Friday, May 27, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit: Part 6—Oleander

Ancient Roman painting of Oleander
Oleander (Nerium Oleander) is a lovely flowering shrub that grows in subtropical climates all over the world. It's native to Mediterranean countries and was favored by ancient Roman gardeners. It features in paintings in the 2000-year-old House of Livia. 

It's also so hardy that it is grown on the median strips of California highways. But beware! It's highly toxic to humans and most mammals. Its leaves, flowers and fruit contain cardiac glycosides, which cause death by heart attack.

Nerium Oleander

There's an urban legend that's been around for about a century that tells of a camping family (or scout troop) who roast hot dogs (sometimes marshmallows) over a fire on sticks taken from a nearby oleander bush. The next day they are all found dead. But there's no evidence this mass-death via roasting food on Oleander sticks ever happened. 

Snopes reports that a study done in 2005 using hot dogs roasted on fresh Oleander sticks, found only 1.5 mg of oleandrin in the roasted hot dog. It's enough to make someone sick, but it wouldn't kill.

However, many people have become sick or even died from chewing on the leaves or flowers. A California woman was charged with murder in  2001 after her husband ingested Oleander mixed with antifreeze. And the death of two boys in Los Angeles in 2000 was attributed to chewing oleander leaves. Chewing on even one leaf can make a person very ill. Even inhaling the smoke from burning Oleander can be lethal.

White Oleander, the plant
Unfortunately horses are drawn to it as well, because of its sweet smell and taste. Only 100 g will kill an adult horse. It also kills sheep and cattle. 

They display the same symptoms as a poisoned human: the victim will suffer severe gastric distress, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, blurred vision and lethargy. Victims can survive if vomiting is induced and they are given medication (often charcoal based) and intravenous liquids in a reasonable amount of time.

Oleander is used as a poison in the 1999 novel White Oleander

White Oleander, the film
by Janet Fitch (made into a film in 2002, starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Rene Zellweger, Alison Lohman, and Robin Wright). Her villain uses a chemical to make the oleander stick to the victim's skin.

However, not many lethal doses of oleander poisoning through the skin have been documented. (But that doesn't mean they haven't happened. Apparently it would be hard to detect, which is why it makes a good plot device.)

I'm thinking of using oleander in my next Camilla mystery. It's so ubiquitous in California that any of the suspects would have access. The flowers are reputed to be sweet, so they might go in a nice fresh salad....

What about you, readers, do you know of any other books that feature oleander poisoning?

Other Posts in this Series

FOOD OF LOVE: a Comedy about Friendship, Chocolate, and a Small Nuclear Bomb.

There's also some poison involved: epibatidine, which comes from the South American Poison Dart Frog. I'll be talking about that in another post in the series. 

Food of Love (2)
Two sisters: one white, one black. Two worldviews: one liberal, one conservative. But these two women have one goal in common—one they share with most women in modern society: the urge to diminish themselves by dieting. Food of Love is a historical comedy-mystery-romance set in the 1990s that carries a powerful message. It offers some of life’s darker truths—told with a punchline.

After Princess Regina, a former supermodel, is ridiculed in the tabloids for gaining weight, someone tries to kill her. She suspects her royal husband wants to be rid of her, now she’s no longer model-thin. As she flees the mysterious assassin, she discovers the world thinks she is dead, and seeks refuge with the only person she can trust: her long-estranged foster sister, Rev. Cady Stanton, a right-wing talk show host who has romantic and weight issues of her own. Cady delves into Regina’s past and discovers Regina’s long-lost love, as well as dark secrets that connect them all.

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  1. Oleander *and* antifreeze? It wouldn't need Kay Scarpetta or the CSI Miami team to work out that death was a trifle suspicious!

  2. Mark--You would not need antifreeze in Miami, but you might use it in SoCal, where the woman accused of her husband's murder lived. You can drive from the beach to ski country easily in winter. Still, you're right that antifreeze and oleander don't come together often in most parts of the world. And the combination anywhere would not suggest an accidental death. :-)

  3. Another really intriguing post, Anne. I love reading stuff like this. I learn something new every time. Thanks!

    1. Patricia--I'm so glad you're finding it interesting. This is the research I do for my novels, and I figured why not share it? Also, I'm doing an experiment to see how a book oriented blog works vs. a writing oriented blog. So far this tiny blog is selling more than my big blog with 100K readers. Very interesting...

  4. Oleander spiked chocolate truffles! Now *that's* a murder weapon. :-)

    1. Ruth--Hmmmm. Might have to use that one! Great idea.