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Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus, naked ladies

Summary

A popular garden plant due to its unusual growth cycle but a genuine killer with a number of well-documented cases of accidental poisoning to its credit.

'Poisonous Plants 1-2-1' video

This short video summarising the story of autumn crocus is just one of a series.

Family

Colchicaceae

Meaning of the Name

Colchicum
From Colchis the region in what is now Georgia from which the plant was believed to originate.
 
autumnale
Pertaining to autumn, from its habit of producing leaves only in the spring which die back in the summer followed by the flower appearing on its own in the autumn. Its common name ‘naked ladies’ is based on this appearance of the flower with no surrounding leaves.

Common Names and Synonyms

meadow saffron, autumn crocus, naked ladies, naked boy, son-before-the-father. The last three result from its unusual growth cycle where the flower appears in the autumn with no leaves around them and the leaves and seeds appear in the spring and die off in the summer.

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus

Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus

Contains colchicine and colchiceine, the former being the more toxic and more harmful.

Following ingestion, initial gastrointestinal symptoms during the first 24 hours are followed by more severe effects including convulsions, cardiovascular collapse, multi-organ failure and blood clots forming in many places around the body. New symptoms may occur after several days. Muscular weakness and ascending paralysis cause respiratory arrest. The effects have been described as very similar to cholera leading to a slow, agonising death but consciousness remains to the end. Ingestion of the plant in mistake for wild garlic has caused deaths.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ordered companies to stop marketing unapproved drug products that contain colchicine in an injectable dosage form. Colchicine has been injected to treat acute gout attacks but the FDA says the therapeutic index of the substance is so small that dangerous overdose can easily occur. It is believed to have caused 23 deaths from use in this way though no time period for those deaths is stated. Three of the deaths occurred in March and April 2007 as a result of an error in a pharmacy which resulted in a batch of colchicine eight times normal strength being sold.

Incidents

In 2003, a 76 year old man with a history of alcoholism ate the plant in mistake for wild garlic. He suffered renal and liver failure and died from cardiovascular collapse and respiratory failure.

Some years before, in Central Europe, two people were poisoned by eating Colchicum autumnale instead of wild garlic. One died after 48 hours of heart, kidney, liver and lung failure whereas the other recovered after three days of severe gastro-intestinal upset.

Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus

Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus

In Japan, a 48 year old man died, in 2002, four days after eating the plant. In another case in Japan, an 80 year old woman died nine days after eating the bulbs of the ‘Chinese lantern lily’. Doctors were unable to reverse the decline in her white blood cell count. Colchicine was found to be the cause, this being the first time the alkaloid had been identified in the Sandersonia aurantiaca.

A 71 year old woman, from Slovenia, survived after mistaking Colchicum for Wild garlic but only after exhibiting new symptoms up to three weeks after ingestion when her hair fell out. Another victim reported episodes of hair loss up to three years after ingestion.

In 2003, a toxicology conference heard a report of a case, in Switzerland, where a 3 year-old died five hours after admission to hospital following two days of stomach upset. At the time, death was attributed to Reye syndrome but, a year later, a relative heard of a case of colchicum poisoning and asked for a fresh investigation. Colchicum was found growing where the child had been seen playing and picking leaves and a tissue sample, held in the lab, tested positive for colchicine.

Folklore and Facts

John Gerard says it must be mixed with other substances such as breadcrumbs, egg white and barley meal to make a poultice to treat the gout. This same poultice will increase sperm production. If taken, it must be mixed with ginger, anise, pepper and Cumin. If taken alone is it essential to drink plenty of cow’s milk to prevent death. It is very hurtful to the stomach and kills by choking so some call it Colchicum strangulatorium.

The statement that the symptoms produced are similar to cholera is something I use when talking about poisonous plants as murder weapons. The best chance to get away with murder is for murder to not be suspected. If you can find a convenient cholera epidemic, you might be able to murder someone with autumn crocus and get away free.