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The Deadly Bead

Do you remember the movie "The Blue Lagoon" (version one)? If you could keep your eyes off Brooke Shields or Chris Atkinson long enough to follow the plot, you will recall that at the end their baby dies after eating some bright berries growing on a bush on a desert island. The parents committed suicide by eating them, too.

They had it partly right. The seeds are poisonous, but they don't grow on bushes on desert islands. They grow on large, woody vines that crawl up trees in tropical jungles.

The bright red "berry" with a black spot is a seed, sometimes called "coral seed," or "crab's eyes."
 Its botanical name is Abrus precatorius.
The "precatorius" part means "prayerful" or "praying."
 It is so named because in LinnŠnus' day the seeds imported from India were used in Europe for rosaries.

The poison in these seeds was (maybe still is) used by certain unscrupulous Indian farmers. They formed the seeds into little darts and blew them at neighbor's cattle, and sometimes at the neighbors themselves. Early in the century, there were five or six murder cases by this seed registered annually.

I know about the poison personally. When I lived in the unfinished third story of a large house I often heard squirrels scampering between my ceiling and the roof. One day one of them discovered a treasure: my collection of seeds used as beads.

The thief ate several beads before I realized what was going on. Before I could move the seeds to a safer place, the little bandit ate a couple Abrus precatorius. I never heard from him or her again.

So, this is a warning. While the international trade in these seeds has been suspended, there are still a lot of them around. Some were imported before the ban. Others are brought in by well-meaning tourists. (There also a larger and less beautiful related seed from South America. I think it is also poisonous.) If you have these or any other poisonous beads keep them safely away from children and pets.

Rosary beads, poisons, and decoration are only some uses of this versatile seed. The juice of Abrus precatorius also serves as "jeweler's glue." It is used to bond two pieces of metal temporarily until they can be fused, for example, wire to make filigree or little balls to make granulation. When the metal is heated, the glue burns away quickly (I wonder if this process is poisonous?).

On the page Plants to Weigh Beads we meet the seed again under its Indian name, rati.


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