My mother warned me about the pretty ones. I’m fairly certain she was talking about girls, and I’m positive I didn’t listen to her, seeing how I married a pretty one. If I were to pass along the same advice to my three girls I’d be talking about plants instead of girls. Not like they listen to me anyways though.
Take a look at Gloriosa superba, going by the names flame lily and climbing lily. It’s lovely, isn’t it? It is a herbaceous plant that grows from a rhizome – an underground “stem” that sends out roots and shoots for growth. As another plant can be propagated from a piece of the rhizome – much like bloodroot and our fan favorite horseradish – flame lilies are often considered noxious weeds, and difficult to get rid of. It has tendrils that help it climb – hence climbing lily – and can reach lengths of 12 feet. The flowers are where it’s at though, with bright red and orange, flame-like petals – hence flame lily – and pronounced yellow stamens radiating outwards several inches, each bearing huge amounts of pollen. Even the fruits are pretty, with each ripe capsule containing dozens of bright red seeds. Gloriosa superba is native and wild to the tropical locales of southern Africa, southeast Asia, China, and India, but has been widely cultivated and grows practically anywhere it is hot, like Australia and the southern United States. Looks are deceiving though, as this one is a killer, and holds poison in every part of her.
A 21-year-old Sri Lankan woman discovered this the hard way when she became ill after eating a meal of what she thought was boiled sweet potato tubers but were actually rhizomes of Gloriosa superba. Two hours after ingestion she started vomiting and had excessive watery diarrhea. (I think any diarrhea is excessive.) Throughout the night she vomited 25 times and made 20 trips to the bathroom. When she finally made it to the ED she was unconscious and severely dehydrated, which was treated with intravenous saline. She was fairly stable with supportive care, but after 12 days alopecia was noticed, and over the course of two days all of her knee-length hair fell out. After a hospital stay of 16 days, she was discharged, completely bald. Her hair did regrow though, and five months after her ordeal, her hair was a few inches long. (1)
The poison within the flame lily is colchicine, which has two modes of action. In one, colchicine inhibits neutrophil activity. Neutrophils are the most abundant type of white blood cells, and a key component of our immune system, and kicks into gear during an immune response, causing inflammation. Inhibiting inflammation can be a good thing at times, like in inflammatory arthritis conditions such as gout, for which colchicine is often prescribed. The other mode of action, the inhibition of mitosis by binding to tubulin, is more concerning. Mitosis is a part of the cell cycle when replicated chromosomes are separated into two identical nuclei, and is a key part of cell replacement and regeneration. Tubulin is a crucial structural and mobile element that allows mitosis to occur, and disruption of it slows mitosis, and the spawning of new cells, to a crawl. This is bad in healthy individuals. Our bodies are made of hundreds of different types of cells, some of which have short lifespans and need to be replaced quickly, like hair follicles, bone marrow, and the lining of our GI tract. This is why the young lady above lost her hair – the follicles are slow to replicate. No follicles, no hair.
Clinically, colchicine toxicity manifests in three stages. The first is the GI stage, starting a few hours after ingestion, and presents with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, as the lining of the GI tracts is unable to replace itself, and is a shredded mess. The second is multi-organ failure and is as bad as it sounds. The afflicted is (hopefully) hospitalized by now and experiencing respiratory depression, kidney failure, and liver failure. They’ll probably die due to a cardiac arrhythmia or arrest. The third stage is recovery, and a patient lucky to be alive, albeit with a loss of hair. (2)
It’s not just accidental ingestions one needs to worry about though, there are other, more sinister means of poisoning. Homicide, or at least attempted.
A 27-year-old Sri Lankan man suffered from a cold and drank a traditional remedy, coriander tea, prepared by his sister-in-law. Two hours after drinking the coriander tea he developed nausea and vomiting, but on the bright side, he was no longer concerned about his cold. His family ran him to the hospital, and the sister-in-law just ran. Suspicious of poisoning, his wife tasted the tea and also became mildly ill, and examination of the tea revealed two different, yet very similar-looking dried seeds: coriander and Gloriosa superba. At the hospital, the man suffered burning abdominal pain as well as watery diarrhea and respiratory depression. By day two he experienced chest pain and tachypnea (abnormal, rapid breathing). By day 10 his hair fell out. Overall, he recovered fully but spent 3 days on a ventilator, 6 days in intensive care, and 15 days in the hospital. The sinister-in-law is still running. (3)
You may already be familiar with colchicine, as I’ve previously written about a native European source – the autumn crocus, or meadow saffron, Colchicum autumnale. Like the flame lily, it too is both pretty and poisonous, and proof that my mom dished out good advice, albeit applied to plants.
- Gooneratne, B. W. M. “Massive Generalized Alopecia after Poisoning by Gloriosa Superba.” Br. Med. J. 1.5494 (1966): 1023-024.
- Finkelstein, Yaron, Steven E. Aks, Janine R. Hutson, David N. Juurlink, Patricia Nguyen, Gal Dubnov-Raz, Uri Pollak, Gideon Koren, and Yedidia Bentur. “Colchicine Poisoning: The Dark Side of an Ancient Drug.” Clinical Toxicology 48.5 (2010): 407-414.
- Vidanalage, Chaminda J. Kande, Rohan Ekanayeka, and Deepthi K. Wijewardane. “Case Report: A Rare Case of Attempted Homicide with Gloriosa Superba Seeds.” BMC Pharmacology and Toxicology 17.1 (2016).
** Featured image of Gloriosa superba by Dinesh Valke (CC-BY-SA-2.0) **