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Daphne mezereum (mezereon), spurge olive
A very common plant which few people realise is poisonous and which was used as a cosmetic until the damage caused by the rosy glow it produced was understood.
Read more about Daphne mezereum (mezereon), spurge olive, in these blog
entries (most recent first);
What decides whether a plant gets into a list of 'most poisonous'?
Meaning of the Name
The name Daphne comes from the Greek myth that Daphne appealed to Aphrodite to save her from a lustful god so she was turned into a tree.
Said to derive from the Persian word māzariyūn but no meaning for this word has been found other than a return reference to mezereon and mezereum.
Common Names and Synonyms
mezereum, mezereon, spurge olive, spurge flax, dwarf bay, wild pepper. Sometimes called D. mezereon.
Daphne mezereum, mezereon
How Poisonous, How Harmful?
All parts of the plant yield an acrid, irritant sap though the bark and berries produce most. The sap contains an irritant, coumarin, and a resin, mezerein. The resin is thought to be the principal poison though there are also glycosides present.
Non-fatal doses cause vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain and a burning sensation in the mouth. Larger doses add to these shivering, dilation of the pupils, convulsions and damage to the oral passages and the intestine.
The berries look quite like redcurrants and may attract children to try them but the acrid taste is a disincentive to large scale consumption.
The sap causes skin irritation resulting in redness of the skin.
In 1887, a letter to the British Medical Journal reported a case of Daphne berry poisoning in a 4-year old girl. When first seen by the doctor, she had no symptoms and after being made to vomit, bringing up two berries, she was sent home. Two hours later, however, she was seen again having developed swollen lips, difficulty swallowing, rapid pulse and other symptoms. This time, she vomited half a dozen berries and recovered by the next morning. The letter writer assumes she must have swallowed the berries whole thus delaying the onset of poisoning.
No other incidents resulting from eating the berries have been reported but, in the 1950s, a seven year old boy required hospital treatment after eating some leaves.
Folklore and Facts
Daphne mezereum in flower
The sap has, in the past, been used on the cheeks to produce redness thus avoiding the need to buy rouge. The effect results from damage to the blood vessels so long-term use had its price.
The name Daphne comes from the Greek myth that Daphne appealed to Aphrodite to save her from a lustful god so she was turned into a tree. As a result, virgins wear Daphne leaves to preserve their purity.
John Gerard notes its use against alcohol abuse since, being a violent purge, if a drunkard is given one berry to eat, the heat in his mouth and the choking in his throat will discourage him from drinking for some time.