8 Seemingly Harmless Plants That Can Kill or Maim You

iStock
iStock

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.

How Are Hurricane Categories Determined?

NOAA via Getty Images
NOAA via Getty Images

Residents of Panama City and other areas in the Florida Panhandle are in the midst of Hurricane Michael, a Category 4 storm that Governor Rick Scott warned is the "worst storm" to hit the area "in a century."

Given that North Carolina is still battling the effects of Hurricane Florence, which made landfall less than a month ago, we've become accustomed to hearing about hurricanes, and to predicting what sort of damage they might cause based on their category number. But how do meteorologists categorize these often-deadly storms, and how does that scale work?

First, a quick primer: Hurricanes are tropical cyclones that occur in the Atlantic Ocean and have winds with a sustained speed of at least 74 mph. A tropical cyclone, in turn, is a storm system that develops in the tropics and is characterized by a low pressure center and thunderstorms that produce strong winds, rain, and storm surges. Tropical cyclone is a generic name that refers to the storms' geographic origin and cyclonic rotation around a central eye. Depending on their location and strength, the storms are called different things. What gets dubbed a hurricane in the Atlantic, for example, would be called a typhoon if it happened in the northwestern Pacific.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A HURRICANE AND A TROPICAL STORM?

Simply put: Wind speed. When tropical cyclones are just starting out as general areas of low pressure with the potential to strengthen, they’re called tropical depressions. They’re given sequential numbers as they form during a storm season so the National Hurricane Center (NHC) can keep tabs on them.

Once a cyclone’s winds kick up to 39 miles per hour and sustain that speed for 10 minutes, it becomes a tropical storm and the NHC gives it a name. If the cyclone keeps growing and sustains 74 mph winds, it graduates to hurricane.

ONCE WE CALL IT A HURRICANE, HOW DO WE CATEGORIZE IT?

In order to assign a numeric category value to a hurricane, meteorologists look to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which was developed as a classification system for Western Hemisphere tropical cyclones in the late 1960s and early '70s by structural engineer Herbert Saffir and his friend, meteorologist Robert Simpson, who was the director of the NHC at the time.

When Saffir was working on a United Nations project to study low-cost housing in hurricane-prone areas, it struck him that there was no simple, standardized way of describing hurricanes and their damaging effects, like the way the Richter scale is used to describe earthquakes. He created a five-level scale based on wind speed and sent it off to Simpson, who expanded on it to include the effects on storm surge and flooding. Simpson began using it internally at the NHC, and then in reports shared with emergency agencies. It proved useful, so others began adopting it and it quickly spread.

HOW DOES THE SCALE WORK?

According to the NHC, the scale breaks down like this:

Category 1 storms have sustained winds of 74 to 95 mph. These “very dangerous winds will produce some damage: Well-constructed frame homes could have damage to roof, shingles, vinyl siding, and gutters. Large branches of trees will snap and shallowly rooted trees may be toppled. Extensive damage to power lines and poles likely will result in power outages that could last a few to several days."

Category 2 storms have sustained winds of 96 to 110 mph. These “extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage: Well-constructed frame homes could sustain major roof and siding damage. Many shallowly rooted trees will be snapped or uprooted and block numerous roads. Near-total power loss is expected with outages that could last from several days to weeks."

Category 3 storms have sustained winds of 111 to 129 mph. This is the first category that qualifies as a “major storm” and “devastating damage will occur: Well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking and gable ends. Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks after the storm passes."

Category 4 storms have sustained winds of 130 to 156 mph. These storms are “catastrophicand damage includes: “Well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and/or some exterior walls. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."

Category 5 storms have sustained winds of 157 mph or higher. The catastrophic damage entailed here includes: “A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."

While the Saffir-Simpson scale is useful, it isn’t the be-all and end-all for measuring storms, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pointed out on Twitter in 2013:

IS THERE ANYTHING WORSE THAN A CATEGORY 5?

Not on paper, but there have been hurricanes that have gone beyond the upper bounds of the scale. Hypothetically, hurricanes could up the ante beyond Category 5 more regularly. The storms use warm water to fuel themselves and as ocean temperatures rise, climatologists predict that potential hurricane intensity will increase.

Both Saffir and Simpson have said that there’s no need to add more categories because once things go beyond 157 mph, the damage all looks the same: really, really bad. Still, that hasn't stopped several scientists from suggesting that maybe the time has come to consider a Category 6 addition.

Timothy Hall, a senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, recently told the Los Angeles Times that if the current global warming trends continue, he can foresee a time—likely by the end of the century—where wind speeds could blow past 230 mph, which could create conditions similar to a F-4 tornado (which has the power to lift cars off the ground and send them hurtling through the air with relative ease).

“If we had twice as many Category 5s—at some point, several decades down the line—if that seems to be the new norm, then yes, we’d want to have more partitioning at the upper part of the scale,” Hall said. “At that point, a Category 6 would be a reasonable thing to do."

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2013.

Eco-Friendly, Reusable Deodorant Containers Are Good for the Earth and Your Pits

Myro
Myro

A fair amount of plastic goes into keeping your armpits smelling fresh. Few of us recycle our empty deodorant tube after swiping on that last layer, after all. In many cases, it’s not even clear if you can, though there are a few special recycling programs that make it possible. But a new company aims to make it easier to both smell clean and keep the planet clean.

Myro deodorant comes in refillable, reusable packaging, as Design Milk reports. The essential-oil-based deodorant comes in pods that you can pop into colorful reusable canisters. Created by the award-winning industrial designers at the New York studio Visibility, the fashionable containers are also made with 50 percent less plastic than most drugstore deodorant sticks, according to the company.

The deodorant sticks aren’t fundamentally different than something you might pick up at the drug store, even if they would look more at home on the shelves at Urban Outfitters or Anthropologie than CVS. You use a dial at the bottom of the tube to advance the deodorant stick, and when you reach the end of the deodorant, the pod that held the formula pops out. You can then refill it one of Myro’s replacement pods. If your container needs a deep clean, you can stick it in the top rack of your dishwasher.

A red-orange deodorant canister next to a Myro refill pod
Myro

The deodorant itself doesn’t use the standard aluminum or baking powder formula, instead employing an antimicrobial agent made from sugar to reduce smells and barley powder to absorb moisture.

Myro deodorant comes in five different scents that you can mix and match with five different packaging colors. There’s Solar Flare, a mix of orange, juniper, and sunflower; Big Dipper, a blend of bergamot, lavender, and vetiver; Cabin No. 5, which smells like vetiver, patchouli, and geranium; Pillow Talk, made with violet leaf, ylang ylang, wild amyris; and Chill Wave, a blend of cucumber, jasmine, and spearmint.

One Myro deodorant, including the refillable container, costs $10. Each replacement pod is $10, though you can’t just get one at a time—they come in quarterly subscriptions, $30 for a three-pack delivered every three months. You can pause your subscription or switch scents at any time.

Check it out here.

[h/t Design Milk]

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