Flowering Plants – Beautiful But Deadly

As many of you know, I write about MURDER, MAYHEM and MEDICINE.  They’re the focus of my website, and my thrillers and suspense novels always contain a healthy dose of each.  With years of experience as a clinical pharmacist prior to evolving into a full-time writer, I have a wealth of pharmaceutical knowledge that I now use to conjure sinister plots.

Historically, drugs have been used both as instruments to cure as well as to kill.  As a healthcare professional, I sought to cure.  As a writer, I seek to kill (at least on paper or on screen, that is).  So is it any wonder that my weekly blog is called “Prescription for Murder”?

With that in mind, I came across an interesting news article the other day describing a drug that can both cure and kill.  The oleander plant (Nerium oleander) is a common shrub in warm Southern climates.  It grows as tall as twelve feet and produces beautiful, fragrant and colorful blossoms.

As I read the article describing a new drug being developed from the sap of the oleander, I remembered what my mother used to tell me.  “Stay away from the oleander.  It’s poison!”  So I decided to educate myself about this plant, and this is what I learned.

The oleander is indeed a poisonous plant.  The milky sap from the leaves and stems contain Oleandrin, a powerful cardiac glycoside so toxic that ingesting one leaf is reported to kill a small child.  Although documentation is poor regarding the exact toxicity of the sap, it’s been estimated that ingesting 15-20 leaves would kill a normal adult.

Symptoms of overdose include gastrointestinal (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea), cardiac (both lethal slowing and rapid increases in heart rates) and neurological (tremors, shaking muscles, seizures).

Oleandrin, properly prepared as a drug, has been used for years in Russia and China to treat congestive heart failure and cardiac arrhythmia.  Interestingly, it’s been used also as an instrument of suicide in those countries.

Presently, Oleandrin is being studied as a promising anti-cancer treatment.  Patented drug extracts, developed by a company in San Antonio, Texas, may one day treat colon, pancreatic and prostate cancers as well as melanoma.  Tests are also being conducted on leukemia, certain lung cancers and HIV.  The primary focus of this company is to prevent and treat human malignant diseases by targeting the fast-growing cancer cells, and one of their formulas is already in Phase 1 clinical trials.

As I read about these new drug developments, I thought about how drugs have been used throughout the ages to cure and kill.  Ancient alchemy, as a precursor to modern pharmacology, produced wonderful, life-saving medicines while at the same time spawning lethal poisons for darts and arrows.  Modern pharmacology has furthered the science in much the same way—so many ways to cure and yet so many ways to kill.  As a writer, that gives me a multitude of plot ideas.  How about you?  Happy writing!

Thoughts?  Comments?  I’d love to hear them!

About James J. Murray, Fiction Writer

With experience in both pharmaceutical manufacturing and clinical patient management, medications and their impact on one’s quality of life have been my expertise. My secret passion of murder and mayhem, however, is a whole other matter. I’ve always loved reading murder mysteries and thrillers, and longed to weave such tales of my own. Drawing on my clinical expertise as a pharmacist and my infatuation with the lethal effects of drugs, my tales of murder, mayhem and medicine will have you looking over your shoulder and suspicious of anything in your medicine cabinet.
This entry was posted in About James J. Murray, About Medications/Pharmacy, Drugs From Oleander Plant, Oleander Plant, Oleander Poisoning, Oleandrin, Pharmacy/Pharmaceuticals, Plant Poisons and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Flowering Plants – Beautiful But Deadly

  1. Pingback: My pal Jim Murray tells us about a very common – and beautiful – plant that can kill! « Thomas Rydder

  2. ASMSG Write's Circle Books says:

    Great post, Jim. It’s particularly clever, especially in that Oleander is such a common plant all over the south and through California. I was thinking about others while reading, and Foxglove came to mind as well–Digitalis purpurea. The upper leaves are deadly during the flowering stage, but the plant is so beautiful and inviting for cut flower arrangements. Hmmm.

  3. Arlee Bird says:

    This is why I never give my wife flowers.

  4. abrach1 says:

    Here in the Highlands the common foxglove was a flower that was seen as both poisonous and medicinal. As always, Jim, interesting and educational.

  5. Carole Bugge says:

    Great article, James! I’ve heard it said that “poison is in the dosage” – i.e., one dose can cure and another can kill. The other thing reading this that struck me is how many of Nature’s secrets remain unlocked by humans…. as a mushroom hunter, I have long learned what to avoid and what to pick, aware that Nature often hides her deadliest killers in beautiful form, as in the deadly Amanita species of mushrooms like the lovely Destroying Angel.

  6. Gay says:

    With a past history in herbology (is there such a word?), your blog posting interested me. And the comment by abrach1 is correct as foxglove has a long history of being used to stimulate the heart in proper dosage.
    We have oleanders growing in our garden even though this latitude is a bit north of their preferred climate. Sometimes the outer fringes of the plant will brown from a freeze but it never kills the plant. In the more southern climes of Texas, especially along the coast, oleanders are used as barrier hedges along highways.
    Enjoyed learning the particulars of oleanders’ history and future use. Is it true that what goes around, comes around?

  7. Pingback: Flowering Plants – Beautiful But Deadly | Jay Wilburn

  8. Pingback: Balance « wrLapinsky's Blog

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