Leaves of three, let it be; leaves of five, try to stay alive. Just because plants (usually) don't move doesn't mean you can trust them not to try and kill you. From carnivorous plants that can dissolve live rats to hallucinogenic flowers that can destroy your conscious mind, here are ten green and growing things that are out to get you.
Uh-oh, here they come: carnivorous plants that have evolved specialized “organs” to trick, trap, and digest unsuspecting critters. While the most famous example is the Venus Flytrap, the most widespread type are pitcher plants of the genus nepenthes, which lure prey into a slippery vase-shaped leaf full of sweet liquid, only to digest them when the various bugs, spiders, and whatnot drown or tire themselves out trying to escape. The largest examples of nepenthes are large enough to trap and kill vertebrates and mammals as big as rats, and some suspect that the Philippine nepenthes attenboroughii actually specializes in luring furry animals to their hideous death. Yikes!
HEMLOCK: THE THINKING MAN’S DEATH SENTENCE
Like most families, the Apiaceae family of aromatic herbs and spice plants has one member nobody likes to discuss: hemlock. While most of these plants are content to add a dash of zest to your meal (or in the case of carrot and celery, become part of it), hemlock will straight-up paralyze your heart and lungs with a high enough dosage, making it a very risky ingredient for your pasta salad. Hemlock is well known for its use as an execution poison of the ancient Greeks, most famously administered to Socrates for the crime of being a wise-ass, and the Socratic association made it a go-to reference when famous writers (Diderot, Keats, Hemingway) wanted to name-drop a fancy poison. Those seeking a hip, modern, New World alternative to common European hemlock should look up water hemlock, described by the USDA as “the most violently toxic plant that grows in North America.”
NERIUM OLEANDER: BEAUTIFUL BUT DEADLY
To most of us, the word “Oleander” means one of two things: an attractive flowering evergreen shrub common to many gardens or a generic mid-90s post-grunge band that would be entirely forgettable if not for its oddly euphonic name. To botanists, oleander refers to Nerium oleander, one of the most poisonous (and prettiest) common garden plants. Every part of the oleander is toxic, and while reduced concentrations of oleander have been used in folk medicine to treat a number of skin diseases, pure oleander sap can damage your eyes, wreck your guts, and even stop your heart. Oleander exists today as one of the best reasons to teach your children not to eat flowers or to listen to mediocre alternative rock bands of the mid-to-late '90s.
WHITE SNAKEROOT: THE STEALTHY ASSASSIN
The plant that came closest to changing American history forever, the innocent-looking white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosa), killed more than half of the citizens of Dubois County, Indiana, where Abraham Lincoln spent his boyhood years. Snakeroot entered humans in a particularly sneaky way—cows grazing on the plant suffered few noticeable effects, but humans who drank those cows’ milk (including Abe’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln) soon suffered muscle pain, gastrointestinal distress, and eventually a fatal coma. Was white snakeroot the product of revenge-crazed time-traveling Confederate botanists seeking to poison the Great Emancipator before his time? As in all situations where we lack enough evidence to decide either way, we must declare, “Yes, absolutely that is what happened.”
Before we proceed, we should just go ahead and clarify that yes, this article on dangerous “plants” includes fungi, because nobody would click on an article about “dangerous immobile living things that are popularly considered to be plant life despite their possibly heterotrophic nature.” Send all your letters of complaint to the White House, preceded by the words “THANKS, OBAMA!” Anyway, wild mushrooms are dangerous because there’s no real rule of thumb pickers can use to tell toxic ‘shrooms from tasty ones, i.e. “brightly colored” mushrooms are supposedly a warning sign but Amanita “destroying angel” mushrooms are all a bland shade of white, and while many believe that any mushroom an animal is observed eating must be safe, many woodland creatures have developed immunities to fungal toxins that are dangerous to humans. Even experienced mushroom pickers can get tripped up from time to time, so maybe when you want to add a truly unique home-made flavor to your salads, just make your own croutons instead of adding an ingredient that will at worst kill you and at least make you spend the next few hours on the toilet.
GYMPIE GYMPIE: THE TREE OF PAIN
Informed visitors to Australia are well aware that every animal on the continent is ready, willing and able to kill you. From the tiny Irukandji jellyfish to the famously muscular kangaroo, all the way up to actual Australian people who are all descendants from convicts, you have to be careful. With all the animal life on Australia being terrifyingly deadly, it’s easy to forget that Australia is home to the most virulent and painful species of stinging tree. Dendrocnide moroides (AKA “gympie gympie” or “moonlighter”) is covered with tiny silica stingers that are almost impossible to remove from the flesh, all of which contain a powerful neurotoxin easily capable of killing dogs and horses and causing excruciating pain to humans. There’s at least one story (backed up by scientific and medical reports) that tells of an unlucky Australian soldier who used a gympie-gympie leaf as toilet paper and then, unable to tolerate the pain, blew out his brains with his service revolver. So yeah, when you’re in Australia, watch your ass, figuratively and literally.
THE MANCHINEEL TREE: “THE LITTLE APPLES OF DEATH”
“Manchineel” is an Anglicization of the Spanish “manzanilla” or “little apple,” based on the resemblance between Manchineel fruits and unripe apples. The apple connection ends there, however, as no matter how sour or tart a particular apple species might be, they won’t cause you to suffer severe gastroenteritis, intestinal bleeding, or respiratory edema—not even a Granny Smith will hurt you that bad. Hippomane mancinella is one of the most poisonous trees in the world, to the point that if you stand underneath a Manchineel tree during a rainstorm you’re likely to develop severe skin blisters just from the diluted sap running off the branches. Native Caribbeans tipped their arrows and spears with Manchineel sap to ensure painful death from even slight wounds, and their preferred method of execution was to tie victims to the trunk of the tree, ensuring a slow and horrifically painful death over a period of days. So yeah, don’t mistake these for apple trees, ever.
CERBERA ODOLLAM: THE SUICIDE TREE
Most of the plants on this list have a common name that only just hints at how it might be dangerous, but the popular nickname of Cerbera odollam—the “Suicide Tree”—is refreshingly honest about how it only exists to kill you. Native to Southern Asia in general and the Kerala province of India in particular, Cerbera odollam contains a powerful cardiac toxin that can easily be hidden in spicy food (and anybody who’s eaten Indian food knows that the spiciest food is the best food) and is extremely difficult to detect in autopsies. A French toxicologist team once determined that half of all plant deaths (and a tenth of all poisoning deaths) in Kerala were due to Cerbera poisoning, casting doubt on a number of accidental or suicidal death cases. In fact, considering how easy it is to sneak Cerbera poisons into Kerala cuisine and how many people died in suspicious circumstances as a result, it’s probably more accurate to refer to Cerbera odollam as the Homicide Tree.
CASTOR BEAN PLANTS: THE KGB’S VEGETABLE GARDEN
Castor bean plants are handsome and popular flowering plants that can be found in many modern gardens and incidentally contain one of the deadliest weaponized poisons known to man. The castor “bean” (actually a seed—the first layer of deadly deceit and intrigue that characterizes this lethal plant) contains a useful concentration of ricin, an extremely toxic but subtle poison that inhibits protein synthesis, allowing its victims to continue functioning normally for hours or even days before the first symptoms make their appearance (ricin has been popularized by the TV show "Breaking Bad). Being easy to procure, quietly lethal, and highly deniable, castor bean products have been used by a number of unpleasant political organizations: Fascist groups in Italy and Spain often forced dissidents to drink castor oil (not technically lethal but capable of inducing debilitating and sometimes even fatal diarrhea) and the KGB led the world in developing concentrated ricin poisons from castor seeds. The most famous victim of the castor bean was Bulgarian dissident and expatriate Georgi Markov. A London assassin fired a tiny pellet of ricin into Markov’s thigh from a compressed-air gun disguised as an umbrella. Markov dismissed the tiny welt on his leg as a mosquito bite, only to die three days later.
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ANGEL’S TRUMPETS, DEVIL'S BREATH, AND THE ZOMBIE’S CUCUMBER
The genii Brugmansia and Datura are very closely related and remarkably similar; they are both shrubs or bushes with elegant, trumpet-like flowers common all around South America. Oh, and they also might erase your memories and destroy your free will, reducing you to a helpless flesh-slave in thrall to a voodoo priest or a ruthless drug lord. These flowering plants contain large amounts of the alkaloid scopolamine, known to some as “truth serum” for its ability to lessen the inhibitions of (just as an example) prisoners of the CIA known to be holding important secrets. In heavier dosages, the pharmaceutical products of these two plants can cause delirium and hallucinations so powerful they can convince someone that they have died and come back to life as a mindless slave—the foundation of the zombie myth and supposedly a tool of Colombian drug cartels. Datura is occasionally used as a recreational drug, but datura trips are almost always reported as at best unpleasant and at worst suicidally horrifying, so you may want to steer clear of these plants unless you’re looking for a particularly exotic/attractive/morbid addition to your flower garden.