[NAFEX] Interesting article on "suicide tree"

Brungardt, Sam Sam.Brungardt at state.mn.us
Mon Nov 29 10:46:21 EST 2004


This is pretty well off topic, but I thought that you curious NAFEXers
would also find it of interest. -- Sam Brungardt, St. Paul, Minn.

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India's "suicide tree" a tool for murder 
Agence France-Presse
Paris, November 25 
 
An Indian tree with poisonous fruit is used by more people to commit
suicide than any other plant in the world and has a barely-investigated
role in murder, French and Indian scientists say.   In one Indian state
alone, deaths from the Cerbera odollam tree are running at an average of
almost one a week, they say.

According to their investigations in the southwestern state of Kerala,
537 deaths can be attributed to odollam poisonings in the 11 years
between 1989 and 1999, with the annual toll running from 11 to as high
as 103.

"The odollam tree is responsible for about 50 per cent of the plant
poisoning cases and 10 per cent of the total poisoning cases in Kerala,"
say the team, led by Yvan Gaillard of France's Laboratory of Analytical
Toxicology.

"To the best of our knowledge, no plant in the world is responsible for
as many deaths by suicide as the odollam tree."

Between 70 and 75 per cent of suicide victims are women, raising
questions about marital strife and in-law problems in India, and the
fruit "is also occasionally used for homicide," according to their
probe.

The odollam tree grows to a height of 15 metres (48 feet), with dark
green lives and a milky white latex sap.

It has large white flowers with a delicate, jasmine-like perfume and a
fruit that, when still green, looks like a small mango and is sometimes
eaten by children, with tragic consequences.

Those who commit suicide mash up the white kernel with sugar and eat it,
while for murder, "a few kernels are mixed with food containing plenty
of chillies to cover the bitter taste of the poison.  Death is likely to
occur three-to-six hours after ingestion."

Odollam's weapon is a toxin called cerberin, which works by stopping the
heart, which is why many poisonings -- unless samples are tested by
liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry -- are likely to to be
written off as fatal heart attacks, Gaillard's team say.

The risk of using odollam for suicide or worse may also apply in
countries where it does not grow naturally, because the fruit may be
brought in by the Asian diaspora, Gaillard's team says.

Odollam is "an extremely toxic plant that is relatively unknown to
western doctors, chemists, analysts and even coroners and forensic
scientists."

Their study is published in the October issue of a US publication, the
Journal of Ethnopharmacology.  The British weekly New Scientist reports
on the findings in next Saturday's issue.

C. odollam grows in coastal salt swamps and creeks in south India and
along riverbanks in southern and central Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka
and Myanmar.  In Kerala, the tree is known as othalanga maram, while in
the adjacent state of Tamil Nadu it is known as kattu arali.

In Southeast Asia, where the oily seeds are used as insect repellent or
are burned for light, the common names for it are pong-pong, buta-buta
or nyan.

One of its relatives, Cerbera venenifera, grows widely in Madagascar,
and was used as an "ordeal poison" in previous centuries to determine
guilt or innocence among suspected witches or groups accused of plotting
against the king.

In Madagascar's central province, as many as 6,000 people are thought to
have died in a single ordeal, according to a 1991 study.
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