New England’s Poisonous Plants

I didn’t set out to write a mystery that involved poisoning, but I finally decided it was the best way to dispatch one of my characters in the woods – a quiet unassuming woman who had absolutely no enemies — at least none that anyone knew of. And that decision necessitated some research into the poisonous plants and herbs of New England. It’s quite frightening actually, the things that can sicken or kill us. As Scully said to Mulder in The X Files, “Mother Nature’s out to get you.”
Following are just a few examples:
The wisteria plant is a vine or shrub and a member of the Fabaceae family. It’s extremely hardy and considered an invasive species in many parts of the U.S. because of its ability to choke out native plants.
WisteriaIt produces beautiful pendant-shaped clusters of blue and violet flowers. The toxin in the plant is wisterin, a glycoside. The seeds and the pods are the most poisonous parts, but all parts are toxic if consumed. Symptoms of poisoning are nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhea.

Water hemlock is a perennial in the carrot family with small, white flowers that grow in umbrella like clusters. The roots contain chambers which hold a highly poisonous brown liquid that’s released when the stem is broken or cut. It is the most toxic plant in North America. Cicutoxin, the active compound, acts directly on the central nervous system causing grand mal seizures and death.

Water hemlockSymptoms includes excessive salivation and frothing, muscle twitching, dilation of the pupils, rapid pulse and breathing, violent convulsions and coma. Death can occur as quickly as fifteen minutes after a lethal dose is consumed.

The entire daffodil plant is poisonous but especially the bulbs. Daffodils contain two alkaloids — narcissine (lycorine) and galantamine as well as the glycoside scillaine (scillitoxin). Most poisoning incidents have occurred when the daffodil bulb is mistaken for an onion resulting in – you guessed it — nausea, vomiting and violent stomach upset.

Baneberry or Actaea, is a flowering plant of the Ranunculaceae family.

BaneberryThe red or white flowers with dark dots are commonly referred to as “doll’s eyes.” The berry, the most poisonous part of the plant, contains a toxin that has an immediate effect on the muscles of the heart, leading to cardiac arrest and death.

Even Azaleas, a subspecies of the rhododendron (also poisonous) are beautiful ornamental shrubs with clusters of bright flowers and evergreen foliage. Both their leaves and flowers are toxic and even the honey from their flowers is poisonous. Both contain glycosides, in particular, andromedotoxin, a resin that burns the mouth. Fatalities from eating parts of these plants are rare, but ingestion will cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal upset and low blood pressure.

Now I can’t give readers a hint as to which poison I chose. You’ll find out near the end of Ladle to the Grave.  Telling you now would be a spoiler, but I can say this:  By the time I finished my research, I realized that Scully was right — it’s best to be very careful in the woods and not mess with Mother Nature.

Ladle to the Graveladle_book

A local woman is poisoned at a pagan ritual in the woods and Lucky Jamieson’s grandfather Jack, who provided the herbs for the gathering, is suspected of making a terrible mistake.  But when a dead man is found floating in a creek just outside of town, his face unrecognizable, Lucky is certain both deaths are murder.  Can she find the connection and clear her grandfather’s name before more victims fall prey to a killer?

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