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How Poisonous Is Lily of the Valley?

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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
How Does Autopilot Work on an Airplane?
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How does autopilot work on an airplane?

Joe Shelton:

David Micklewhyte’s answer is a good one. There are essentially a few types of features that different autopilots have. Some autopilots only have some of these features, while the more powerful autopilots do it all.

  • Heading Hold: There’s a small indicator that the pilot can set on the desired heading and the airplane will fly that heading. This feature doesn’t take the need for wind correction to desired routing into account; that’s left to the pilot.
  • Heading and Navigation: In addition to holding a heading, this version will take an electronic navigation input (e.g. GPS or VOR) and will follow (fly) that navigation reference. It’s sort of like an automated car in that it follows the navigator’s input and the pilot monitors.
  • Altitude Hold: Again, in addition to the above, a desired altitude can be set and the aircraft will fly at that altitude. Some autopilots have the capability for the pilot to select a desired altitude and a climb or descent rate and the aircraft will automatically climb or descend to that altitude and then hold the altitude.
  • Instrument Approaches: Autopilots with this capability will fly preprogrammed instrument approaches to the point where the pilot either takes control and lands or has the autopilot execute a missed approach.

The autopilot is a powerful computer that takes input from either the pilot or a navigation device and essentially does what it is told to do. GPS navigators, for example, can have a full flight plan entered from departure to destination, and the autopilot will follow the navigator’s guidance.

These are the majority of the controls on the autopilot installed in my airplane:

HDG Knob = Heading knob (Used to set the desired heading)

AP = Autopilot (Pressing this turns the autopilot on)

FD = Flight Director (A form of navigational display that the pilot uses)

HDG = Heading (Tells the autopilot to fly the heading set by the Heading Knob)

NAV = Tells the autopilot to follow the input from the selected navigator

APR = Tells the autopilot to fly the chosen approach

ALT = Tells the autopilot to manage the altitude, controlled by the following:

VS = Vertical Speed (Tells the autopilot to climb or descend at the chosen rate)

Nose UP / Nose DN = Sets the climb/descent rate in feet per minute

FLC = Flight Level Change (An easy manual way to set the autopilot)

ALT Knob = Used to enter the desired altitude

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

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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