Most plants contain some level of toxins (like alkaloids) for defense. After all, they’re plants. They can’t go anywhere. Through millennia of trial and error, both animals and human beings have figured out which plants are safe, which are lethal, and which are somewhere in between.(For example) cherries, potatoes, peaches and apple seeds are all toxic - eat enough of the latter, in fact, and it will prove fatal. Fortunately, artificial selection and cooking methods have all but eliminated the threat of toxins in everyday foods. But you may be surprised to find out the incredibly lethal plants often hanging around the neighborhood park - or gracing your tabletop in the form of a centerpiece.
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The English Yew, or taxus baccata (”taxus” meaning toxin), is one of the deadliest trees on the planet. The evergreen has a majestic and lush appearance and is fairly common in forests of Europe. The yew is considered by scientists to be an odd and primitive conifer along with the monkey puzzle tree of Chile and Gingko biloba tree of Asia. The yew has a rather sad history. All parts - save for the flesh of the berries - are extremely poisonous. Because the toxin causes convulsions and paralysis, it was once used as an abortifacient. Apothecaries would dry and powder the leaves and stems and give desperate women minute amounts in the days before birth control was available. Unfortunately, death would often result. The yew has been quite popular throughout history for a number of medicinal purposes at extremely dilute levels, but it is deemed too dangerous in modern medical practice to be of use. The yew’s primary toxin is taxine, a cardiac depressant. The yew acts rapidly and there is no antidote.
A otherworldly name and a plant with often fatal effects. The seeds of this Eastern North American drupe (stone fruit) are extremely toxic to humans, although birds can eat them. Moonseeds first cause paralysis but are fatal in larger doses and/or if treatment is not sought immediately.
Queen Cleopatra famously forced servants to commit suicide by means of a strychnine tree’s fruit seeds, which contain lethal levels of strychnine and brucine, in order to determine if it would be the best means for her own suicide. Upon seeing their agony (which included painful vomiting, facial contortions and convulsions) she opted for the apparently less horrific choice of the asp. (The asp was actually an ancient term for any number of poisonous snakes, but experts think it was probably the cobra that Cleopatra chose to end her life.)