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Cerbera

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Biological Illustration of Cerbera, 1897

Found in India, Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, and Sumatra, is the Cerbera odollam tree, whose fruits are infamously poisonous.

Cerbera odollam seeds. Photograph by Vera Kratochvil

Cerbera odollam seeds. Photograph by Vera Kratochvil

The seeds of the Cerbera odollam fruit contain cerberin, which is a very powerful toxin. Cerberin’s structure is similar to that of digoxin, which is a toxin found in the poisonous foxglove plant. Both cerberin and digoxin are heart toxins which block the calcium ion channels in the heart muscles. This disrupts the heartbeat and causes the heart to stop. This toxin is frequently used as a rat poison and insect repellent.

Victims suffer from symptoms such as severe stomach pain, diarrhea, irregular heart rhythm, and vomiting before dying within just hours of ingesting Cerbera odollam seeds. 

High in these toxic cardiac glycosides, the Cerbera odollam has a very long history as an ordeal poison. Yvan Gaillard, Annanthasankaran Krishnamoorthy, and Fabien Bevalot, described these trials in their study. They wrote that they were an ancient form of determining guilt by appealing to a “supernatural decision”. In order to prove that they were not responsible for the witchcraft causing illness, death and other catastrophes, people were given the poison. The Cerbera odollam poison caused the death of 6,000 people in one trial alone. It was so strongly believed that the poison would determine guilt that innocent people willingly ate the poison without hesitation. (Cerbera odollam: a ‘suicide tree’ and cause of death in the state of Kerala, India)

Today, the Cerbera odollam fruit poison is often used for suicide, especially in the Southern Indian state of Kerala. Gaillard, Krishnamoorthy, and Bevalot found in their study that Cerbera odollam was responsible for about one death per week in Kerala.

Leaves are spirally arranged and clustered. Flowers are white with a colored centre. Photograph by Jane Wong S.K.

Leaves are spirally arranged and clustered. Flowers are white with a colored centre. Photograph by Jane Wong S.K.

One of its properties is that it can’t be tasted in South Asian cuisine because of the spicy foods that are often served in the region. Cerberin, the toxin that serves as the poison can also go undetected in an autopsy, making it historically used for homicides.

The Cerbera odollam and a similarly poisonous species within its genus, the Cerbera manghas are listed as Vulnerable and Critically Endangered on the Red List of threatened plants, respectively. So, should why we care if this plant which has killed so many people disappears?

The Cerbera odollam does actually have some positive environmental impacts. For example, cerberin can be used by farmers as an all natural pesticide. More notably however, is that it can be derived to produce bintaro oil which can replace kerosene which is often used in rural Indonesia. The researchers who developed this technology did so as result of rising kerosene prices, which would require rural communities to burn wood and other biomass for cooking. Bintaro oil is a more viable fuel for rural communities because it is not only cheaper than kerosene, but is also more energy efficient.

 

Gaillard, Yvan, Ananthasankaran Krishnamoorthy, and Fabien Bevalot. “Cerbera Odollam: A ‘suicide Tree’ and Cause of Death in the State of Kerala, India.” Cerbera Odollam: A ‘suicide Tree’ and Cause of Death in the State of Kerala, India. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Dec. 2004. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.