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Rosary pea and other deadly alerts in Southwest Florida

January 31, 2014
By JOYCE COMINGORE - Garden Club of Cape Coral (Special to The Breeze) , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

On Jan. 18, 2014, a LaBelle, Fla., man was arrested for selling the deadly toxin abrin through an underground Internet based marketplace. Many warnings came on television about the source of that poison, a category 1 invasive species in Florida, the rosary pea, Abrus precatorius.

I'm not Catholic, but I do respect the reverence and sanctity of the rosary. How did this plant become known as "rosary" pea? How can something so heavenly intended be no earthly good? Because the seeds have a hard shell, are consistently uniform, bright red with a black dot and round (perfect beads), they have long been used in making jewelry. One needs to drill through them to make holes for stringing. That is why these seeds have been used for rosaries for many years.

Around the world, they have been used to make pendants, necklaces, bracelets; and also used in toys and percussion instruments. They rattle well inside gourds for maracas. They have also been used as balance weights.

Native to India and tropical Asia, rosary pea was brought to Florida in 1932 as an ornamental because of its lovely clusters of pale lavender, pink, white blossoms on a high climbing vine that can grow over small trees and shrubs. Their pea-shaped pods tell us it is a legume, but definitely non-edible. Once established, the roots dive deep into the ground, making it difficult to eradicate. Some call this an Indian licorice plant because the roots taste like licorice. A quick growing vine with ferny leaves, beautiful clusters of flowers and bright red shiny seeds that resemble roly-poly ladybugs, makes it hard to believe this is a pretty but poisonous plant. The long flat oblong pod curls back when it opens, revealing the red and black seeds - a seed that yields a poison called abrin, one of the most toxic poisons in the plant kingdom.

Birds, however, are not affected by this poison. They go about merrily eating these berries and then spreading them for propagation everywhere. Fire does not eradicate Abrus precatorius, it encourages the growth. Monitoring and pulling young shoots can prevent establishment and spread of rosary pea. Educating homeowners on plant identification will help eliminate this species.

Abrin is similar to ricin, but more toxic. The seed shell must be pricked or crushed to release the toxin, so any cuts or pricks on their hands led many an artisan to their death. Unfortunately, children are also attracted to these bright berries. Because no antidote exists for abrin, it is important to avoid exposure. If someone has swallowed abrin, do not induce vomiting or give fluids to drink. Seek medical help at once.

Ricin is also found naturally in castor beans. Beans used to make castor oil. Racin is part of the waste "mash" produced after making castor oil. A castor plant, Ricinus communis, is grown for its fast growing large leaves. Probably originating in Africa, but now throughout the world, this large shrubby plant is popular because of its hardy nature. It grows well in barren areas and requires no special care.Fast growing, it can reach 36 feet in a season.

In 1978, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian writer and journalist living in London, died after he was attacked by a man with an umbrella. The umbrella had been rigged to inject a poison ricin pellet under his skin. He had defected from Bulgaria 1969, when it was still a communist country. He took a job in England as a journalist and broadcaster for the BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe. Bulgarian government officials became displeased when he started broadcasting "In Absentia Reports" about life in Communist Bulgaria. Three days after the stabbing, he was dead. During an autopsy, doctors found a metal pellet the size of a pin head in his calf. The pellet was hollow in the center and contained traces of ricin.

In 1940, the U.S. military had experimented with it as a possible warfare agent. There are reports that it has been used for such purposes in the '80s in Iraq and by terrorist organizations.

You may be surprised to know that poisonous plants lurk in your own yard. The dater or angel's trumpet is a well known hallucinogenic that had killed people. The colorful oleander, with its long straight branches, were used for bonfire roasts, and found to be ideal for wiener and marshmallow roasts. Considered by many to be the most poisonous plant in the world, with all parts containing poison, oleander contaminates the food cooked on its branches. Years ago, when I first moved here, there seemed to be people dying after using these stems. Another beautiful but deadly plant, native to the Far East and Mediterranean areas, it was introduced into the United States. Popular because it tolerates poor quality of soil and dry weather, producing even in barren areas, with its dark green leaves and colorful flowers that grow in clusters. It is often used around construction sites, as highway barriers, and with its fast growth, as erosion prevention.

So, stay alert. Be aware of the evil that lurks so close to home. I really don't want to give aid and abet any with dastardly thoughts for villains, (like telling kids not to put beans in their ears) just to warn - it's out there.

Well, the time has come - to remind you all that the Strolling Flower Show at Bell Towers with window design displays by the Fort Myers/Lee County Garden Council members. Wednesday, Feb. 5, they will be arranging designs in the windows for judging on Thursday, Feb. 6. They will be up through Friday the 7th.

Next week, enjoy a stroll around Bell Tower. Be sure to thank a tree for your fresh air.

Joyce Comingore is a master gardener, hibiscus enthusiast and member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.



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