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

FATAL FUNGUS

In 2001, a group of medical researchers reopened an ancient murder case. Claudius, emperor of Rome from 41 to 54 BC, died under mysterious circumstances after several months of bitter fighting with his fourth wife, Agrippina. A modern-day review of his symptoms pointed to poisoning by muscarine, a toxin found in several species of deadly mushrooms. But who fed him this final meal? One expert at the conference suggested that “Claudius died of de una uxore nimia, or one too many wives.”

Another infamous mushroom poisoning case took place in Paris in 1918. Henri Girard was an insurance broker who had some training as a chemist. That turned out to be a good combination for a serial killer: he took out insurance policies on his victims and then killed them using poisons that he obtained from drug wholesalers or mixed in his own laboratory. His poison of choice was a culture of typhoid bacteria, but for his last murder victim, Madame Monin, he prepared a little dish of poisonous mushrooms. She left his house and collapsed on the sidewalk. The authorities eventually caught up with him, but he died before he could go to trial.

Although mushrooms are not truly plants—they’re fungi—they deserve some mention for the number of deaths they cause. In 1909, the London Globe reported that as many as ten thousand people in Europe died of mushroom poisoning every year. There are few reliable sources today of the number of deaths by mushrooms worldwide, but in the United States, poison control centers get over seven thousand calls a year. In 2005, they reported six deaths from mushroom poisoning. Sporadic outbreaks can kill many more. For example, in 1996, mushrooms killed over a hundred people in Ukraine thanks to an unusually abundant crop in the forest.

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Some species contain more toxins than others, but the most dangerous varieties go to work on the liver or kidneys, causing irreversible damage or death.

DEATH CAP

Amanita phalloides

   

These pale, medium-sized mushrooms found throughout North America and Europe are responsible for an estimated 90 percent of mushroom-related fatalities worldwide. They look similar to the edible paddy straw mushroom popular in Asia, but it takes only about half of a death cap mushroom to kill an adult. The mushroom causes permanent damage to the kidneys and liver, and some victims require liver transplants to survive the ordeal.

A closely related species is the death angel mushroom (Amanita verna or A. virosa), which is regarded as the most poisonous species. Symptoms may not appear for several hours, which could result in delayed treatment with tragic consequences.

CORTINARIUS

Cortinarius spp.

   

These small, brown mushrooms resemble shiitakes and other edible species but are highly poisonous. The symptoms may be delayed for several days, making it more difficult for doctors to identify and treat. Corti-narius mushrooms can cause seizures, severe pain, and kidney failure.

FALSE MOREL

Gyromitra esculenta

   

Found throughout North America, this mushroom looks like the delicious, highly sought-after edible morel mushroom. As with most mushroom poisonings, symptoms include nausea, dizziness, and eventual coma, and death is often caused by kidney or liver damage.

FLY MUSHROOM

Amanita muscaria

   

Reddish orange with white spots, this is one of the most widely recognized mushrooms in the world and is often used in illustrations of fairy tales. The hookah-smoking caterpillar that sat on a mushroom in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland might have been sitting on mushroom like this one. In fact, the symptoms Alice experienced after she nibbled a bit of the mushroom are not too different from the kind of hallucinations that mark the first signs of poisoning from this species. Dizziness, delirium, and intoxication are sometimes followed by a deep sleep or a coma.

MAGIC MUSHROOM

Psilocybe spp.

   

Psylocybin and psilocin are hallucinogenic compounds found in different species of mushrooms, but primarily those in the Psilocybe genus. The two compounds are listed as Schedule I controlled substances (defined as having no medical use) by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration; however, the agency does not list any particular mushroom species on its schedule.

Psylocybin mushrooms are usually eaten or made into a tea; in addition to hallucinations, the effects may include nausea and vomiting, weakness, and drowsiness. Large doses can bring on panic attacks and psychosis. It grows wild throughout the southern and western United States and ranges from Mexico to Canada. Some species are found in Europe as well. It is easy to confuse psilocybin mushrooms with highly poisonous look-alikes, and people have died from eating the wrong species.

INKY CAP

Coprinus atramentarius

   

This small white mushroom with a bell-shaped cap is known for its ability to turn as black as ink as it matures. Its poison is particularly devious: victims are only harmed if they eat the mushroom in combination with alcohol. People may experience sweating, nausea, dizziness, and difficulty breathing for a few hours. Most recover, but those who have been poisoned must avoid alcohol for at least a week. Some people experience no harmful effects at all, making this a risky and unpredictable mushroom to experiment with.

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PAINFUL

Habanero Chile

CAPSICUM CHINENSE

Imagine: a pepper so hot that popping one in your mouth could send you to the hospital. At first, your eyes will water and your throat will burn; then you’ll start to have trouble swallowing. Your hands and face will go numb. If you’re particularly unlucky, you’ll go into respiratory distress—all over one fiery habanero pepper.

FAMILY:
Solanaceae

HABITAT:
Tropical climates; needs heat and regular water

NATIVE TO:
Central and South America

COMMON NAMES:
Habanero

In the early 1900s chemist Wilbur Scoville developed a test for measuring the heat intensity in chile peppers. A pepper extract is dissolved in water and tasted by a panel of people who do not regularly eat hot peppers and are therefore more sensitive to the taste. The pepper’s Scoville rating is expressed as the ratio of water to pepper extract required to completely quench the fiery flavor. A bell pepper, which contains no heat, would get a rating of 0 SHU, or Scoville heat units. A jalapeño pepper—generally considered to be the hottest pepper any sane person would attempt to chew and swallow—gets a rating of around 5,000 SHU.

If it takes five thousand units of water to dilute the heat in one unit of jalapeño extract, what does it take to render harmless a habanero? Anywhere from one hundred thousand to one million units of water, depending on the cultivar and the growing conditions.

The heat levels approached 1 million Scoville units. As a comparison, the pepper spray used by police officers clocks in at 2 to 5 million units.

Just a handful of peppers vie for the title of world’s hottest, and they are all varieties of Capsicum chinense, commonly called the habanero. The small orange Scotch bonnet variety lends its unique flavor to Jamaican dishes. Another strain, ‘Red Savina’, earned a Guinness World Record in 1994 for the hottest pepper, with a Scoville rating of over 500,000 SHU. But the hottest habanero in the world may come from Dorset, England, an area not known for its spicy cuisine.

An English market gardener developed ‘Dorset Naga’ from the seeds of a Bangladeshi pepper. The best seedlings were selected and grown, and after a few successive generations they had a pepper so hot that it could hardly be used as a flavoring. You could hold the pepper by the stalk and rub it against your food, but to do more than that would be to tempt fate. Two American laboratories tested the peppers using a new technology, high-pressure liquid chromatography. The heat levels approached 1 million SHU. As a comparison, the pepper spray used by police officers clocks in at 2 million to 5 million SHU.

Strangely, the active ingredient in hot peppers, capsaicin, does not actually burn. It stimulates nerve endings to send a signal to the brain that mimics a burning sensation. Capsaicin does not dissolve in water, so grabbing for the water jug to put out the fire in your mouth is useless. However, it will bind to a fat like butter, milk, or cheese. A good stiff drink is also in order, as the alcohol works as a solvent.

But nothing could protect you against the power of Blair’s 16 Million Reserve, a so-called pharmaceutical grade hot sauce made of pure capsaicin extract. A tiny one-milliliter bottle of the clear potion sells for $199 and comes with a warning that it must be used “for experimental/display purposes only” and never as a flavoring for food.

Meet the Relatives? Peppers are another notorious member of the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant, along with such evildoers as tobacco, datura, and henbane.

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INTOXICATING

Henbane

HYOSCYAMUS NIGER

The particular bit of vegetable wickedness known as henbane was, according to legend, a key ingredient in witches’ flying potions. A salve of henbane, belladonna, mandrake, and a few other deadly plants, applied to the skin, would make anyone feel as if they were flying. Mixtures like this have been called the devil’s own recipe for good reason. In Turkey children play a game in which they eat various parts of certain plants. A medical study showed that a quarter of the children who played that game became severely intoxicated after eating henbane. Five went into a coma and two died.

FAMILY:
Solanaceae

HABITAT:
Widespread across temperate climates

NATIVE TO:
Mediterranean Europe, North Africa

COMMON NAMES:
Hog’s bean, fetid nightshade, stinking Roger. Henbane means literally “killer of hens.”

Hyoscyamus niger is a weedy annual or biennial that grows to just one or two feet tall and produces yellow flowers, with what have been described as “lurid purple veins.” The small, oval seeds are a dull yellow color and are every bit as poisonous as the rest of the plant.

Although henbane contains alkaloids similar to those found in its close relatives, datura and belladonna, it is particularly known for its rank odor. Pliny the Elder wrote that the various strains of henbane “trouble the braine, and put men beside their right wits; beside that, they breed dizziness of the head.” In fact, staff at the Alnwick Poison Garden in northern England report that two guests have fainted on hot days in the presence of henbane. Was it the heat or the soporific effects of the plant? No one knows for sure, but they warn guests to give this plant a wide berth.

In the Middle Ages henbane was added to beer to enhance its intoxicating effects. To keep this and other suspicious ingredients out of beer, Germany’s 1516 Bavarian Purity Law mandated that beer be brewed with nothing more than hops, barley, and water. (Yeast was allowed later after its role was better understood.)

Henbane was used as a very risky form of anesthesia from Roman times until the introduction of ether and chloroform in the nineteenth century. A “sopoforific sponge” would be soaked in the juices of henbane, opium poppy, and mandrake. It could be dried, stored, and later wetted with hot water for some unlucky surgical candidate to inhale. With any luck, the patient drifted into a twilight sleep and awoke later with no memory of the procedure. However, the quality of these potions was very uneven. Too little and the patient would feel everything; too much and they might never feel anything again.

Meet the Relatives Other Hyoscyamus species like H. albus, called white henbane or Russian henbane, and H. muticus, known as Egyptian henbane, are just as poisonous.