During my early childhood summers, I loved to forage for wild edibles with my best friend. We didn’t go the traditional route of gnawing on fruits and veggies from the garden but instead ate whatever green, leafy plants smelled somewhat appealing and weren’t too bitter. I marvel that we never got sick since our only tenet was a warning from our moms to stay away from the bush with the round, red berries. I guess our saving grace was eating only the plants that we were familiar with, such as clover, honeysuckle, watercress and sometimes grassy.
Occasionally, even expert foragers mistake tasty tidbits for potent poisons. My reluctance to forage on my own doubled after watching the scene in “Into the Wild” when [SPOILER ALERT] McCandless mistakenly eats the wild sweet pea thinking it was wild potato, which inevitably leads to his death.
Photo by Roger B./Courtesy Flickr
Now scientists have determined that another camouflaged plant, the hemlock water-dropwort, might have been the toxic ingredient in the Phoenician potion used to execute Sardinian criminals and the debilitated elderly. Its deceit lies in the sweet wine-like nectar of its flowers and its resemblance to water parsnip or wild celery.
The faces of its ancient victims revealed the toxin’s presence to scientists because of muscular contractions that resulted in a post-mortem smile. Imagine if this had been the same type of hemlock used on Socrates. I’m sure Plato’s account of his noble death would have been ruined by the presence of this “sardonic” grin.
Photo by shallowend/Courtesy Flickr
Despite the plant’s historical propensity to tighten the facial muscles of its unfortunate victims, researchers are hoping to put a positive spin on its toxicity and use it in Botox-like cosmetic procedures to relax muscles.
I’m sure many of the foods and plants we ingest have toxic properties when used in excess, but it seems implausible that directly injecting poison into our sensitive facial tissue, even in diluted doses, doesn’t have carcinogenic or otherwise fatal risks.
I know, I know, Botox experts proclaim that the technique, when applied by licensed professionals is completely safe. Just the same, I think I’ll celebrate my wrinkles and stay away from cosmetic procedures that paralyze my muscles into a relaxed stupor, or worse yet, a sardonic grin.