeks. It’s from the Cotton Rose or Confederate Rose, not a rose at all of course but Hibiscus mutabilis originally from southern China where it is also known as the Fairyland flower. At Leu Gardens there is a huge and showy bush which was covered with these lovely big flowers and admired by every person who walked by. The photo was taken in October. Mutabilis because the flowers open pure white and change colour as they fade from pale to deep pink. It is very intriguing to see this beautiful mixture of colours. There are huge buds and then these slightly fuzzy seed pods, which are equally attractive.

It arrived in the USA in Colonial times via southern European gardens. It had reached Rome in 1632 and was one of the earliest flowers to be brought out of China, which given its beauty is no surprise. The 10th Century Emperor, Meng Chang of Chengdu, capital city of Sichuan, ordered cotton roses to be planted on top of the entire city walls, earning it the name the “Cotton Rose City”. It is said that when the flowers were in full bloom, the city from a distance, looked like rippling pink silk. What a stunning and evocative image. It must have appeared like a strange and wonderful mirage to the average 10th century traveller.

This ” Golden Pheasant and Cotton Rose” was painted by the famous Emperor Huizong of the song dynasty.

This was a time of great culture in China and Huizong was a painter poet, calligrapher and musician with interests in architecture, garden design and philosophy. He wrote a treatise on tea and filled his court with painters but as Wiki puts it, “A true artist, Huizong neglected the army” which led to the eventual overthrow of the Song dynasty.

I, however, will be attending my armies today, ensuring they are warmly wrapped up in my sleevies’s very cold today. Cold armies lead to cold handies which can’t draw…:)

Cotton Rose Seed Pod

Leaf of the Day:The Blood Flower

One reason for the slight change of focus is that I have a small exhibition coming up in April (where else but at Leu Gardens) and although it will be mostly of the drawings and some of the blog posts too I need a few bigger pieces to give it some focus, here and there. So one plan is to make some larger paintings/drawing of some of my favourite leaves and also to make some extra studies of some of the most interesting plants. The theme of the exhibition is really my “diary” of a year of drawings from the Gardens, and I still have a couple of months to go before I have seen a full year there.
Planning an exhibition is a bit like developing a painting from sketches. There is an awful lot of culling to do and then yawning gaps to fill, to make it an interesting experience, even for those who are not completely fascinated by plants. There is no dedicated exhibition room at Leu just a hallway, and not too much space, so I will have to be choosy.
So which leaf will I decide to draw? and how big? and what medium? Oh.. the agonies of decision making..and I am spoilt for choice…

Meanwhile …… I found this seed pod yesterday. It just happened to be growing in a tub by the Irish bar we often visit, for an end of cycle reward, but this plant grows everywhere here including in the butterfly garden at Leu. I just had to draw it! It’s from the Blood-flower Asclepias curassavica , or Mexican Butterfly Weed, or Scarlet Milkweed, one of the milkweed family Asclepiadaceae which I have drawn before here.

The Milkweeds are really worth returning to again and again because they have played an important, if risky, part in folk medicine, food stuffs and are beneficial to insects. They form a large genus in the family Asclepiadaceae that contain over 140 known species. “Asclepias”, after the Greek god of healing, because of the many unreliable medicinal uses for the plants, and this particular plant’s species name “curassavica” refers to Curacao, where the first specimens were collected.
The reason the Butterfly Garden is full of them at Leu is that Milkweeds provide the only food source for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. It is another interesting case (as with the artistolochias) where, through eating a poisonous plant, the caterpillars themselves become toxic and unpalatable to birds. The flowers are also an important nectar source for bees, ants and humming birds too, and in the past were used as a source of sweetness by the Native Americans and early settlers.

The “milk” of milkweed is its milky sap, which contains alkaloids and can be irritant and toxic, but despite their general toxicity, the plants had many medicinal uses. One species Asclepias tuberosa was known in Europe as the “pleurisy root”, and was used to relieve bronchial and pulmonary trouble. Here is a short piece from the USA Department of agriculture relating to its use by the indigenous peoples here.
“Butterfly milkweed has many medicinal uses. The Omahas and Poncas ate the raw root of the butterfly milkweed for bronchial and pulmonary troubles. Butterfly milkweed root was also chewed and placed on wounds, or dried, pulverized, and blown into wounds. The Omaha tribe used butterfly milkweed medicine for rites belonging to the Shell Society. The Dakotas used the butterfly milkweed as an emetic. The Menominis considered the butterfly milkweed, which they called the “deceiver,” one of their most important medicines.
(Hmm? Another possibly useful spell for my book …)

These delicate floating seeds are arranged so neatly and beautifully in their seed case but managed to spread themselves all over my room before I could draw them.
I also read that milkweed floss is coated with a waxy substance and has better insulation qualities than down feathers and that, amazingly, during World War 2, over 11 million pounds of milkweed floss were collected in the USA for various stuffing uses, as a substitute for kapok. I can’t conceive of how much volume even 1lb of these fluffy things would be, never mind 11 million.

At some time I must gather all these various bits of information together into one coherent post because the milkweeds, like many others, have such a fascinating story.
My drawing is of the pod and the few remaining seeds. I think my studio maybe carpeted with little milkweed plants later this spring which will make Ant happy.( yes.. he/she/it is still here!)

Milkweed pod.

Leaf of the Day: Lemon Eucalyptus

I seldom see the overflow car park used at Leu but today the post Christmas crowds were out in force. I think more because it was a free morning and “something to do with the kids”, than a sudden great outpouring of interest and affection for the natural world, but it was the perfect morning for a garden walk. Many people are here on holiday from the frozen north and they look in wonder at the citrus trees hanging with fruit, the giant pummelos, the beautiful butterflies, the roses and the just opening camellias.
I went to look specifically at more of the Australian plants and to find out exactly which eucalyptus the beautiful white trunks belonged to. They are Lemon Eucalyptus Eucalyptus citriodora.

3 Lemon Eucalyptus at Leu Gardens

They are beautiful immensely tall trees with all the branches clustered at the crown so no chance of taking a leaf without shinning up 50 ft or more. However there were some old fallen branches and after ferreting around in all the debris at the foot of the trees I found a cluster of the little urn shaped seed pods. They are much much smaller than the big bloodwood pods from last week and of course the leaves from this mature trees are the characteristic elongated shape. When not old and twisted and broken like the ones I have drawn the leaves are a beautiful sickle shape.
The white trunks have bark so snug fitting it looks like tight skin, wrinkled at the joints and there are several strange pock marks above the branch scars. I have no idea what they are.

The lemon scented oil from the leaves is steam distilled and used as an insect repellent although I didn’t particularly notice a lack of mosquitoes around the trees. It will have small white spidery flowers in panicles.

Here are a few words about the Lemon Eucalyptus from Stanford University’s online “Encyclopedia of Trees, Shrubs and Vines”. More here

The tall trunk, with no branches at all up to a substantial height, leaves a detectable record of bygone branches in the form of dimples and pimples on the otherwise smooth trunk. As a branch becomes shaded from sunlight as a result of growth in height, abscissic acid (a plant hormone), causes a brittle zone to form at the trunk. Wind then breaks the branch off cleanly. Research on abscissic acid has received military support aimed at defoliating forests. ( hmmm!)
Gum tree leaves vary a lot in smell when you crush and sniff them because the mix of oils varies from one species to the next, but with the lemon-scented gum the oil is virtually pure citronellal, known as a germicide and mosquito repellent, but with a marvelous aroma for humans. Occasional juvenile leaves can be found near ground level that have a visibly rough undersurface made up of tiny projections containing lemon oil. After you feel the sandpaper-like texture, smell your fingers! Onlookers are astonished by the fragrance; you can put these leaves in your gin and tonic!
(that’s better!)

The drawing is of some tatty dried leaves with small bit of twig stuck onto one leaf and some old gumnuts. Sadly these old leaves neither smell of lemon nor are they suitable for my sparkling glass of G & T.

For much more Euclyptus info do visit Gustavo’s excellent site Eucalyptologics

Lemon Eucalyptus and Pods

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: Texas Ebony

I hope to go down to the gardens 3 days this week to make up for last week’s bad weather days. Things change naturally there but also the gardeners are always busy clearing, replanting, cleaning up and chopping back. I had planned to collect a few more necklace tree pods, but today they were all gone, pruned back to stalks. The tung oil tree last week had 3 or 4 big pods, today they were all on the ground and mostly squashed. Just one week makes such a difference in the plant world. I can’t imagine how many things have sprung up, flowered and gone back to ground without me even noticing.

However one tree I see often near the Arid Garden is the lovely big Texas Ebony which casts a deep shade and has a hopeful seat beneath it, but few, if any, ever take advantage of it. It is another large tree with tiny leaves and like the tea tree oil tree yesterday has similar tiny fluffy scented flowers in the summer.

I had seen some very old pods lying around on the ground for some time, but now there are one or two newer ones and some green ones developing on the tree. Good news for the pod lover here.

The Texas Ebony Pithecellobium flexicaule is a tough drought resistant and handsome tree. The “ebony” name is misleading as the wood tends to be more of a dark mahogany to purple or brown, rather than black. One reason for the lonesome bench is that to get to it, you have to stoop under the branches of the tree which as well as being very dense, are very thorny.
The wood is beautiful, dark and fine grained making it a favourite for woodturners with two colours from the dark heart wood to the golden sapwood.

I do love trees, particularly old trees and often wonder what they have been silent witness to and appropriately there is a famous Teaxas Ebony in Texas at the Los Ebanos (the ebonies) border post which will have seen hopes and dreams on the faces of many passengers crossing the border on the only hand operated ferry across the Rio Grande.

Image and text from the website “Texas Famous Trees” here

“The Los Ebanos ferry is a part of the border that time forgot. Tucked away in the southwestern corner of Hidalgo County this crossing has existed as a popular place to ford the Rio Grande since the days of Spanish colonization. Then like now the summer sound of the cicadas pulsate in the breeze. The hand pulled ferry went into operation in the 1850’s and has seen few improvements since then. The ferry is still tethered by a thick rope tied around the base of a large Texas Ebony tree. And it’s still muscle power that propels the flat bottom barge from Texas to Mexico and back again.
Standing at the southwest corner of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Station, at the southern edge of the little town of Los Ebanos, this immense tree provides tired travelers a shady spot in which to wait the ferry. Around its girth is a one-inch steel cable, which spans the river to hold the ferry.
The history of this crossing is replete with incidents of cattle rustling, smuggling, banditry, and entry of wet-backs. Today an average of about 100 cars pass under this tree each day, carrying shoppers to Los Ebanos or to San Miguel.

And an evocative article describes the ride “Slow Boat Keeps Pace With Times Hand-Drawn Ferry, 21st-Century Security Meet at U.S.-Mexico Border Crossing”
By Sylvia Moreno in the Washington Post 2004 archives here

“The music blaring from the ferry’s little boombox is lively, though nothing new or Latin Grammy Award-winning. Just old accordion-laced rancheras, with their tales of love won, love scorned and sorrow soaked in booze.
The ride is short, about five minutes from shore to shore, with six men pulling the rope attached to the ferry so that it is propelled across the brackish river. The three-vehicle barge is known here as el chalan, and these chalaneros have skin toasted brown and palms callused thick and rough. Most of the ferry passengers are visiting relatives on one or the other side of the Mexican border, carrying goods such as freshly made tortillas into the United States or big boxes of baby cereal into Mexico. Soon droves of “Winter Texans,” who migrate from up north for a few months a year, will be coming to ride the old-fashioned ferry.”

Despite its size, it is still a thoroughly guarded crossing, so any thoughts slipping through unnoticed should be forgotten.

“It’s got to be the most secure port we’ve got,” said Joseph A. Mongiello, port director of the nearby international bridge at Rio Grande City. He oversees the inspection station at the Los Ebanos Ferry.
There are a maximum of three vehicles and a few pedestrians per ferry to inspect, Mongiello said, so “we’ve got all the time to look at them and not worry about causing a traffic backup.”

“Even me, that they know, they still ask me the same questions every day,” says Melba Martinez, 28, who lives in Gustavo Diaz Ordaz and rides the ferry daily to her job at the one store in this hot, dusty hamlet of about 200 people. “They see me every day, and still they ask me where I’m from and where I’m going.”
“I love the ferry, not just because I cross every day, but my mother used to live in Los Ebanos and my father was from Diaz Ordaz, and my mother met my father crossing on the ferry,” she said. “I like to say it’s because of el chalan that I was born.”

According to the Texas Public Radio website from this August, things are still pretty much the same but there is talk of a fence. You can still cross and pull on the ropes to help the chalaneros and re live a little bit of history.. short video too here

These ebony seed pods are not pretty, they are thick and woody but the bright chestnut seeds inside are like little seamed cushions. Nice for beads I am thinking!

Texas Ebony, Leaf and Seed Pod

Leaf of the Day: Nature, Creation, Us and the Lipstick Tree again

David Attenborough was on the radio today talking the most sense I have heard recently about nature and our responsibilities to it. He was speaking on the BBC4 Today Programme, (the link is here.) and if you have 5 minutes and care a little about the planet, go and listen to this intelligent and thoughtful man. It is a short interview which starts with his concern about our much loved European frogs who are threatened by some awful fungal disease (more from the Guardian here) but goes on to talk about overpopulation, education and the role of TV in informing, an increasingly insular and care-less population about the importance of keeping a balance in nature.
Here is a short extract:
The UN now tells us now that over 50% of the human race is living in urban circumstances, and that to a greater or lesser degree they are cut off from the natural world…. being cut off from the natural world means that you don’t understand about the natural world and if you don’t understand about the natural world on which you depend, then you’ re in trouble. So it is essential, I think that people should be aware of what goes on in the natural world….. but apart from all that, it’s interesting! it’s beautiful! it’s unpredictable! it’s astonishing! it’s dramatic!

He does not preach, but just talks in a reasonable way about our moral responsibility to a planet that we share with creatures other than just Homo Sapiens. It’s all so unlike some of the screeching I have heard here, coming from the terrifying “creationist” lobby. There has been much in the media recently about all this. Whatever myths or legends people want to personally hold dear, is fine, as long as they harm no one and indoctrinate no one but here some would have creationism taught as fact.

Peter Wenzel’s Adam and Eve, 1780.. a pre fall idyll

I once devoted some considerable time and study to all that allegedly went on in the Garden of Eden. It’s a fine and diverting story, as are the Greek myths. I just cannot hold with any theory or agree with any position which starts from the idea that Man has or should “dominion over Nature”. When this particular creation story was written we were already harnessing and exploiting nature for our own ends so it would hardly have been in anyone’s interests, let alone the avaricious and controlling church, to write a story that gave Nature the starring role.
I personally don’t understand why anyone wants dominion over anything or anyone and regard people who do as highly suspicious, but as for Nature, well we should just consider ourselves lucky that Nature has allowed us to survive so far. You just wonder how much more you can poke a stick at it before it really bites back. Attenborough talks of nature being “badly bruised” by us . I think that is an understatement. It all makes me as mad as …… well …Hell!
But here is Edmund Hicks’ delightfully optimistic, post fall “Peaceable Kingdom” 1834 (one of about 60 versions, triumph of optimism over experience?) to give us hope..

However, thankfully, all back at the garden of Leu is peace and harmony at the moment, apart that is, from the normal life and death struggle of the natural world.
As I said yesterday some things are just coming into blossom at Leu and to my great delight one of them is the Lipstick tree Bixa orellana, one of my very first exciting finds, thanks to Pedro. This fascinating tree is the source of the dye annatto and I had written a little about it and drawn one of the spiky pods way back in April, see “The Lipstick Tree Pod and Fake Bloodhere . I walk past it almost every time I go to the gardens, wondering when it will be in bloom. I was beginning to think it was having a year off but then miraculously yesterday it was covered with flowers. The flowers are big, pale pink, lovely and like a Rose of Sharon, with no hint yet of the rich scarlet dye to come. I have just a tiny sprig with a bud, a flower and a leaf as I don’t want to rob the tree of any potential for the wonderful red and spiky pods to come. I can’t wait. I only saw them when they were past their best and the dye from the seeds was dried up. I am hoping to make some ink! …
Anyway here is a watercolour with a nice rich orangy red background in tribute to annato and delicious red Leicester cheese.

Lipstick Tree, Leaf and Flower