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How Poisonous Is Lily of the Valley?

We don't want to spoil anything from this season of Breaking Bad for those who haven't seen it. But for the floss readers curious about lily of the valley, a plant that played a part in Sunday's season finale, we're happy to talk botany. Read on at your own risk.

So, what is lily of the valley?

Known by the scientific name Convallaria majalis, the lily of the valley is an herbaceous (the leaves and stems die at the end of the growing season and there's no persistent woody stem) perennial found in temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere. The plant forms large colonies by spreading underground stems and appears above ground with upright stems called pips. The lily blooms in the late spring and has white, bell-shaped, sweet-smelling flowers and small orange-red berries.

The plant pops up in Christian legend several times. As the story goes, lily of the valley was formed from the tears of Mary as she wept at the crucifixion of Jesus, and grew from the blood shed by Saint Leonard of Noblac during his fight with a dragon. The lily of the valley was also used as the floral emblem of Yugoslavia and is the national flower of Finland

Is it really poisonous?

You bet. 

Toxicity is the plant's defense against animals eating its seeds. All parts of the plant—the stems, the leaves, the flowers and the berries—are extremely poisonous and close to 40 different cardiac glycosides have been found in the plant so far.

Glycosides are chemical compounds where a sugar is bound to a non-carbohydrate molecule. By increasing calcium stores in and around cells, cardiac glycosides increase the force with which the heart contracts and the volume of blood it can pump. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and these compounds have been used in medicine since the ancient Roman Empire to treat arrhythmia and congestive heart failure (today, the drugs Lanoxin, Digitek, and Lanoxicaps are made from a purified cardiac glycoside extracted from the foxglove plant). In quantities over the recommended safe dosage, though, cardiac glycosides can wreak havoc on your gastrointestinal, circulatory and nervous systems (more on that later).

That doesn't sound good. Could it be growing in my yard?

Possibly. The plant is widespread in the wild across Asia, continental Europe, England and the Appalachia region of the eastern United States. It's also a popular garden plant because of its sweet-smelling flowers and ground-covering ability, so it wouldn't be shocking to find it in a garden outside of its native range. Like, say, Albuquerque.

So I definitely shouldn't be eating it, then?

Not unless blurry vision, diarrhea, vomiting and nausea, disorientation, drowsiness, headaches, red skin rashes, excessive salivation, sudden alterations in your cardiac rhythm and possible death sound like your idea of fun.

Oh. Let's say that, er, a friend of a friend ate some. What's next?

Get to a hospital, where treatment will include ingestion of activated charcoal, breathing support, IV fluids, an electrocardiogram and a temporary pacemaker, depending on the nature and severity of the symptoms. They might also recommend not hanging out with people who make and/or sell meth.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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