Category Archives: Plants

Monkshood

 

Witches smear monkshood root on their bodies and broomsticks, swallow a few drops of delirium-producing belladonna, and go flying.

Monkshood includes several species of plants belonging to the family Ranunculaceae. It ranges throughout Alaska and can be found in meadows, thickets, on rocky slopes, and along stream banks. It is common on Kodiak Island.

Monkshood plants grow two-to-six-feet tall, depending on the species and the habitat. The dark green leaves are palmate and lobed, and the vivid blue-purple flowers have five sepals, with one resembling a cylindrical helmet, or a “monk’s hood.”

All parts of the monkshood plant contain aconite, a deadly poison, and just three grains of the root will kill a hefty adult. Signs of aconite poisoning appear within less than an hour. Death occurs immediately if large doses of aconite are ingested, while smaller doses are usually fatal within two-to-six hours. Initial signs of aconite poisoning include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea; followed by tingling, burning, and numbness in the mouth and face and burning in the abdomen. If the poisoning is severe, the numbness and tingling will spread to the arms and legs, followed by motor weakness in the limbs. Other symptoms include an irregular heartbeat, sweating dizziness, difficulty breathing, a headache, and confusion. Death is usually caused by ventricular arrhythmia or paralysis of the heart or respiratory center.

No definitive treatment for aconite poisoning exists, but if the poisoned individual can be rushed to a medical center, drugs such as atropine can be used to treat bradycardia, and activated charcoal can be given within one hour of ingestion to decontaminate the intestines. In the field, an individual who has ingested monkshood should immediately be given Syrup of Ipecac to induce vomiting and then evacuated to more advanced medical care. The ancient cure for aconite poisoning was, “brandy blended with flies that had suppered on monkshood.” Unfortunately, this cure is not practical for most of us.

As I mentioned, all parts of the monkshood plant are poisonous. The roots are the most toxic, and ingestion of the roots or any part of the plant is extremely dangerous, but poisoning can also occur just by picking the leaves without wearing gloves. Aconitine toxin is easily absorbed through the skin, and when this happens, there are no gastrointestinal symptoms. Tingling starts at the point where the toxin was absorbed and spreads to the arm and shoulder before affecting the heart.

Probably the most common cause of monkshood poisoning is accidental ingestion of some part of the plant. It looks much like and grows next to edible wild geraniums, and the root of the monkshood plant has been mistaken for a parsnip. In 2000, a medical examiner listed aconite poisoning as the cause of a suicide. On July 30th, 2004, Canadian actor Andre Noble died after a camping trip when he was believed to have accidentally eaten monkshood, and in 2008, an individual died four hours after eating a few monkshood flowers.

Various cultures have used monkshood as a medicine. It has been given as a heart and nerve sedative, a pain reliever, and a fever reducer, but the problem with using monkshood as a medication is that safe doses of aconite are rarely effective, and effective doses are lethal.

Many cultures used monkshood as arrow poisons. The Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) people, the first inhabitants of Kodiak Island, concocted a poison made from the roots of monkshood to tip the darts and spears they used to hunt humpback and fin whales.

I explored the toxic effects of Monkshood in my novel, Murder Over Kodiak, but I am hardly the first author to use this plant as a murder weapon. Monkshood is mentioned in Greek mythology, and Shakespeare refers to it in Henry IV Part II. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Rudolph Bloom commits suicide with an overdose of aconite, and monkshood has been used as a murder weapon in TV shows such as Rizzoli and Isles, NCIS, Dexter, and American Horror story. In episode seven of the second season of the Game of Thrones, an assassin applies monkshood (or wolf’s bane) to his dart.

Next week, I will explore the poisonous attributes of water hemlock, a plant common along streams on Kodiak Island.

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Baneberry

A baneberry is a perfect, beautiful, little berry but it is also deadly poisonous. “Bane” is defined as a thing that harms, interferes with, or destroys the welfare of something, and bane can also mean poison. It takes only six baneberries to kill an adult human.

Baneberries grow in moist, shady areas, and on dry slopes. On Kodiak, they are mostly found in the woods, often growing near salmonberry bushes. Baneberry plants grow 2 to 3 ½ ft. high and have large, lobed, coarsely toothed leaves. In the early summer, small, white flowers bloom on the plant, and then later in the summer, the plants produce round, red or white berries. Each berry is attached to a separate, short, thick stalk. The berries are either round or oblong and are very glossy. The plants are beautiful and are sometimes used for landscaping.

All parts of the baneberry plant are poisonous. According to old folklore, it is safe to eat any berry birds can eat, but baneberries prove this saying false. Birds can safely consume baneberries while we cannot. Luckily, baneberries taste extremely bitter, so if you do pop one in your mouth, you will probably spit it out in seconds, and you would be very unlikely to eat enough berries to do you serious harm. We once had a guest eat a baneberry, and several minutes later, he asked what the shiny, red berries were and said they tasted terrible. We kept a close eye on him, but he suffered no ill effects from his baneberry experience.

The first symptoms of baneberry toxicity include blistering and burning of the mouth and throat. These are followed by dizziness, sharp stomach pains, diarrhea, vomiting, and death by cardiac arrest or respiratory paralysis. The toxicity of the baneberry is caused by the chemical ranunculin. Ranunculin releases protoanemonin whenever the plant is damaged, such as by chewing. Protoanemonin is a skin irritant and causes blistering of the skin. If the berry is ingested, it has a similar effect on the mucous membranes of the esophagus, stomach, and intestines as it did on the skin. Eventually, it affects the respiratory system and the heart.

Native Americans used the baneberry as a medicinal but were well aware of its toxic properties. Various tribes used the baneberry root to treat menstrual cramps, postpartum pain, and menopausal symptoms. Cheyenne Indians used an infusion of baneberry leaves to increase a mother’s milk supply, and they used the berry itself to induce vomiting. Some tribes applied the juice of the baneberry to the tips of their arrows to make their arrowheads even more deadly.

I could find no reports of baneberries being used to murder someone, either in the real world or in literature. They would make a great murder weapon in one of my novels, but they would have to be sweetened and perhaps added to other berries to convince one of my characters to eat them.

Next week, I’ll investigate the properties of beautiful monkshood.

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Poisonous Plants

Deadly Baneberries

I have always been fascinated by poisonous plants. I write murder mysteries, and what better murder weapon than a toxin from a naturally occurring plant? We have several poisonous plants here on Kodiak Island, and over the next few weeks, I will describe a few of them.

In the summer, most of Kodiak Island is covered by a dense jungle-like growth. We have beautiful wildflowers and plants bearing delicious berries, including salmonberries, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, crowberries, watermelon berries, and others. Rhubarb and raspberries planted by early settlers remain abundant in some areas.

Cow Parsnip (Wild Celery)

There are a few plants here, though, that are not so innocent. The sap and outer hairs of cow parsnip, locally called pushki and one of the most prolific plants on the island, contains the chemical furanocoumarin which causes an extreme sensitivity to light. If a person comes into contact with the sap of a cow parsnip plant, within a few days, he will likely develop a red, itchy rash and blisters on the area the sap touched. These blistering sores last for days or weeks. I often use a weed eater to clear vegetation around the house, and I’ve learned the hard way not to cut cow parsnip with a weed eater because when the sap flies from the plant and splatters my hands and face, I know I will have painful, ugly, red welts in a few days. Some people are not allergic to cow parsnip, and others are so allergic they will react if they merely touch the stems or leaves of the plant.

Nettles

Nettles are another troublesome plant on Kodiak. Fine, stinging hairs cover the leaves of a nettle. Some researchers believe formic acid causes the hairs to sting, while others attribute the sting to a histamine compound. If you touch the leaves of a mature plant, you will feel a prick, much like a wasp’s sting. The pain may last for a few hours but will eventually subside. Nettles lose their sting when cooked and taste delicious, much like spinach. Nettles also have many medicinal applications and may be used to ease sore muscles and joint inflammation

While these plants can be irritating and painful and make walking through the dense vegetation on Kodiak a challenge, neither cow parsnip nor nettles will kill a human. Over the next few weeks, I will cover the deadly toxic plants we have in our area and give accounts of cases where they have been used both in literature and in the real world.