Books for Nature Lovers
Mind-altering and Poisonous Plants of the World
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Review By: The Star - 26 January 2009

A garden is a lovesome thing. God wot!
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Ferned grot - 
The veriest school
Of peace? 

Had the Victorian poet who wrote this (he was a headmaster, T E Brown) known a little more about the plants in his garden he might have written: 

A garden is a hazardous thing. God wot!
Toxic plot,
Lethal toadstools,
Lots of pot - 
The veriest school
Of toxicology? 

Did you know that suburban gardens bristle with deadly poisons and hallucinogens? 

The beautiful, indigenous ox-eye daisy, for instance, is rated by toxicologists as being "highly hazardous" and is a common cause of human fatalities. It contains a glycoside that has been responsible for the deaths of more than 10 people a year in a single Durban hospital - half were children. 
That pretty ground cover, the periwinkle, is "highly hazardous" and all parts contain a poison that can attack the central nervous system and the heart. 
Clivias should also carry a health warning. The "moderately hazardous" chrysanthemum harbours mind-altering compounds while the dear old delphinium, if its alkaloids come into contact with skin, causes severe inflammation which can result in respiratory and cardiac arrest and a severe attack of the deaths. 
I don't want to make you neurotic, but foxgloves, African daisy, morning glory, ole-ander, cup of gold - all contain lethal compounds. Many common plants have been used for murer, suicide, euthanasia, executions and abortions. 
Many, of course, have positive medicinal effects and have been used beneficially for millennia. 
I gathered all this from a new and most fascinating and colourful book, Mind-altering & Poisonous Plants of the World, (Briza). Authors, Professor Ben-Erik van Wyk University of Johannesburg botanist) and Professor Michael Wink (University of Heidelberg) aim their book not just at doctors, poison centres and botanists, but gardeners too. 
They describe in detail the toxins and psycho-substance found in specific plants ant their effects and provide a comprehensive guide to the way the different substances function - plus treatment. 
The 447 pages cover 1200 plants including several local species. 
They differentiate between poisons that can kill in even tiny amounts; toxins that are less toxic and toxicants that are toxic only in high concentrations. 
The oleander (popular in Sough Africa): all parts of the plant are lethal and of regular concern to poison centres. The juice from three leaves can be fatal. 
Socrates, sentenced to die for heresy had to drink hemlock (a herbaceous plant) which was sometimes mixed with oleander to produce a speedier death. 
Juice from the stem of one of our prettiest plants, the impala lily, can cause heart failure within minutes. 
Yesterday-today-and-tomorrow can cause mind-altering effects. 
The coral tree, Erythrina caffra, is "highly hazardous". Its toxin can induce apoplectic stroke and is commonly used in traditional medicine. Mexican Indians use the alkaloids from the coral tree to execute captured enemies. 
Erythrina's attractive crimson seeds are used in beads in South Africa but once punctured the alkaloids can be released and have curare-like effects "with hypertension, paralysis of motoric nerves, and psychic effects such as euphoria, drunkenness enhanced libido, fever ?followed by deep sleep. Death from respiratory arrest may occur after 2-3 days." 
The authors delve into the history of poisonous and psychoactive plants and their use by priests and witches for beguiling the gullible. 
The authors also refer to the use of various plant poisons in African traditional "trial by ordeal" where a suspect would get free if he survived the poison. 

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