The Quick 10: 10 Flowers You Don't Want to Put in Your May Day Basket
Happy May Day! There are all kinds of cute ideas for what you can do for your friends and family today, if you're inclined to do that sort of thing. Martha's got some flower cones and some green-friendly ideas by recycling tin cans and jelly jars into flower containers, but why not say it with poisonous flowers? Let's turn May Day into a scary holiday like Halloween. Doesn't this sound the plot to a terrible '80s horror flick? "It all started with a bouquet of flowers... from HELL."
Sorry, I digress. Today's Quick 10 is about plants to avoid when you're out frolicking in nature to put together your May Day baskets today. Because you're all out doing that, right?
1. Oleander. Whatever element of surprise this deadly beauty had was probably ruined when Janet Fitch's 1999 novel White Oleander got big: the mom in the story killed her womanizing boyfriend by smearing a concoction that included oleander sap all over his stuff (it was a movie too). I know, you're skeptical: could that really kill someone? The answer: yep. Small amounts can be lethal or nearly lethal for adults, and you definitely want to keep kids and pets away from it. It's pretty uncommon around these parts though: less than 1,000 cases of oleander poisoning are reported in the U.S. every year. In places like Sri Lanka, suicide by oleander seed is becoming way too common because the pretty plant grows wild by the roadside. People have started taking it for trivial reasons because it's so easy to get; one doctor reported that a teenage girl ate a seed because her mother refused to take her shopping.
2. Zantedeschia. If you think this looks like a Calla lily, that's 'cause it is. Every part of this plant is toxic, but only if ingested - so if you're planning on having them in your wedding bouquet or something, don't worry. Touching the stem isn't going to kill you. If you take it home as a post-wedding snack, that's when you're in trouble: eating the Zantedeschia species has been the death of both livestock and children. Symptoms include swelling of the mouth and throat, acute vomiting and diarrhea.
3. Hellebore. There's a good reason it pops up when authors need to make witches concoct potions and powders since it has been known for its toxic properties since ancient times. At least, "black" hellebore (aka Christmas Rose) has been - it causes everything from vertigo and thirst to swelling of the throat and cardiac arrest. But it's also used in some remedies; some historians think Alexander the Great was taking medicine with hellebore in it and may have accidentally overdosed on it. It was also used in the First Sacred War between the Amphictyonic League of Delphi and the City of Kirrha - Solon of Athens added a bunch of hellebore to Kirrha's water supply and supposedly the city was so incapacitated with diarrhea that they couldn't fight back when Solon's troops invaded.
4. Fool's Parsley is related to poison hemlock.
If you're trying to off someone, though, it would be pretty silly to use Fool's Parsley because it's easily detected. It can inflame the eyelids and makes the stomach lining very red and irritated. But like hellebore, it has its good side, too: a really diluted form of the plant can help stop seizures in little kids.
5. Water dropwort. They look a lot like parsnips, which is why a group of people found a cluster of them growing in a stream in Argyll, Scotland, and took them home to throw them in a curry. Everyone who ate the curry was terribly sick 10 hours later; one of them even had seizures and started hallucinating. Eventually the cause of the illness was discovered and everyone was treated appropriately. It's a good thing they only consumed the tiny amounts in the stew - eating ONE whole root has been known to kill livestock as big as a cow.
6. Purple Nightshade. It's partly the fault of this lavender sprout that the tomato was thought to be a bad guy for many years (they're both part of the Solanaceae family, along with eggplant, chili peppers and belladonna).
7. Mescalbean. It's very pretty, but as little as one seed from the mescalbean can kill you. It also causes hallucinations, as you might have guessed, since "mescalbean" sounds an awful lot like "mescaline," the drug Aldous Huxley and Aleister Crowley both experimented with. However, the drug may not be related to the plant. The drug comes from the peyote cactus and other members of the cacti family; the name has been a source of confusion for many years.
8. Hemlock is another one that can easily be mistaken for an edible root or herb - the leaves look like fennel or parsley and the roots look like parsnip. I love all of the names associated with it: Poison Hemlock, of course, but also Devil's Porridge, Beaver Poison and Poison Parsley. A very small amount of this stuff can be lethal, so it makes sense that it was used in ancient Greece to kill people. It's how Socrates died, actually. When he was found guilty of "impiety" - corruption of youth and disbelief in the appropriate gods - he was forced to drink hemlock poison, which first paralyzed him and then killed him. Red spots on hemlock are sometimes referred to as "the blood of Socrates" because of this.
9. Death Camas. So many poisonous plants look like something commonly edible - it's like God (or whatever you believe made the plants) decided to make the two things similar and let Darwinism take care of the rest. Death Camas look suspiciously like onions, but luckily, they don't smell like them. That should be your one saving grace if you're ever out hiking in western America and stumble upon one. All parts of the plant are poisonous, not just the root, although the bulb is the most fatal part: eating just one can cause death. It's known to fell livestock pretty easily - it takes just 2% of an animal's body weight to be a lethal dose.
10. Belladonna. It's a baaaaad plant (shut your mouth). It's one of the plants that were used to create poisoned arrows back in the days of early man, and was frequently used in ancient Rome to get rid of people - Emperor Augustus fell to it when his wife allegedly poisoned him and Macbeth of Scotland used it to poison opposing troops. Back when people believed in witches, they were also pretty sure that the witches used some sort of belladonna mixture to make themselves fly. Oh, and it's called belladonna because women used it to make themselves more beautiful ("bella donna" is Italian for "beautiful women). Using an extract of belladonna directly in the eyes dilated the pupils, which was apparently a sign of beauty in ancient times.
Have you ever eaten something you wish you hadn't? I remember once I found some R.C. Cola out in my parents' garage and drank some. To this day, they keep a fridge in the garage full of nothing put pop and beer, so I thought nothing of the two-liter bottle sitting in the garage (on the counter next to the fridge, mind you). I mentioned something about it later and my dad said, "You didn't DRINK that?!" And I said of course I did, to which he replied, "Well, it had motor oil in it. But you look like you're going to survive, I guess."