Friday, May 27, 2016

Dangerous Plants in our Backyards

I’m researching a short story set in Illinois during Prohibition. It looks like a poisoning…but is it? A young flapper and her boyfriend try to solve the death of a friend who collapses in the steam tunnel underneath the speakeasy where they are partying.

The two poisons I’m considering are foxglove (digitalis) and deadly nightshade (belladonna). Either substance can be fatal in small doses…if the circumstances are right. Combine that knowledge with an existing medical problem being treated with prescription medicine and rotgut illegal booze and you have a witch’s brew that could fell most people.

Digitalis (from Digitalis purpurea) is today a lifesaving cardiac drug. The medicinal use of digitalis goes back to the 1780s, when physician William Withering discovered its usefulness for treating edema and heart failure.

The advantage of poisoning by using digitalis is that the symptoms of overdose resemble the condition being treated: headaches, tremors, irregular heartbeat, and nausea.  I used this information to kill off a patient in my novel The Bootlegger’s Nephew.

Digitalis can be administered as powdered leaves or root, or as a tincture. You can even add the leaves of the plant, foxglove, to a mixed green salad. Depending on the form of the compound, it takes about two grams to kill a person.

Belladonna from Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is most toxic in its berry form, but the leaves and roots can be made into a medicinal extract used to treat stomach disorders. Two juicy black berries can kill a child; ten to twenty can kill an adult.

The common names derives from Italian, “bella donna” (beautiful woman,) because Italian women used belladonna drops to enhance the beauty of their eyes by dilating their pupils. The cosmetic practice dates back to ancient Egypt and Babylonia. The alkaloid compound produced from this plant, atropine, is still used today to dilate pupils for eye examinations.

One source I found claims that a murderer could build up immunity to belladonna extract by sipping tiny amounts over time. The slightly sweet extract could then be used to lace a drink, killing a second person without injuring the murderer.

I just checked the arbor in my backyard. Deadly nightshade is thriving there and will soon produce tempting berries. I should experiment: volunteers, anyone?


Here are some resources: Wicked Plants, by Amy Stewart; The Big, Bad Book of Botany, by Michael Largo, and The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Exotic poisons are often used in cozy mysteries. A fascinating way to introduce forensic evidence. Thanks for sharing with readers and other writers!

Nancy J. Cohen said...

I've used plants as poisons in a couple of my stories. It's amazing what's out there in the plant world, including protective and maybe curative factors.

Sarah Wisseman said...

There's more:

great book on the poisons of Agatha Christie

Elaine said...

Remind me not to eat or drink anything when I come to visit you! ;-)

Vickie Fee said...

Sarah, I love that you have the poison used in your novel growing in your backyard! How very cool and Agatha Christie like :-)

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Love murder by poison but think I prefer to devour books and pictures than what is in your garden

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