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