Friday, February 10, 2012

Poisons Post: Calotropis & Cowbane


Scientific Name: Calotropis
Folk/Common Names: Dogbane
Toxin Type: Toxic glycosides: calotropin (very dangerous), uscharin and calotoxin
Toxicity Level: The "milk" the plant exudes is a highly corrosive toxin that can burn skin and is particularly bad for the eyes. In higher doses the effects on the heart and body can lead to death.
Where is the Poison: Mostly the milky "sap".

Symptoms: It has been said the ingredients in the latex in the sap can act like "vegetable mercury" when ingested. Calotropin, an isolated toxin in the sap, can cause cardiac arrest and an exhaustive death. In high doses the person suffers uncontrollable convulsions until the heart and lungs fail from exhaustion. If the latex comes in contact with eyes or mucus it can burn right through it and cause excruciating pain.

Interesting Fact: This plant is used extensively in Ayurvedic medicines, to treat everything from ulcers to heart problems.

Folk Info: This plant has strong ties to sun worship in many places, and was used in offerings for various deities. It was offered in garlands of flowers in Vedic times.

The juice of the flower was also used to induce abortion for unwanted pregnancy, and for tanners to better tan hides.

BOTTOM LINE: Should you be worried?
Sounds like a pretty nasty death to me, considering the toxic soup in the sap is considered 6 times more deadly than Strychnine.


Scientific Name: Cicuta Virosa
Folk/Common Names: Cowbane, Water Hemlock
Toxin Type: Cicutoxin (poisonous alcohol)
Toxicity Level: Considered maybe THE most toxic plant found in the United States
Where is the Poison: The entire plant but highly toxic in the root system.

Symptoms: The Cicutoxin specifically targets the central nervous system. The plant literally causes the brain receptors to become overactive and so induces seizues. The cause of death is usually directly derived from the seizures, but can also be from the plant increasing or decreasing heartrate, swelling of the brain, problems in the blood, muscle breakdown, and respiratory failure. The plant can be ingested or just rubbed on the skin for the same toxic effect.

Symptoms can come on in minutes and potentially last for months.

Interesting Fact: I actually found a written account of water hemlock poisoning. The problem is it looks QUITE similar to various edible look-alike plants, so it happens a lot.

On October 5, 1992, a 23-year-old man and his 39-year-old brother were foraging for wild ginseng in the midcoastal Maine woods. The younger man collected several plants growing in a swampy area and took three bites from the root of one plant. His brother took one bite of the same root. Within 30 minutes, the younger man vomited and began to have convulsions; they walked out of the woods, and approximately 30 minutes after the younger man became ill, they were able to telephone for emergency rescue services.

Within 15 minutes of the call, emergency medical personnel arrived and found the younger man unresponsive and cyanotic with mild tachycardia, dilated pupils, and profuse salivation. Severe tonic-clonic seizures occurred and were followed by periods of apnea. He was intubated and transported to a local emergency department. Physicians performed gastric lavage and administered activated charcoal. His cardiac rhythm changed to ventricular fibrillation, and four resuscitative attempts were unsuccessful. He died approximately 3 hours after ingesting the root.

Although the older brother was asymptomatic when he arrived at the emergency department, he was treated prophylactically with gastric lavage and administered activated charcoal. He began to have seizures and exhibit delirium 2 hours after eating the root; he was stabilized and transferred to a tertiary-care center for observation. No additional adverse effects were reported.

The root ingested by the two brothers was identified as water hemlock (Cicuta maculata). In October 1993, postmortem samples of frozen liver tissue, blood, and gastric contents from the man were analyzed by high-pressure liquid chromatography for cicutoxin, a poisonous substance in water hemlock. Cicutoxin, a neurotoxin, was not detected; however, the toxin is labile and may have degraded during storage.

Reported by: K Sweeney, MD, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner; KF Gensheimer, MD, State Epidemiologist, Maine Dept of Human Svcs; J Knowlton-Field, Damariscotta, Maine. RA Smith, Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center, Dept of Veterinary Science, Univ of Kentucky, Lexington. Health Studies Br, Div of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects, National Center for Environmental Health, CDC.

(From the CDC)

Folk Info: The name Cowbane comes from livestock, specifically cows, having run-ins with the roots of this plant.

BOTTOM LINE: Should you be worried?
Sounds like a pretty horrific death if you ask me.

Disclaimer: Info is not evaluated by the FDA, yadda yadda, and please don't eat poison or handle it without some sort of training or a good herbalist (although both would be best!). Thanks.



  1. It needs to be said that the Calotropis species that may be called "milkweed" (but more often "dogbane") is NOT the same as the Common Milkweed (Ascelepias syriaca) of North America. They are related, and the pods are very much alike, but there should be little problem telling them apart. Calotropis is a very large Asian plant (more like a tree), and the familiar Milkweed of North America is a fairly low, weedy plant. The flower clusters are quite different, too. (Of course the fact that Calotropis isn't native doesn't mean you won't find it here, as it may have been introduced as a decorative plant.)

    The reason it's important not to confuse it with Asclepias syriaca is that, far from being a deadly poison, our Common Milkweed is very edible. The young shoots and immature seed pods are boiled in several changes of water to remove bitterness, and are very tasty. Its milky sap is very mildly toxic (although some people can be allergic to it) but is completely removed by boiling.

    Unfortunately, your second item points that no matter how careful you are about your botanical information, it won't keep people from just randomly digging up roots and biting into them. Tragic though the Water Hemlock story was, it's really an unfortunate case of natural selection at work. Not only is Cicuta maculata completely unlike American Ginsing (Panax quinquifolius), but it grows in completely different environments. (Sunny swampland vs deeply shaded forest.) I suspect that the unfortunate brothers actually thought they were eating Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius), whose tubers can be eaten raw, but which still looks very little like Water Hemlock and doesn't grow in any of the same places.

    If they'd been gathering Water Parsnip (Sium sauve), their error would have been quite understandable, as it grows in exactly the same environment as Water Parsnip and looks rather similar. For this reason it's generally ignored by foragers even though its roots are perfectly edible.

  2. Good call on the milkweed, I'm sure that can get confusing in terms of people utilizing the wrong name and so I'll remove that information.

    I think the natural selection thing can be applied to almost any look-alike plant or mushroom poison. As long as people exist they'll accidentally die from look-alikes and from stupidity. (But population control, eh?)

    Since I'm just learning about these poisons week-by-week as I post them, I find it very helpful when someone such as yourself can explain some things as you did above, as I am most definitely no expert. So thank you.