BOTANICAL TOXICOLOGY – A Writer’s Guide to Poisons

Peacock Flower

peacock flower

flower and leaves

peacock flower seed pods

seed pods






Otherwise known as Mexican red bird of paradise, Pride of Barbados, and butterfly flower.


  • Native to the tropics
  • Prominent in the West Indies/Caribbean
  • Thrives in hot climates
  • National flower of Barbados

Distinguishing Attributes

  • Small tree or large shrub
  • Showy blossoms of orange/red
  • Fern-like blue-green foliage, young foliage is red
  • Seed pods resemble sugar snap pea or edamame pods.
  • Fast-growing
  • Resistant to pest and disease

Poisonous Traits

  • Mature seeds (derived from brown seed pods) are poisonous due to gallic and tannic acid concentrations.
  • The ingestion of leaves causes diarrhea and miscarriage during pregnancy.
  • Roots are spicy and toxic

Presenting Symptoms

  • Gastrointestinal: vomiting, diarrhea
  • Induces menstruation

Current Uses

  • Mexico and Nicaragua boil young (green) seed pods to remove the tannic acids and eat the seeds.
  • A common medicinal herb in Taiwan for treating fever, menstruation issues, malaria, wheezing, and bronchitis.
  • Pakistanis use the flowers to treat intestinal worms, the roots to treat infant convulsions, and the leaves to induce vomiting and abortions.
  • Malaysians use the plant as an antibacterial (fights infection).
  • Panamanians use the leaves to poison fish.
  • Nicaraguans throw the leaves into the water to stun the fish.
  • Medicine men from the Amazon rainforest use the seed pods as an astringent to clean wounds.
  • The tea produced from the leaves is used to treat dysentery (infection of the intestines that produces blood and mucous in the stool).
  • Mexico uses the seed pods to make red and yellow dye and the roots for red dye, and the flowers and roots are used to create a mouthwash. Powdered flowers are used to kill insects.
  • In India, the plant is sacred to Shiva, a supreme being to the Indonesians.

Historical Relevance

  • In 1705 Maria Merian, a naturalist, recorded that Suriname Indians and slaves from Northern South America were known to use the mature seed pods to abort their children in hopes of keeping them from enslavement from their Dutch colonial masters.
  • In the 18th century, free Amerindians living in the regions of Venezuela and Colombia used the seed pods to induce abortions for selfish reasons; they could ‘schedule’ their pregnancies to preserve their youth and beauty as well as ‘eliminate’ pregnancies beyond their youth.


BOTANICAL TOXICOLOGY – A Writer’s Guide to Poisons

ACONITEAconite plant

Otherwise known as monkshood, tiger’s bane, dog’s bane, wolfsbane, or friar’s cap. It grows in the mountainous regions of Central Asia, Russia, Europe, and Great Britain.


• Pointed dark glossy leaves

• Turnip like roots

• Helmet shaped dark blue flower (almost purple hue)

• Bitter taste; accidental poisoning is rare due to this bitterness

• The entire plant is poisonous despite claims only the root is


• See effects within an hour

• Its medicinal application in history targeted restlessness, fever, chills, anxiety, pains, vertigo (dizziness), and sleeplessness

• Absorbs through broken skin or open wounds

• Gloves should be worn when handling

• Highly cardiotoxic and neurotoxic

• No cure; manage symptoms until body recover



• Neurological (tingling/prickling/numbness of the face or extremities; muscle weakness)

• Cardiovascular (hypotensive-low blood pressure, chest pains, palpitations-irregular heartbeat)

• Gastrointestinal (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain)


• Used by aborigines in far north Pacific Ocean to harpoon whales; tainted spearheads with aconite

• In 1881 a doctor killed his brother-in-law by crushing the plant and placing it in the newly invented capsule shells to mask the taste

• Ancient China rubbed not only the arrow with poison but also the shaft so anyone trying to remove an arrow from a wounded soldier would likewise perish

• Shepherds used raw meat laced with aconite in the killing of wolves

• Used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine; boiled before ingestion to decrease the plant’s toxicity