The Toxin in "The Suicide Tree" Has Been Called the Perfect Murder Weapon

By now you know not to be fooled by nature's beauty, right? The Cerbera odollam, for instance, is a perfectly beautiful, lush tree. But, oh no. This unassuming plant isn't called the "suicide tree" for nothing. It can accurately be called the "murder tree," too. Whatever you want to call it, just keep your distance.

Lethal Weapon Seed

The Cerbera odollam is a medium-sized hardwood tree, endemic to India and southeast Asia, that can grow up to 32 feet (10 meters) tall. Nothing remarkable there. It's not like this tree is trying to kill you, but it can. Pretty easily too, thanks to the excessively toxic chemical cerberin in its seeds.

Cerberin is a cardiac glycoside, which is a class of organic compounds that slows your heart rate. These compounds are used in some medications and it's not hard to see how a little too much of them would be a very, very bad thing. There's enough cerebin in one Cerbera odollam seed to kill an adult human.

The way it works to stop your heart is similar to that of lethal injection. Ingesting a seed will kill a person in just a few hours, but first, it'll cause crippling stomach pain, diarrhea, irregular heart rhythm, vomiting, and a headache. It's not outlandish to think that someone could accidentally eat this deadly seed. They sit inside an edible fruit, after all.

Without a Trace

Sadly, the Cerbera odollam earned one of its gruesome nicknames due to the fact that toxicologists believe that it's used by more people to commit suicide than any other plant on Earth. According to a decade-long study published in 2004 in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, this tree kills especially large numbers of people in Indian communities.

The team behind the study, led by Yvan Gaillard of the Laboratory of Analytical Toxicology in La Voulte-sur-Rhône, France, documented more than 500 cases of fatal Cerbera poisoning between 1989 and 1999 in the Indian state of Kerala. Half of the plant poisoning deaths here, and one in 10 poisoning deaths overall, can be traced to Cerbera. The team thinks the true numbers could be double that, however. The shocking results underscored the researchers' sole aim: "to call attention to a powerful toxic plant that is currently completely ignored by western physicians, chemists, analysts and even coroners and forensic toxicologists."

The story of this deadly tree takes an even darker turn, believe it or not. There's a reason Gaillard described the plant as being "perfect" for murder. It's a killer weapon that can fly under the radar extremely easily, even under the nose of medical professionals.

Testing for cerberin poisoning is relatively costly and requires the use of "high-performance liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry," which isn't even a viable option in some locations. In fact, toxicologists won't perform the test unless there's already strong evidence that the victim consumed Cerbera recently. That is, if they've even heard of the toxin in the first place. Not only is it hard to detect after the fact, but the stuff can also easily be masked in spicy foods. For this reason, the 2004 study suggests that some cases put down to suicide may actually have been murders.

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Want even more? Check out the book "Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities." The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. If you make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto February 13, 2018

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