A Review of Deadly Plants, (for Fictional Uses, of Course)

This idea came to me as I joined a Nextdoor group (currently membership 4) interested in house plants, principally to be able to cage some starts for free. My current house is woefully lacking in direct sunlight, thus the reason for multiple skylights but not in enough rooms.

I was going to write about scary plants in films—there are numerous websites listing several individual’s top tens, but then I started thinking that a brief compendium of real-life scary plants might be a lot more fun, and possible characters in anyone’s horror or murder mystery genre work. Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle comes to mind.

So I will start with Mary Katherine’s favorite, Amanita phalloides. One caveat, though, is that mushrooms, as members of the Kingdom Fungi, are not plants. Plants occupy Kingdom Plantae. Poisonous mushrooms occupy a special place in murder mysteries, however. Mary Katherine’s Amanita variety might have been the Death Angel, unless phalloides, primarily found in Europe, has emigrated to the United States. Death by Amanita is horrific: excruciating abdominal pain with rampant diarrhea and vomiting resulting in dehydration and organ failure.

Deadly fungi are almost too easy a method for murder, but your everyday hazardous flora are far more insidious and therefore more delightful to learn about. In our modern times, everyone knows about Ricinus Comunus, or castor bean, a popular ornamental plant native to East Africa. Castor oil, abused for humor by Mark Twain and others, is used in food production and medicinal practices, and therefore harmless, but consumption of the vegetation and berries is deadly. Aerosolized ricin, another castor bean plant by product, kills quickly and surely.

As a child, I was told that oleanders, the hearty, pretty evergreen shrubs lining the center divider of many California freeways—or at least they used to—are poisonous. Nerium orleander is an attractive ornamental, but likely survives a variety of pests because of its noxious taste and latex-like toxic sap. African tribesmen early on learned about its practical qualities, and dipped their spear points into its readily available cardio glycosides as an aid in hunting.

There is also a plant native to Northeastern Australia, Dendrocnide moriodes. This plant’s needle-like hairs (it is a member of the stinging nettle family) are so lethal if inhaled, that botanists who study it wear respirators and heavy gloves.

The nightshade family of plants, Solanaceae, ranges from tomatoes to chili peppers to the lovely Datura. Aside from allergic reactions, tomatoes are a popular food source. The Scoville scale ranks the “lethality” of peppers, from 50,0000 SHUs (Cayenne, Pequin) to 100 (Paprika, Pepperoncini) but you catch my meaning. Oleoresin capsicum at 3 million SHUs is a central ingredient of bear spray and anyone who watched or followed the events of the January 6th insurrection has an horrific idea of how nightmarishly painful this is.

The lovely Brugmansia (Datura is a close herbaceous relative) in the genus belladonna (along with jimson weed, devil’s snare and black henbane) provides powerful alkaloids widely used in modern, western medicine in very small doses. Alkaloid compounds inhibit neurological processes; examples are cocaine and scopolamine. The term “bella donna”, meaning “beautiful woman”, is thought to be the source of the genus name because Italian courtesans used atropine as an ocular beauty enhancement—pupil dilation. Anecdotally, woody nightshade, a bright-berry and unwanted spreading vine in my Washington garden, smelled like almonds when I pulled it up. Can’t deny that I wondered about the purported aroma of cyanide. Nicotine is another natural alkaloid in this large and fascinating family.

Some local bad actors in the Pacific Northwest include giant hogweed (Heraculeum mantegazzanium) with phototoxic sap that on skin contact produces painful blistering: poison hemlock (Conium maculatum)—we know what happened to Socrates: and the lowly buttercup (ranunculus spp), a rampant invasive originally imported as an ornamental.

I’ll close with white snakeroot (Algeratina altissima), a North American herb and member of the aster family that, when ingested by cows, can transmit a deadly toxin into their milk. Thousands of settlers across the American midwest likely died from this poisoning, including, it is said, Abraham Lincoln’s mother.

If a fictional murder of a classic sort is in order, there is nothing like poison.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


A Review of Deadly Plants, (for Fictional Uses, of Course) — 3 Comments

  1. Good to know. There are groups (cults?) in the Pacific NW who go for weekend “Wild” retreats where they eat only what they can find in the woods. Not all of them know what they are doing. After several liver transplants for one group the fad fell out of fashion for a while. Now with the economy in the trash barrel we are seeing families foraging for food. I hope they at least take an online class BEFORE they go out into the woods where there are more dangerous things than bears and mountain lions.

  2. Parsnip leaves also have a phototoxic sap. As the resultant injury is akin to a chemical burn the cortisone ointment the Dr prescribed did nothing.
    As he couldn’t come up with any other treatments in desperation I resorted to a traditional Chinese herbalist. She came up with a bag of various roots barks and berries from which I made a tea to soak the injured skin in. Instant relief!

  3. Thanks, Jill! Lots of opportunities for fictional mayhem here. I guess I need to be more careful when out scrounging for native plants for my garden!