7 Deadly Dinners: When Plants Kill

The once routine act of dining out has presented a conundrum for hungry customers living in the Covid age. Has my server been vaccinated? What about the cooks? Did the busboy just sneeze?! 

Alternatively, we can eliminate human contact altogether by foraging fresh produce in the wild. However, one must be extremely careful — eating the wrong plants could result in a trip to the emergency room or even a date with the grim reaper. 

7. Belladonna

belladonna

Its name means “beautiful woman” in Italian. However, don’t be fooled. This lady is a killer in disguise and commonly known by a more apt nickname: Deadly Nightshade

Belladonna is a highly toxic perennial herbaceous plant in the Solanaceae family, featuring bell-shaped purple flowers and shiny blackberries. The shrub is native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia and can be found in woodland areas and along paths and river banks.

The plant’s root is generally the most toxic part and contains tropane alkaloids, which cause paralysis in the body’s involuntary muscles, including the heart. Belladonna also has a celebrated history of usage as a medicine, cosmetic, and poison. 

For example, during the Renaissance, women used the juice of the berries in eye drops to dilate the pupils for the intended purpose of making the eyes appear more seductive. In ancient Rome, the extract was widely used as a poisonous elixir — and allegedly used by Roman empress Livia Drusilla to murder her husband, Augustus.

6. Elderberries

elderberry

This seemingly innocuous tart fruit is loaded with vitamins and antioxidants and can be found in various products, including jams, wines, and health remedies. Hippocrates, “The Father of Medicine,” called the Elder tree his “medicine chest.” Nonetheless, consuming uncooked or unripe berries may leave you feeling much worse, causing severe diarrhea, seizures, and even death. 

The most common type of this deciduous shrub is the Black Elder (Sambucus nigra). Reaching up to 30 feet tall, the tree is native to Europe but is also widely grown in other regions of the world. 

In addition to producing the dark berries, the Elder yields clusters of small white or cream-colored flowers known as elderflowers. Unfortunately, the seeds, stems, leaves, and roots of the Black Elder contain potentially fatal levels of a cyanide-producing glycoside. In extreme cases, the poison prevents the cells in the body from using oxygen, causing the major organs of the victim to shut down. 

5. Giant Hogweed

giant hogweed

History Channel’s hit reality TV show, Alone, features contestants surviving on their own in the wilderness for a shot at winning $500,000. Ostensibly, it’s a challenge of out-starving the competition while trying to avoid being eaten by even hungrier bears. During the filming of season eight, one of the cast members contracted food poisoning after ingesting cow parsnip, an edible but toxic plant if not properly cooked. The foliage is also easily mistaken for a much more dangerous plant: Giant hogweed.

Merely touching this weed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) can lead to phytophotodermatitis, a severe skin inflammation. The sap covering this herbaceous flowering plant contains toxic chemicals known as photosensitizing furanocoumarins, which react with light when in contact with human skin. Painful blistering typically occurs within 48 hours, and if sap gets into a person’s eye, the reaction can lead to blindness. 

The invasive species has become a serious concern throughout North America as it continues to spread in rural and urban areas. Contact with the plant’s watery sap should be avoided unless equipped with protective outerwear, goggles, and rubber gloves. 

4. Hemlock

Poison Hemlock

Famously (though dubiously) chosen by Socrates as the means of his own execution, hemlock is common worldwide — often growing by the side of the road. Other names include devil’s flower, scabby hands, and break-your-mother’s-heart. Its taxonomic name derives from the Greek word konas, meaning “vertigo” or “whirl,” representing hemlock poisoning symptoms.

The compound that kills is coniine, which blocks the neuromuscular junction to cause suffocation. Survival requires a ventilator. According to legend, this innocuous-looking shrub—a member of the carrot family—only became toxic at Christ’s crucifixion, cursed via contact with his blood. Its appearance, however, was unchanged, and it’s often mistaken for lookalikes, such as wild carrot, parsley, and caraway.

The key to IDing is to crush and smell the leaves. If they smell like “mouse urine and off parsnips” (and you still feel like eating them), desist! Incidentally, the similar-smelling leaves of the hemlock tree, otherwise unrelated, are how it gets its name.

Another hemlock to watch out for is Conium maculatum, or hemlock water-dropwort. Common around streams, it has the carrot family leaves, an “acrid celery” smell, and bulbous, toxic roots known as dead man’s fingers. Uprooted by storms, it’s the latter that often kills dogs.

Both were used for execution — particularly in Sardinia. Its tightening effect on the muscles of the face, drawing them into a sinister grimace, is the origin of the phrase “sardonic (from Sardinian) smile.”

3. Yew

yew

The yew tree has long been a symbol of death. The ancient Greeks associated it with Hades, the Furies, and Hecate, goddess of necromancy, witchcraft, and ghosts. For the ancient Druids, it symbolized immortality —which may be why it’s so common in English churchyards, many of which were built on pagan sites. An old legend has it that the tree imbibed gases (or will o’ the-wisps) from corpses underground to make poison.

As a symbol of everlasting life and numinous power, yew is the wood of choice for magic wands and royal staffs — like the rod of office in the Highlands. Ironically, though, even just handling it can be deadly… eventually. Medieval longbow-makers were allegedly poisoned this way.

Symptoms of yew poisoning include convulsions, difficulty breathing, and especially heart failure strong enough to kill a moose. When consumed, the poison takes effect so rapidly that animals so-killed are often found with the leaves half-chewed in their mouths. That it can wipe out whole herds may be another reason it’s common in graveyards: to keep it from hungry livestock (though usually, they know to avoid it).

So why do people still eat it? Yew berry tart is, says its maker, the plant-based equivalent of fugu. While the leaves, bark, wood, and seeds are toxic, the berries, surprisingly, are not. Actually, they’re pretty tasty—but they’re risky to use in the kitchen. Only the flesh or aril is edible; the seed inside has the highest concentration of the tree’s deadly taxine B.

(By the way, if you do ever find yourself feeling sick while grazing an English churchyard, atropine might take the edge off. Follow the yew with some deadly nightshade, and you might just feel well enough to dig your own grave.)

2. Wolf’s bane

1920px Aconitum in its natural habitat

Despite the name, wolf’s bane kills indiscriminately. It was supposedly used to poison arrows to kill wolves (hence the taxonomic name Aconitum, derived from the Greek word for “dart”). But the Anglo-Saxons just knew it as thung, like any other highly poisonous plant.

Eating wolf’s bane causes numbness in the mouth, nausea, vomiting, a weak pulse, difficulty breathing, and a sense of things crawling on the skin. The poison at work is aconitine. Made by Hecate from the hell-foam of Cerberus, it’s best kept out of the kitchen.

Even though easily mistaken for horseradish, it hardly needs the disguise. Asian communities wolf down the roots for their purported medical benefits. The president of Kyrgyzstan even recommended wolf’s bane as a cure for COVID-19—hospitalizing four of his voters.

Historically,  it was among the poisons most feared by the death-fearing Pope Clement VII. In 1524, he was approached by a surgeon with a general antidote to poison, which he tested with aconitine. After feeding two prisoners wolf’s bane-laced marzipan cakes, he gave one prisoner the remedy and it worked; the other he let die in agony. Deservedly, the paranoid pontiff was later killed off with death caps.

1. Death caps

death caps

Death cap mushrooms in Catalan oil was, said Voltaire, the dish that changed the future of Europe. In 1740, Emperor Charles IV—besieged by political intrigue, financial crisis, and (on this fateful day) the common cold—called for his comfort food of choice. Usually, it lacked the poison mushrooms, which had found their way in “accidentally.” He fell sick within hours and couldn’t be helped. The following month he was dead.

But the emperor was apparently special, since death caps tend to work faster. Symptoms like dizziness, chills, and nausea only appear once the liver is critically weakened, 8-12 hours after intake. By this point, it’s often too late. Although later symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea abate and people may start to feel better, the liver and kidneys both shut down within days. 

The toxin to blame is aminitin, of which there’s enough in half a cap to kill a human. Unfortunately, there’s also no known antidote. With its delayed but near-certain prognosis of death, it’s been used in assassinations for millennia. This was the fate of Emperor Claudius in 54 AD at the hands of his wife Agrippina, clearing the way for her son Nero to replace him.

There’s another reason it’s such a good weapon. According to many death cap victims, the mushroom itself is delicious. So not only would an emperor’s taster not die right away, they’d heartily recommend the dish.

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