"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion" Francis Bacon 1561-1626

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Death by Jewelry? : Abrus precatorius

These pods with their innocent looking, pretty red and black seeds have been sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks now. I had noticed the brilliant red dots shining out from the tangled remains of a decaying creeper which was twining over the chain link fence of the dog park opposite our apartment block. I had no idea what it was and was astonished to find that, insinuating itself amongst the benign ivies and maypops, is one of the most deadly plants in the world!

abrus pre

Abrus precatorius Flowers and leaves at Gulfstream Park, Florida. September 24, 2009 photo"Forest & Kim Starr" from Plants of Hawaii

The pretty leguminous vine Abrus precatorius (from the Latin precari to pray), has many names: Jequirity, Rosary Pea, 'John Crow' Bead, Precatory bean, Indian Licorice, Saga Tree, Lucky Bean, Giddee Giddee or Jumbie Bead, locally here they are called Crab’s Eyes. But its most fascinating “attribute” is that the hard red and black seeds, which are still used for jewelry in central America and Mexico, contain a poison which is really deadly. So much so, that just one thoroughly chewed seed can cause fatal poisoning. The poison is “Abrin”, a relative of “Ricin” which was used in London in 1978, to dispatch Georgi Markov, in the famous umbrella killing. Jewelry making accidents sometimes do happen when the makers prick a finger while handling the seeds, but apparently if swallowed whole the seeds are harmless.. Hmmm…

The ever useful, excellent and entertaining site Waynesword has this to say and gives more info about its deadly qualities.

In spite of their reputation as one of the world's most deadly seeds, precatory beans are certainly one of the most beautiful seeds on earth. They are sometimes called prayer beans or rosary beans and have been used for rosaries. Because of their remarkably uniform weight of 1/10th of a gram, seeds of Abrus precatorius were used by goldsmiths of East Asia as standard weights for weighing gold and silver. In fact, the famous Koh-i-noor diamond of India, now one of the British crown jewels, was reportedly weighed using seeds of Abrus precatorius.”

It’s another unwelcome invasive species here in Florida given category 1 status. A thorough explanation of the plant and its toxicity can be found here. I am left wondering what being so toxic does for the plant? Of course it will repel some animals grazers, but interestingly it appears that birds are not affected by abrin and they are largely responsible for dispersing the seeds. It is also another of those strange plants that quite likes being burnt. Seeds are readily available from seed suppliers, some of whom do not mention its deadly properties, but then as a funny article about the possibility of terrorist uses of Abrus says,

Somehow mankind has muddled through, managing not to exterminate itself with rosary peas” ………read more from the Register here

Whatever its problems it is lovely to draw, the shiny seeds contrasting with the dark twisted pods which have a thin papery lining. I think I may do a couple more studies and find out a bit more about this interesting plant which also has some medicinal uses… apart from the fatal ones of course!

Abrus Precatorius, The “Lucky” (for some but not others) Bean.

abrus sm

Watercolour on Arches HP 12 x 7 inches

5 comments:

JP said...

fascinating. My mom worked for Vital Statistics for the feds for a long while; she may have some real numbers for deaths caused by Abrus Precatorius, or at least 'death by jewelery'...

sharp green pencil said...

Hi there JP..That's so interesting! I would be really fascinated to know! .. There must be quite a few "garden accidents" one way or another. Hope your bees are humming..

GetSoiled said...

Aaaaaaaaaaaaah! Just seeing that seed pod makes me shudder!

Somehow a seed germinated in our neighboor's property last year. Right in the limit with ours...and it hangs over our fence. It used to be just one last year. This year we have countless vines and it feels like we'll never get rid of them.

They are also very dangerous because in climbing the trees they may kill them as well. This is not a welcome thought when I think of all the oaks in our back garden being suffocated by it and the upcoming hurricane seasons. Yikes.

The painting is stunning...but the thought of the actual beans *shudder*

John and Pam said...

I bought a pair of earrings made with these seeds when on a vacation on Nuku Hiva in French Polynesia ( just a tiny spot of an island). I bought them at an outdoor market. I only wore them a few times. I didn't find out they were poisonous until I was reading a book yesterday about poisonous plants to first graders (Plants that Bite Back by Richard Platt) and there was a photograph of the seeds! That day I was actually wearing a necklace that I had purchased on the island. It had red seeds too, but they didn't have the black spots.
After reading about these poisonous seeds I am throwing away the earrings.
I guess my point is "buyer beware" when purchasing items made overseas!

sharp green pencil said...

John and Pam.. I am so sorry I cant email you because your earrings might well be other harmless seeds. I was given a beautiful bracelet while in Costa Rica with similar looking seeds.. and really these seeds are only really bad if you eat them and chew them!
Nuku Hiva sounds wonderful! I think I may need to go after my exhibition! your travels sounded fabulous where next?