A surprising tropical plant : Cerbera odollam / Suicide Tree

TL;DR : Well I think it’s about time we started telling you about what sort of plants we grow in our little garden. Of course we grow all types of plants, some more common than others. But for some reason I’d like to start of our little list with a plant, well actually a tree to be more precise, that I like very much and that is rather peculiar : Cerbera odollam. I know we might have a hard time keeping as it continues to grow, since we live in a much more temperate climate, but who knows, it’s worth a try. So I guess I’ll keep you updated over the months and years.

What seeds and where to get them ?

We do have a vast preference for heirloom seeds and seeds found in the wild (or in their country of origin) of course. When we know of friends or family going abroad we always ask them to bring us some seeds back (if the season is right). My parents are currently on a mission to find some in Sri Lanka ! I do have to admit that sometimes we sneak away with seeds from the parks we visit.

But we got these particular seeds from a small shop in Thailand in February 2015. We were visiting my dad who had been living in Thailand for two years for his job.

We saw a bowl of these large seeds and were quite intrigued. The shop owner told us that these seeds would germinate in a few days in warm water and would make beautiful flowers. He also told us that we had probably seen some in front of hotels with large white odorous flowers and that they were called “pong-pong flowers”. We had not seen any of these, but the idea of having new plants always gets me so we decided to take three back to France in our suitcases.

These seeds were Suicide Tree seeds.

As you can see these are rather large

When we got back home we put these seeds in a bowl filled with water on the windowsill and waited (they did germinate but we’ll get back to that little later) …

So what were these tropical seeds ?

Turns out, we discovered after some research, we had just bought what is apparently commonly called Suicide Trees or by their Latin name, Cerbera odollam.

Cerbera odollam from Köhler's Medicinal Plants book

Cerbera odollam from Köhler’s Medicinal Plants book

Finding the name of a plant from its seed is usually almost impossible but since this seed is rather large and somewhat unique looking we eventually found the name of the plant, and realized we actually had bought three trees. We had already wondered what kind of small plant would have such big seeds, well, a tree apparently.

A little background on Cerbera odollam or the Suicide Tree

It is a medium sized tree with smooth grey bark that grows approximately 10 meters tall. Its fruits are green at first and turn bright red at maturity. The dried fruits are 5-10 cm in length. When they fall from the branches, the papery, outer layer falls off exposing a thick fibrous husk. Because of this fibrous layer, the fruits are very light and buoyant, being easily dispersed by ocean currents. The fruits separate into two halves, each containing one seed. Which is why two separate stalks usually come out of this “seed” simultaneously. This happened to us for all three husks.

This exceptional tree grows along the sandy coasts, riverbanks and near mangrove swamps where the seeds are often washed up. It has been planted in Hawaii, and in other countries where it is not endemic, as an ornamental.

So some help from Wikipedia was welcomed at this point. Here’s what they say :

Cerbera odollam is a dicotyledonous angiosperm, a plant species in the Family Apocynaceae and commonly known as the suicide tree, pong-pong, and othalanga. It is a species native to India and other parts of southern Asia, growing preferentially in coastal salt swamps and in marshy areas but also grown as a hedge plant between home compounds. It yields a potent poison that has been used for suicide and murder.

So, from a nice odorant white flower we’d gone to a murder weapon. I’d also like to point out that using a fatally toxic plant as a hedge between home compounds is kind of … peculiar. Unless you intend on killing your neighbors. Now that that is settled, what about this plant is poisonous exactly ?

Why is Cerbera odollam toxic ?

Cerbera odollam bare large fruit and flowersHere are what the fruit and flowers look like (they are quite nice aren’t they?)

Well apparently the seeds and fruit (and possibly the leaves) are. The following information is just a summary of what I’ve read, since I haven’t actually tried to kill myself or anyone else with this poison. I don’t plan on trying anytime soon so I guess I’ll just have to take other people’s word for it.

The tree’s bitter fruits contain a cardiac glycoside (called cerberin), which is the toxic part. The fruits and seeds are said to have killed more people (through suicide or murder) than any other plant poison. Not sure if this is true though, but it seems to be something that occurs quite often in India, even though it does not sound like a great way to die.

The kernels (at the center of fruit and the seed) of Cerbera odollam also contain cerberin (as well as cerberoside and odollin), which is, in fact a sort of steroid / toxin that blocks (in the high doses which are available in the fruit) the calcium ion channels in heart muscle, causing disruption of the heart beat, most often leading to death. Eating the core of a fruit from the tree is sufficient for a human to receive a lethal dose (even half of one should do it). Basically, eating one fruit screws up your heart and kills you. Apparently there have been case of people ingesting some on purpose, changing their minds (about ending their days) and surviving.

Is it possible to survive Cerbera odollam poison ?

Here is one story :

A 51 year old woman in Maryland decided ingesting the seeds of the Cerbera odollam would be a good way to shuffle off this mortal coil, so she ordered some on eBay, ground them up and ate them. However, she must have changed her mind after the fact, because when the effects of the poison started kicking in and it got real, she rushed herself to the emergency room, at which point her heart rate was a scant 30 beats per minute.  The medical staff were stumped. They at first thought she’d been the victim of digoxin poisoning, which has similar effects, but the labs said no. With death looming, she finally admitted what she’d done and the doctors decided to try administering twenty vials of digoxin immune FAB at a whopping $500-$700 per vial. It worked and she later walked out of the hospital with a clean bill of health, hopefully receiving some counseling or other help to go along with what the miracle workers in the hospital did.

Source : http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/10/cerbera-odollam-aka-murder-tree/

What are the symptoms of this poison ?

These types of steroids also include other agents that as a group have found historic uses as cardiac treatments, but which at higher doses are extremely toxic; in the case of cerberin, consumption of the Cerbera odollam results in poisoning with symptoms like nausea, vomiting, intense abdominal pain and in the end often death. These symptoms are said to begin within just one hour, and usually death follows after 3 to 6 hours (so it seems like it’s a pretty horrible way to die). Other symptoms may apparently include burning sensations in the mouth, diarrhea, headaches, dilated pupils, irregular beating of the heart, drowsiness and coma.

Apparently in some parts of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia rheumatism is treated with parts of the fruit. The seeds are also used in some country to poison undesirable animals like rodents. At very low concentration they are apparently narcotic. In Burma they use it as insect repellent (mixed in with other oils). Personally I don’t really think I’d want to try and fool around with such a potent poison.

Why is Cerbera odollam said to be the perfect murder weapon ?

So why is this toxin said to be almost undetectable ? Well, first of all it’s usually used in Asian countries like India where it is concealed in spicy dishes, making it a great murder weapon. In 2004, a team led by scientist Yvan Gaillard documented over five hundred different cases of fatal Cerbera poisoning in the late 20th century in the southwest Indian state of Kerala alone (over a span of only ten years).

The difficulty in detecting cerberin in autopsies is simply because a fatal heart attack is usually assumed and that unless samples are tested by liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry no-one will ever suspect poisoning, especially in people prone to heart-attacks. At least this is what I read.  I’m confused to how hours of vomiting and other awesome symptoms can be linked to a severe heart attack.

Of course we decided to keep these plants (just in case we ever wanted to kill someone), for their decorative nature. They really do make lovely exotic plants and maybe in a few years we’ll be able to plant them directly in our garden in the South of France! Who knows.

Growing Cerbera odollam in cooler climates

When do they start growing ?

… So back to our waiting. The shop owner had many seeds and some already had the first shoots coming out of the husks (some shoots had also been cut). Since we imagined our cold February French weather wouldn’t be great for these shoots we bought seeds that hadn’t started to split open.

Well, jumping two months forward, there was still no sign of life from the seedlings in April, so we decide to leave them outside in the sun in a bowl of water. They spent the next few months there, under the sun and the rain. It wasn’t until the heatwave in July (past 35°C for a few days) that the first one started sprouting. The others came a few weeks later. We hadn’t given up on them but we were still happily surprised.

For each seed we had two stalks came out simultaneously

So if you are also trying to grow Cerbera odollam, just wait, it might take a long time but they do grow. They grow in very warm weather we discovered, which is our major problem. They became potted plants so that we could bring them in in the winter.

Overwintering tropical trees

The easiest way to overwinter tender perennials and tropicals is in a warm, bright setting, such as in front of a sunny window (or a heated greenhouse, but we don’t all have one of those do we?).

Turn the pots every few weeks to keep the plant growing straight and to make sure all the parts of the plants are getting that much-needed light. Don’t forget to water them when the soil dries out. Do not give them too much water because they will definitely not be doing much growing during this season. You should severely reduce the amount of water you are giving them. Some plants would rather go through the whole season with barely any water.

If you are keeping them in a very dry room (heated with electrical radiators for example) you should also think about spraying the leaves with water every few days. Plants needed to keep their skin hydrated just the same way we do.

Our Cerbera odollam completely stopped growing as the weather started to get cooler in the autumn. During the winter only a few leaves started growing but haven’t grown much. These will start growing again in spring as soon as our plants start getting more sunlight.

One of the most important things you need to worry about when you are bringing plants indoor for the winter is the transition back outside! Your plants have lost their acquired tolerance to sunlight, just the same way a human-being looses his tan. They are more vulnerable to sunlight and if you take them out on the first sunny day you might get them a “sunburn” (leaf scorch). You should take them out progressively. Put them in the shade at first, until they build up that tolerance again !

We haven’t dared to try leaving our Cerbera odollam plants outside for the whole winter (even though the coldest temperatures we have had this winter were only around -4°C) because we only have 3 subjects to try this on. Losing one to careless testing would be pointless. Yet we haven’t let our lack of a greenhouse deter us either and our plants are now ready to start a new growing season all over again.

If you are trying to grow tropical plants in cool climates and don’t have an appropriate place to store them in the winter you should always expect a few casualties.

If you want to try out their resistances to different places over winter (in a dark place, in an unheated greenhouse, in a dry place, outside, under mulching, …) you should take cuttings (if possible) from the plants you wish to test in early summer so you that can test another overwintering method on the clone plant at the end of the following year.

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