India's Terrifying, Toxic Tree

Wikimedia Commons //Tauʻolunga// CC BY-SA 3.0

It sounds like something out of a particularly dark Grimms fairy tale—consume the poisonous othalanga fruit of the Cerbera odollam tree to experience eternal slumber. But the so-called “suicide tree” of India isn’t fiction.

The softball-sized fruit contains seeds so toxic, they’re used to produce rat poison (and, alarmingly, deodorant). In the 19th century, thousands of people were subjected to witchcraft “trials” not unlike those held in Salem: If the accused ate othalanga and survived, he or she was declared a witch and was punished accordingly. If the accused died, well, whoops—at least they were virtuous!

Cerbera odollam grows wild and abundantly along the southwestern coast of India near Kerala, making suicide a snap for anyone who harvests fruit from its branches. It’s estimated that at least one person per week in the Kerala region uses the natural poison to kill themselves. In May, four teenage girls ate othalanga after allegedly being harassed by the trainers and senior members of their rowing squad. One 15-year-old died, while the others were hospitalized.

Researchers believe the seeds are often used for murder as well. The toxin in the seeds is known as cerberin, which stops the heart, making odollam poisoning look a lot like a heart attack. Since so little is known about the plant and its effects, this means intentional poisonings may go unnoticed

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This Plant Can Burn Your Skin With its Sap—And It May Be Coming to Your Neighborhood
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It's huge, it's extremely dangerous, and it's spreading. The giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) contains a corrosive sap that causes severe rashes, third-degree burns, and even permanent blindness if you get the photosensitive chemicals on your skin or in your eyes, Science Alert reports.

The noxious, invasive weed was just identified in Clarke County, Virginia, near the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech. That brings the number of states it's been spotted in to 11, including Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine. Beyond the U.S., it has taken root all over the world, from the UK to Iceland to Australia.

Similar to the common but slightly less dangerous cow parsnip, giant hogweed is native to Central Asia and was first brought to North America in the early 1990s as an ornamental plant, its unique shape making it popular among gardeners. But it soon became invasive: Once it’s established in an area, it can take up to five years to eradicate a colony.

Now the plant is considered a public health concern. Hogweed can cause a reaction known as phytophotodermatitis when it comes into contact with skin that is subsequently exposed to UV rays—but the effects of hogweed are much more severe. A painful blister can develop within hours and last for months; the exposed skin can remain sensitive to sunlight for years even after the blisters heal.

Hogweed can be difficult to distinguish from the cow parsnip, and the plant is often misidentified. First, check for height: Hogweeds are typically taller than 8 feet, while cow parsnip tends to be 5 to 8 feet tall. Hogweed stems are green with purple specks and coarse white hairs, while parsnip stems are green with fine white hairs. For more tips and photos, check out the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s guide.

If you see a plant you think might be a giant hogweed, take a few photos and send them to your state's department of agriculture to identify—and whatever you do, don't touch it.

[h/t Science Alert]

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How to Spot Poison Ivy, According to a Scientist
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If you're a former scout, you've probably heard the rhyme “leaves of three, let it be.” This mnemonic device, used to steer intrepid outdoorspeople away from poisonous ivy and oak, is generally sound advice for ensuring you don’t come home with a nasty rash. Not all three-leaved plants are the enemy, though, and several harmless plants are often confused with poison ivy.

Microbiologist John Jelesko shared some tips with NPR for identifying this pernicious plant. First, it helps to know what you’re up against. Poison ivy is a master of disguise and can take many different shapes and sizes. It can appear in small patches, take the form of creeping vines or a bush, and can even mimic the appearance of a tree it has wrapped itself around. The leaves can have either “smooth, jagged, or lobed edges” and may or may not bear white or greenish berries.

If the plant has thorns, you can be sure it’s not poison ivy, whose mode of attack is a little more stealthy. In the city, Jelesko had found that climbing vines are the more common form; look out for ground-creeping vines in forested areas. While there are exceptions to this rule, Jelesko’s research found that poison ivy tends to take different forms depending on the landscape.

A longer middle stem and a hairy vine are also signs that you could be dealing with poison ivy. If you have a plant in your garden that you can’t identify, you can conduct a “black dot test” to see if it’s poison ivy. Put on a pair of gloves, tear a leaf in half, and place the sap on a sheet of white paper. If it’s urushiol oil (the rash-causing chemical in poison ivy), it will turn black within 30 minutes.

Sometimes, even our best efforts to identify poison ivy may fail. If you think you may have brushed up against it, don’t panic—take a shower within a few hours of contact. That should keep your chance of developing a rash at a minimum.

[h/t NPR]

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