Family FabaceaeUses and cultural aspects
The plant secretes the toxin called abrin which is closely related to ricin. The symptoms of these toxins are severe stomach pains diarrhoea, nausea, cold sweat, drowsiness, colic and weak and fast pulse.
The seeds of Abrus precatorius are valued in making necklaces for their bright coloration. They are sold in stores and distributed throughout the world by travelers. They are favourite playing toys for children.
The shiny red and black seeds of Abrus precatorius subsp. africanus make it a sought after climber in the tropical and subtropical areas. In South Africa, it is distributed in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and some parts of the Limpopo Provinces. There are some species similar to it and this may cause confusion. The bead vine is economically and medicinally important. Its leaves are consumed as a vegetable in central and east Africa. However, its seeds are very poisonous and can be dangerous to humans and animals if consumed.
Habitat and distribution
Abrus precatorius subsp. africanus is a common plant in Kwazulu-Natal and Limpopo Province and native to many tropical areas of the world. A common weed of roadsides, old gardens, disturbed sites, waste areas and waterways (i.e. riparian areas) in the higher rainfall regions of subtropical areas. It has also been reported from open woodlands, rainforest margins and coastal dunes.
Abrus precatorius subsp. africanus reproduces mainly by seed. These seeds are thought to be mostly bird-dispersed, but it is likely that they are also spread along waterways during floods and in dumped garden waste.
Deadly Plants as MedicineIt seems counterintuitive to put deadly plants to work at saving lives. But some of the most deadly plants are used in the medical arena. Jimsonweed, for example, has been used by hired assassins to kill people and by doctors to treat epilepsy. Other contenders? Castor bean plant is used in Paclitaxel, a chemotherapy drug, in Sandimmune, a drug for immune suppression, and in Xenaderm, a topical for skin ulcers. Scopolamine, found in deadly nightshade, was combined with morphine as early as 1902 and used to induce "twilight sleep" during childbirth. And quinine, the long-standing treatment for malaria and internal parasites, is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree. It's deadly if consumed in large amounts.