The benefits that people gain from poisonous plants extend well beyond the pleasure many varieties of beautiful but poisonous house and garden ornamentals, like laburnum and oleander, can bring. From the glycosides of foxglove, used as heart medicines, to the alkaloids of ipecac, used as an emetic to treat poisoning, toxic compounds and poisonous plants applied in appropriate doses provide us with many important medicines. For 80 percent of the world's people, plants are the primary source of medicine, and even in modern industrial societies, over one-quarter of prescriptions are derived at least in part from plants, many of which are potentially toxic.
Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), for example, is a small forest tree of the Pacific Northwest of North America, which has long been known to have
toxic foliage, seeds, and bark. In the late 1960s during a mass screening of plants sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, yew bark was found to contain a potent anticancer drug, called taxol. By the 1980s taxol had undergone extensive clinical trials and became the drug of choice for treating ovarian cancer, previously considered incurable, as well as being used for breast cancer and other forms of cancer.
Another deadly toxin that now has important medicinal applications is derived from a fungus called ergot (Claviceps spp.), which grows on grains like rye, wheat, and barley. For many centuries in Europe and elsewhere this fungus, a common contaminant of grain and flour, caused tremendous suffering from chronic poisoning, which produced a range of symptoms from skin ulcers to hallucinations and insanity. In modern medicine, however, ergot is used to stimulate uterine contractions during labor and to control uterine hemorrhaging.
Many other poisonous species have found important applications: strychnine (Strychnos nux-vomica) is used in surgery as a relaxant; belladonna's alkaloid, atropine, is used in ophthamology to dilate the pupils of the eyes; opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) produces the painkiller morphine; and Madagascar periwinkle (Cantharanthus roseus) yields two alkaloids, vincristine and vinblastine, which are used effectively as treatments for childhood leukemia and Hodgkin's disease.
Most people regularly enjoy another beneficial aspect of poisonous plants. Many spices that are used to flavor foods all over the world are actually poisonous if taken in large quantities. For example, nutmeg (Myris-tica fragrans), which grows on trees native to India, Australia, and the South Pacific, contains volatile oils that give it its distinctive aroma and flavour. Harmless in small amounts, in larger doses nutmeg can cause a series of unpleasant effects to the central nervous system, and ten grams can be enough to induce coma, and even death. Mint, black pepper, and cinnamon are further examples of common herbs and spices that are pleasant and beneficial to humans in moderation, but that can be poisonous in large amounts.
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