Arborist Stares Death in The Eye For Sake of Tree Identification

11 August 2014  Idea of the Day  “First they ignore you.  Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you.  Then you win.”  Mahatma Gandhi

Whoever said a consulting arborist has a safe job?   Sure the young climbing arborist who swings through trees like a trapeze daredevil gets the headlines and the audience below craning their necks saying “ooooh” when he makes a particularly long leap to the next large limb, held only by a rope or two.  And yes the actual statistics of death by falls, electrocution or lightning strikes is a little higher for those tree acrobats.

But this old consulting arborist recently proved life can be just as cheap plying his trade.

It started out innocently enough.  I just hate not knowing what  a tree is for a customer and myself.   Drives me batty.  Nothing like a pretty mystery to keep you perusing the internet too long trying to identify a new tree.

I have a few fellow arborists that play the game with me when we find something new.  We help each other out with suggestions when we hit a dead end on something a customer asks us about.  We’ve gotten pretty good at most of the native Florida trees, not bad at many of the US trees that linger here but it’s the tropical exotics that can really throw you for a loop.   There are just so many of them!  And often they’re just downright weird.

Ladies, you know how to trap a man don’t you?  Present him something with mystery and beauty at the same time.

Mother Nature sure got me.

I ran into one of these a couple months ago that just kept nagging at me.   She was a new tree planted near the site of a new commercial building site so I figured it must have been planned, right?   And she not only looked attractive in a strange sort of way, but some would even call her exotic and pretty.
The tree was about 8 ft. high, most of the trunk and limbs are red, the leaves are alternate and she bears a very distinctive large, 8-lobed star-figure leaf.   Not only that but the fruit is also very distinctive:  twenty-five or so spiky balls on a pyramidal shaped stalk.  Surely this had to be easy to identify.

But no, three weeks, four weeks later I still had not been able to find it.  Not that I had spent a lot of time looking, but I had spent a little time and nothing was coming up.  It was nagging me.   The closest resemblance of the leaf and tree was to a papaya.  But papayas typically only have 5-lobed star figure leaves and their lobes are further divided into additional sections.   This clearly wasn’t a papaya as the fruit wasn’t anything close to even a young papaya.   It slightly resembles a tropical manihot, also called cassava (whose powder is used to make tapioca) which can be occasionally found in Florida.  The manihot is shaped like a star, but has separate leaflets, not one leaf like this mystery plant.    The fruits looked vaguely like something from the Soapberry family – like litchi nuts, lognan (Chinese ‘dragon-eye’) and rambutan all native to Malaysia and Thailand – each with hairy, spiky extensions.  You have to squeeze the peel to be able to enjoy the sweet fruit inside of them.

I tried looking it up on all sorts of tree identification tools on the internet but nothing was coming up to match my memory of what this tree looked like.  I was missing a few details to fill in on the id tool, so one evening I finally said to myself “That’s it.  I’m going over and looking at that thing until I figure out if it’s a cousin of these Soapberries or what!”

So intent as a detective could be, for the sake of science (more like my personal obsession with this tree), I went over to the site and looked at this thing again.  Despite it not looking appealing to grab one of the spiky balls (for sure it would prick like ten needles), I decided to do so anyway and was pleasantly surprised they weren’t that sharp.  To see if it was in this Soapberry family, I squeezed it like I squeeze a litchi or a dragon’s eye.

Sure enough out popped . . . something.

It wasn’t a sweet looking fruit though.  It was some kind of nut or bean. Often I get a clue from smelling the fruits or leaves of trees so I did that and didn’t notice anything recognizable.  Then, not unlike a fateful stupid decision to kiss a femme fatale, I decided to bite the nut to see if it would have a flavor I recognized.  And that was the decision that nearly killed me.

Just a little nutty.  Nothing real obvious.  She seemed so innocent.  Ai yai yai.

But I noticed all the details of the small tree and its leaves and headed back to my computer.  I tried more  key word searches of all sorts and still nothing was clicking.

It must have been about forty minutes later that I finally found a site called Invasive Florida Species.  Scrolling down the photos of these troublesome plants I finally thought I spotted the characteristic star shaped leaf.   Yes!   There it was!  And there were the very distinctive fruit – nuts I had opened.    Despite it being right on a corner as if planted there, looking pretty as could be, this thing hadn’t been planted at all.  It was considered a weedy plant, spread by ants.

Well then I started reading.  Oh yeah, I remembered a little about this member of the Euphorbiaceae family.   And oh yeah I remembered something else about it from its species name, Ricinus communis.   Something not good.   I kept reading.  O my God, this is where the name ricin came from, a substance I remember now being a poison.    I kept reading, a little nervously.  Ricin is one of if not the deadliest natural poisons that exists.  Turns out that the Guiness Book of World Records in 2007 had named this tree, the castor bean tree, as the most toxic tree in the world!  I remember now that some “terrorist” had sent ricin in the mail as a murder attempt.   And a Bulgarian dissident novelist living in London back in 1978, Georgi Markov, after publishing novels of spy intrigue and political attacks of the Communist government in his homeland, had been pricked in the dark by the point of a spy’s umbrella with ricin in it and had died in three days.   I guess he couldn’t avoid the opportunity to end his life like one of his novels.

And I had just been biting on the seeds where the ricin is concentrated !  But ricin is 6000 times more poisonous than cyanide!  Holy crap!

I kept reading.  Yes this is where castor oil came from, but that was after the toxicity had been extracted from it by heating over 176 degrees Fahrenheit.   Yes castor oil is used for everything from jet fuel to lubricant to paint to nylon and fertilizer.   But I didn’t care about that now.

The poison doesn’t kick in until 2 – 6 hours after ingesting.   Oh great.  I may have just committed suicide because of my famous cat like curiosity.  Sherlock Holmes would have studied this stuff beforehand of course.

First it burns on any skin it touches, then abdominal pain, then vomiting, then diarrhea.  Within several days there is severe dehydration, a decrease in urine and a decrease in blood pressure often followed by death.

I kept reading.   Turns out a high concentration kills mice.  One bean can kill  a child.  Or a rabbit.   One milligram can kill an adult. If you aren’t dead in 3 – 5 days you should recover.  Oh great news.

The ricin poison is in low concentrations throughout the plant, but the worst of its concentration is in cracking the bean’s surface shell which I definitely had done when biting it.  I had briefly tasted it and spit it out.  I hadn’t swallowed any of it so maybe I was ok, but I had drunk some coffee after it and maybe it washed some down? Oh how dumb!#  Here I am three hours later and my lips are definitely feeling a little tingly and numb.  Sheesh.  If I live through this, I think I’ve learned something about biting on the seeds of strange trees because I was curious to know what they were!

I do think I need to take a shower to wash off any residue.  Then go to bed.  Wish me the best . . .

                                                                   *                                 *                                 *
I slept peacefully for two hours.  But then I woke up around 2:15 am feeling a vibration emanating from my upper abdominal area around the solar plexus.   Oh sheesh, here it was.  It was close to the vomiting reflex and I could feel that sensation being just around the corner.  I hadn’t vomited for more than twenty years.  This poison was awfully strong if less than a drop on my tongue was causing all this!  I had already seen online earlier that there was no antidote.   I  wasn’t afraid, because there was nothing I could do.   I realized I just had to ride this thing through, or maybe call an ambulance if it got worse and hope it wasn’t my last arborist adventure.

My lower chest and upper abdomen were tightening and vibrating, all the way out to my finger tips.  I got online to look for anything that might dilute it or alleviate it.  But my fingers were vibrating so much I could hardly type!  This was definitely freaky.

I checked out “ask a nurse” sites.  I had used one helpfully twenty years ago.  But I mostly found that today they have been discontinued because they were creating far too many calls and costing hospitals far too much money.  Some could be accessed but they cost – and by now I seriously doubted there was anything they could tell me I didn’t already know or couldn’t find online. Oh there were plenty of reassuring warnings, like  “Seriously consider calling 911.”  or “You may need intravenous feeding” or “If your lungs are clogging, you will need ventilation to help breathe.”   Sheesh!   Fortunately I hadn’t breathed any powder and I was breathing fine.  That sounds like the worst.

As I sat there with an increasingly tightening abdomen and chest, I read that there was some hope in the fact that the most lethal exposure was by injection into the bloodstream like the umbrella murder, second worst was inhalation of the refined powder (which wasn’t what I had experienced) and third most dangerous was ingestion.  But I had only cracked it on two teeth and spat it out.  My lips still tingled there.  At least it was a little calming to read that the stomach didn’t easily uptake the poison. The recipe for adult  suicide looked like chewing and swallowing two beans.

I closely monitored my body’s uncomfortable and somewhat painful vibration and tightening.   Fortunately after about forty minutes the effects started to lessen.  I slowly came out of it and made my way back to bed.  I slept well till morning.  Thankfully I had eeked my way through.

The moral of the story?!    Don’t go kissing alluring femmes fatales and likewise don’t go biting mysterious pretty trees! (and P.S. after a near death experience it feels especially good to be alive  <smile> ) .






  1. Yes castor bean, everything else is poison but the bean &
    of course is the smelly old wives concoction on the chest for
    a severe cold.

    1. Mark,
      You have it a little backwards. The castor bean is the part of the plant with the greatest concentration of the ricin toxin. The rest of the parts of the plant have it too, but only about 10% the amount.
      best, Bob

  2. Thanks for posting. I have these growing in my yard and cut them down only to have them keep coming back. Had trouble identifying until I read your story. Good to know!

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