8 Seemingly Harmless Plants That Can Kill or Maim You

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Though most of us know we shouldn't make meals out of strange plants we come across in the wilderness, we probably wouldn't think twice about touching those with shiny fruit and appealing colors, assuming them to be as safe as they are beautiful. But there are many trees, flowers, and berries that can cause great bodily harm through mere contact—agonizingly itchy rashes, respiratory issues, temporary blindness, and even total organ failure. While some fatal flora have to get inside your body to kill you, others are so dangerous that you probably shouldn’t even stand next to them. Here are some of the most notorious.

1. MANCHINEEL TREE

manchineel tree with fruit
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The manchineel, or Hippomane mancinella, is a relative of the poinsettia and holds the Guinness World Record for “most dangerous tree.” Pretty much every part of this plantwhich is native to Florida, as well as parts of the Caribbean and Central and South Americais out to get you: Its fruits are known in Spanish as manzanilla de la muerte, or “little apple of death,” and its sap, once used to poison arrows, contains the toxin phorbol, a carcinogen. Contact with the sap causes a blistering, painful rash that can last for weeks, which means you don't want to stand under the tree in a storm; raindrops can pick up the sap and drop it onto your unprotected skin. You shouldn't try to destroy the manchineel, either—inhaling smoke from burning its leaves can lead to respiratory issues or even temporary blindness. According to the Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, “interaction with and ingestion of any part of this tree may be lethal.”

2. ROSARY PEA

rosary pea
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The rosary pea (Abrus precatorius), also known as crab’s eye or jumbie bead, is a perennial climbing vine whose small seeds are astonishingly deadly: They contain a toxic protein called abrin that is so poisonous, a single seed can kill you within 36 hours. In the tropical regions where they're found, rosary peas are also used to make jewelry, because nothing says “pretty necklace” like possible death.

The good news is that simply handling a rosary pea seed won’t be fatal; the hard coating surrounding the seeds, which are usually bright orange or red with a black spot, needs to be broken for poisoning to occur by inhalation or absorption. You’ll even survive swallowing one. Chew it, however, and you’re in for a fun ride of vomiting, liver failure, and death. The rosary pea’s most common victims are children and, well, jewelry makers: Prick a finger while drilling a hole in the small seed, and that necklace will be your last.

3. GYMPIE-GYMPIE

Don't let its cutesy name or heart-shaped foliage fool you: The gympie-gympie (Dendrocnide moroides) is not to be trifled with. The leaves and fruits of this poisonous nettle, native to Australia, Indonesia, and the Moluccas, are covered with hollow stinging “hairs” shaped like hypodermic needles that are notoriously difficult to remove from skin. Moroidin, the neurotoxin found in the gympie-gympie plant, causes painful itching so excruciating that it’s been known to drive humans mad with agony. Simply breathing near the plant can cause nosebleeds and rashes due to the inhalation of shed needles.

“The first thing you’ll feel is a really intense burning sensation and this grows over the next half hour, becoming more and more painful,” virologist Mike Leahy describes in a video in which he intentionally stings himself with the gympie-gympie. “Shortly after this, your joints may ache, and you might get swelling under your armpits, and that can be almost as painful as the original sting. In severe cases, this can lead to shock, and even death. And if you don’t remove all the hairs, they can keep releasing the torturous toxins for up to a year.”

Entomologist and ecologist Marina Hurley describes coming in contact with a plant—which she did many times—as “being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time.” And even with repeated exposure, your system never adapts; symptoms only get worse over time. The pain is so bad that during WWII, an Australian army officer reputedly killed himself after realizing he had accidentally used the plant’s leaves as toilet paper.

It's also worth noting that age doesn't diminish the danger: Dry samples, preserved for decades, still retain their stinging abilities.

4. WOLFSBANE

wolfsbane flowers
Jean-Pol Grandmont, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Aconite (Aconitum napellus), more commonly known as wolfsbane, is a flowering perennial that grows in mountain meadows in the Northern Hemisphere. Like the manchineel tree, it has historically been used to poison arrowheads for hunting. Aconite contains large quantities of pseudaconitine, a toxin that can paralyze an animal as large as a whale, allowing it to be brought down by hunters.

Like the manchineel tree, wolfsbane causes its fair share of accidental deaths. In 2014, a gardener in Hampshire, England, was rushed to the hospital after handling the plant without protective clothing. The toxin entered his blood, causing multiple organ failure, and within five days, he was dead. Chelsea Physic Garden representative Tom Wells calls wolfsbane one of the most dangerous plants found in Britain’s gardens: “The roots are where the highest level of poison is found, although it is still found in the flower. If there were cuts on his hand, it would enter his bloodstream and affect his heart very quickly,” causing arrhythmia or paralysis.

5. BUNYA PINE

Bunya Pine Cone
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The Bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii) kills with an even more brutal touch, though at least it's not intentionally trying to murder people. Growing up to 130 feet tall in the rainforests and mountains of Australia, the ancient pine (dating back 350 million years) produces massive, watermelon-sized cones weighing up to 22 pounds … which it then drops on unsuspecting victims below.

“These huge pine cones have the capacity to be lethal if they were to fall on someone passing underneath from such a large height,” Baw Baw Shire Council Mayor Diane Blackwood said in 2012, when a Bunya pine planted by a restaurant troubled local residents. According to The Conversation, many councils rope off areas by the pines or erect warning signs during “cone season.” If you’re ever in Australia between December and March, watch your head.

6. WHITE SNAKEROOT

White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is a herbaceous perennial native to eastern and central North America that was responsible for the deaths of thousands of European settlers in the 19th century. Consumed by cows and other livestock, the plant's leaves and stems contain a toxin called tremetol that was passed on to humans through the animals' milk. This “milk sickness” manifests as vomiting, tremors, liver failure, constipation, delirium, and often death—of both humans and calves who drank the tainted milk. Perhaps the most famous victim of white snakeroot was Nancy Hanks Lincoln, mother of President Abraham Lincoln. Modern animal husbandry practices have mostly made milk sickness a thing of the past; the plant is cleared so animals can't graze on it.

7. OLEANDER

Oleander (Nerium oleander) is widely cultivated and flourishes in subtropical and mild oceanic climates. The flowering evergreen shrub is prized by gardeners and usually grows to 6 to 12 feet tall. It’s also chock full of toxins. Cardiac glycosides called oleandrin and neriine are found in oleander’s flowers, leaves, roots, and fruit, and while similar compounds are used to treat heart failure by helping the muscle to pump blood, oleander can also stop your heart. (Additional symptoms include skin rashes, visual disturbances like blurred vision and halos, and bloody diarrhea.) The good news is that you’ll likely vomit immediately after ingesting the plant, giving you a second chance at life. Those with hardy stomachs, beware.

8. GIANT HOGWEED

giant hogweed against blue sky
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The invasive giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) grows all over the world, from Europe to Australia, and its corrosive sap contains the phototoxin furocoumarin. Touching the plant followed by any exposure to ultraviolet light causes a reaction called phytophotodermatitis, a rash so severe it is often mistaken for chemical burns. It can also cause permanent blindness if the photosensitive chemicals come in contact with your eyes. The giant hogweed's effects are insidiously long-lasting: Blisters from the rashes and third-degree burns it inflicts can take months to heal, and the affected area may remain photosensitive for years after exposure.

Why You Shouldn't Crush an Aluminum Can Before Recycling It

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iStock.com/FotografiaBasica

Participating in your local recycling program is a great first step toward reducing waste, but tossing your old containers in the right bin is just one part of the process. To make sure your recyclable goods end up where they're supposed to be, you have to treat them right. That means resisting the urge to crush your aluminum cans, according to Lifehacker.

Stomping on an empty can may seem like a logical move: A crushed can takes up less space, which should make it easier to store and recycle. But recycling centers actually have a harder time processing cans that have been flattened.

Many recycling plants sort recyclable materials by shape. Small items tend to be marked as waste and sent to the landfill (which is why it's better to leave caps on plastic bottles when you recycle them). Flat items are usually sorted with the paper and cardboard, so when a can is crushed, it may be misidentified and end up contaminating a batch of paper items.

If you want your aluminum cans to be sent to the right place, leave them in their original 3D shape when you dispose of them. That way your local recycling center will have an easier time identifying the material. But if crushing cans has become a habit, you may be able to keep doing it without creating more waste. Some municipalities use multi-stream recycling systems which are able to recycle your cans properly no matter what shape they're in. So, if you use two separate bins for your recycling and live in a multi-stream recycling area, you can probably continue crushing cans to your heart's content.

[h/t Lifehacker]

Your Balloons Are Bad for Seabirds

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iStock.com/Image Source

Bad news, party planners: Your balloons are killing birds. A new study spotted by Live Science reveals that these colorful decorations often end up in our oceans, where seabirds mistake them for squid and consume them.

The team of Australian researchers studied more than 1700 seabirds belonging to 51 different species. One in three of the birds had plastic in their systems. Researchers also found that the birds had a 20 percent chance of dying after ingesting a single piece of debris. Though hard plastics were consumed in greater quantities by seabirds, balloons proved to be far deadlier. Eating them is “32 times more likely to result in death than ingesting hard plastic,” researchers write in their paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Marine debris ingestion is now a globally recognized threat,” Lauren Roman, who led the study, said in a statement. “Among the birds we studied, the leading cause of death was blockage of the gastrointestinal tract, followed by infections or other complications caused by gastrointestinal obstructions.”

The study also highlighted another startling statistic: 99 percent of all seabird species are predicted to ingest marine debris by 2050. That is of great concern in Australasia, which is home to the world's highest biodiversity of seabirds. Albatross and petrel species are particularly under threat, but the exact role that debris plays in that is not fully known.

Similarly, a survey from last December found microplastics in the guts of all seven sea turtle species that were studied, including the endangered green turtle and critically endangered hawksbill and Kemp's ridley turtles. However, these particles are smaller than balloon bits, and the consequences of ingesting microplastics are still being studied.

According to researchers, the most obvious and immediate solution is to reduce the amount of waste entering oceans.

[h/t Live Science]

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