My mother’s flower garden always included the awesome castor bean plant. Giant and colorful, it grew without any special care and thrived. In early spring Mother would drop a few of the magic beans in the earth (they froze down in the Colorado winters) and soon she had a beautiful back-drop to her green-thumb flower garden.
But castor oil is still plentiful, so it must be grown commercially. In its poisonous form it is known as Ricin.
Ring a bell? A couple of years back a Bulgarian dissident was killed by an umbrella jab that had a poisonous ricin-encoated needle on the jabbing end. It’s the stuff that jungle warriors use on their deadly blow darts. The poison is effective if inhaled, eaten, and less poisonous if absorbed through the skin.
Now is the time to hack down that plant in the back yard. It may be the most poisonous plant in the world, but there are two other common plants that claim that title.
The Jimson Weed first: If you are old enough to remember that cowboy singer, Gene Autrey, listen to your internal archive of Back in the Saddle Again: “out where the longhorn cattle feed on the lowly jimson weed” Oops? Can cattle survive that most poisonous plant? Maybe the Texas kind. (They wouldn’t have survived Ricin, so maybe it is not the world’s deadliest.)
The Jimson Weed, or Jamestown Weed after Jamestown, Virginia, was consumed by British soldiers while they were trying to suppress Bacon’s Rebellions in 1676.
- The James-Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru, and I take to be the plant so call’d) is supposed to be one of the greatest coolers in the world. This being an early plant, was gather’d very young for a boil’d salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither to quell the rebellion of Bacon (1676); and some of them ate plentifully of it, the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll.In this frantic condition they were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves — though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played, and after eleven days returned themselves again, not remembering anything that had passed . – The History and Present State of Virginia, 1705.
I’m not touching that stuff!
Second contender for the Most Poisonous title. The Oleander. Oleander, that wonderful draught tolerant plant so hardy and beautiful, can it be? Personally, I have only heard of one death by oleander poisoning and that was in a book of fiction. But botanists tell us that every part of the oleander is poisonous, branches, leaves, flowers, and sap. And deadly.
I have seven in my yard. I don’t have pets or children around so it is entirely safe for my landscaping that has to endure rocky soil and sizzling heat.
We Californians enjoy our beautiful landscaped highways in full bloom thanks to colorful oleanders. I sat at an outdoor high school graduation In Yuba City where gorgeous white oleanders ten to fifteen feet in height made a beautiful hedge along the chain-link fence.
We are not poisoned if we eat only the stalks. The poisonous part is the leaves. Rhubarb was thought to be a medicinal plant, not edible, until the 17th century when sugar became affordably available. The flavor is as tart as a lemon without sugar.
I love rhubarb sauce, made the same way as applesauce. In France I could buy it off the shelf with other preserved fruit, but I miss it hear. Delicious tart-sweet treat.
There are numerous other plants and flowers that are poisonous or harmful. I always think of poison mushrooms and cannot bring myself to eat what an amateur has gathered. But what I am thinking of today are the lovely blossoming plants we see in the forest or our own garden with no thought of eating them. Here are some that will surprise you:
The most fragrant flower on God’s green earth and the seeds are poison!
Not deadly poison, but serious gastroenteritis when ingested. Repeated vomiting, severe stomach pain, diarrhea, dehydration, and collapse…from eating any part of it!
or more correctly Digitalis, the source of a medicinal heart stimulant. Given in proper dosage to a heart patient it can seem miraculous, and overdose is deadly.
so esthetically pleasing, is a killer too. The pods that come after the yellow flowers are highly toxic. Don’t tie your horse to one of these trees, he’ll eat his fill, and die. The seeds, bark ,and leaves are all poisonous.
I’m just getting started on this subject but I will close with a lovely little forest plant we all love. Lily of the Valley. Every part of it is poisonous. Taste it and you’ll have a really bad headache, slow pulse, nausea and excessive urination.
A worry-wart summary: If you are not entirely familiar with the plant , don’t eat it. Don’t make a necklaces of beans or berries, don’t let your pets eat it. Keep it off your arms and legs, it might be poison ivy!