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"Deadly but Useful" Plants

During the past 130 million years, plants have colonized almost every habitat on earth. During these centuries, plants have gradually evolved protective devices to discourage humans and animals from snacking on them. The leaves and stems have developed a variety of vicious spines and stinging hairs (trichomes). In some plants, these dense coverings of silvery hairs also provide other ecological advantages such as solar reflection and insulation in treacherous environments. But mechanical defenses come with their limitations, and did not defer all humans or animals. Therefore, plants developed a chemical defense strategy, making toxins that are toxic or distasteful to humans or animals.[1]

The largest group of chemical toxins produced by plants are the alkaloids. Many of these metabolic by-products are derived from amino acids and include an enormous number of bitter, nitrogenous compounds. According to R.F. Raffauf (Plant Alkaloids: A Guide To Their Discovery and Distribution, 1996), more than 10,000 different alkaloids have been discovered in species from over 300 plant families. Alkaloids often contain one or more rings of carbon atoms, usually with a nitrogen atom in the ring. The position of the nitrogen atom in the carbon ring varies with different alkaloids and with different plant families. It is the precise position of the nitrogen atom that effects the properties of these alkaloids. Although they undoubtedly existed long before humans, some alkaloids have remarkable structural similarities with neurotransmitters in the central nervous system of humans, including dopamine, serotonin and acetylcholine. The amazing effect of these alkaloids on humans has led to the development of powerful pain-killer medications, spiritual drugs, and serious addictions by people who are ignorant of the properties of these powerful chemicals.[1]

Poisonous plants contain toxins that can make a person ill or cause death, even in the smallest amounts. There are750 plant toxins, according to the 2008 book "Mind-Altering and Poisonous Plants of the World" by biologist Wink and botanist Ben-Erik van Wyk. Yet, many of these toxins have powerful medicinal properties and are used in conventional medicine to treat diseases like cancer and heart problems.[2]

Plants produce primary metabolites, which help it grow and reproduce, and secondary metabolites, usually bitter or deadly substances that help to ward off predators. Plant toxins come from the secondary metabolites, such as alkaloids and glycosides. The most dangerous substances include neurotoxins, which affect the central nervous system, and poisons that cause tissue and organ damage. Because they are so potent, many secondary metabolites have been used as a basis or chemical model for pharmaceutical drugs.[3]

Examples of Plants:

Castor Bean:
Castor oil – for anyone unlucky enough to have been spoon-fed this healthy yet disgusting fluid as a child, may be surprised to learn that it is derived from an ingredient from the Castor Bean, which just happens to be the deadliest poison on earth. Just one tiny castor bean is enough to kill an adult within a few minutes. Castor oil is made safe (but not palatable) with the removable of the lethal compound known as ricin.[4]
Opium Poppy:
The brilliant blooms of the Opium Poppy plant are an iconic one. The plant is an effective nervine (anxiety reliever) and is safe for use on agitated children. Opium Poppy is used in many medications; however, its use is also often abused by those who use its counterpart, heroin or are involved in the drug trade. This plant has caused many deaths; however, has healed many who are sick, making it fall under the category "deadly but useful." It can be made into a a tea for quick relief of nervousness and tension. [5]

Wormwood, or commonly called Absinthe, has been portrayed as a dangerously addictive psychoactive drug. The chemical Thujone, was blamed for its alleged harmful effects. Thujone, though not understood, was used as a fever preventative by the French while fighting in Algeria. Its effects proved to be an effective pesticide for corn as well as for a variety of medicinal reasons, however, by 1915, Absinthe had been banned in the United States and in most European countries including France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland. Although absinthe was vilified, it has not been shown that it is any more dangerous than ordinary spirits. Its psychoactive properties, apart from those of alcohol, have been much exaggerated.[6] The most common variety of Wormwood in America is Artemisia absinthium L.

Khat is a stimulant drug derived from a shrub (Catha edulis) that is native to East Africa and southern Arabia. The Khat plant itself is not scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act; however, because one of its chemical constituents, cathinone, is a Schedule I drug, the Federal Government considers its use illegal.

Cathine and cathinone are chemicals structurally similar to, but less potent than, amphetamine, yet result in similar psychomotor stimulant effects. Chewing khat leaves can induce a state of euphoria and elation as well as feelings of increased alertness and arousal. The effects begin to subside after about 90 minutes to 3 hours, but can last 24 hours.[7]
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