• St. Martin's Press
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An Original Essay by the Author

“Pretty Poisons All in a Row”

Take a stroll through your local park, past an empty lot, or in your own backyard and you are likely to come across the deadly means of dispatching a fellow human being from this world. Poisons abound in nature, often coming in the form of lovely flowers, attractive berries, and seemingly harmless leaves and roots. The results vary from the relatively benign to the almost instantly fatal but the message from Mother Nature is the same: Beware!

My own initiation into the ready availability of poisons all around us came a few years ago when I noticed a plant I hadn’t seen before growing just a few feet from my doorstep. The plant with its distinctively curving leaves turned out to be jack-in-the-pulpit, as Arisaema triphyllum is commonly known. In identifying it, I learned that pretty jack contains calcium oxalate, which in small quantities will irritate the mouth, esophagus, and stomach while larger amounts cause swelling severe enough to cut off breathing.

That got me to wondering what else I might find amid the wild flowers and plants that I’d enjoyed in passing but rarely thought about. In short order, I discovered foxglove with its potentially deadly dose of digitalis; monkshood carrying lethal aconite; nightshade of the sweet but fatal berries; hallucinogenic and sometimes lethal jimsonweed; and much more. Many of these plants flourish because the omnipresent deer avoid them, thereby giving them an advantage over tastier edibles while making our own backyards and by-ways a virtual pantry of poisons.

In these days of modern forensics, toxicology analyses readily uncover the presence of deadly natural compounds, limiting the appeal for would-be murderers. But in the past, nature played a far more active role in homicides and executions. Hemlock, for example, killed Socrates. Arsenic was suspected in the death of Lorenzo de Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent) and numerous other nobles of the time. Several popes were rumored to have been poisoned and far more feared that they would be. Much more recently, the deadly poison ricin, extracted from castor beans, has been used to kill at least one anti-Communist operative in Western Europe.

Even more than deliberate killings, accidental poisonings still occur with alarming regularity. Hikers and campers, swooning over the beauty of nature and unaware of the dangers, ingest substances that at best leave them mildly ill and at worst land them in the hospital. Children and pets are even more vulnerable, especially since deadly doses for them are much smaller.

The lesson for all of us has to be that while we should enjoy nature by all means, we underestimate it at our own peril. Before you pluck that berry, sauté that mushroom, or toss what you think is an edible flower into your salad, stop and ask yourself: Is Mother Nature about to kill me?