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.

A Team of Cigarette Butt-Collecting Birds Are Keeping a French Theme Park Litter-Free

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The six rooks pecking at litter within the Puy du Fou theme park in Les Epesses, France, aren't unwelcome pests: They're part of the staff. As AFP reports, the trained birds have been dispatched to clean up garbage and cigarettes butts from the park grounds.

Rooks are a member of the corvid family, a group of intelligent birds that also includes ravens and crows. At Puy du Fou, an educational amusement park with attractions inspired by various periods from French history, the rooks will flit around the park, pick up any bits of litter that haven't been properly disposed of, and deliver them to a receptacle in exchange for a treat. At least that's how the system is set up to work: The full team of six rooks has only been on the job since August 13.

Employing birds as trash collectors may seem far-fetched, but the experiment has precedent. The Dutch startup Crowded Cities recently started training crows to gather cigarette butts using a vending machine-like device. Once the crows were taught to associate the rig with free peanuts, the machine was tweaked so that it only dispensed food when the crow nudged a cigarette butt resting on a ledge into the receptacle. The cigarette butts were eventually removed, and the birds figured out that they had to find the litter in the wild if they wanted to continue receiving their snacks.

Crowded Cities had planned to conduct more research on the method's effectiveness, as well as the potentially harmful effects of tobacco on crows, before bringing their vending machines to public spaces. Puy du Fou, meanwhile, has become one of the first—if not the first—businesses to fully implement the strategy on a major scale.

Even if it doesn't prove to be practical, Puy du Fou president Nicolas de Villiers told AFP that cleaning up the park is only part of the goal. He also hopes the birds will demonstrate that "nature itself can teach us to take care of the environment."

[h/t AFP]

7 Products to Make Your Iced Coffee Obsession More Eco-Friendly

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As you may have heard, plastic straws are on their way out. There is an increasing push to phase out hard-to-recycle single-use straws in restaurant chains and even entire cities, and many people are becoming aware for the first time of just how harmful straws can be to the environment. So what’s an iced coffee aficionado to do? While there are some alternatives in the works—a new paper straw factory is opening in the UK, for one, and Starbucks is redesigning its plastic lids to include sippable lips—for now, finding alternatives to grabbing several plastic straws a day to support an addiction to cold brew, iced tea, and fountain sodas is largely up to consumers themselves.

If you’ve started feeling guilty about your two-a-day iced coffee habit or your love of an icy Coke, there are a number of options to replace all that single-use plastic you’re used to throwing away. Here are seven items that can make your cold beverage purchases a little more environmentally friendly. Let’s start with the straws themselves.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of sales. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck gift hunting!

1. COMPOSTABLE STRAWS; $11 FOR 100

A package of white compostable straws
Repurpose

Don’t want to give up the convenience of a classic plastic straw? Repurpose makes compostable straws out of plant matter that, unlike the conventional plastic options, will biodegrade. According to the company, they’ll break down after 90 days in an industrial composting facility. Amazon reviewers note that the straws look and feel almost exactly like plastic straws, so you don’t have to change your habits too much.

Find It: Amazon

2. STAINLESS STEEL STRAWS; $10 FOR 6

Two cleaning brushes, three straight stainless steel straws, and three bent straws with colored tips
Amazon

Stainless steel is durable, easy to clean, and affordable, making it the go-to option for many people looking to replace their plastic straws. However, metal straws can also feel harsh and cold. Luckily, each straw in this set has a soft silicone tip on the top for maximum mouth comfort. This pack of six comes with both straight and bent straws of different diameters, meaning they’ll work for thick smoothies as well as for coffee or soda. They’re also slightly longer than regular straws, so they’ll fit tall tumblers.

Find It: Amazon

3. GLASS STRAWS; $20 FOR 2

Two purple straws fit inside a blue carrying case.
Amazon

Glass straws are smooth to sip from, especially if you’re a person who doesn’t love the metallic taste of stainless steel straws. While they look delicate, they’re sturdier than you think, and can survive banging around in your bag all day or getting thrown in the sink. (They’re made from the same type of shatterproof glass as old-school Pyrex dishware.) While these colorful straws aren’t the cheapest glass versions available on the web, they come with a crucial component that not all manufacturers offer—a carrying case to keep your straws clean and safe throughout the day.

Find It: Amazon

4. STRAW CARRYING CASE; $14

A teal straw bag with illustrations of French bulldogs and catcuses
Shaunacy Ferro, Mental Floss

Not all reusable straws come with a case, but having one will improve the likelihood that you'll commit to ditching plastic straws. Instead of planning every coffee, soda, or smoothie you’ll buy, it's easiest to always have one of your reusable straws waiting in your bag. These colorful pouches from Hawaii-based Etsy seller Bernadette Rapozo come in a variety of patterns and feature a waterproof lining so that you don’t have to worry about throwing your still-slightly-wet straw in it after you finish your drink.

Find It: Etsy

5. HYDRO FLASK 22-OUNCE TUMBLER AND STRAW LID; $43 FOR BOTH

A black tumblr and a lid with a straw in it
Hydro Flask

If you’ve already committed to trying to reduce your straw usage, you may also find yourself feeling guilty about using plastic cups. This well-insulated stainless steel cup from Hydro Flask promises to fit in most cupholders and has a non-slip powder finish on the exterior for easy gripping, two design factors that led to it being named The Wirecutter’s favorite tumbler. The double-wall structure is made to keep your drink cold for a full 24 hours.

Hydro Flask recently debuted a splash-proof straw lid, sold separately, that makes the tumbler feel more like a traditional disposable plastic cup. The tumblers come in various sizes, including 10-ounce versions designed for wine and liquor—or, alternately, juice and small amounts of coffee—and 22-ounce and 32-ounce versions for larger drinks. For coffee, we prefer the 22-ounce version, because very few people can handle 32 ounces of highly caffeinated cold brew.

Find It: on Amazon: Tumbler, Lid

6. TERVIS INSULATED 16-OUNCE TUMBLER AND LID; $16 FOR BOTH

A clear plastic tumbler and black lid that reads 'Tervis'
Tervis, Amazon

Tervis makes simple, affordable plastic tumblers that come in a wide variety of designs and colors. (You may recognize them from college bookstores, since they’re available with a number of university’s emblems on them.) They’re especially handy if you’re looking to pair them with your own straw, since the large, puncture-style hole can fit almost any size straw.

Find It: on Amazon: Tumbler, Lid

7. SIMPLE MODERN 16-OUNCE TUMBLER WITH LID; $16

A dark gray tumbler with a black straw
Simple Modern

If you want something similar in design to a single-use plastic cafe cup but are looking for something more durable than most reusable plastic tumblers, Simple Modern’s 16-ounce stainless steel travel tumblers might be the right fit. While more affordable than Hydro Flask’s version, these tumblers also feature stainless steel insulated walls designed to keep your drink icy for hours. Each one also comes with two lids: a straw lid for cold drinks and a sippable lid for hot beverages.

Find It: Amazon

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