My faithful readers are aware of my desire for things to be named as they are. It avoids confusion, and life is too short to be dazed and confused. So when I read about Cerbera odollam, the “Suicide Tree,” I get a warm, tingly feeling. Not because I’m some sort of sociopath, well, maybe just a little, but because I know exactly what to expect
The ‘suicide tree’, according to scientific reports, is responsible for killing many people in India both by suicidal and homicidal poisoning. The name of the plant, Cerbera odollam, is derived from Cerberus, the mythical hound with three heads that guards the gates of the underworld and makes sure that the living are barred from entry and the dead are barred from leaving.
The plant grows all across India and is quite infamous for its sinister qualities. A scientific team in France, reported that between 1989 and 1999 there were 500 cases of Cerbera poisoning leading to death. In Kerala, half of the deaths due to poisoning are contributed to Cerbera. The kernels of the plant, the most poisonous parts, have an extremely bitter taste. However, if mixed with spices and other spicy foods, it easily disguises the bitterness. The kernels hold the death toxin, cerberin.Cerberin is a cardiotoxin which blocks some ion channels of the heart, stopping the heartbeat.
Women are often the victims of homicidal Cerbera poisoning. It is thus believed that many young wives may be killed by their in laws’ families using this death toxin. Nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain are the primary symptoms of cerberin poisoning. This is followed by worsening of symptoms like diarrhoea, dilated pupils, heart burning, headache, coma and finally death within 3-6 hours.
Cerbera odollam bears a close resemblance to oleander, another highly toxic plant from the same family. Its branchlets are whorled about the trunk, and its leaves are terminally crowded, with tapering bases, acuminate apices, and entire margins. The plant as a whole yields a milky, white latex.
Its fruit, when still green, looks like a small mango, with a green fibrous shell enclosing an ovoid kernel measuring approximately 2 cm × 1.5 cm and consisting of two cross-matching white fleshy halves. On exposure to air, the white kernel turns violet, then dark grey, and ultimately brown, or black.
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