California Is Trying To Kill You
Let me preface this article by saving my own ass and saying the information contained herein is for educational purposes only and I strongly discourage the handling, use and misuse, intentional or otherwise, of any plant, toxin, psychotropic substance, etc., and advise against the collection and ingestion of such plants not only because it is potentially hazardous to your health, possibly killing you and those around you, but it also disrupts the native ecosystem. So don't. On with the show!
I'm working on another article that's turned into this rabbit hole of an unsolved cult murder mystery, so I decided to draft a shorty about something different: Poison and hallucinogens native to California. Of course, we have nothing on Australia, but, still, this state will kill you in a thousand ways.
Stinging Nettle and Poison Oak technically won't kill you unless the rash from the toxic oils festers because you have diabetes or immune deficiency, but they'll still make your life hell and I thought I'd ease into it a bit. Stinging Nettle (Uritca dioica) is used in herbal medicine and fancy chefs use it in salads, but the acid released when you touch it, well, it stings. I know first hand since my yard tends to fill up with this crap and I feel like I'm on fire if I walk out in sandals during an infestation of this nuisance. That said, the sting in the nettle is a result of formic acid attached to tiny hairs on the leaves breaking off onto the skin. The hairs also contain histamine, which makes you incredibly itchy, and acetylcholine, the first ever neurotransmitter discovered. While formic acid might make you feel miserable, it's actually really useful as a preservative in livestock feed, protection against e. Coli, a miticide, toilet bowl cleaner, rubber production coagulant, etc. Studies on stinging nettle consistently show it has a mild inflammatory effect, but other scientific studies in regards to effects on testosterone and C-reactive protein and allergies are either poorly done or need to be repeated with a larger cohort.
Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is the only one native to California in the Poison Oak/ Poison Ivy / Poison Sumac family. The culprit is urushiol oil, which is also found in mangoes! So if touching mangoes makes you feel a little numb and itchy, you're going to have a bad time with poison oak. 80 – 90% of people will have a reaction to urushiol oil in significant quantities and 25% of people will experience an inflamed, oozing rash with little contact. A lucky 15 – 30% of people, like yours truly, can tromp through the woodland thickets without trouble, but better safe than sorry, you know?
Most people break out from Poison Oak within a day or two. The open sores, if not treated, can turn into a staph infection and require more medical treatment with antibiotics. Not only is it troublesome as a skin contact, but smoke inhalation during forest fires or idiotic usage in a campfire can cause lung damage and rashes to mucous membranes in the eyes and nose. That's just one more risk firefighters face in addition to, you know, incinerating. An overlooked problem with urushiol oil is that, according to the CDC, it can remain active on uncleaned surfaces for up to 5 years!
It's not all bad, though. Native Americans used the sap to cure ringworm and snake bites while native animals use it as a great nutritional source. It's also not dangerous to livestock and pets, but you probably want to think twice about puppy kisses after someone napped in an oily bush.
Poodle-dog Bush is a stupid name for Eriodictyon parryi, a coastal mountain herb found from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. The pretty purple-flowered shrub smells awful and secretes a toxic oil that causes raised blisters that can take several weeks to heal. Like poison oak, poodle-dog bush rashes appear days later and can also cause respiratory damage when inhaled. Unlike poison oak, the compounds that make up the toxin are not water soluble so simply washing your clothes is not going to remove the oil. Also unlike poison oak, the dangers of poodle-dog bush are not widley known and it seems that most of the wildflower guide books glaringly neglect to inform the public of the dangers of say, taking close up photos of a bush that will make you blister and ooze.
The Western Destroying Angel is not a terrible movie title or death metal band. It is a fungus. Amanita ocreata is found among the oak trees. Since it resembles many edible mushrooms, Western Destroying Angel can take credit for the death of many mushroom foragers thanks to alpha-Amanitin. This toxin has no known antidote and binds to enzymes in the liver cells, causing complete liver, kidney and respiratory failure after falling into a coma. By the time symptoms like diarrhea and cramping begin to show, it is likely too late for a stomach pump. About 15% of people die within ten days of ingestion and the survivors likely have permanent liver damage.
As with most things like this, there's a promising German study showing that alpha-Amanitan can be used to treat prostate cancer by causing apoptosis and slower division of treatment resistant tumor cells. Thanks, Western Destroying Angel!
The Green- Spored Parasol Mushroom, Western Jack-o-Lantern Mushroom, Flower Pot Parasol and Deadly Galerina are more mushrooms that people get incredibly sick from eating. They've killed a small handful of people. So, you'll probably live, but you're gonna have a bad time. Just don't eat wild mushrooms.
Beautiful Datura, with it's white trumpet flowers reaching to the sky, is a prolific weed that sings its psychedelic tune while you scream past it at 15 mph on the 5 Fwy. Datura wrightii is also called sacred datura, Jimsonweed, Indian whiskey and Devil's Weed and Moonflower. It is used in religious and medicinal ceremonies by many peoples but now more often as a recreational hallucinogen, while killing those that are uninformed about proper usage.
There are a handful of datura species in the United States. One species notably caused a group of British soldiers to go completely insane after eating the cooked plant. In 1676, they were sent to stop the Bacon Rebellion, but spent 11 days recovering from batshit crazy antics like streaking while pretending to be a monkey. The notable compounds in datura are scopolamine, atropine and hyoscyamine. Again, these can be useful or they can kill you. Atropine, for example, is used by optometrists to dilate pupils. It's also found in Belladonna , but in some historical contexts it was used cosmetically to dilate the pupils to make women appear more beautiful. Bitches went blind. Women also used to smear lead, arsenic and mercury on their faces, so that's pretty much standard practice.
Side effects of datura include vasodilation which increases bloodflow and causes dizziness, drying of mucus membranes, hyperpyrexia (wherein your body overheats and cooks itself), confusion, delirium and memory loss, blindness, tachycardia and potentially myocardial infarction in those more prone to heart problems, which includes those with undiagnosed congenital heart defects. So, talk to your witch doctor and see if datura is wrightii for you.
You can go to Erowid for the how-to, but the desired effect of datura is a hallucinogenic dream-state. The Salinan tribe gave it to boys so they could detect witchcraft and become a good hunter. The Cahuilla tribe had a week-long mourning ceremony where they danced and took datura for three days while wearing owl feathers bunched under a headband. While datura is an uncontrolled substance in the United States, it is prohibited by the Association of Racing Commissioners International as a horse performance enhancing drug due to scopolamine content. In 1994, Lady Blessington and Water Prospector won at Santa Anita but were found to have scopolamine in their urine. While the California Horse Racing Board decided the datura found in the horses' straw was a contaminant and not administered, exonerating the trainers, the horses still had to give up their titles.
Castor Bean plants are another insanely common plant that litter the highways and train tracks. While the oil is completely safe and used in beauty products, massage oils, paints, as a food additive and more, the seeds of ricinus communis are toxic because it's fucking ricin. People love poisoning people with ricin.
The plant was named “castor” because it was a replacement for castoreum, a perfume base made from beaver anal gland sacs. Yummy. The oil is safe because heating the seeds breaks down the toxic lectins, but eating a handful of seeds can kill a person. While it seems unlikely that a person would unwittingly eat murder seeds, they can be processed and purified and, in such a state, the same amount as a few grains of salt could kill a person. Again, I'm not going to get into the how-to. That's what The Anarchist Cookbook is for. In fact, in 2009, two UK men were imprisoned under anti-terrorism laws for possession of The Anarchist Cookbook and enough ricin in a pickle jar to kill 1000 Muslims, which was their intention as leaders of the Aryan Strike Force.
In 2008, Californian Roger Von Bergendorff was found in a Las Vegas hotel room with vials of ricin, guns, syringes, beakers and a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook. He accidentally poisoned himself and called 911 when he had difficulty breathing. Roger lived and went to prison for three years.
Three jars of Gerber Banana Yogurt were found to be contaminated with castor beans in Irvine in 2004 in two separate incidents. While the unrefined ground up beans were trace amounts unlikely to kill the babies, there was a note in the jars that the parents apparently didn't notice right away that referred to an Irvine police officer. The contents of the note were not disclosed.
The effects of ricin poisoning appear hours to days after exposure. Signs of poisoning start with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and conclude with internal hemorrhaging, organ failure and circulatory shock. Victims typically die within 3 to 5 days. There is no antidote currently available, but there is a vaccine that is effective for up to 6 months in case you think someone might try to poison you in the future. Of course, there are also scientists using it to cure cancer by destroying tumor cells.
Native Americans used to use California Buckeye to paralyze fish and make it easier to catch them. In smaller quantities, Aesculus californica isn't fatal, but will cause vomiting and paralysis. The bark, flowers and nuts are all toxic, even to honeybees, which is depressing. When acorns were in low supply, people would boil the nuts for days to leech out the poison and make a flour or mash from them. It's not really recommended.
And then there was Nightshade. Several species of nightshade grow natively in California including Solanum xanti, Solanum umbelliferum and Solanum americanum. The pretty plants have cute white or purple flowers and shiny blackish-purple berries. While some species can be used as an edible and made into a jam or something under the right circumstances, that's pretty risky.
The toxic glycoalkaloid solanine causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, nightmares, hallucinations and dilated pupils, jaundice, paralysis, coma and tachycardia. All parts of the plant are poisonous, especially the unripened berries and there is no known antidote. However, once again, scientists are using solanine to cure cancer by causing apoptosis of tumor cells.
So, if there's anything to be learned here it's that there's poisonous plants growing all over the road and in your backyard, don't keep a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook, scientists love curing cancer with poison and I'm probably on several FBI watchlists now.
Please enjoy this documentary footage on the effects of ricin poisoning: