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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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Words
Why Is 'Colonel' Spelled That Way?
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English spelling is bizarre. We know that. From the moment we learn about silent “e” in school, our innocent expectations that sound and spelling should neatly match up begin to fade away, and soon we accept that “eight” rhymes with “ate,” “of” rhymes with “love,” and “to” sounds like “too” sounds like “two.” If we do sometimes briefly pause to wonder at these eccentricities, we quickly resign ourselves to the fact that there must be reasons—stuff about history and etymology and sound changing over time. Whatever. English. LOL. Right? It is what it is.

But sometimes English takes it a step too far, does something so brazen and shameless we can’t just let it slide. That’s when we have to throw our shoulders back, put our hands on our hips and ask, point blank, what is the deal with the word “colonel”?

“Colonel” is pronounced just like “kernel.” How did this happen? From borrowing the same word from two different places. In the 1500s, English borrowed a bunch of military vocabulary from French, words like cavalerie, infanterie, citadelle, canon, and also, coronel. The French had borrowed them from the Italians, then the reigning experts in the art of war, but in doing so, had changed colonello to coronel.

Why did they do that? A common process called dissimilation—when two instances of the same sound occur close to each other in a word, people tend to change one of the instances to something else. Here, the first “l” was changed to “r.” The opposite process happened with the Latin word peregrinus (pilgrim), when the first “r” was changed to an “l” (now it’s peregrino in Spanish and Pellegrino in Italian. English inherited the “l” version in pilgrim.)

After the dissimilated French coronel made its way into English, late 16th century scholars started producing English translations of Italian military treatises. Under the influence of the originals, people started spelling it “colonel.” By the middle of the 17th century, the spelling had standardized to the “l” version, but the “r” pronunciation was still popular (it later lost a syllable, turning kor-o-nel to ker-nel). Both pronunciations were in play for a while, and adding to the confusion was the mistaken idea that “coronel” was etymologically related to “crown”—a colonel was sometimes translated as “crowner” in English. In fact, the root is colonna, Italian for column.

Meanwhile, French switched back to “colonel,” in both spelling and pronunciation. English throws its shoulders back, puts its hands on its hips and asks, how boring is that?

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

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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