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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 4th September 2011

The weather was a little better today so I took the chance of getting some more video of my Colchicum autumnale. It’s one of the odder of the poisonous plants and not just because of its strange growing habit. (Gardeners can skip the next paragraph.)

The leaves emerge in the spring and then die back in the summer. Then, early in the autumn, the flowers emerge straight out of the ground. After being fertilised the flowers die back and it is the following spring that the seeds, along with the leaves appear. It is this flowering habit that gives the plant two, really three, of its common names; autumn crocus and (bare) naked ladies.

Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus

But it is not just the plant’s biology that makes it an oddity. It is not one of the ‘fashionable’ poisonous plants i.e. I doubt if many people would include it if asked to name five ‘deadly’ plants and it seems to have attracted very little folklore in spite of being known for a very long time. John Gerard, for example, mentions it.

In spite of that it is a plant that has caused accidental deaths, or possibly suicide, in recent times. It is one of the few plants where there are documented 21st century deaths. The problem comes in the spring when, before the appearance of the seeds, the leaves may be mistaken for wild garlic.

It is used medicinally because it destroys white blood cells and there are times when this is desirable. This property may be why it has been used to treat acute gout but it has such a low therapeutic index that overdose can easily occur and, like all medicines, errors in preparation can add to the problem. In the USA, the Federal Drug Administration placed controls on its sale after it was implicated in 23 deaths, three of which occurred after a batch eight times the proper dose was prepared by mistake.

The symptoms of colchicine poisoning are somewhat unusual in that initial stomach upset is followed, sometimes days later, by more serious conditions including one where blood clots form in many different parts of the body. Death is, usually, due to respiratory arrest following paralysis. It is often described as being similar to death from cholera.

Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus

I know of no cases where it has been used as a murder weapon but it is a plant I feature in my talk ‘Medical Murderers’. The starting point of this talk is that you can get away with murder if no-one realises that a death is unnatural. I would illustrate this point with an example but, of course, the principle itself means that examples are unknown.

To make this point about avoiding suspicion, I describe the Colchicum autumnale and say that, if you can get your victim into the centre of a cholera outbreak, you may be able to make their murder look like just another case and avoid the sort of enquiry that would lead to suspicion.

So, with its strange growth habit, its medicinal use sometimes causing deaths, its position as one of the few plants known to have caused accidental deaths from the plant itself this century and its potential for authors of historical fiction, I can't help wondering why it is more prominent.

Happily, for many reasons, cholera epidemics are much rarer these days and more attention is paid to loss of life through illness. It seems unlikely, therefore, that anyone will ever put my theory into practice. I do, however, find myself wondering whether the idea of committing murder where death is regularly occurring may not be put to use in things like the Libyan uprising.