The Power of Poison

A fascinating exhibit entitled “The Power of Poison” opened at the American Museum of Natural History a while ago.  The show explores the many poisons that exist in nature and why plants and animals (including mankind) use poisons – for survival, as medicines, and, of course, for nefarious reasons as well.

bulletant

Bullet Ant image from Wikipedia. Click for source.

As you enter the show, you walk through a South American jungle teaming with poisonous plants and exhibits about poisonous frogs, snakes and insects.  Did you know the most painful insect sting is from the Central American bullet ant? The pain can endure for 24 hours or more and even cause temporary paralysis.  The exhibition describes an initiation ceremony practiced by a tribe in Brazil where would-be warriors must don gloves containing many of these terrible ants. Ouch!

This part of the exhibit also features the manchineel tree which grows in parts of Florida, the Caribbean, Central America and northern South America.  People who live near manchineels know to stay away from these dangerous trees, but they sometimes put up warning signs (or paint a red band around the tree trunks) for hapless tourists.

poison apple1

At a beach in Mustique

When I spotted the cute little apples and warning signs on the beach last summer, my first thought was to bake a yummy apple pie for my landlord. I imagined it might cause a tummy ache.  I didn’t know it at the time, but every part of this tree – leaves, bark wood and fruit – are really toxic. In the past, Caribs would tie their enemies to manchineel trees to cause a particularly agonizing death.  They would also poison their enemies’ water with the leaves.

If you stand under a manchineel tree during the rain, a raindrop mixed with sap might land on you and cause blisters.  If a machineel tree catches fire and you are near the smoke, you could go blind. Eating the apples can cause your throat to swell and prevent breathing.

My landlord would have joined illustrious company if he had succumbed to the manchineel tree – the exhibition tells the story of Ponce de Leon, the conquistador, who died attempting to colonize Florida.  The Calusa tribe who already lived there were not thrilled at Ponce de Leon’s arrival so they shot him with an arrow coated with manchineel sap. He ended up dying in agony a few days later.  This may be why the Spanish name for the manchineel apple is manzanilla de la muerte, “little apple of death”

ponce

The rest of the Poison exhibit is cool as well.  After the jungle, you encounter the three (life-sized) Macbeth witches brewing up a cauldron of poison.  You can also read about “mad hatters” (19th century hat makers who were poisoned by the mercury used in hat-making, including those in the U.S. hat-making capital of Danbury, Connecticut, where their ailment was known as the “Danbury Shakes”),

Another part of the exhibit features famous poisoners and poison victims – including Lucretia Borgia, Cleopatra and Napoleon Bonaparte (who died of stomach cancer and not arsenic poisoning, I believe). A little quibble.

The Poison exhibition will be at the museum until August 10, 2014 and you should go!

 

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