Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities - Amy Stewart (2009)

DREADFUL BOUQUET

On July 2, 1881, Charles Julius Guiteau shot President James Garfield. His aim was not quite good enough to kill the president; Garfield lived for eleven weeks as doctors probed his internal organs with unsterilized instruments, searching for the bullet that was actually lodged near his spine. Guiteau tried to use this bit of medical malpractice in his bizarre, theatrical trial, claiming, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.” Nonetheless, he was sentenced to die by hanging.

On the morning of his execution, his sister brought him a bouquet of flowers. Prison officials intercepted the bouquet and later discovered that there was enough arsenic tucked between the petals to kill several men. Although the sister. denied having poisoned her brother’s bouquet, it was well known that Guiteau feared the hangman’s noose and would have preferred to die some other way.

image

Was the arsenic necessary? With a little planning, Guiteau’s sister could have put together a bouquet of flowers that would do quite a bit of damage all by themselves.

LARKSPUR AND DELPHINIUM

Consolida ajacis, Delphinium spp.

   

Favored by flower lovers for their tall spires of pink, blue, lavender, or white blossoms and their fine, lacy foliage. The plants contain a poison similar to that found in a relative, aconite. The amount of toxins vary according to the species and the age of the plant, but a lethal dose would not be out of the question if someone ate enough of it.

LILY-OF-THE-VALLEY

Convallaria majalis

   

A spring-flowering plant with a heavenly fragrance, it contains a few different cardiac glycosides and can cause headache, nausea, cardiac symptoms, and even heart failure at high doses. The red berries the plant produces after it blooms are also toxic.

BLEEDING HEART

Dicentra spp.

   

A lovely, old-fashioned flower named for the shape of its blossoms, which resemble a heart with a drop of blood suspended from it. Bleeding hearts contain toxic alkaloids that could cause nausea, seizures, and respiratory problems.

SWEET PEA

Lathyrus odoratus

   

Resembles a normal pea vine, except that its flowers are larger, more colorful, and incredibly fragrant. All parts are mildly poisonous, but the young shoots and seedpods contain poisonous amino acids called lathyrogens. Sweet pea is one of a number of pea and vetch plants in the genus Lathyrus that can cause lathyrism, which brings on paralysis, weakness, and tremors.

TULIP

Tulipa spp.

   

Produces a highly irritating sap hazardous to horticultural workers. Touching the bulbs can irritate the skin, and workers in Holland’s bulb industry know that even the dry dust produced by the bulbs may bring on respiratory problems. A syndrome called tulip finger is an occupational hazard for florists who handle the plants all day. They can experience painful swelling, red rashes, and cracks in the skin.

Tulip bulbs have been mistaken for onions and eaten during times of famine in Holland—a bad idea since a dinner of tulip bulbs would bring on vomiting, breathing problems, and severe weakness.

HYACINTH

Hyacinthus orientalis

   

Also well known in the flower industry for causing “hyacinth itch” if the bulbs are handled with bare hands. Its sap can also irritate the skin.

ALSTROEMERIA OR PERUVIAN LILY

Alstroemeria spp.

   

Brings on the same kind of dermatitis as tulips and hyacinths. Cross-sensitivity can develop among these different varieties of flowers, making for a potent combination of painful skin problems.

CHRYSANTHEMUM

Chrysanthemum spp.

   

Blossoms have been used in teas and for medicinal purposes, but the plants can cause a severe allergic reaction. Some people may develop skin rashes, swollen eyes, and other symptoms. Certain species are used to produce pyrethrum, an organic insecticide.

Prison officials intercepted the bouquet and later discovered that there was enough arsenic tucked between the petals to kill several men.

ACONITE

Aconitum napellus

   

Aconite, or monkshood, is a popular garden flower that produces spires of blue or white blossoms similar to those of larkspur and delphinium. While they are beautiful in a bouquet, the poison contained in the plant is so deadly that it can paralyze the nerves and even kill. Florists should avoid handling the stems with their bare hands; even skin contact can bring on numbness and cardiac problems.

image

DANGEROUS

Peacock Flower

CAESALPINIA PULCHERRIMA
(SYN. POINCIANA UICHERRIMA)

The peacock flower plays a tragic role in the history of the slave trade. Tins beautiful tropical shrub, with its fine, lacy leaves and brilliant orange flowers that are irresistible to humming-birds, produces a seedpod whose poison was well known to women of the West Indies.

FAMILY:
Fabaceae

HABITAT:
Tropical and subtropical mountain slopes, lowland rain forest

NATIVE TO:
West Indies

COMMON NAMES:
Red bird of paradise, Barbados pride, ayoowiri, flos pavonis, tsjétti mandáru

Medical literature of the eighteenth century describes the attempts of slave women to end their pregnancies so that their children would not contribute to the wealth of a slave owner. This rebellion took many forms: some women sought medicine from the plantation doctor in the hopes that it would cause a miscarriage, but others relied on plants like the peacock flower. It was believed to help bring on menstruation, or “bring down the flowers,” as European doctors sometimes called it.

In 1705 botanical explorer Maria Sibylla Merian first described the ways in which West Indian slaves would use the plant as a form of resistance against their owners: “The Indians, who are not treated well by their Dutch masters, use the seeds [of this plant] to abort their children, so that their children will not become slaves like they are. The black slaves from Guinea and Angola have demanded to be well-treated, threatening to refuse to have children. In fact, they sometimes take their own lives because they are treated so badly, and because they believe they will be born again, free and living in their own land. They told me this themselves.”

“The Indians, who are not treated well by their Dutch masters, use the seeds [of the peacock flower] to abort their children, so that their children will not become slaves like they are.”

The peacock flower became a popular ornamental shrub among plant collectors in Europe. It flourishes throughout the southern United States, especially in Florida, Arizona, and California. In areas with mild winters, it can grow to twenty feet tall. The bark is covered with sharp prickles that make it difficult to handle. The red, yellow, or orange flowers bloom all summer, giving way in the fall to flat brown pods that contain the poisonous seeds.

The women of the West Indies hid their secret well: throughout its history as an ornamental shrub, very little has been mentioned in the botanical literature about the role it played in the lives of desperate slave women struggling against the terrible situation they found themselves in.

Meet the Relatives     Caesalpinia includes about seventy species of tropical shrubs and small trees. C. gilliesii, also called bird of paradise shrub, is a popular ornamental in the Southwest. The tannin in its seeds makes it toxic, but most people recover from the poison’s severe gastrointestinal effects after twenty-four hours.

image

image

ILLEGAL

Peyote Cactus

LOPHOPHORE WILLIAMSII)

When Spanish missionaries arrived in the New World, they observed the ritual use of the peyote cactus (mescaline) by Native Americans and called it witchcraft. Conquistadores and colonists banned it and drove its use underground. Ironically, when white settlers objected to peyote use, it was usually expressed in terms of the harm it might inflict on Native Americans. This belief continued into the twentieth century. In 1923, the New York Times quoted one antipeyote crusader as saying that those who use peyote may be beyond help: “The alcoholic subject may by careful treatment escape physical and mental weakness, but the mescal[ine] fiend travels to absolute incompetency.”

FAMILY:
Cactaceae

HABITAT:
Desert, but prefers some humidity for seed germination

NATIVE TO:
Southwestern United States and Mexico

COMMON NAMES:
Peyote, buttons, mescaline, challóte, devil’s root, white mule

This diminutive, slow-growing cactus forms the shape of a button one to two inches across, with no spines. Left to its own devices, a small, white flower blooms on top of the cactus and then goes to seed. But don’t go looking for peyote gardens in the desert: overharvesting of the cactus has made the plant scarce in the Southwest.

The bitter, dried peyote buttons are either eaten or made into a tea. The initial effects can be quite terrifying and include anxiety, dizziness, headache, chills, extreme nausea, and vomiting. The hallucinations that follow have been described as an intense experience of bright colors, increased awareness of sounds, and clarity of thought. However, the experience of peyote intoxication can vary widely and has also been described as “a chemically induced model of mental illness.”

Use of the peyote cactus in Native American religious rituals has long been greeted with skepticism in the United States. Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, a tireless advocate for food and drug safety in the early twentieth century, once complained to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that if the religious use of peyote is permitted, “we will have an alcohol church and a cocaine church and a tobacco church.” In 1990 the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Employment Division v. Smith that the First Amendment does not protect Native Americans who wish to use the drug in the practice of their religion. In response, Congress amended the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to allow the use of peyote in Native American religious ceremonies. For everyone else, mescaline is a Schedule I controlled substance, and possession is a felony.

Meet the Relatives     Peyote is a member of the cactus family, which contains two to three thousand species. One relative is Lophophora diffusa, which has been shown to contain only traces of mescaline, along with other psychoactive components.